• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Persecuted for Jesus

Happy, a sermon series for Lent on the paradoxical blessings of the beatitudes as we walk with Jesus toward the cross.

Week 5 of 5, preached on April 3, 2022, at the 930am worship


Context

It’s the fifth Sunday of Lent. We are walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem and are very close now. Next Sunday, he enters the gates to that strange parade of palms, riding on a donkey.

This Lent, we’ve learned about HAPPY, not the false promises and shortcuts and quick fixes the world promises will make us happy, but Jesus’ deep wisdom and teaching about true happiness, using Jesus’ Beatitudes and lessons from Luke Jesus told as he walked toward Jerusalem.


We now know happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

Last week, as we ended worship together, we also heard Jesus explain, “Happy are those who are persecuted for justices’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Today, we hear his last definition of true happiness.


11 “Happy are you when people revile you, persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be happy, for your reward is great in heaven, for in that same way, they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”


Let’s pray…

Prayer


Scripture Luke 18:31-43

31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again.”


34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.


35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”


38 So he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”


39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”


40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.


42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.


Sermon Persecuted for Jesus

One more time, take 90 seconds, turn to someone nearby, hopefully someone you didn’t come to church with, if you’re at home, whoever you are with, or if you’re at watching alone, just think about this to yourself for a moment. See if you can come up with a person (or a people) who was reviled, persecuted, and slandered for Jesus? Someone (or someones) who was hated, oppressed, and lied about for trying to change this world so it looks more like God's promised Kingdom. Ready? Go!...


Okay, who are some of the models of faith you remembered?

Great, thanks everyone again for playing along.


Do you know the movie, The Matrix? Our oldest son, Adam, wanted to watch it, and it was a pretty violent movie for a young teen. But I agreed, yes, we can sit down and watch it together IF you will let me pause it and explain some of the symbols and meanings in it, from time to time. He agreed, and we sat down.


The premise of the movie is that human beings perceive themselves to live in a normal-ish world. They perceive they are moving about, living lives, raising families, doing jobs. In reality, they are lying still in towers of liquid-filled capsules in a semi-coma induced state, and are functioning as batteries, powering a system they don’t even see. The system keeps them asleep and blind and plugs their minds into the Matrix through a port on the back of their neck. The Matrix is the software, the propaganda of the system fed into the sleeping humans. The Matrix keeps them feeling just alive enough to serve their purpose, powering the system, but never so alive they wake up and see their role in the system itself.


A few have woken up from the Matrix and realized what is happening. Their leader, Morpheus, lays down and plugs himself back into the Matrix to go find and awaken Neo. In the Matrix, the symbol of wanting to wake up is a pill. Take the blue pill, and you’ll stay here in the Matrix, assuming the images and illusions of the Matrix are real. Take the red pill, and you’ll see. You will awaken, see the system, see the others who are still blind and sedated and serving the system.


Neo takes the red pill and it puts a glitch in the matrix, and he is ejected, flushed from his sleeping pod down a tube and into freshwater. I paused the movie and told Adam, “That’s baptism, son. Baptism is our sign we want to awaken, to see. We want to see the broken and sinful systems, and wake up to our role in supporting and serving them.”


In the Matrix, of course, people can feel happy, or at least content. They can have a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and value. It's programmed into them, mind you, but when we are in the program, it feels very real. In the Matrix, when Neo is awakened and flushed, it appears to those still in the Matrix as if he has died. But to Neo, he is more alive than he’d ever truly been, and he finally sees with great pain and compassion the towers of people who aren’t alive yet but just serving some shallow system of greed and power.


When Jesus sits down with the disciples, they are so deep in the Matrix, the way the world seems to work to them (because it's all they’ve ever known), Jesus’ words about what is happening and about to happen makes no sense at all. Jesus tries to tell them, “God made all of this, all of you. Everything that ever was and ever will be came into being through God the creator. And you, precious human beings of all shapes, sizes, colors, you are all my children, and you are precious to us. You have a spark of God’s own self in you. We gave you just enough freedom so you could know love. And yet, in freedom, there is also room to hate. You have lost your way. You have believed the lies. You are not as fully alive as you are created to be. I am the way, truth, and life. I am exposing the way systems and structures conspire with one another to keep people submissive, afraid of outsiders, at war with one another while money and power move toward those who run the systems and maintain the Matrix. I must tell the truth. They will lie about me. I must point the way. They will block and resist and arrest me. I must reveal Kingdom life. They will torture me. They will even delete me. But know this, on the third day, I will be rebooted. I will rise again.”


