Sent as Sheep...
After Pentecost 2020 • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 19:04
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Let us pray…Gracious Lord of Life, grant that we might hear the words you have for us in this day. As difficult as things may get, we know that you stand beside us, sometimes carrying us through life’s challenges. Be with us now and grant that we might have open hearts, minds, and spirits, Amen.
This morning, I am going to jump right into the scripture we have before us because there is much that we need to hear in this passage this week...I have to admit that this week’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the most difficult for us to hear and for me to preach on, but we will give it a whirl this morning in the hopes that we might gain some understanding for our lives today. I also have to say that what makes this passage so difficult is that it causes the majority of the questions I get as a pastor; at least what it truly at the heart of what people ask me. There are a few other reasons why this passage is difficult but the main reason is simply the terminology. So, let’s start with verse 16...
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
There are a few difficult ideas in this verse…first that we are sent as sheep amongst wolves. This is really hard to hear. We don’t want to be sheep sent out all alone and this seems, at least at first glance, to be what Jesus is saying to those he is sending out to spread the message of love. But if you really think about it, we really are sheep sent out amongst wolves, even today. In order to understand this analogy, let’s try to contemplate it from the perspective of those who surrounded Jesus…it was common for teachers of Jesus’ day to use animals as analogies of human behavior, and this was a word picture that would definitely catch their attention! Those who were following Jesus at this time lived in a sheep herding part of the world. So many, if not all, of them had probably seen what happens when wolves get hold of sheep.
To put this into perspective for us, there was a book written by Dr. W. Phillip Keller back in the 70’s called A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23. Now, Dr. Keller grew up on a ranch in British Columbia and observed sheepherding first hand. In the book, he describes a scene of carnage when wolves attacked the sheep one night. He wrote, “Some ewes were killed outright…others were torn open and badly clawed…In their frightened stampede some had stumbled and broken bones or rushed over rough ground injuring legs and bodies.” According to Keller, “Two wild dogs have been known to kill as many as 292 sheep in a single night of unbridled slaughter.” (p.37) You can only imagine what a whole wolf pack could do!
I know these descriptions are a bit gruesome to hear but trust me when I say that I took out the worst parts…however, it is important for those of us who might not have ever seen what a wolf can do to domesticated animals to understand that when Jesus said, “I am sending you out as sheep amongst the wolves,” this is the kind of imagery that would have come to mind to those around him. They would have easily been able to identify with what happens to unattended sheep when there is a wolf pack around.
I can also imagine the disciples surround Jesus thinking, “No shepherd would deliberately send his sheep out into the middle of a pack of ferocious wolves!” But Jesus was describing an unavoidable reality. The only way to spread the Gospel is to deliberately go out into wolf territory. As Christians, we can’t afford to be so idealistic that we lose touch with this kind of reality. That’s why Jesus warns us up front to be on guard. To be on the watch for troubles that will come. I have often said that Jesus never promised us a bowl full of cherries with no pits. When we are truly trying to spread the good news of Christ’s resurrection, we are going to encounter troubles, turmoil, and those who will stand against us. There is no exception to this and he is warning us right from the very beginning that we will face persecution.
In the next couple of verses, he spelled out exactly what the disciples, and by extension us, would face in our daily lives...
But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me.
Very plainly and without any kind of hesitation, he said that His followers would be arrested, flogged, and put on trial by local councils and national governors. Even people in their own families would betray them and some would be put to death. Jesus explained that whatever people did to Him, they would also do to His followers. Now, for us, we might not face this kind of humiliation in public or be beaten or whipped or even arrested for our faith but that is not true for all Christians around the world and throughout our history.
Let’s put this into perspective…so, here we are in the 21st Century and most of what we know about the people who have faced down this kind of persecution died hundreds of years ago, right? Wrong! There is an estimate that about 45 million, or two-thirds of all Christian martyrs in the history of the church, actually died in the twentieth century. "The New Persecuted: Anti-Christian Intolerance in the New Century," by an Italian journalist named Antonio Socci. In addition, the author of the book, "The New Persecuted: Anti-Christian Intolerance in the New Century," estimates that an average of 160,000 Christians have been killed every year since 1990 in a variety of nations such as Pakistan, Sudan, Algeria, and Nigeria. Preaching Now Newsletter. June 25, 2002.
In order to survive as a Christian in this world, we need to be aware that whenever we try to stand up for what is right and just, we are going to face opposition. While we may not ever face this kind of opposition in our little community on the hill here in Eastern PA, there are others in this world, that just by pronouncing that they are Christian, are going to face being beaten, beheaded, or any other form of torture that we could imagine. We are sent as sheep into a world full of wolves. It is for this reason that Jesus is warning us.
Endurance commended as a virtue for God’s people
Endurance commended as a virtue for God’s people
There is no doubt in my mind that we too face opposition and that we will have to endure many things. Sometimes those little things will add up and we will need to be clever about how we spread the good news of Christ’s love for us. Again, the people who lived in the deserts around the Sea of Galilee would have recognized and understood Jesus’ next comparison very well. We, however, in this area, really don’t have to face many different kinds of animals that can kill us with one strike. Don’t get me wrong, we have poisonous snakes in the mountains and maybe even a few around the church but for the most part, we are not going to face the kinds of snakes that could do serious damage with one bite. So, for us, we might not fully comprehend the analogy of being like a snake…just so that we are all on the same page, here’s what Jesus said about being like snakes...
