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Today we are celebrating the fact that God saw to it that the Gospel has continued to be proclaimed from the time of Jesus until now by enabling others to stand firm in the faith even when they were dragged before kings and princes who wanted to silence them. We celebrate, because if this were not so we would not know the good news that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. We can never thank God enough for the fact that he enabled us to hear the Gospel and that the Holy Spirit has enabled us to believe it. But, as we celebrate what we have, we don’t want to take it for granted, nor do we want to forget that the Gospel must continue to be proclaimed by us and others to the end of time. Like others before us, we need to stand up for Jesus.
Jesus says to the disciples, who like us had the privilege of knowing and believing that Jesus is the Savior, “Keep Watching, be on your guard, always!” Satan isn’t going to be happy that you believe and are willing to stand up for Jesus and proclaim the Gospel to others. He will try to stop you. He will send false prophets with counterfeit miracles to try to deceive you and lead you away from the truth. He will try to convince you that it’s best to keep quiet about what you believe. He will stir up people, sometimes from among your friends and own family members, to speak against you. You may be accused of hate crimes, or of speaking against the government. Jesus wants us to be aware that standing up for Jesus won’t make life easy.
The disciples saw this in the way that people reacted to Jesus when he proclaimed the Gospel in what we consider wonderful ways. At his home town in Nazareth, with friends and neighbors present, and maybe some of his brothers and sisters, he read from Isaiah the wonderful words about the healing and joy the Messiah would bring. But when he declared that he was the fulfillment of those words, instead of rejoicing, they tried to throw him off a cliff.
Jesus says, “watch yourselves, be on your guard, if they hated me, they will hate you too.” Today, more than ever, we need to be on guard, because so many false prophets give us the impression that if we are truly standing up for Jesus and doing his will our lives will be great. Nothing bad will happen.
When we are excited about the fact that we are saved by grace, saved from eternal punishment, even though we know we don’t deserve it, and people not only don’t rejoice with us, but they respond with anger and hatred, we can’t help but wonder if we are on the right track. We are tempted to question whether it’s true. We are tempted to keep quiet and keep the good news to ourselves, or even deny Jesus as Peter did.
Watch out, when trouble comes your way on account of Jesus, don’t give in to the temptation to doubt. Don’t give in to the temptation to keep quiet. Remember, Jesus said trouble would come to you in this world because of your faith in him. Remember his promise that he who stands firm to the end will be saved. Remember that he has a plan to use whatever trouble you experience because of him for good. If you are brought before secular or religious courts because of your faith look at it as an opportunity to witness to them, as a way that the Gospel is able to be proclaimed to all nations.
Jesus himself was brought before the Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate. As he stood before them he proclaimed the truth. He is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. He is the Messiah the Son of the living God, and, whether they believed it or not, they would see him coming in the clouds of heaven on the last day. He witnessed faithfully as our substitute.
When Peter and John were arraigned before the Sanhedrin they stood up for Jesus. They proclaimed that the name of Jesus is the only name given to mankind by which you can be saved.
Stephen faithfully recited much of Old Testament history, but he never got the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel, because when he pointed out that those listening to him were just like their forefathers who constantly rejected God’s word, they covered their ears and dragged him out of the synagogue and stoned him to death.
Paul witnessed to Governors Felix and Festus. When he witnessed before King Herod Agrippa, he was asked by him, “Do you think that in such a short time you can convince me to be come a Christian?” Paul was sent on to trial before Caesar. We don’t know what he said, but he sends greetings in his letter to the Philippians from the members of Caesar’s household who believed.
In all these cases, Jesus was keeping his promise. He used the evil intent of the enemies of the Gospel to enable the Gospel to be proclaimed to very powerful people so that the Gospel might reach all nations.
