I wouldn't say that a snake is the first thing I think of when speaking to disciples of Jesus. Snakes tend to have a negative connotation due to God's cursing of the serpent in Genesis 3. The adjective "shrewd" also tends to make us uncomfortable as Christians. I have no idea whether the word has anything to do with the tiny animal a "shrew", but we tend to think of a mischievous businessman or a malicious person when we hear the word "shrewd". At least I do.
Then I look up the word in an online dictionary and the first meaning I read says, "having or showing sharp powers of judgment; astute." And I say to myself, “That is the meaning that Jesus is using for his disciples as he sends them out into an unkind and even vicious world.”
"In this world you will have trouble", Jesus reminded his disciples (John 16:33). Why does he say that? Because in a fallen world trouble is the norm rather than the exception. A college professor would often say to me as I lamented my woes to him, "Well, what did you expect?" And then he'd chuckle when he said it. In other words, the reason, I, and all of us, are so routinely disappointed is because we have it backwards. We expect success to be the norm rather than failure. And yet the truth of the matter is that we fail much more than we succeed. Ask any successful entrepreneur. We fail much more than we succeed.
Christians need to be the realistic ones on earth. Christians are never pessimistic because of the sure hope of heaven. But Christians often fail at being realistic in that they fall for the devil's lie, that this world is not truly fallen. That there still can be a tiny heaven on this earth. That happiness can be found apart from Christ. That we really aren't just passing through, but that this world is our permanent home. All are lies.
To be shrewd then is to have sharp powers of judgement. It is the ability to distinguish between what is right and wrong, what is true and what is false, what is real and what is unreal. Think of our nation today. Do you get it? If we are not shrewd in our judgment of what is going on in the war against Christianity, then there is no way we will ever stand up for Jesus when the going gets tough.
Jesus is preparing his disciples for what they will need to expect and know if they are going to take his Great Commission seriously. First, he said to them, "Follow me". Later he expanded that directive and said, "Take up your cross and follow me." Why the ugly image of a cross? "Because I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snake's and as innocent as doves."
If the disciples were innocent in their thinking while they were with Jesus, that innocence was shattered once they began to openly confess him in an unbelieving world. Read the book of Acts and Paul's epistles. Immediately Peter and John are thrown into prison. Paul wrote four of his epistles from prison. Had they hid their light and not let it shine—had they muzzled their confession, then nothing would have happened to them. And they would have been unfaithful to Jesus’ words.
Now Jesus speaks very plainly here. He is not speaking in parables. He says, "Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (vv. 17-22).
Now, the first thought that goes through our minds when we hear those words is, "That sounds rather extreme. Does that really happen? Is that really true?”
Well, consider the better part of history. Martin Luther took God and his Word seriously. That is why he was persecuted. If you don't know anything about Luther, I suggest you watch the many movies that have been made about him. He was considered an outlaw for the better part of his adult life. Had he left Saxony he would have been immediately killed. And why? Because he took God's Word seriously. That's it. Because he said we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. Because he said that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Because he said people are sinners and need a Savior. And the people in power hated him for it. You say, "Well, that sounds a little extreme." It is history. There is lots of it.
Daniel was persecuted by the government of Persia. Why was Daniel persecuted? Because, again, he took God seriously. He prayed to God. That is how seriously he took him. He actually lived his faith. And when the government said, "No, you cannot pray to God anymore”, Daniel did not make a scene. He did not start a revolt. He did not call upon his fellow Jews to wreak havoc downtown. He just went into the privacy of his home, got down on his knees and prayed. The same as he always had. And he was thrown into the lion's den because of it.
Every one of the disciples was persecuted to the point of imprisonment or death because they took God and his Word seriously. And Paul tells the Galatians in our second lesson for today that if they take God and his Word seriously, the same thing will happen to them. I mean, do you really think it is going to be different for us today? That we've moved beyond all that as a society? That those things, you know, they just happened in the past? That, that stuff doesn't happen today? Well, how far in the past do we need to go? The Soviet Union? That's not that long ago. What about all the persecuted Christians in the world today?
Jesus says, "Be shrewd as snake's while at the same time being as innocent as doves." I suggest we cultivate our powers of judgment and be astute when it comes to what is happening in the world. Otherwise we will end up going along with the rest of the fish that are swimming downstream. Because it's easy to swim downstream and in a group. There is very little cost when blending into a crowd. To swim upstream? To take Jesus seriously? That will cost us.
So, why do it?
That is the question that continues to go through my mind. Why be a pastor when so many don't even care? Why be Martin Luther in his day? He had to stand in front of the Emperor, himself, and say, "I will not deny the things that I've written. Because to go against conscience would not be right nor safe." John Hus was burned at the stake not that long before Luther’s time. Luther was not naïve. He was quite shrewd in his assessment of the times. But he said, "Here I stand. I can do no other." In other words, "I cannot deny my faith. I cannot deny my confession. It is impossible for me to go against what I know and believe with all my heart is true. Take my life. God will help me. Amen."
Luther was so changed by Jesus, that Jesus and his Word became the only thing that really mattered to him. Understand that for Luther, the disciples, and Daniel it wasn't just stubbornness on their part that kept them from capitulating. It had nothing to do with the politics of the time. It's not because they were just those types of people that like to go against authority and revolt. Not at all. All of them had discovered the life-changing love of Jesus.
Again, just think of Luther. For so long he thought that God was angry with him. No matter how hard he tried. No matter how "good" he was, he thought, "There's no way I can be sure of heaven. God knows everything. God is going to find something on me." Later in his life he even said that the thought of God's strictness became so overwhelming that he hated God for it. What changed him? What will change you?
He realized that the true face of God towards people was not an angry mask. It was and is the face of Jesus. And when he took God's Word seriously and actually read it, when he believed it simply for what it said without all the baggage of human explanations, he realized: God loves me. God really loves me. He doesn't love me because I'm so loveable. No, he loves me because when he looks at me, he sees me in the same way that he sees his dear son, Jesus. This is what the righteousness of God is. It is not simply that God is holy, and I am unholy. It is that God is also love, and in his love, he gives me his own righteousness to put on and allows me to wear it my entire life. Luther said, "Faith is how I obtain this robe of righteousness. Faith in Jesus' death on the cross for me."
For so many years Luther had thought of Jesus as an example he had to follow. The Gospel revealed to him that Jesus was first and foremost his substitute. Jesus didn't come to earth to show Luther how to save himself. He came to do it all for him. To live as the perfect son of his Heavenly Father. To die and pay for the sins of the world."
If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go? For his entire life, that was the question that haunted Luther. Now he knew. He was 100 % sure. God cannot lie. God's promise was that Jesus died for him. God's promise was that his sins were paid for—and that this already happened. He didn't still need to pay off his sins himself. So he was saved! Does that mean that Luther no longer cared about his life on earth and had no apprehensions about the cost of being faithful to God's Word? Of course, he had apprehensions. Of course, he agonized about what might happen to his life. But when he thought of Jesus he concluded, "He is what I want most of all."
It must have been magical for the twelve disciples to spend so much time in the intimate presence of Jesus while he was with them on earth. For the rest of their life, the thought that consumed them was, "I want that again. I want to be with Jesus. Deny him? No. Be silent about him? No way. Be ashamed of him and his words? Never!”
But to follow him? Oh yes. To be faithful to him? Yes. To love him above all things? Yes. I think I really do.
Loved ones, God will be with you as you suffer scorn and shame for him. He will strengthen you as you remain faithful to his Word. Amen.