New Challenges

53-13943-7546-snowwhite-1394561591No matter what comes, stay faithful. Our lesson this morning covers a huge swath of territory. It begins with Jesus and his disciples returning to Nazareth on the Sabbath. Jesus begins to teach, at which point he receives a couple of dismissive pats on the head; because as much as they should be proud of one of their own all grown up, this new, prophetic Jesus doesn’t fit their image of him. Their inability to see him as anything other than a child or a simple carpenter is what prevents them from recognizing the possibilities right there in front of them. Jesus, however, sees exactly what is happening: “A prophet is not welcome in his hometown.” And soon, he and the disciples are on the move.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

Jesus heads off to the outlying villages, where his message finds a more receptive audience. He then commissions the disciples to do the same. If they are welcomed in a village, wonderful; if not, Jesus tells them not to waste their time. They should shake the dust off their feet and go onto the next village. This strategy works. They don’t seem to be discouraged by the unreceptive villages. As a result, their ministry lands in fertile soil and takes root.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

All of this is enough to grab the attention of King Herod. We learn through flashbacks that his past continues to haunt him. While Jesus’ work had found an audience among those around the margins, his cousin John the Baptist’s fierce message of repentance landed most strongly in the halls of power. Herod, despite his position, became John’s fan and protector. But as we discover, John’s forthrightness and Herod’s arrogance brings John’s life to an untimely end.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

It is one thing to be faithful in the face of hometown rejection and unreceptive strangers. It is another thing altogether to remain steadfast when death is on the line. We can imagine the shock John’s beheading sent through the region, and especially through Jesus and his followers. After all, their stories are intimately linked. It was John who baptized Jesus. John, for all the intensity of his preaching, let everyone know that he was just the opening act for Jesus, the headliner. The two of them were united in their message about the dawning of a new era, of the intrusion of the kingdom of God. So when John is arrested and murdered, there is no doubt that the news gave Jesus and the disciples pause, if not outright terror.

And yet: no matter what comes, stay faithful.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to resonate more with the first two parts of the story – the rejection of Nazareth and the surrounding villages – than the third part – the impending death threat. Much of the time, the challenges to my faith largely come in the form of small things. Some of my friends treat faith like a disease, a delusion. Popular culture might use church as a trope, the punch line of a joke. I am hard-pressed to think of a moment in my life when faith was an absolute matter of life or death.

And maybe it is because of this relative cultural comfort that we tend to domesticate the gospel when it comes to how it takes form in our lives. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies”, we are inclined to talk about how hard it is to love those people that annoy us – rather than the people that might actually pose a threat to us. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me”, we tend to interpret it as, “being a Christian means people might not like you” rather than “being a Christian means you might be nailed to a couple of pieces of wood.”

Are we really, really willing to stay faithful, no matter what the cost might be?

Don’t get me wrong. I know that many of us face difficult, painful realities in our lives. We fight to overcome the demons of self-doubt and annihilation. We struggle against addiction and abuse. We get buried under the weight of the world while well meaning but misguided people tell us, “God never gives you more than you can handle!” And while some of these challenges may not be so dramatic as to be life threatening, they are still very real and they take a very real toll on us.

After all, the number one fear of people isn’t death – that’s number two. Number one is public speaking. There’s a reason that performers who have a bad gig talk about “bombing” or “dying out there”. Our survival may not be at stake, but when we are vulnerable and wounded, it feels like our lives are on the line!

Don’t get me wrong: death is way worse than public speaking. Threats to our life are of more consequence than hurt feelings. And yet, if we think hurt feelings don’t have any impact, we really are delusional.

As people of faith, we have to hold these two things in tension: the fact that the deep wounds aren’t only the ones you can see; and the fact that there are people in the world who lose their lives because they follow Jesus. As people of faith, our call is to work so that these wounds come to an end; and our call is to persist, even when these same wounds might visit us.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

There is no doubt in my mind that the two moments that tested the disciples’ faith the most were the deaths of John and of Jesus. When Jesus is arrested, Peter lies about being connected with him. When Jesus is killed, the disciples barricade themselves up afraid that the same fate might meet them. And yet, we also know that their behavior was not always honorable, even when the stakes were much, much lower. In one episode, they come across another group of healers. But since the healers are not doing their work in the name of Jesus, the disciples send them away – much to the disappointment of Jesus himself.

I can’t help but wonder what temptations faced the disciples in the villages that rejected them. I’m guessing that some of them wanted to push the ministry that much harder; and that others felt like scorching the earth behind them as they left. But Jesus’ message is clear: the mere act of shaking the dust off your feet is condemnation enough.

No matter the slights, the wounds, the threats, the insults, the dangers, we are always, always called to faithfulness.

We take stands for what is just, even if doing so risks us our hometown. We stand with those who are threatened, even if doing so threatens us as well. We speak the truth in love, even when the room is full of lies. And we do all of this rooted in the one simple, binding principle of faith: that every single person is worthy of dignity, of being loved, no matter what they might be or do. This, at its heart, is what the faith of our Scriptures points towards: God creates humanity in God’s own image, no exceptions. Christ’s love is for the world, all of it. It’s not that we don’t hold people accountable for what they do; it’s that we still love them, no matter what.

That is what makes us vulnerable. And we do not like vulnerability.

Vulnerability flies right in the face of our cultural identity. We have this vision, I fear, of a “happily ever after” world. We live with a pervasive mythology that setbacks are only temporary, that they are always trumped by victories, and that all we need in between is a good montage. And this simplistic narrative can also leak its way into our faith lives. We can be fooled into thinking that the bad things we encounter are temporary, and that good things are always just around the corner. Sometimes life does turn out that way; but living as though that assumption is well founded is misguided, at best.

Life does not always turn out like we planned. The dying person does not always get well and recover. The market does not always self-correct. The broken relationship is not always mended. The bad guys do not always get caught, and the good guys do not always win. The short-lived setback might have a long life after all. There is, for us, a temptation to wrap everything up nicely and neatly, when life is often quite messy.

And even so, no matter what comes, no matter what challenges we might face, we are called to be faithful. And we do so not because that faithfulness will be rewarded with the happily ever after we really want, but because we truly believe in the hope that God hopes for us.

And that is the hope we know through Christ. Because at the end of the day, the tomb is vacant; the cross stands empty; hope has the very final word. We do not give up on God, because God never gives up on us.

You see, I do not believe that there is always a perfect finish to every story. Just ask John the Baptist. What I do believe is that God is at work anyway.

Let me put it this way: I do not believe that God made King Herod kill the John the Baptist for some higher purpose. Rather, I believe that John’s death broke God’s heart, such that God was able to bring some hope out of that hopelessness. Perhaps it made the disciples realize what the odds they were truly up against; and in so doing, it refined them and their choice and resolve to follow Jesus.

Do we have that kind of resolve? Are we willing to follow Jesus, no matter the risks at stake, even if it requires us to put our public speaking on the line?