Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pentecost Twenty-five
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 1
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

And they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.

I often talk about how we do not know or experience the type of persecution that earliest Christians knew. Many were killed for their faith; many suffered horrific injustices and pain. This does not typically happen in modern America; few instances of violence against Christians are identified as specifically against them because of their Christian faith. We have heard a few stories, like that of Cassie Bernall who was shot during the Columbine tragedy. But most American Christians do not know what it is live in fear because of their faith.

The same is not true for many who read this devotion from other places around the world. I pray that they will forgive my very narrow world view and my focus on American Christianity. They say you should write about what you know, and that’s what I do. My experience of Christianity is unencumbered by the reality of persecution.

But I want you to know that I do know there is suffering all over the world. I do know that Christians are dying in China and that churches are burning in Africa. I know that the violence in Sudan is not just about power, but about exterminating the Christian population. I know that Christians face discrimination, beatings and arrests, just for being Christian. It isn’t a minor problem; it is a grave concern.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently claimed that Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion. Many have criticized her for the remark, stating persecution of other religious peoples around the world. She did not claim that it is the only persecuted religion; I don’t think any of us would deny that people of all types of faith are persecuted. But a brief perusal of the International Christian Concern website (www.persecution.org) makes it clear that too many Christians face the reality of persecution today.

Because we do not face the violence that others know, most American Christians really do not understand. We can go to church on a Sunday morning without worrying about whether we will be able to come home at the end. We can wear crosses around our necks without the fear of being beaten. We can talk about our faith with our neighbor without the threat of prison or even death. It isn’t always easy to do these things, since there are those who ridicule Christian faith. But words do not hurt nearly as much as a firing squad.

Unfortunately, many American Christians have decided to hide their faith. They do not want to be seen as foolish or intolerant. They don’t want to witness because it seems like they are trying to force others to believe what they believe. They have accepted the lie that faith is personal. They might do good works in response to the faith God has given, but often do so as if wearing a veil, keeping their motives in their hearts rather than in shining brightly for the world.

Yet the Christians in persecuted countries willingly and wholeheartedly wear their faith on their sleeve. We risk ridicule, they risk death, yet they are far more willing to step out in faith and shine the light of Christ for the world. We are not willing to fight against the cultural intrusion that has changed the face of our church, but they are willing to gather despite the threats. We won’t argue with the kids’ soccer coach to stop Sunday practices, and so miss worship. They will cross police barricades to gather together in Christ’s name.

To those of you who live in these places and have found some grace in the words I write, I want to thank you and tell you that you are not alone. I may not have personal experience with your struggle, but I know that you are there and I’m praying. I know that you exist and that you are faithful. I know that God loves you and will take care of you. I hope you will help me live more faithfully by your example. I hope you will teach me to be that bright shining light in the world where God has placed me.

The Old Testament text for today comes from the book of Daniel, an apocryphal book that many interpret to be speaking of the end of the world. Many believe it is speaking to today. I think it is funny that three years ago when I wrote about these texts, I made reference to the impending doomsday predictions of the Mayan calendar. Now we are weeks away from that December 21st date, and there are those who are preparing for it.

How do you prepare for the end of the world? I’ve been joking about how I am looking forward to that date. It would certainly solve all our problems! But I don’t stop with December 21st; I add, “And Jesus is coming December 20th.” That’s what we have to look forward to: the second coming of Christ. When I am in a particularly depressing moment, I say the only thing that helps, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus.” I’ve been saying it a lot lately.

According to some experts, the predictions about December 21st are validated by other prophesies, especially those from Nostradamus, who has been interpreted to have foretold similar events in the year 2012. Some have even drawn parallels with biblical prophecy. There seems to be signs all around us that the times prophesied have come. Many think we have reached the last days: that now is the time to be watchful and ready. There are moments when I hope, or wish, that it was true. If I feel this way with my problems that are so temporary and so few, how must those who face martyrdom feel?

I don’t think the disciples knew at that point in our gospel story that most of them would face martyrdom. They were following a guy they still thought would lead their people into a revolution that would restore their nation to its former glory. They still hoped Jesus was in Jerusalem to become king. His language was becoming more and more dire, but they didn’t want to understand what He was really saying. He told them several times that He had to die; they did not want to hear that. They wanted to believe that their nation, in its time of trial, would be delivered.

The passage from Daniel tells of a time when God’s people will suffer. The passage does not leave us in fear, however. It leaves us with a promise that God will deliver His people. Daniel tells us the wise will teach people the ways of the Lord by word and by example. Living in faith and acting on the hope of true peace: this is what we are called to do.

We have all heard stories of saints who sang hymns while the fires of martyrdom raged around them. Cassie Bernall was shot at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. It is said that the gunmen approached her, asked if she believed in God, and knowing full well her answer would end in death, Cassie said “Yes.” Her story led many others to ask themselves the question, “Would you say Yes?” Could you face persecution with compassion and joy? Could you sing hymns even as you are beaten or killed?

