Christian Courage by Rev. Richard Hasselbach, Ph.D
On April 3, 1968 a young black minister took the pulpit at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee urging his congregation, in an inspiring sermon, to demand just wages for the city’s black sanitation workers. The preacher had been active in the civil rights movement for more than a decade, a risky business at the time: his home had been bombed some years back, and ten years earlier a deranged woman nearly stabbed him to death at a book signing in Harlem. Despite the danger he was still at it, still doing the work he believe the Lord had given him: to liberate black America from the bonds of prejudice and racism.
In the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel we find a group of pharisees warning Jesus to go to ground: “leave this place and go somewhere else,” they tell him, “Herod wants to kill you.” It is immaterial whether these pharisees, who elsewhere in Luke are not presented as members of Jesus’ fan club, are sincere in their desire to help Jesus escape the ruthless Tetrarch, or if they just wanted to scare Jesus out of the Galilee and on to Jerusalem where he would be an easier target for their own malicious schemes. Whatever their motive, they were unwittingly doing Satan’s work: trying to divert Jesus from his God-ordained mission by an appeal to his instinct for self-preservation. Jesus responded to his pharisaical advisors by saying: “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day it is finished.’” Jesus will not turn away from the will of the father: he will be faithful to his mission at all costs, even at the cost of his life.
“Today and tomorrow and the next day I must (in Greek dei) press on - for no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” That little word “dei” means “must;” when Luke uses it he is signaling that God’s ordains that something be done. In this case it is God’s will that Jesus mustpress on undeterred by the risk inherent in his ministry. Jesus says, in effect, that he will continue to do the work of the Messiah, ushering in God’s Kingdom through powerful words and works, until “it is finished” on the third day.
What follows in the text is a poignant lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem …” Jesus says. The double use of a name is a literary technique suggesting deep sadness and/or frustration. Jesus goes on: “You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. How I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Jesus’ lament reveals the heart of God: God’s love for his sinful people. Jerusalem has sinned terribly, but still Jesus longs to protect and love its children with the tenderness of a mother hen guarding her young. Despite the rejection Jesus knows he will experience in Jerusalem, he loves it in all its sinfulness. He will resolutely journey there, and there he will die for the sins of the city and the sins of the world, for our sins. Life is important to Jesus, but life isn’t the ultimate value, love is: we are to love God above all else, and love your neighbor as ourselves. Love is worth dying for, as Jesus will demonstrate on his cross.
Jesus’ resolve to journey on to Jerusalem in the face of suffering and death is a lesson in courage. As his disciples we, too, have to take up our crosses and resolutely, with him, set our faces toward Jerusalem. The dangers we face will be different, but they will be real.
Around the world, especially in Communist countries or in areas dominated by Muslim extremists, our brother and sister Christians risk their lives simply by gathering for worship. Even in our own country Christians are mocked as simpletons or marginalized as “intolerant” simply for adhering to orthodox Christian teachings. Some examples: After a gunman entered the First Baptist Church in Southerland Springs, Texas killing 26 people, prominent Christians took to twitter asking for prayer.
In response many in the national elites expressed derision and disdain at the mere suggestion that prayer might matter. Some years ago police in Houston Texas told a homeowner that she would be arrested unless she stopped the (constitutionally protected) practice of handing out Gospel tracts to children who came to her home on Halloween. Meanwhile, in Madison Wisconsin an anti-Christian group passes out pamphlets to public school children entitled “We Can Be Good without God.”
The Lord asks us to do the work He gives us to do giving no regard to our own comfort or safety. Sometimes the work will be as simple as going out of our way to help a brother or sister in need; sometimes we will be asked to stand up for the rights of others against bullies or demagogues trying to silence opponents or marginalize those who are weak. We may become unpopular doing this - but we must (dei) do it! It is God’ will.
In his Sermon in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the young preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., related the parable of the Good Samaritan. You know it: a man was robbed, beaten and left half dead along the road. A priest passed by the man, saw him, and traveled on, so did a levite (also a religious figure of some prominence). It was a hated Samaritan who stopped and helped. King speculated that the first two passed by because they asked themselves the question: “what will happen to me if I stop?” while the Samaritan asked himself “What will happen to him if I don’t stop?”
Knowing the danger he had faced and still faced, King concluded his sermon by saying: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not worried about that now. I just want to do God’s will…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The very next day, Martin Luther King Jr. was martyred. He took up his cross and followed Jesus: so must we if we hope to see what King saw that evening in Memphis: “the Glory of the Coming of the Lord.”