Matthew 5:1-12

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,  2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.  3 If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.  7 They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.  8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

I have very early memories of parades in the US. I don’t know what they are like in the country where you grew up, but in the US there are marching bands with rows of trombones and trumpets and the huge tubas and sousaphones, and then row after row of reed instruments, clarinets and saxophones. And of course there are the rows of drums, bass drums, snare drums and cymbals.

Then usually the local fire trucks would drive by with their sirens blasting in the air. Antique cars with local and regional politicians and dignitaries would drive by as well as a convertible with a young woman or two who had won some beauty/talent contest, wearing a gown and a crown and sitting on the back of the car waving like the Queen of England.

Local organizations would make floats and ride down the street with people in costumes on the decorated floats.

Part of the fun was that people in the parade would throw candy to those watching and we would scramble to catch as much candy as we could.

Everyone loves a good parade.

I imagine that people on the road into Jerusalem that day also had a good time and carried home good memories of that parade.

When we first began the series of sermons on the Beatitudes, I was a bit apprehensive because when I looked at the calendar, I discovered that the last of the Beatitudes, dealing with persecution, would fall on Palm Sunday. It didn’t seem appropriate. Palm Sunday is a day for triumph and celebration, not for a gloomy subject like persecution.

In the US we have a saying that it is not good to rain on someone’s parade. Talking about persecution today seemed, at the time, to be raining on Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem.

If it were not for the events of the week following that triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the parade would be a more significant memory for the church, the day that the Messiah rode into Jerusalem and began his reign as King. If it were not for the events of Easter week, we would be celebrating this day as our primary religious holiday. But the events of Easter week overshadowed this day and so this was one parade that was rained on. Because of the events of Easter week, talking about persecution today is quite appropriate.

Why does there have to be persecution? Why can’t we all just get along?

John Stott in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount points out that persecution is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value systems. In a weather system, what happens when a mass of warm air comes in contact with a mass of cold air? A storm results with lightening and thunder and rain.

In the same way, when one value system meets another value system with which it cannot agree, persecution results.

The religious leaders had a value system that was based on obedience to the law. They had taken the law of Moses and debated and refined it over the years so there were now 614 laws to be observed. The way to God was through absolute obedience to these laws. This value system came into contact with the value system of Jesus who taught that we have been set free from the tyranny of the law and are made right with God by grace.

As a consequence, Jesus threatened the religious leaders and two irreconcilable value systems met. In the storm that ensued, the religious leaders sought a way to put Jesus to death.

Later in church history, the Roman Emperor ordered that those in his empire were required to put a pinch of incense on the altar as an offering to himself as the divine emperor. When Christians refused to do this, the two value systems clashed and persecution resulted.

And so it has continued through the ages. Sometimes Christians or those who called themselves Christians, were the persecutors and sometimes they were the ones persecuted. Sometimes it is a secular state that persecutes and sometimes it is a religious system that persecutes but persecution is always the result of a clash between two irreconcilable value systems.

How can we avoid persecution?

This is quite easy. If persecution rears its ugly head, simply modify your value system so it no longer clashes with the value system around you.  In the early church, many Christians thought that it made no big difference to put a pinch of incense on the altar as an offering to the divine emperor. They knew he was not divine, so why make such a big fuss about it? And they escaped persecution. During WWII, the German Christian Church had a motto “The Swastika on our breasts, the Cross in our hearts.” They played the game Hitler wanted them to play and thought by compromising, they could keep alive their Christian faith.

This is the way to avoid persecution. Bend and compromise. Don’t take a stand. Accommodate. Try to look at the positive things the government is doing. When it is a religious system against which Christianity clashes, remember that all religious systems teach basically the same thing. Try to be more tolerant. Don’t stand out from the crowd. Play the game others around you are playing.

The problem with this is that in trying to avoid persecution, we end up not being Christian. We bend and compromise and accommodate and pretty soon we have moved so far away from Christian faith that we are Christians only because we say we are.

