The Safest Place to be is the Center of God’s Will?

The Safest Place to be is the Center of God’s Will?


Our first reading is from the fourteenth chapter of Matthew.

Matthew 14:1-12

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “The is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. They they went and told Jesus.

Matthew 11:2-19

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see; The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“’I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“’We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they way, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.’”

[Pastor Max Ramsey] May God’s Word be a seed in the soil that is your life. May it grow there and blossom and bear good fruit, and will you pray with me, a sinner.

Lord these passages that we have read today are about the costs. They are about the blessing, but they are also about the costs of discipleship. So this morning Lord, when we enter the dangerous place of talking about the costs of discipleship, let it be Your Word that is heard today.May the words of my mouth and my mind and my heart be pleasing in Your sight.

We pray these things in Your Son’s name,

Amen.

So often we revel in the blessings of this faith, and we should revel in the blessings of this faith but we should also take time to deeply understand the blessings of this faith. We love all the “good” stuff that makes us feel great.  We take our youth groups to great concerts and they leave ecstatic. We sing wonderful music in worship and we feel ecstatic.  If we’re not careful we begin to think that we can live every moment as though we’re on a mountaintop.  If we’re not watchful we wonder where the joy is, and where the happiness is in those moments between mountaintops.   We love the “idea” of discipleship, but we ought to stop and consider the reality of it.  There is a cost to discipleship.  There is a cost.

When I was a boy someone who loved me very much taught me these words: “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will.”   I’d like you to think about that little phrase for a moment. “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will.” Martin Luther King used to use those words and I’d like you to think about that for a minute – “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will.”

Some other words that were also used by Martin Luther King and taught to me by someone who loved me very much, were these: “God’s Will will never take you where God’s Grace cannot keep you.”

Has anyone ever heard these words before, particularly the first one, “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will”? The person who loved me very much would tell me that at night before I went to bed. So I grew up believing that Christianity was a “safe faith”; not a dangerous faith, but a soft and safe faith. I grew up subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) believing that if you follow God you will become comfortable, rich, and successful. Has anybody else ever heard a person in a pulpit or a Christian classroom tell you that? Listen quietly to your heart. Have we ever danced with that superstition? The superstition tell us that if we just do the things that please God then our lives will become easier, and we will be blessed with prosperity. Has your mind ever visited that thought – Follow God, do God’s will and you will become comfortable, rich, and successful?

So brothers and sisters, I ask you this. Why is the Greek word for witness, martyr? Why then is the Greek word for witness martyrion—martyr?

What is a martyr? We get all sorts of distorted ideas about it these days in the media, some from our faith, some from other faiths. What is it to be a martyr?

[Congregation: To give your life for a cause.] Yes. Now why do you suppose it is that witness and martyr are the same word when we have all came up in a religion or faith that has taught us that the safest place to be is the center of God’s will?

[Congregation: Because being a Christian isn’t necessarily being safe. Maybe the person who told you that had a different understanding of “safe” than we usually think of.] Yes. Maybe we deeply misunderstand that language about being safe, particularly if we take it on worldly terms.   Maybe we badly misunderstand what it is to be “safe”.

I think that Satan’s greatest ploy over the past 100 years is not to assault Christianity… Satan’s greatest ploy has been to put Christianity to sleep.  For all intents and purposes, the mission of God has gone to sleep.   Satan’s ploy is to trick us into thinking that the waters of baptism lead us to Sunday School, when the truth that Scripture gives us is that the waters of baptism lead us to the cross, and to a new life in a Kingdom that this world cannot see and that is dangerous to the values of this world. The Christian project is not to take people out of the waters of baptism and into the safety of the Christian community, as though that’s where the story ends. Scripture tells us that the Christian project is to take disciples out of the water and into the living mission of Jesus Christ.  And that is dangerous stuff.

