"In no way intimidated"

September 19, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  Philippians 1:21-30

I recall a church meeting many years ago, in which sat two very powerful men. One was the head of what had become a large, well-known company, a firm he had built from scratch. As a multimillionaire now, he served as trustee of many institutions, including a college. The other man was a retired bank executive, who had worked his way up the corporate ladder with but a high school diploma. These two men lived on the same block in fairly simple homes.

The retired banker, a sincere Christian, had unfortunately learned well the art of intimidation over the years. As I sat in that meeting, it became obvious to me that the multimillionaire was afraid of the banker. How did I know? Well, it was his hand that gave it away. Whenever the multimillionaire spoke to the banker, the hand in his pocket frantically jingled his change. This revelation was eye opening for me, since I was intimidated by them both.

Whether it be subtle and manipulative, or open and violent, the way of the world is one of intimidation. Look at recent events in East Timor. Once a Portuguese colony, this southeast Asian country was overrun by the Indonesian military nearly the moment it became independent a few decades back. A UN sponsored referrendum this month showed that a large majority of the people wanted to be free of Indonesia. Leading up to that election, gangs who favored staying with Indonesia showed their bully muscle to try to intimidate that majority. When those efforts failed, these thugs sponsored by the Indonesian military, went on a rampage. You know the rest.

It’s all too easy to be intimidated, either by people who mean well but follow worldly tactics, or by those who plainly have evil intent. Consider that first generation of believers in and followers of Jesus Christ. These early Christians in the land of Israel were quite intimidated by a Pharisee named Saul, who was a sincere believer in the One true God. He meant well. He really did. He saw this Jesus movement, though, as dangerous to the descendants of Abraham, and figured that the best defense was a good offense. He led the effort to intimidate these people out of existence, figuring that a few well-placed stonings of certain Christian leaders would silence the rest.

Of course, as most of you know, Saul was not about to intimidate God. On his infamous journey to the city of Damascus, traveling with a permission slip to do to the Christians there what he had done elsewhere, Saul was himself silenced for a time, blinded by the light of Christ. "Why do you persecute me?" the voice of the Lord rang out in Saul’s head, a question to which Saul had no real answer. I imagine his period of blindness made it possible for him to see his actions in a new light, and paved the way for a conversion of heart.

That Saul was feared by the early church is evident in the response of a fellow named Ananias when God called him to reach out to this persecutor of Christians. "Lord," Ananias prayed, "I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem." (Acts 9:13) Still, Ananias moved past his fear and left the comfort of his home in Damascus to literally touch Saul and share a good word from the Lord with him. As scripture then records, "immediately something like scales fell from (Saul’s) eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized..." (9:18)

Saul, also known as Paul, later journeyed out to new places and people, but this time he was equipped not with a permission slip to intimidate, but a living letter to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Along the way, he himself encountered all sorts of intimidating forces, some subtle and manipulative, others open and violent; some well-meaning but misguided, others with evil intent. As God told Ananias on that first day of Paul’s life in Christ, "he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." (9:15b-16)

It’s interesting that some of the writings of Paul have been used by certain Christians down through the centuries, even to this day, to try to intimidate others into silence. I am no expert on Paul, but it seems to me that such efforts would be contrary to what he learned on the road to Damascus. In words that immediately follow this morning’s scripture reading from his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote this about Jesus,

"though he was in the form of God he did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born into human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord..." (2:6-11)

In other words, Jesus did not come to intimidate people into following God. Instead, it was in the form of a servant that Christ showed the way to greatness. That’s a fine piece of theology. Paul took it one step further, though, from theology to ethics, from God talk to disciple walk, when he prefaced those words with these: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...."

It might do us well to recall that those words didn’t flow out of a peaceful, easy period in Paul’s life. He wasn’t sitting in some comfortable Pastor’s study as he composed this letter. He was writing from prison. I doubt if jails in his day were model communities. Isn’t it the purpose of a prison to cast fear into the heart of the prisoner? That’s how order is maintained. When Paul wrote that he was hard pressed to choose between living and dying, this was no couch potato decision, folks. On the one hand his death would not only release him from his present suffering, it would also be his entrance into the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, he knew there was so much yet to do, persons to encourage, people to reach with the love of Christ.

Even in that very intimidating setting, however, Paul was not intimidated. "Through your faithful prayers and the generous Spirit of Jesus Christ," Paul wrote, "everything God wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose." (1:19-21, Peterson)

Those hardly sound like the words of a prisoner, but they are. And they’re written to people who are themselves starting to face opposition. According to Paul, "God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well - since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have." (1:29-30 NRSV) There were persons in Philippi, some probably well-meaning, others acting out of evil motives, who were trying to bully them out of their faith. Don’t be intimidated, Paul encouraged in response. Don’t be intimidated...

It’s all too easy to be intimidated, though, isn’t it? Even when we don’t face the kind of struggles that Paul or his friends in Philippi did. Some folks respond to intimidation by returning it right back. In fact, some of the biggest bullies I’ve ever known are quite frightened persons on the inside. Actually, the art of intimidation (if one wants to call it an art) is not only a tactic to elicit fear, it also flows out of fear itself. Others respond to intimidation by shutting up, which isn’t right, either.

Paul had a few good things to say about how to handle intimidation in his letter to the Philippians. Already mentioned is the need to see the bigger picture. Paul was not intimidated by his prison cell because he could see beyond it. He could even see beyond death, which was really the worst that those who imprisoned him could do to him. That’s an interesting perspective on the part of someone who earlier in life managed the death of several believers in Christ. Just as back in Paul’s bad old days he couldn’t really shut up the disciple Steven by having him stoned, so death would not, could not silence Paul’s message. Keeping the bigger picture in focus is an important clue to handling intimidation.

Another is the fact that we do not face such fear alone. Paul called on the Philippians to "stand firm in one spirit," to "strive side by side with one mind." (1:27) God gives us his Spirit and one another, both of which are vital to being able to stand tall in the middle of adversity. Among God’s people there is always someone to stand with you. I don’t buy the old gospel song that in following Jesus "you must walk that lonesome valley, you have to walk it by yourself, oh, nobody else can walk it for you..." While there is truth to each person needing to face into their own fears, to walk their own walk, discipleship is not a lone ranger affair. God provides others to walk with us. Sometimes, it’s only a matter of looking in the right direction. Furthermore, we never face into adversity for our faith without the very presence of God with us. The Holy Spirit is but a breath away.

Paul wrote, "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel." (1:27) Recall what he then said about Jesus coming in the form of a servant in order to show the way to greatness, to the kingdom. Jesus didn’t come to intimidate people into following God. He merely called us to follow in his steps, to become servants of God. Live your life in such a manner. That’s what Paul wrote. Along the way, though, recognize that people may feel threatened by how you live, and they may respond by trying to intimidate you out of it.

"This is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation," (1:28) Paul concluded. By that we’re not sure whether he meant that the efforts of adversaries to intimidate are the evidence of their ultimate loss, or if he meant when you are able to stand firm in your faith and not be intimidated - this is the evidence. I have a feeling it may be a combination of both. Even when we’re standing up against the greatest adversary, we live with the faith that Satan has already been defeated by our servant savior, that death has no power over us because of the empty tomb, and that the doors to God’s kingdom are open wide because Jesus stood firm upon the cross.

Don’t be intimidated. Those are words you and I need to hear. Amen!

1999Peter L. Haynes

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