Now, imagine you are among the disciples who have been following Jesus. You’ve seen Him do amazing things. You’ve come to understand your own faith much better. You have seen the world in a new way. You are at the Temple, just days after the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. The city is in a celebratory mood with pilgrims from around the world there to make their offerings and remember the Passover. It was an extraordinary moment for them. Though they had surely made the pilgrimage before, they probably never sat so close to the action or been in the middle of theological discussions.

But now, with Jesus, they were right there in the middle of it all, perhaps with a bit of celebrity. They were part of the King’s court, and I can see the crowds curiously watching them. What would they do? How would they act? What would they say? There might have been a bit of theatrics in the comment that begins today’s Gospel lesson. “Teacher, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings!” The Temple was the perfect backdrop for Jesus’ victory!

The day had been filled with questions from the Temple leaders. They were testing His authority from the point of view of the Temple, the secular world and the religious traditions of His people. He established a greater authority and turned the world upside down. The last shall be first. The poor widow gives more. Give to God everything that is God’s.

It was an impressive sight: the buildings, the priests and leaders, and the devotion of the pilgrims. It is no wonder they were in awe of it all. Jesus answered their awe by saying, “There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down.”

Jesus had been teaching them about the difference between the kingdom on earth and the kingdom of heaven, but the Temple was the dwelling place of God to them. Where would God go if there were no temple? Would He leave them? If the temple were destroyed, where would they go to worship and offer their sacrifices? In the past, destruction of the temple came with invasion by enemies and the exile of God’s people. What would happen this time? Could they survive the suffering they would face? They wanted to know when it would happen. They wanted to be prepared.

The only advice Jesus gave them is this: Do not believe the false prophets or follow those who claim to be me. The life Christ was calling the disciples to live would not be one of power or authority; it would be one of service and distress. They would know about the wars and rumors of wars, would face the earthquakes and famines. Yet, many would claim to be the Christ, the savior, the deliverer from suffering and pain. They would claim to come in the name of Christ, providing a Gospel of prosperity and a promise of comfort.

Instead of offering the disciples the details about the end times, Jesus simply gives them a warning. “Beware and be aware.” Be careful who you believe and who you follow. Not all who claim to be speaking in the name of Jesus Christ are true. Some will be led astray. Some will willingly follow the false prophet because of the promises.

During hard times we are tempted to give up the very things that will give us the strength and courage to go on. We hide faith to avoid persecution. We follow the crowds, throwing our money and support at all the wrong things. We rely on false gods and believe false messiahs, just to avoid suffering and pain. We wander down a path that leads to destruction rather than facing the destruction that will ultimately bring us blessing.

The writer of Hebrews encourages us to live a different life. We are called to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering because God is faithful. Jesus warned the disciples not to make them afraid, but to remind them that God can and will overcome it all. God is near. He is not lost when the walls come tumbling down. Rather, He is set free from those human constraints to be the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.

Jesus talks about wars and rumors of war but tells the disciples, and us, not to be troubled. The bottom line is that no matter how much we do not like what we see, it is only temporary. God has promised something greater and He is faithful. Whatever type of persecution and suffering we face, He will get us through to the other side. We have hope in something that is very real and it is enough. We will be ridiculed, and we may even face the dangers of persecution that too many have experienced, but God does not want us to be afraid. He calls us to be light in the darkness, to be the very image of Christ in this world.

If we are in the days to which Daniel is referencing, now is not a time to hide our faith; it is the time when our faith is most needed. Now is the time to shine. No matter what dangers our Christianity presents, now is the time to be the visible Church in the world. Now is the time to reject the ways and disregard the expectations of the world. Now is the time to live faithfully, obedient and expectant. Now is the time to beware and be aware. Let us beware of the false prophets and be aware of those who need our help, for it is living the life of Christ that we will have the strength to stand firm when our enemy asks, “Do you believe.”

The psalmist writes, “Preserve me, O God; for in thee do I take refuge.” God does not promise that our Christian life will be a rose garden or that we’ll never experience suffering and pain. What He does promise is that He will get us through. Our task is to go forth in this life knowing that God is with us through it all. The Psalmist understood the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. He knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world.

The Temple may have been a big, beautiful building. It may have been built to last a million years, but Jesus reminds His disciples that nothing in this world is lasting. Even the sacrifices in the Temple are temporary solutions to the eternal rift between God and man. But Jesus is permanent. He is the answer to our cries for God’s help. He is the One who makes all things new; He has made each one of us new. Jesus made the sacrifices in the Temple obsolete.

The priests of old took blood to the altar day after day and year after year but it was all worthless, the forgiveness was not lasting. But the writer of Hebrews reminds us that “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” The forgiveness from Christ is lasting. It is eternal. We need not be worried about what might happen today, whether it is ridicule or martyrdom, because God has made it possible for us to enter into His presence through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our troubles are nothing compared to the life we have in Him.

So, “…let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.” Let us live as faithful Christians in this world, trusting that God will get us to that eternal place through anything, whatever it might be.

Who knows? The world might end on December 21st, but I’m certain that if it does, we’ll meet Jesus face to face before then. We need not be troubled, because we will not see the end; for us who believe, it will only be the beginning of eternity. So for today, let us be wise and shine bright as the firmament so that the whole world will see Christ and believe, no matter what the consequences might be.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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