Now here’s the Biblical side of that—the historic side of the Christian journey. The bible gives us this: You are an exile in the world outside these doors. You are an alien in this earthly world. You are a citizen of a Kingdom that this world has not yet seen. The Kingdom from which you come and the Kingdom in which you hold your citizenship is alien to the people that you are surrounded by almost every day. And so brothers and sisters because of your faith, because of that which you proclaim in the waters of baptism, you are an exile in your offices, in your places of work, as you walk down the street, here in Brookfield, Milwaukee, and West Allis. Because of your faith, you are not only an exile, but you are a dangerous exile because what you believe is dangerous to the culture that surrounds you. The radical love that you bring to the world is a threat to power and that is dangerous. The radical love and grace that you live with your life is a threat to those who can only understand their relationship with God in legalistic terms.  Your radical freedom in Christ is a threat to those who cannot relate to anyone in any way that they cannot personally control.  Living in love is a threat to those who operate from fear.  And so this faith is not safe in any worldly sense.  Ours is a dangerous faith.

What makes it so dangerous?  First, the Christian memory is a dangerous memory.  When I use the term the Christian memory what am I talking about?  Who do we remember? We remember Jesus.  What do we remember about Jesus? Did he have an easy life? Did he retire with a golden umbrella? Did he land somewhere in Key West?…flippin’ burgers down there with Elvis? What happened to Jesus?  [Congregation: He was crucified.] He was crucified for what? For teaching and living God’s Word in contradiction to what… [Congregation: to that culture.] …to the culture, the world’s view at that time. Do you think that that time and this time are really all that different? Do you think that you live in a Christian culture? No, you do not. You live in a Roman culture wearing the cloak of Christendom. Do you think that the principalities and powers that Paul speaks of are not threatened by your message of radical love and radical equality?  Do you think that your belief in a Kingdom not ruled by human beings doesn’t threaten the people that surround you? It does!

Second, your faith involves dangerous promises. Think about the promises. What are the promises the Bible gives us? [Congregation: Eternal life.] Eternal life, and not just on the other side of the river but on this side of the river, so that the values of the other side of the river cross over. That’s a dangerous promise. The kingdom of God is not later after you die. The kingdom of God is now! That’s a dangerous promise given that many people think that they already occupy that throne in your life.  What are some of the other promises? [Congregation: He will never forsake us.] He will never forsake us, yes.  Absolutely. In a world of flakes whose word means nothing, our God is a stand-up God.   Other promises?

John’s message was “make straight the highway of the Lord, flatten the high places, raise up the low places”. What’s he talking about? Is he talking about a society that’s coming that has one percent that owns everything and 99 percent that owns nothing? No.  What’s he talking about? He’s talking about a Kingdom that levels the playing field on some level. That’s dangerous.  This is not an economic conversation—you can have that conversation with Gene and Klaus later. It’s a values conversation, but be careful because the two are not unrelated. And one other very dangerous promise is that there is power in the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit can change you—and that’s dangerous. When we bring the promise of the Kingdom to people with the promise that the Holy Spirit will change you, our faith becomes dangerous.  Our faith is dangerous because some folks don’t want to change, they don’t want to grow, they don’t want to be different. They like the philandering, drunken lifestyle that they have been living, thinking that that lifestyle is feeding their souls and not understanding why their life is falling totally apart. The Holy Spirit threatens the status quo. And so we have a dangerous memory and we have dangerous promises.  So brothers and sisters, you do not live a safe faith. You live a dangerous faith.

Our faith spoken and lived can mean social suicide. How many of you have lost a friend because of your faith? I lost all of my friends because of my faith. As soon as I said, “I’m going into the ministry,” they all looked at me and said, “What?” And one by one they are all gone. This faith will not make you friends in the world—not if you live it in truth. If you go to a friend and you say, “You know that I love you—you know that I love you—and I want the very best for you.” And you say, “But when you live your life that way, sticking your money up your nose, chasing after women who are not your wife, God can’t bless you.” When you talk that way with people, that’s a dangerous faith that can cost you your social circle.

