[Rough Draft]

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scandal, persecution and pain

i had to prach last sunday, so i spent several hours trying to cobble together an uplifting sermon from the lections (ezek. 2.1-7, 2 cor. 12.2-10, mark 6.1-6), and my conclusion is: it's stinkin' hard to buck people up w/ texts like these. behold the themes:
  • fear
  • delivering unwanted messages
  • suffering thorns and briers and scorpions
  • these are not comforting images; they bring us up short, make us think twice about this whole religion thing. but if we read closely, they can be a source of great encouragement because they teach us: (1) that the truth is always scandalous, (2) the truth invites persecution, but (3) there’s a purpose to pain.

    the scandal of the truth – mark’s gospel tells us that the people were offended at jesus. the work mark uses is skandalizo, to "scandalize," which meant “to give offense to, anger, shock.” in the gospels, jesus is all about scandal. my favorite preacher is dr. tim keller from new york city, and he says “jesus always, everywhere, evokes visceral rejection . . . and unless you understand the offensiveness of jesus, you won’t really understand who he is or what it means to follow him.”

    for example: in mark 3, jesus healed a guy on the sabbath, and mark says: “the pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the herodians against him, as to how they might destroy him.” (mark 3.6). keller points out that these were the cultural elites, but what’s interesting is that the herodians and the pharisees were the left wing and the right wing of elite class. they didn’t agree on anything, but jesus offended both sides. in chapter 6, jesus is tired, he's been hounded by crowds clamoring for miracles at every turn, so he does what beleaguered people do: he goes home, the place where, no matter what you’ve done, they’ve got to let you in. but instead of heralding the triumphant return of a native son, the citizens of his hometown don’t believe a word jesus says. "he’s just a carpenter; he’s mary’s boy. who is he to come in here and preach to us?" the people were “offended” by jesus. jesus offended the cultural elites, and now he goes to a cultural backwater and offends the common people.

    a message for us is that if we follow jesus, we should expect to be offensive, too. in john 15, jesus told his disciples: “if the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.” offense, anger and shock are guaranteed, because with any group of people, there is something about the gospel itself that will offend their sensibilities.

    {a quick time out: this sermon is offensive to me. i was talking renee’ through it, and at the end i asked whether she understood the logical progression through my points, and she said, “yeah, i think so; but i got a little stuck at the first point because i was thinking, ‘you know, what you’re saying offends me!’” in our culture we have been taught that to offend someone is wrong, always, everywhere, end of story. but the gospel is always offensive. christianity is complex, and whether it's orthodox doctrines like the atonement, or the absolute imperative of social justice, some aspect of jesus’ teaching is certain to be scandalous}

    saying scandalous stuff brings persecution – ezekiel had no misconceptions about the response his message was going to receive. the sixth century b.c.e. was a time of great political turmoil and international conflict. babylon and egypt fight for control of what was left of the nation of israel; the northern kingdom has already been driven into exile in babylon, where ezekiel was when he got the call to be a prophet. from the outset, god told ezekiel he was going to a nation of rebels with a dire warning that jerusalem would be destroyed. even to exiles, that would come as a shock because jerusalem was god’s holy city, the place where the temple stood, where god himself lived. if jerusalem fell, that represented the end of their world. in fact, there were other prophets among the exiles who were prophesying their imminent return to the promised land, but god tells ezekiel put the smack down on prophets "who prophesied to jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her when there was no peace . . . .’ (ezek. 13.16).

    like ezekiel, modern christians often have to deliver messages people don’t want to hear. the simple fact of the matter is that to persist in telling the scandalous truth about the lord of the universe coming to save the world makes not just offensiveness a certainty, it makes persecution a certainty because offended people tend to hit back.

    peter kreeft, who lectures in philosophy at boston college, says there’s something wonderful hidden in persecution. back to virtue is a little book about the cardinal virtues and the beatitudes, and in the part about matt. 5.10, kreeft asks what it is about persecution that makes it blessed.

    what is the great blessing in being persecuted for christ? it is the kingdom, the thing jesus came to preach and to practice, to announce and to create. ‘blessed are those who are persecuted [for righteousness’ sake] for theirs is the kingdom . . . .’ what’s that? quite simply, jesus is the king and we are his kingdom. the church is the kingdom of god, and we are the church, the people of god. the blessing, then, the great gift from god to us, the kingdom, is – ourselves! this means our new selves, our true selves, our redeemed and sanctified selves, our selves-in-christ. hence the very blows of our persecutors are, in the ironic economy of god’s providence, the blows on the chisel that sculpt us into ourselves. the world’s very attempts to destroy us help to make us.”

    kreeft is saying that even though a friend may shun us because of our faith, or we may lose a promotion because we take a stand on a moral or ethical issue, or in many countries we would even be subject to the death penalty for professing faith in christ, the persecution is a sure sign that we’re gaining entrance into the kingdom of god.

    and that’s the third point: there is always a purpose to our pain – the word for “thorn” appears in both the nt and ot readings. god tells ezekiel not to fear the israelite rebels, “though thistles and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions.” in the middle of paul’s letter there is this excursus about the “thorn” pressed into his flesh to keep him from becoming conceited because of the great revelations he has received from the Lord when he was taken up into the “third heaven.” at the end of the day, paul doesn’t boast about the revelations, but in the thorn, in his weakness.

    god’s people have always suffered pain, but what’s different about god’s people is that they can rest in the fact that there pain has a purpose. about his daughter’s hospitalization with anorexia nervosa, frederick buechner wrote:

    “the fearsome blessing of that hard time continues to work itself out in my life in the same way we’re told the universe is still hurtling through outer space under the impact of the great cosmic explosion that brought it into being in the first place. i think grace sometimes explodes into our lives like that – sending our pain, terror, astonishment hurtling through inner space until by grace they become orion, cassiopeia, polaris to give us our bearings, to bring us into something like full being at last.” (Telling Secrets (Harper Collins 1991), 24-25.)

    buechner is saying that when pain explodes, grace explodes all the more. that’s why paul could boast in his thorn, because he knew that it was only when he was truly sapped of all his strength that he experienced god’s strength, and when we are at our weakest is when we really get what grace is.

    i live in a city where you do not boast about weakness. the name of the game in washington, d.c. is power, prestige and access, and even a hint of weakness will either get you walked on or tossed out of office. in a city like that (or anywhere else, really), boasting in our weakness, finding joy in our persecution and suffering, will most certainly cause offense.

    so that leaves me w/ a question: what, if anything, about me is scandalous? what do i do for the sake of christ that is offensive or gets me in trouble? if the answer is “nothing,” then i have a problem. keller gives us one point to remember, though: there’s a difference between being offensive for the sake of the gospel and just being obnoxious. if i deliver the gospel w/ a sledgehammer, and not w/ love and compassion and civility, then i'm being obnoxious, and that’s not the sort of offense jesus was talking about. but the stories of ezekiel and jesus and paul assure us that if we can remain committed to the scandalous truth of the gospel, when we suffer persecution, the pain we feel won’t be the senseless punishment of a tyrant but the touch of a scalpel in the hands of a loving and gentle surgeon operating on our hearts to make them look like jesus’ heart, and that’s what makes us a kingdom fit for our king.

    thanks for reading.

    ~ sam


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