And as Luke explains, they did not know what Jesus was talking about. They didn’t understand what he was saying to them. How could they? They’ve only ever lived in the broken, fallen system they’ve known.


Its no coincidence that a blind man enters the story next. He asks what is going on. Someone impatiently explains to him, “It’s Jesus of Nazareth. He’s passing by today.” Someone famous and powerful is coming through town. The right way to do this is to get close, but not too close. Take a few pictures. If he happens to come really close, take a selfie with Jesus in the background. Or, if you’re really lucky, he walks up, takes a selfie with you, and offers to sign something. But we all know, you don’t impose yourself on famous people. You don’t demand their attention. They are famous and important. We are not, so we just fawn over them, and let them go on with their famous lives. That’s what the system has taught us.


This blind man doesn’t care. He shouts out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” He’s bucking the system. Watch how quickly everyone turns on him. “Hush. Be quiet old man. That’s Jesus, he doesn’t have time for you. You’re being rude.” This blind man doesn’t play by the system rules though. He calls out even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”


Jesus pauses. He asks for this blind back seat protestor to be brought upfront. He stops the world from spinning at its normal rate and sees the blind, man, asks for him, and gives him all his attention. “What would you like for me to do for you?” “Help me see.” The blind man already sees better than most of them. That’s why he yelled out when he heard it was Jesus coming by. That’s why he yelled out louder when they tried to shush him. But now, he’s asking Jesus for the Red pill. I want to see. I want to wake up and really see.


Jesus does grant him sight. With his new sight, he follows Jesus and praises God. The crowd of people also see what happens, what Jesus did for this blind man who bucked the system. They were the ones just a minute ago operating in the Matrix, shushing the blind man, telling him to be quiet, Jesus doesn’t have time for you. Here, they see something else. They see a Kingdom way of doing things. The low are lifted up. The ignored are given attention. The shushed are given voice. The blind are given sight. They also are granted the privilege of seeing, and because they finally see it, I mean really see it, they too praise God.


At my last church, not that long after the shooting in the black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Georgia was considering a law to allow individuals to carry weapons into houses of worship. In the local paper, I was interviewed for an article about the proposed law. I spoke against it, reminding how Jesus told his disciples to put their swords away, and how the prophets imagined a day when every sword or weapon would become a plow, an instrument of growth, farming, feeding others, not killing.


A member challenged me in the narthex after worship about my role in the article. First, he thought I shouldn’t have participated. I needed to stick to religion, not politics. He also thought we should have armed police in the church parking lot and thought we should let anyone wanting or willing to bring a gun to church do so, as protection, to prevent the next possible tragedy.


I told him, the way I see it, if we ever kill anyone for Jesus, even in self-defense, we’ve already lost. I asked him about the Kingdom of heaven. In God’s kingdom, the city of God, the great community of God, whenever wherever it comes to fullness, are there armed guards? Are there weapons? Do we need to defend ourselves or use weapons to kill? He called me naïve and told me I needed to look around. We live in the real world, not some fantasy land.


Jesus didn’t say Happy are those willing to persecute, lie, or kill on my behalf. Jesus said happy are those who are persecuted, despised or lied about on his behalf.


Think back on some of the names we listed at the beginning of our time. What did they have in common? They saw the real world as it is, in all its beauty and flaws, its possibilities, and its brokenness. They also saw Kingdom, that vision and promise of God’s great community, where peace, justice, and love are the norm, where diversity and unity are intertwined, where truth is always spoken, where every illness is tended, where every pain is comforted, and every tear is consoled.


When we see both worlds, God’s promised one and this one, we cannot help but work to close the gap and beg others to see it with us and to help. And some, some will not see yet. Some will not believe. But Happy are those who are persecuted, despised, or lied about for trying to move this city toward the City of God, this country toward the Kingdom of God.


Charge


Benediction

Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.

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