In the Name...
Alexander the Great is known as the king who conquered the world from Egypt to India. But, he couldn't have done it without his father, Philip of Macedon. Philip really laid the groundwork for Alexander's fame by bringing most of the major Greek states under Macedonian rule. He used a combination of diplomacy and force of arms to get his way and he had this habit of making the proverbial offer you couldn't refuse. There was one city, however, which he found he couldn't intimidate; Sparta. The story goes that Philip sent the same message to Sparta that he had sent to Athens, Corinth and a dozen other cities before, "When I defeat your army, I will destroy your farms, enslave your people, and level your city." The Spartans, however, sent the message back to him with the word "When" crossed out and replaced it with "If." "If" you defeat our army, not "When." Philip decided to leave them alone.
In our first lesson today, Jeremiah the prophet has been thrown into prison for his opposition to the king, the army council has threatened him with death, his old friends are forgetting they ever heard of him, and he's beginning to think this prophet business isn't a long-term career. But, he refuses to be intimidated because, as he says, "The Lord is with me like a dread warrior".
In today's Gospel, Jesus says that his followers will also be confronted by those who will try to threaten them into submission and his advice is that not only does he not want them to be intimidated, he also doesn't even want them to be afraid. "Do not fear", he says, "those who kill the body, but, cannot kill the soul." Well, that's lofty sounding advice, indeed. But, is it realistic? We're not robots, after all. We're only human. Right?
And that's exactly Jesus' point. We're human - and there's no “only” about it.
In ancient times, most people thought the gods they worshipped were just like them, only bigger and more powerful. The pagan gods were petty and jealous, unjust and self-serving, lusting and greedy, clever and stupid. The pagans created their gods in the image of themselves. But, the Bible tells of a God who is perfect - perfect justice, perfect love, perfect generosity, perfect wisdom. And this perfect God says that we are created in his image because we can do things that reflect his perfect life.
We can love, not just desire. We can be generous and self-sacrificing. We can be both imaginative and logical. We can smash atoms and probe other planets. And we can bring new human life into being. To be human, then, is no small thing and that is one of the principle messages of the Gospel.
That was a great image in the Gospel, wasn't it? About the sparrows. Sparrows were sold in the market as food for the poor. Two for a penny and five for tuppence. And yet, Jesus says, not one of them falls to the ground without your Father knowing. In other words, God looks after what we consider the smallest, most insignificant things and he'll certainly look after you because you are the most valuable thing on earth.
The world resents that you and I have value. The world wants to make us its slaves. Slaves to things. What's that slogan? The one who dies with the most toys wins? That's an incredibly pessimistic view. It reduces us to the worthlessness of sparrows. Discounted commodities in the marketplace. And yet so many people in our time measure themselves by what they have - a house, a car, some new bit of technology. We're called consumers, but, the truth is that we have been consumed. And that's when we become less than human, when we forget that our true value is the price God put on us, the price of His Son's life, given for us.
And that's why Jesus says proclaim the good news from the housetops. Don't make the Gospel a personal secret. Be confident of your worth and that will help you overcome intimidation. It's not the one with the most valuable possessions who wins, it's the one who possesses the greatest value.
In 1971, the African country of Uganda was taken over by a dictator named Idi Amin. Amin launched a violent persecution of Christians in that country, which left hundreds of thousands dead. During this time, one of the Anglican bishops went to England to tell people what was going on and at a meeting of church leaders, after hearing the graphic and horrific stories the bishop told, someone asked, "What is your most pressing need at this time?" And, after a pause, the bishop said "200 clerical collars". This somewhat stunned the gathering, but, the bishop went on to say something even more shocking, "You must understand, that when our people are being rounded up to be shot, they must be able to spot their priests."
The challenge to confess the name of Jesus in the face of every attempt to devalue us faces every generation and every Christian. More Christians died in the second half of the 20th Century as martyrs for their faith than in the first three centuries of Christian history. And the 21st Century continues on the same note in Iraq, India, and Israel, among others. In our own society, the intimidation we experience will not be that of violence or death, but, the raised eyebrow, the scornful silence, the jokes behind the back. These are the weapons in our society of those who resent the Gospel and the values it proclaims.
The phrase, "I'm only human", is too often an excuse to cover up acting less than human. If you are only human, you have value beyond measure. You are a child of the Father, a brother of the Son, a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is only those who feel they have no worth who are intimidated by the threats and actions of the world. Your worth before God should far outweigh your fears. That is why Jeremiah and Jesus and all the martyrs from St. Stephen to the present could face their persecutors because they knew their true worth could never be killed.
A restaurant once put up a sign which said "Best in the city'. Another one across the street put up, 'Best in the state'. The one next door proclaimed, 'Best in the country', and yet another 'Best in the world'. Well, down at the end there was this little diner and the owner put out his sign, 'Best on this block'.
So, the next time you think the competition is overwhelming, just relax.
Jeremiah, by the way, outlived three kings to die in his bed at almost 80 years old. He didn't have to meet a violent death to be an effective witness for God and probably, hopefully, most of us won't either. But, he was prepared with the same attitude to life and death that we should have - a sheep in the midst of wolves, but, a sheep of the Good Shepherd.
In the Name...