“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.
Jesus clearly says to be as shrewd as snakes...Have you ever considered what makes some of the world’s deadliest snakes so deadly? It is not necessarily only their venom that makes them so dangerous. In my mind at least, what makes snakes so dangerous is that you do not often see them before they strike. Snakes have this innate ability to blend in with their surroundings. They cannot often be easily seen, unless they are out in the open. If you have ever encountered a garter snake in your garden, did you see it before almost stepping on it? If it was woven in between the rows of plants, I am betting that you did not. It is because of their coloring and the way they move that they can easily blend into their surroundings.
Now, I don’t want you to hear this wrong…I am not saying that Jesus said to be just like a snake and blend into the world and society. No, what I think he really means here is that snakes are cunning and blend into their surroundings just enough that they cannot easily be seen by their predators. But, snakes are also capable of being quick and agile when they need to escape from something that might be there to attack them. Again, thinking of the garter snake or hognose snake, these snakes can move very quickly across the ground, even without legs. There is something in this idea about being able to blend in but also to be different from everything around us. That, I think, is what Jesus is truly trying to get across to those who were listening to him that day. Snakes are different and so agile. The word that Jesus chooses here, “shrewd”, probably refers back to the story of creation with the snake that deceives Eve. However, when you look for synonyms of the word shrewd, two come quickly to the surface for me, and those are being perceptive and discerning. I think shrewd often gets a negative connotation but if we are perceptive and discerning, this means that we can sense the danger around us and witty enough to listen for God’s words before we speak.
The other piece of this statement is that Jesus tells us to be as harmless as doves. I don’t know about you but when I think of a dove, I think of sitting on a park bench at peace and content in my surroundings. In my minds eye of this scene, I can clearly see birds mulling about on the ground in front of me waiting for anything that falls from my hands. Most of us cannot imagine being scared of birds and I say most because I do know some folks who are terrified of birds. But I digress…let me ask you something…if you would get that picture of someone sitting on a park bench feeding the birds...what happens to those birds the minute that person stands up? Right, they scatter and take to flight. They are creatures who are innately afraid of anything larger than themselves.
Now, with that being said, I am also not hearing Jesus say that the minute opposition comes up before us that we should scatter to the four winds like doves but rather to be as peaceful and docile as doves when we deal with others who may not know Christ as we do. Envision that cooing bird on the ground before you and each time that it coos, it is saying, “I love you”. When you place yourself in the position of always saying I love you, it is really hard to say the opposite…think about that…if our hearts are filled with love for others, there is no room for hate. The minute we allow hate to creep back in, we are standing facing a wolf rather than a dove. We are reactive creatures by nature and when you act as a wolf, chances are you are going to be facing someone who is also reacting. In these scenarios, it is really hard to get anything accomplished because we are so focused upon defending and reacting that we forget to first think about what it is that is happening...
Christian endurance originates with God
Christian endurance originates with God
Here’s the thing though, when you hold yourself out as a Christian, there is this expectation that you are going to always respond a certain way. Jesus gave us some really vivid and powerful ideas about what it means to live as a Christian and also be a disciple of Christ. He warns us that it is not going to be easy, and if you are anything like me, your Christian journey has been anything but a bowl full of cherries with no pits. Just like those Jesus is sending out from the Galilean countryside, we are challenged to face our fears, face our enemies, and face our opposition, and do it all with the kind of endurance that others can clearly and easily say, “Yes, he/she is a follower of Christ.” That is the crux of the first part of this passage.
In the second part of this passage, he gives us encouragement to endure all things regardless as to what those “things” might be...
When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Ok, I know, I know, he says that we are going to be arrested…however, we have already covered that this morning. I want you to focus on that last statement...”it is not you who will be speaking - it will be the Spirit of God speaking through you”
Again, this is the reassurance that we do nothing alone. We are never going to stand on our own, even when it feels like we are. When we feel like the whole world is against us, we are not alone. Come on gang, Jesus tells us at least twice that we do nothing alone. A few weeks ago, we received the promised advocate and comforter. Jesus comforted his disciples on the night of his arrest by telling them that they would receive this advocate and comforter. The Spirit of Truth is to whom Jesus is referring. It is the same Spirit who abides with us, stands beside us, strengthens us in our weaknesses…this is the spirit to whom Jesus refers. We are never alone…here Jesus wants those who are going out to know that even when the bad stuff happens, we will always have the truth to guide and abide within and around us. I don’t know any other way to put this into terms we can understand.
With all that is happening in this world, I can honestly say that I get it. I know how we can feel all alone and how we desire nothing more than to crawl under a rock like a snake trying to escape from the sun. I can see how we want to flit away and scatter into the four winds, escaping anyone and everyone, like a dove does the minute we stand up from that park bench. I can see how those disciples and us today can be so discouraged and feel alone in the world. However, Jesus tells us that we need to keep pressing on…that is ultimately what Jesus is saying here. Don’t give up, don’t waste your time on worrying about if, but rather understand that when the “when” happens (notice he did not say “if you get arrested”, he says, “when you get arrested”), we are to trust that God will give us the strength, courage, and wisdom to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done, and most importantly the encouragement we need to keep moving into the next phase of our lives. God is with us, yes Jesus sends us out as sheep amongst wolves, but we don’t have to have the attitude of a wolf to get by and we don’t need to feel like we do it alone. We are all in this together and the Spirit of God abides with us along the way…Amen.