ďIn no way intimidatedĒ
Message preached on
September 24, 2017
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. Need I point out the current name-calling and threats, backed up by missile and bomb tests, as well as troop and ship deployments on and surrounding the Korean peninsula? We might call it the ďart of intimidation,Ē though Iím not sure ďartĒ is the right word to describe it. This is but one example. Intimidation is how the world turns, at least in part. It may work quite effectively. On the other hand, this tactic may can fall flat on its face.
Regardless, itís 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 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, 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. ďWhy do you persecute me?Ē the voice of the Lord rang out in Saulís 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. ďLord,Ē Ananias prayed, ďI have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.Ē (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, ďimmediately something like scales fell from (Saulís) eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized...Ē (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 with 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 Paulís life in Christ, ďhe 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 nameĒ (9:15b 16).
Now, itís 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 this apostle, 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 morningís scripture reading from his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote this about Jesus:
ďthough 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...Ē (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 - through humility - that Christ showed the way to greatness. Thatís 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: ďLet the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus....Ē
It might do us well to recall that those words didnít flow out of a peaceful, easy period in Paulís life. He wasnít sitting in some comfortable Pastorís Study as he composed this letter. No, he was writing from prison. I doubt if jails in his day were model communities. Isnít it the purpose of a prison to cast fear into the heart of the prisoner Ė to intimidate? Thatís 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. ďThrough your faithful prayers and the generous Spirit of Jesus Christ,Ē he wrote, ďeverything God wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I donít 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 didnít shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, Iím Christís messenger; dead, Iím his bounty. Life versus even more life! I canít loseĒ (1:19-21, from The Message).
Those hardly sound like the words of a prisoner, but they are. And theyíre written to people who are themselves starting to face opposition. According to Paul, ďGod 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.Ē (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. Donít be intimidated, Paul encouraged in response. Donít be intimidated...
Itís all too easy to be intimidated, though, isnít it? Even when we donít 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 Iíve ever known are quite frightened persons on the inside. Actually, the art of intimidation (if one wants to call it an ďartĒ) is not only a tactic to elicit fear, it also flows out of fear itself. Others respond to intimidation by shutting up, which isnít 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 Ė death being the ultimate intimidation tactic of those who imprisoned him. Thatís an interesting perspective on the part of someone who earlier in life managed the death of several believers in Christ. Just as back in Paulís bad old days, he couldnít really shut up the disciple Steven by having him stoned, so death would not, could not silence Paulís 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 ďstand firm in one spirit,Ē to ďstrive side by side with one mindĒ (1:27). God gives us his Spirit. The Lord also connects us to each another. Both Spirit and Community are vital to being able to stand tall in the middle of adversity. Among Godís people there is always someone to stand with you. I donít fully buy the old gospel song that in following Jesus
ďyou must walk that lonesome valley, you have to walk it by yourself,
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, itís only a matter of looking in the right direction to see our real brother or sister in the faith. Furthermore, we never face into adversity for this faith without the very presence of God with us. The Holy Spirit is but a breath away.
Paul wrote, ďlive your life in a manner worthy of the gospelĒ (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 very kingdom of the Master of the Universe. Jesus didnít come to intimidate people into following God. He merely called us to follow in his own steps, to become servants of God. Live your life in such a manner. Thatís 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.
ďThis is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvationĒ (1:28), Paul concluded. Now, weíre not sure whether - in those words - he meant that the efforts of adversaries to intimidate are the evidence of their ultimate loss, or if he meant that when you are able to stand firm in your faith and not be intimidated - this is the evidence that they have no power over you. I have a feeling it may be a combination of both. Even when weíre 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 Godís kingdom are open wide because Jesus stood firm upon the cross.
Donít be intimidated. Those are words you and I need to hear. Amen!
©1999, revised 2017