Do you see that this will not work? When we come up against a value system that clashes with our Christian faith, we have to choose. Will we continue to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength? Or will we bend, compromise and accommodate to fit in better with the value system clashing with our Christian faith? In such cases, we have to choose.

In Luke 6, Luke records another version of Jesus’ teaching on the beatitudes. He has four blessings followed by four woes. Listen to the blessing and accompanying woe that apply to today’s beatitude:
22 Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
And the corresponding woe offers the choice we have to face
26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.

The blessing comes for those who seek Jesus regardless of the cost. The woe comes for those who may follow Jesus if it is convenient but when it begins to cost something, will turn their eyes away from God and seek the praise of men and women around them.

You may remember Pashur from our study of Jeremiah. Pashur was the priest in charge of the temple in Jerusalem who kept prophesying good news for Jerusalem. Jerusalem would not be overcome by the Babylonians. Jeremiah, meanwhile, continued to preach the message God had given him which was the Jerusalem would be overcome by the Babylonians. Pashur was praised and respected, Jeremiah was put in the public stocks and humiliated.

Pashur made his choice, to seek the praise of men. Jeremiah chose to seek the praise of God and suffer the abuse of men.

In John’s gospel, John 12, we read of those who were impressed with the miracles of Jesus.
42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;  43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.

Do you see what I am saying? You cannot be a Christian and avoid persecution. You can water down your faith so it no longer is in conflict with other value systems, but you cannot maintain Christian faith without coming into conflict with other value systems.

To be a Christian and to grow in Christian faith inevitably leads into a clash with irreconcilable value systems. It is not a question of if but when. When God began to reveal himself to mankind, first to the Jews and then to the rest of the world, he sent a mass of warm air that hit a mass of cold air. A storm was created and has continued ever since. This history of God’s people, the Jews and then Christians, has been one in which those who follow God have been persecuted for doing so.

Jesus taught and warned his disciples about this right at the beginning in John 15:18f
18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.  20 Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.

This teaching of Jesus confirms what I have been saying. If you want to avoid persecution, belong to the world and the world will love you.
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.
But, in fact, this is not an option for a Christian because to be a Christian is to have been chosen out of the world and so no longer belonging to it.
As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

Jesus taught, If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. Was Jesus persecuted? Of course he was. Then you too should expect to be persecuted. Jesus’ teaching could not be more clear.

The teaching and experience of Jesus was affirmed by his followers.

Paul and Barnabas affirmed this truth in Acts 14:21, 22
They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch,  22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.

And Paul in writing to Timothy in II Timothy 3:10-13
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance,  11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.  12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  13 while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

These are disturbing texts for those who want to avoid persecution. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Not, some may from time to time be persecuted, but everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Persecution comes in many forms. Not all who are persecuted are killed for their faith. Not all are beaten and stoned as was Paul. But in a secular society like the US, you may be disqualified as a candidate for professor at a university if your credentials seem too Christian (having graduated from a Christian college or received advanced degrees at institutions with a religious background).

The educational system in the US seems driven to eradicate religion from public life. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence for the United States, wrote in a letter that is often misunderstood, that there should be freedom of religion. This has been understood by many in the US in the past few decades that there should be freedom from religion. And so there is an understanding in many schools that it is not permitted to discuss faith issues in school or for students to organize a Bible Club. The court system in the US has a steady stream of cases that relate to this conflict.

Increasingly in the US it is considered illegal to have a manger scene with Joseph & Mary, the shepherds and wise men and Jesus displayed on public space. There are orders to remove displays of the Ten Commandments from courtrooms and classrooms. The move to remove Christian religious expression from public life is a strong movement.

A government hostile to the church may deny rights and privileges to the church. In the former East Germany, Christians were denied a free university education and had a difficult time finding apartments in which to live. The benefits of that Communist society were denied them because of their faith.

In a Muslim country, the church may be denied the opportunity to exist. Living in Morocco, we well understand the limitations placed on us by this government and culture. But what we experience here is paradise compared to some other Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, a Christian is denied the right to bring a Bible for personal use into the country. When you arrive at the airport and your luggage is inspected, your Bible will be confiscated. A church like RPF is not permitted in those countries.

