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Great risk, great reward

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:10-16

Today’s Bible study has but one point: Jesus rewards most fully those who pay a price to follow him. The greater the cost, the risk, the sacrifice, the greater the life, the joy, the peace, the reward. We progress in proportion to the fare we are prepared to pay (William Barclay). The more it costs us to follow Jesus, the more he rewards us, now and in eternity.

Let’s explore that thesis, and see if it applies to our lives today.

Take a risk for Jesus (vs. 10-12)

Verse 10 is literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and are now being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his disciples would pay a price to follow him. And they did.

They were “insulted” (v. 11), subjected to slander, gossip, and ridicule. Their enemies would “falsely say all kinds of evil” against them.

Jesus warned them, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).

They were thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, wrapped in pitch and set alight, sewn in the skins of wild animals and thrown to hunting dogs, tortured on the rack, burned with molten lead and hot tongs. Part of their bodies were cut off and burned before their eyes, hands and feet scorched, children and families executed while they watched. That’s what it cost many of them to follow Jesus.

Those who are serious about their faith still pay a price to follow Jesus.

70 million believers have been executed across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Christ.

More believers were martyred in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined.

It is predicted that 500,000 Christians will die for Christ this year around the world.

But here’s the upside: There is great joy in suffering for Jesus. We are “blessed”–the word promises joy transcending all circumstances. We are to “rejoice and be glad” in Christ.

There is great reward in suffering for Jesus: “great is your reward in heaven.” Paul agreed: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). He promised Timothy, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12).

There is a great community for those who suffer for Jesus: “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” You stand with 20 centuries of God’s greatest servants when you suffer for your Lord.

You can ask Carlos Alamino if it is worth it to serve Jesus in Cuba. You can ask Oscar Dellet, our other Cuban pastor and partner, the same question. You can ask the thousands who pack their churches, knowing the government is watching. You can ask those whose children are given the poorest schools, the hardest military assignments, the worst medical care because their parents follow Jesus. But they won’t even understand the question.

Baptism is an especially courageous thing to do in Cuba. It is the time when a believer goes public with his or her faith. Family may reject them; the community may shun them. It is a hard thing for many.

When I participated in a mass baptism during one of my trips to Cuba, I was standing in the middle of the lake when the first person was brought to me. Her husband carried her across the water. I assumed that she was afraid of water, or unable to swim. He handed his wife to me, I baptized her, and handed her back to him. When he picked her up, then I saw that she had only one leg.

Was this public statement of her faith, at all costs, at any price, worth it to her? The joy on her face told me all I needed to know.

How to take a risk for Jesus (vs. 13-16)

How do we take the risk which leads to rewards from God? How do we get this “blessing,” this joy, this great reward from our Father? Jesus will tell us, with two metaphors.

First, “You are the salt of the earth.” Not “you will be” or “you could be” but “you are,” right now. “You” is inclusive, all of them. He says the same to us today. But what does he mean? What does salt do? It changes things. Nothing contacts salt and remains the same. How does it change things?

It purifies, as anyone who has gotten salt in a wound and felt its sting knows. Do you purify your world? Are you the holy presence of God? Are people more holy because of you?

It preserves food. In the ancient world, without refrigeration and preservatives, it was the only means of keeping food for the winter. Are you preserving the souls you meet? Is anyone more ready for eternity because of you?

It seasons food. It was the only seasoning most people could afford. Do you bring the joy of Jesus to your world? Are people happier because of you?

It makes people thirsty. Do you? Do people want the Jesus they see in you? Who was the last person who sought the Lord because of you?

It disappears. When it does its work, it is gone. No food or substance is too good for its transforming power. Are you selfless, willing to do anything to serve God and people, not caring who gets the credit?

If salt doesn’t do these things, it is “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” They got their salt from the shores and marshes of the Dead Sea. It was impure, and decomposed. All that was left was white powder, good for nothing. What can you do with salt that doesn’t taste like salt? What good is it?

Jesus’ second metaphor: “You are the light of the world.” Again, Jesus doesn’t say that we might be or could be, but that we are. All of us, right now. “The” light, the only light in this dark world. What does light do?

It guides. It’s been said that a shin is an object for finding furniture in the dark. A flashlight in a dark room is a precious thing. Are you guiding people in the dark to the Lord?

It comforts. Just a little light in a dark room makes all the difference. I read recently about a bank manager who accidentally locked himself in his vault for the weekend. He found the emergency air hole, and knew he would not suffocate. Then he found a tiny door which opened to the light. He said that light got him through those long days and nights. We all need light in the dark. Who is comforted in their dark vault by you?

It attracts. Insects go to light, but so do people. We are drawn instinctively to it. Who is drawn to God because of you?

People don’t “light a lamp and put it under a bowl” but “on its stand, and it gives light to everyone on the house” (v. 15). Oil lamps were hard to light in Jesus’ day. Once you got yours lit, you might put it under a wicker basket at night to shield it so you could sleep. But no one lit a lamp for that purpose. They put it on the “stand,” a shelf built into the wall, so it could give light to the house.

What good is a light you can’t see?

Conclusion

Now you have a choice to make. You can keep your salt in the saltshaker, your light under the basket. No one will criticize or reject your salt for its flavor if you do. No one will criticize or reject your light for its appearance if you do. That is definitely the safest thing to do today. Make sure Jesus is your Savior, that you’ll be in heaven. Worship and serve him in the church, among fellow Christians. Do your religious duty, but nothing more. If you’re looking for safety and security, do just that.

But know this: no risk, no reward. Not in heaven, or on earth. Not in your faith, or your life. Your life won’t matter, now or when it’s done. You’ll miss the joy of Christianity, the abundant life Jesus came to give us. We love God by loving our neighbor. We serve Jesus by serving others. When we breathe out, we can breathe in. When we give, we can receive. When we share our faith, we grow in our faith. Serving others serves Jesus. And it serves us as well.

The next time you have a chance to serve effectively, to evangelize joyfully, to pay a price for your faith, to suffer for your Savior, remember this: no risk, no reward.

If you want your life to matter, you have to take a chance. The only people who can change the outcome of a basketball game are the players on the court. Not those on the sideline. Not the spectators in the stands. Only those willing to take the risk, to face the possibility of failing, to withstand the criticism of those who only watch–they are the only ones who make a difference. No one else.

That’s why Dirk Nowitzki is my favorite Dallas Mavericks player. I realize that I’m not the only fan who feels that way. But my admiration for Dirk may be a bit different from some.

You may not know his story. Dirk was playing in Germany when Don and Donnie Nelson found him. He signed a contract to play in the NBA, in Dallas. He was 19 years old, spoke almost no English, and had never seen Dallas. Many of us have sons or daughters the same age. Can you imagine sending yours to Germany to do what Dirk did here?

He was too skinny for the NBA, the critics said. He’d never make it. But from the beginning, he wanted the ball. He wanted to take the shot when the game was on the line. He still does. The other night he took the ball with four seconds left, his team down by a point. He drove to the basket and was fouled (at least in the opinion of all of us who watched impartially). The foul wasn’t called, and his team lost. But he’ll want the ball the next game, and the next. Because he knows a simple fact: if you don’t shoot, you can’t score.

Because he’ll take a risk, he’s our best player. And the NBA’s player of the month, for the second time this year. And a candidate for Most Valuable Player in the league. And Time.com’s person of the week. Not because he makes every shot, but because he’ll take every shot. No risk, no reward. Great risk, great reward. It’s just that simple.

Hear again Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

No risk, no reward. Great risk, great reward. The next time you have a chance to pay a price for following Jesus, remember that fact. And choose well.