Your faith can also can mean career suicide. This is not a faith you can count on to bring you business (despite what the Christian Business Directory tells you).   If you stand up for justice in an unjust workplace, what will happen to you? What will happen? [Congregation: They’ll fire you.] You will get fired! Is this a safe faith? No.  If you stand up for a little guy in one arena because it is God’s will to do so, you may pay for it in the arena of your business life because the life you live shines a light on the lives of people who seek only their own profit and don’t care how they get it.  This is not a safe faith.  It is a dangerous faith.  Consider the cost.

When we say these words, “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will,” let’s think for a moment about whose faith story we can apply the words to.  How about Paul?   What happened to Paul? [Congregation: He was imprisoned.] He was thrown in prison—is that safe—and then what? [Congregation: He was killed.] He was eventually executed there. What about Stephen? What did they do with him? [Congregation: He was stoned to death.] They stoned him—let’s just think graphically about that for a moment. Is that a good way to go? How about Andrew? There is a cross that is called Andrew’s Cross because he was crucified on it. How about Peter? Phillip? Do I need to keep going?   How about in modern times?  How about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He stood up to the dominant culture of his time in 1930s Germany. First the Nazified church persecuted him.  Then the Nazi Party persecuted him and sent him to a concentration camp where he died with those who had no voice, and whose voice he sought to lift up in the name of the Christ he claimed to believe in. How about Martin Luther King who used to use this same terminology: “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will”?  He would say those words to his people as they marched into the fire hoses and into the face of the snarling police dogs—“the center of God’s will is the safest place to be.”  What did those words mean to them?

Bear with me just a few more minutes. In our passage today we learn about the demise of John the Baptist. If anyone ever lived life in the center of God’s will, surely it was John. What became of John the Baptist? He was beheaded for telling the truth. The story goes something roughly like this: He was thrown in prison because Herod said, “How am I doing John?”  And John said, “Well, not real well. You’re…uh…committing adultery.”  That wasn’t the good news Herod was looking for, so Herod put him in prison.  And then, at the whim of a harlot, he had John – God’s own messenger – beheaded.  Now, look closely at our second passage, which actually comes chronologically before our first reading.  Jesus’ ministry begins to take off.  There are rumors, whispers, that he might be the one.   And from prison, John sends a messenger to Jesus saying essentially, “Are you the one?”  I think John’s messenger is also trying to find out the answer to another undocumented, by perhaps implied, question, “ And if you are the one, do you think you could swing by and get me out of jail because I’ve been doing your will? I have been in the center of your will and someone told me that that is the safest place to be. So…uh…you know… when you get done with the healing and the preaching, could you come by and just spring me out of jail?  Could you hook a brother up?”

And Jesus’ response is what I would like you to embrace today, which is the truth about our faith—this is a dangerous faith that you have chosen. Jesus doesn’t tell John that he is going to come to his rescue.  Jesus’ response is, “Blessed is the one who does not lose his faith on account of me.”  Jesus, in these words, has answered John.  Jesus will not be getting him out. How must that have been heard by John in the context of this faith?

John becomes a casualty of the cause with these words, “Blessed is the one who does not lose his faith on account of me.”  Wow.  Really?  Oh, man. Ouch! What does that mean for you and me?  What does that mean when we put our kids into the water of baptism?  What if it was your kid whom you encouraged into this faith that is behind bars, persecuted for standing firm in their faith – the one that you encouraged?  What if it was your child that Jesus was talking to when he said, “Blessed is the one who does not lose his faith on account of me.”?  This is not a faith for the faint of heart.  It is not a faith for the half-committed.  There will be casualties.  If John’s life was less important than Jesus’ mission, how much less important are our lives compared to the mission?  And yet you and I are called into the mission of Jesus Christ by Jesus Christ himself.

The courage of this faith cannot come from the knowledge that you or I will be spared. John the Baptist wasn’t spared. This faith offers us no such promises.  The courage of this faith must, in some part, come from the knowledge that there is something that you and I are connected to that is more important than even our own lives.  There is something at stake in what we are called to do that is more important than even our own lives.

Amen.

(Preached by Max Ramsey 1-4-08)

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