Serpents and Doves
Matthew 10:16-23; 1 Peter 3:8-17
April 5, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves. No, it’s not the passenger list for Noah’s Ark or the table of contents for a volume of Aesop’s fables. It is the animals Jesus speaks about in tonight’s reading. “Behold,” Jesus tells the Apostles, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves.
The sheep and wolves imagery is pretty straight forward and easy to understand. As sheep among wolves, the Apostles will be stalked. They will be hunted. They will be attacked. They might even be devoured, for that is exactly the kind of thing one can expect a wolf to do to a sheep. But Jesus tells them to go anyway, go out and proclaim the good news of the kingdom. But do so with eyes wide open, Jesus says. Make no mistake about what kind of reception you should expect. Be not naïve about how receptive people will be to the message you bring. You are not going out as honeybees among the flowers. You are not going out as frogs among the lily pads. You are going out as sheep among wolves. So be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
The wisdom of serpents lies in their heightened awareness. Ophiologists will tell you that snakes have such awareness because they sense vibrations in the ground, which allows them to feel predators coming from any direction, or that their tongue can both smell the air and sense the body heat of other animals in their vicinity. The point is, it’s next to impossible to sneak up on a snake, almost as impossible as sneaking up on a fish in the water. They feel you coming. They sense your presence. They’re aware of danger.
Jesus tells his Apostles to be as wise as serpents. Do not be deceived, Jesus says, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. And wolves love to eat sheep. I am sending you out into harm’s way. Beware of the danger. Be as wise as serpents. Don’t hide your head in the sand. Don’t close your eyes to reality. Be alert. Be aware. Be prepared. They will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues. You will be dragged before kings for confessing the name of Christ. You will be hated for my name’s sake. They will persecute you. Danger is coming. Be ready for it. Be as wise as serpents.
But also be as innocent as doves. The innocence of doves lies in their helplessness. It lies in their inability or unwillingness to fight back or to defend themselves. Sometimes doves get eaten. Sometimes they fly away. In the case of the Apostles, this dovely innocence is bound up in willingly following Jesus’ commission to place themselves in harm’s way. Jesus is telling the Apostles: Yes, you are going out as sheep among wolves. Yes, the wolves will seek to devour you. Yes, you should be as aware of impending danger as a serpent who senses potential threats. But go anyway, as innocent as doves, willingly suffering opposition and persecution when it comes upon you. Do not be anxious about what you will say in the face of such persecution, for the Holy Spirit will give you the words you need. And when the persecution gets totally out of hand, then, like a dove, spread your wings and fly on to the next town. There are more than enough people who need to hear the Gospel. Don’t beat your head against the wall. Martyrdom may come, but don’t seek out a chance to turn yourself into a martyr for the cause. If people will not listen, if the threat gets too great, fly on to the next town and find someone there to whom you can deliver the good news of the Messiah.
I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. That’s the message Jesus leaves with his Apostles. What does it have to do with us today?
We too are sheep among wolves. It takes no great cultural analyst to see that Christianity is not well loved in our nation today. If we’re honest about it, it’s not just Christianity that’s on trial but truth itself and the very nature of existence. It’s whether or not there’s any meaningful difference between girls and boys. It’s whether or not it’s in the best interest of a child to be raised by a mother and a father. It’s whether or not the best interests of a child matter at all, or whether the ideology or the needs of the state takes precedence. Truth itself is under attack. We live in a world that can’t agree on what it means to be a person. And if we can’t agree on what it means to be a person, we certainly won’t agree on what purpose people serve or why we’re here. And if we can’t agree on why we’re here, then we certainly won’t be able to agree on what we should honor and esteem, what we should aspire to and hold forth as admirable and noble.
Even speaking of such things will be met with resistance. We live in world addicted to destruction. We live in a world that loves to tear down the gifts and institutions of God. We live in a world that wants to destroy marriage and the family and the church and all manner of other supposedly evil institutions, and they do it all in the name of freedom. But after the world has supposedly freed us from our family and church and God-given identity, it has nothing to put in their place. It leaves people staring into the abyss, frightened and alone. And when people are frightened and alone, they lash out. The world will lash out at you when you speak the truth. The world will lash out at you when you speak of sin. The world will lash out at you when you speak of the Savior. The world will lash out like the alcoholic who takes a swing at anyone who threatens to take away his bottle or the addict who is a danger not only to herself, but to anyone who would confiscate her stash. The world loves the lie. It is addicted to it. It will not give it up willingly. We who cling to the truth are, indeed, sheep among wolves.
So let us also be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We are called to confess the truth today, to speak of our Savior and all he has done not only for us, but for the world. Let us approach this task with the wisdom of serpents. Let us be realistic about the challenge ahead of us. Let us expect opposition. But let us also be as innocent as doves. Let us take heart in this simple reality: we confess the truth, and the truth has a way of surviving. Yes, some people will revile and hate us for our confession. But others will be brought back from the edge of the abyss, brought to repentance through a knowledge of their sin and yearning for salvation, brought to life according to God’s design, a life lived in family and church. We have the only cure. Jesus has placed it into our hands, into our mouths, into the keeping of his church. He has placed it into your hands as a child of God. We have the Word of truth, which means we have the medicine people need. Let’s give it.
To use the words of the Apostle Paul, let us speak the truth in love. In speaking the truth, we confess faithfully what our Lord has revealed in the pages of Scripture. As the Apostle Peter says, we do so with gentleness and respect. We need to sense the danger like serpents. We don’t need to yell and scream and rant and rage as if that will change the world or the people in it. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling. Yelling only leads to more yelling. Responding to anger and name calling with more anger and name calling is never the answer. Be as wise as serpents. See the danger in the way the world holds conversations, if you can call what goes on today “conversation.” Sense the danger in simple stereotypes and clichéd villainy.
And be as innocent as doves. Speak the truth in love. When the world reviles us, we bless in return, for to this we were called. We do not give in to fear; we listen to the words of Jesus. Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. The lies of the world will be unmasked one day. The spotlight of God’s Word will drive Satan from the shadows, and he will be shown for the liar he is. Maybe that will happen in your lifetime, maybe not. What of it? Do not fear the things or people of the world because they can kill your body. Your soul is safe with Jesus. Rather, fear only God, for he alone has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell. So confess the truth in love, with gentleness and respect, and let the chips fall where they may. For whoever confesses Jesus before men, Jesus will also acknowledge before the Father in heaven, but whoever denies Jesus before men, Jesus will also deny before the Father in heaven.
Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves. There’s a lot of animals involved in confessing the faith. It may not be Aesop’s Fables, but the message is still simple: confess the faith. Don’t worry about what will happen or how it will go, just confess faithfully. So that’s what we’ll do. We will confess faithfully, with our lips and our lives, in our jobs and in our families and in our nation. We will confess faithfully, even if we are sheep among wolves. We will confess faithfully, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We will confess faithfully, for the Lion of Judah is watching over us.