Facing Persecution

St Michael’s 24th January 2010

Readings – Luke 4:14-30; Acts 6:8-15, 7:54-8:3

It should all have turned out differently. The headlines that week should have read, “Local boy makes good”, “Amazing miracles as carpenter’s son returns” “Synagogue packed for homecoming sermon”. But what instead were the headlines in the Nazareth News that week? “Near lynching after controversial preach” “Eyewitness accounts of violence – pages 2,3,4,5” “Synagogue ruler speaks exclusively about commotion – page 6”.

So what had gone wrong? After all, Jesus had always been seen as someone special. He was well-known in the village as someone who never seemed to do anything wrong. And everyone realised He was destined to be more than just a carpenter. So when one day He upped sticks and went down to the Jordan to join in with John the Baptist’s ministry, it was no real surprise. Soon the reports started coming back of miracles in places like Cana and Capernaum, and it was clear that Jesus was no ordinary person, that God’s Holy Spirit rested on Him in a special way, and that He had a particular mission for God’s people at that time.

It was only natural, then, that when He went into the synagogue that Sabbath He was invited to stand up and read. Everyone wanted to hear more of His message and find out what exactly was the good news He had been proclaiming. So taking the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus carefully unfolded it until He came to the part almost at the end where it said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

No wonder The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him (Luke 4:20). Because this passage above all others articulated the hope of the people of Israel. That one day the poor would receive good news, that the people imprisoned by the occupying forces would be set free, that the nation so long oppressed by others would be liberated. Back in the 25th chapter of Leviticus Moses had set down the law that every 50th year there would be a Jubilee, a time when debts would be forgiven, property returned to their rightful owners, and the land given rest. That law had never been put into practice. But God’s people hoped one day it would be enacted and there would at last be economic, social and political justice. And when Jesus stood up to read the passage it seemed that He was saying this day would soon be coming.

And so far folk were willing to accept these words of grace that came from Jesus’ lips. After all, the miracles Jesus had performed and the teaching He had given suggested that He might well be some kind of prophet or wise man sent by God. But when Jesus, as was the custom in those days, sat down to speak, He went far beyond any suggestion He was just another prophet or wise teacher. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke 4:21). In other words, I am not simply here to tell you about the fulfilment of this passage of Scripture from Isaiah. I am the fulfilment of this Scripture. I am the one anointed by God, the Messiah, the one chosen by God to deliver His people.

It was this that was too much for the congregation to stomach. So when they heard Jesus’ dramatic words they turned towards each other and began whispering, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” After all, they had seen Jesus grow up, right from the time Joseph had returned from his stay in Egypt. They had seen Him playing with the other boys in the village. They had watched Him learn His trade from His father. They had sat with Him in the synagogue each Sabbath. How could someone like this be the Messiah?

And Jesus instantly understands the depth and the seriousness of the accusation being levelled against Him. Because the people listening to Him could only conceive of Him as an ordinary human being, weak and sinful just like them, who needed rather to hear than to announce the good news of God’s salvation. That’s why He replies to them, Surely you will quote this proverb to me: Physician, heal yourself! He knows that in effect He is being called a hypocrite, claiming to the true Son of God when He is in fact as everyone knows round here really just the Son of Joseph.

Of course Jesus could have silenced His critics and His doubters simply by performing some great miracle which would have convinced them of His true identity. No doubt there were people in the synagogue folk who did need healing, or the public absolution of their sins, and Jesus could have chosen any one of them to demonstrate His powers. But Jesus wasn’t going to play by their rules. Because if He was indeed the Messiah, then it was up to the people to recognise that fact by putting their faith and trust in Him. They had no right at all to demand that He should somehow prove Himself and persuade them once and for all who He really was.

Besides which, if they had really listened to the Scriptures they so faithfully read out each Sabbath, they would have known better than to reject someone who claimed to the Messiah. For the Old Testament contains example after example – and Jesus only quotes two of them – where Gentiles learn to respond with the faith so lacking in God’s people. True, neither this unnamed widow or Naaman the Syrian understood at first who the Lord was. But when they saw His power at work, they responded in faith and praise and confession of His name. And that was the response that the people of Nazareth should have made on that Sabbath in the synagogue.

But instead of responding in repentance, their response was one of simple, naked rage. They seized Jesus, dragged Him out of the town and tried to kill Him. Just as in the same way three years later the people of Jerusalem would seize Him, drag Him out of the city and lead Him to a cruel cross. Where this time they would succeed in their aim of putting Him to death, and Jesus would take upon Himself all the rage and hatred and jealousy of sinful man in order to become a sacrifice for many. And there can be no doubt that when Jesus stood up and proclaimed Himself as the Messiah with good news for all the people, He knew that He would also be the fulfilment of an earlier passage of Isaiah about the suffering servant pierced for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:3).

Now we are looking more closely at these so-called servant songs of Isaiah in our GIFT groups this term, but for the time being it is just worth pausing for a moment and consider how Jesus’ proclamation of the good news leads so naturally and so inexorably to the cross. Because the witness of Scripture and of church history is that if we are serious about following Jesus we too need to be prepared to embrace suffering for His name. Not because we want to invite martyrdom or because we somehow see suffering as good as itself, but because among the many reactions to the good news we proclaim we will find scepticism, opposition and sometimes even rage.