What does this have to do with our celebration of the Reformation? Luther lived under what was called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. He was brought before the most powerful ruler of his day, Emperor Charles the V. He was ordered to take back what he taught about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and never speak of it again, or be declared an enemy of the state and the church. What a temptation to say, “Why me? I have a wife and children. Let God find someone else stand up for Jesus!” How words like these from Jesus, and the example of Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego, Peter and John, and Stephen and Paul must have encouraged him. How he must have begged Jesus to keep his promise to send the Holy Spirit to guide him in what to say. And you know what he said. Unless you can convince me from Scripture or evident reason that what I said about salvation being by grace through faith in Jesus is wrong, I am neither able nor willing to recant. Here, on the firm foundation of God’s word and promises, Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
When you think about how Luther stood up for Jesus, it’s easy to cheer him on and to think, “I’m going to be like that!” When you are at a Reformation Festival, or a Mission Festival, or a Youth Rally, and you are surrounded by fellow Christians who are joyfully singing praises to God for their salvation in Jesus, it’s easy to think, “I want to proclaim this good news about Jesus to everyone!” But we all know what happens. You talk to your coworker or you neighbor who doesn’t believe, and maybe you think, “this good news that Jesus died to save them from their sins and then rose again from the dead is so great, why wouldn’t they believe it!” But they don’t. Not only don’t they believe it, but they get hostile. That puts a dent in your enthusiasm. You wonder if it’s worth it. You are hesitant to try again, not only with them, but with anyone. And none of us have experienced anything like Peter, or John, or Stephen, or Paul, or Luther. None of us have been beaten for sharing our faith. None of us have ever been taken to court or threatened with death because we were proclaiming the Gospel. How quickly and easily our courage fails, like Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest.
What inspired Peter to try again after he failed? A look of disappointment from Jesus helped him to realize his sin. His guilt was compounded by the fact that he had bragged about how strong he was. But he also knew that Jesus was the Son of the living God, the Messiah who had come to save. His conscience troubled him until Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection and assured him of his forgiveness and that he still wanted him to feed his lambs and sheep. Having confessed his sin and being assured of his forgiveness he was strengthened to stand up for Jesus even more boldly than before.
It’s the same way with us. We all have those times when, like Peter, we have given in to peer pressure, when we were silent because we didn’t want to take up the cross of suffering and pain for the sake of Jesus. Don’t excuse yourself. Confess your sin. Confess that you made safety, or popularity, or whatever more important than Jesus and that soul who needed to hear about Jesus. Confess that God should send you to Hell for that sin, and all your other sins. But then, like Peter, remember that Jesus is the Messiah who came to save. Come to church and hear the Absolution which Luther reminds us is as valid and certain as if he were speaking it himself. Receive the sacrament for the forgiveness of sin. Read the words of Jesus that proclaim that whoever believes in me has eternal life. Read the words of God through Paul that proclaim that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Then, like Peter, you will be strengthened to try again. You will be moved to trust what Jesus says, that even if you are brought before courts and the most powerful people on earth who may hold your life in their hands, it’s so that you can stand up for Jesus and proclaim the Gospel to them, whether they listen or fail to listen.
That’s what proclaiming the Gospel is. It’s not arguing. It’s not debating. It’s simply stating the truth, the truth that God has given you in his word. That’s why Jesus can say that you don’t have to worry beforehand what you should say. You know what the Word says because you have been hearing, studying, and memorizing it for years. When God puts you in a situation where you have an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel for him the Holy Spirit will help you remember those words of Scripture so that you will not be the one speaking, the Spirit will be the one speaking. He will help you stand up for Jesus. And if someone rejects what you say they have not rejected you, but the word of God.
Watch yourselves! Be on your guard! Living as a Christian and proclaiming the gospel will bring you trouble. Don’t let that stop you or discourage you. Whether it’s at work, or talking with a neighbor, or before a judge or a king, whenever you have a chance to proclaim the fact that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption won by Jesus alone, trust that Jesus is with you. The Holy Spirit will help you stand up for Jesus.