When you made a decision to follow Jesus, your decision may have been treated with scorn and derision by your family and friends. Many of us still face parents or siblings who are unsupportive of our commitment to Jesus.

In the expatriate community of Rabat, there are many who view our presence here as unnecessary and a nuisance.

In one form or another, Christians experience persecution and we should not be surprised when it happens. In fact, says John Stott, we should be surprised when we are not persecuted.

Persecution is the clash that results when two irreconcilable value systems meet and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

What do we do when persecution comes?
In Matthew’s version, we are to
Rejoice and be glad
and Luke’s version is even more expressive
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,

It is one thing to accept persecution, but rejoice and be glad? Rejoice in that day and leap for joy? Why would Jesus say that?

Jesus gives two reasons for having such a joyous reaction:
The first is: Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.

It is not bad to want to hear praise. When I receive appreciation and praise from someone, it means a lot to me. This week I received an email from one of the women who had been here in Rabat studying Arabic. I read her message and went in to Annie with a big smile on my face because of what she said. We like to hear praise and when we persevere through persecution because of Jesus, we have the future reward of coming to heaven and meeting our Savior face-to-face and hearing his words of praise, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Right now that may not seem like a lot compared to the suffering we may have to face but it is true nonetheless.

Enduring persecution for the future reward of hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant,”  is not an empty hope. This is true and has been the experience of the church over the last 2,000 years. In 258 AD, under the Roman emperor Valerian, a wave of persecution hit the church. In Robin Daniel’s book, This Holy Seed, an account is given of three men, Marianus, Jacobus and an unnamed man who wrote the account. They were traveling in the mountains of Numidia which as far as I can tell is modern day Libya or Tunisia. They were captured by Roman soldiers and carted off with other Christians from the area to be put on trial and killed if they did not renounce their faith.

A detail in the story stands out to me that would be unbelievable if it were not consistent with other stories of those who were martyred.
The governor of the province sent the prisoners inland to Lambese. As the convoy was about to start, one onlooker was so moved with joy at the thought of the martyrdom which awaited the travelers that his faith could not be hidden: he joined the procession.

Joy is the experience of those in the church who have had to face martyrdom. You may doubt it, not understand it, be mystified by it, but there it is. It is historical record. Martyrs have greeted their persecution with joy.

We greet persecution with joy, first of all, because of the praise we will receive when we finally meet our Savior face-to-face.

We greet persecution with joy for a second reason.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When we are persecuted, we join with a great cloud of witnesses, as the writer of Hebrews puts it. We share in the sufferings of Christ when we are persecuted, as did Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas son of James. We join with Paul and Barnabas and John Mark and James and Jude, the half-brothers of Jesus. We join with Marianus, Jacobus and the unnamed young man who could not contain his faith for the joy he experienced. There have been those in our Christian community here in Rabat who have been imprisoned for their faith. We join with the saints from all time who have suffered for the sake of Jesus and persevered.

We join with Peter who wrote to people who were being persecuted by the Roman emperor: I Peter 4:13, 14
But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.

My prayer this Palm Sunday is that we will go out encouraged to live with boldness our faith, despite any persecution that may come. I pray that we will be emboldened as were the early followers of Jesus. In the days before Easter, the disciples fled for their lives and hid behind closed doors. But after Pentecost, they were transformed. Peter and John were arrested, put on trial before the Sanhedrin and after hearing them out

Acts 5:40f
The religious leaders called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.  42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.

This is how I pray we will be. People filled with the Holy Spirit who will live and speak with boldness despite the consequences. Whatever happens to us in this life, we live for what will happen when we leave this life.

We are not masochist. We do not seek out persecution. We seek Jesus first and foremost, above all other things. We seek Jesus at whatever cost our seeking may bring.

We join with the writer of Hebrews who wrote this about those who had endured persecution for the sake of Jesus.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.