Take, for instance, the example of Stephen. If you heard or read my sermon last week – and I hope some of you have had a chance to visit our church website recently – you will know that the first thing we learn about Stephen is that He was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5) – in other words, a man supremely well qualified to spread the good news of Jesus Christ the Messiah. So he was placed as the head of a team distributing poor relief to the widows in the church. With the result, as we saw last week, that the church continued to grow, since the apostles were now free to concentrate their energies on their tasks of prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4).

But Stephen’s proclamation of the good news did not just stop with the daily hand-out of food to the poor and the destitute. There was in the early church no rigid distinction between practical ministries of charity and spiritual ministries of preaching and healing. And so it should not surprise us that at the beginning of today’s reading we find Stephen performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Stephen, you see, was one of those people who loved the Lord so much that He naturally shared the gospel in whatever He did, sometimes in acts of service, sometimes through spectacular deliverances. His one purpose was however not to draw attention to himself, but to witness to God’s grace and draw others to a saving knowledge of Jesus.

Yet as a faithful follower of Jesus it was only natural that he should also attract opposition. We aren’t told exactly what the members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen tried to argue against Stephen but maybe a clue comes from the accusations levelled at him in verse 14: we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us. Because actually the core message of gospel we have received is that you don’t meet with God through a place like the temple, but through the person of Jesus Christ, that you don’t make yourself right with God through law but through faith and trust in His Son, the Messiah. And to those who were members of the religious establishment this could easily have been seen not as good news, but as a threat to their power and privilege and authority.

For, after all, what was the charge levelled at Jesus when He was arrested and brought before the chief priests? I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man. (Mark 14:58). Of course this was a twisting and a perversion of what Jesus actually said, but it amounted to the same rejection of the good news that He had preached three years earlier at Nazareth. Because the idea this carpenter from Nazareth could be the Messiah, that He had the right to teach a new way of being right with God was just too much to stomach. And now that Stephen was effectively and persuasively saying the same thing hit upon a raw nerve. It was little wonder then that, like Jesus, Stephen was seized and brought the chief priests to be examined and tried.

Now we are not going to look in detail at the speech Stephen makes in his defence – it is the longest speech in the book of Acts and it covers the history of Israel in minute detail – but it is worth considering how Stephen replies when the high priest asks him: Are these charges true? I guess if were in a similar kind of situation I would tempted to say, “Sorry, it’s all been a big mistake” or else water down my message to suit my audience. But what does Stephen do? Like Jesus he goes back to the Old Testament and points out their failure to learn the lessons they had read there. Because again the Old Testament is full of examples where God’s people persecuted and put to death the prophets who had spoken in the name of the Lord and predicted the coming of the Messiah. If they had had but eyes to see and ears to hear, they should have recognised who Jesus was and welcomed Him, rather than betray Him and nail Him to a cross.

And what was the response of those who listened to Him? At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. (Acts 7:57-58). Doesn’t that sound a might familiar? And surely Stephen knew that this would be his fate even as he began speaking. But he spoke nonetheless, not – and this is an important point – because he wanted to die a martyr’s death like Jesus, but because he had the confidence and the assurance that Jesus was waiting to receive Him into His presence. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56).

What a truly remarkable verse! Elsewhere in the Scripture we read how when Jesus completed His work in heaven He went and saw down at the right hand of God. The idea of Jesus sitting there speaks of Him ruling with all might and power and majesty, even as He intercedes with the Father for us. But this is the one place in Scripture where we read of Jesus standing. And surely the idea is that He has stood up from His throne and is there ready to welcome His faithful servant and witness home.

But surely you might ask, what is the point of giving up your life as a witness to Christ? The answer comes at the end of verse 58: Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. Yes, this passage ends with Saul going from house to house trying to destroy the church. But something about the way Stephen died planted a seed in Saul’s heart, a seed that would suddenly burst into life on the Damascus road, a seed that would change and transform His life. Because actually the wonderful good news of the Christian faith is not silenced by death. Indeed it is often the way that believers approach their death that rouses faith in others, and draws them to discover more of Christ. Which should not surprise us if we believe that Jesus is in fact the resurrection and the life.

So today we have looked at the example of Jesus and we have looked at the example of Stephen. How then does this all relate to us? Well, as we know, Jesus said in Mark 8:34: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. And even today there are countless Christians around the world who have taken this message on board and are willing to lay down their life for Jesus even in the face of the greatest persecution imaginable, Christians in Muslim world or in China whose very example should humble and shame us for our lukewarm faith and our unwillingness to climb out of own little comfort zone.

But what about us? What can we take away from these passages that will affect the way we live our lives at home, at work, in our neighbourhoods? Some might say that they call us to spread the good news wherever possible even when there is scepticism, or opposition, or hatred. And to some extent that may be true. But I have to say I am increasingly wary of this kind of message because I know there are some Christians who seem to deliberately invite a reaction, and fail to win any kind of hearing for the gospel because of their provocative behaviour. No, I think the real challenge that both Jesus and Stephen present us is that we are so full of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God that the good news flows naturally out of whatever we say or do, wherever it is distributing food to the poor, or teaching others, or looking after the family, or anything else we might find ourselves doing.

Because both Jesus and Stephen loved the Lord their God before anything or anyone else. And I believe it is this radical love that the world is looking for us to display. They may respond positively to that love, they may respond with hatred and jealousy. But our response should be to keep on loving, even when that love leads us to a cross. Because that good news Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth is the good news we have to share, good news for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, and it is our life of love together that in the end will bring in the year of the Lord’s favour.

Rev Tim

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