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Faithful in Persecution August 14, 2016

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Hebrews 11.17-31 and 12.1-3

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 14th, 2016

 

Focus:  God promises us life and salvation in the blood of His Son Jesus Christ.

Function:  That the hearers put their trust in Christ alone.

Structure:  Walking through the text, continuation from previous week.

 

Faithful in Persecution

 

In our text this week, we rumble forward, we continue our Scripture reading from the Book of Hebrews last weekend.  And the theme is the same, we pick up right where we left off.

We continue to talk about what faith is.  Faith is not an empty hope.  It’s not hoping in your dreams to come true.  It’s not thinking that if I just believe it enough, it will happen.  These things are false idols, they’re fakes.  They’re not faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  That is, faith is trust in the promises of God giving His Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and to rise again to new life on that third morning.  Faith is grasping these promises, given through the Word of God and through His sacraments, you are forgiven, you are healed, you have life.  That’s faith.  Trusting in God’s promises given to us.

And we saw this.  The author of Hebrews spelled out this faith in the life of five of our brothers and sister in Christ.  Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah.  Each and every one of these people looked forward to the promise of a Messiah, of a Savior who would come for them granting victory over the grave.  They put their faith, their trust, in Christ alone.  As we do today.

And so the author continues this morning with more examples of what this looks like.  We return to Abraham.  To the man who was promised that even in his old age, he would bear a son, and that this son, Isaac, would grant Abraham many descendants, to become a nation that can’t be counted.  And then a command comes from God to Abraham that he would sacrifice this son, this Isaac as an offering to God.

This was a test, clearly to us in hindsight.  This isn’t the way God works.  In fact, child sacrifice was deemed to be a horrid and detestable practice that a pagan group did in honor of a false god they called Molech.  And yet, this test fell on Abraham.  And Abraham believed.   The author of the Hebrews tells us that Abraham believed that even if he sacrificed Isaac, God would raise him from the dead and still keep His promise.

What faith!  We hear of Isaac passing that blessing and promise on to his boys, Jacob and Esau.  And then Jacob to his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh.  And we see Joseph, second in command of all of Egypt, already talking about the exodus, the promise of a land of their own, that they can call home.

We see Moses, disowning his upbringing, casting aside all the treasures and wealth of Egypt, all the power that came with his position, his status in Pharaoh’s household.  All so that he could walk alongside his own people, God’s people, and endure the same mistreatment.  Our writer penned this verse beautifully, “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt.”

We are reminded that trusting in God, Moses challenged Pharaoh himself, that the Israelites would go on to celebrate the Passover, that they would cross the Red Sea.  And then he leaps forward, he talks about the trust of an army.  That the army of Joshua, God’s people, obeyed His command, however strange it sounded.  March around the city of Jericho seven times, and then sound the trumpets, and the city will be yours.  And they listened, they trusted, and indeed the Battle of Jericho was a victory.

And the last person he mentions in our text today is Rahab.  A prostitute.  An outsider even among her own people.  And rather than fearing the possible punishment for harboring the spies from Israel, Rahab chose to fear the Lord.  She protected the spies, saving their lives, and in turn, they spared hers.  She married, and became part of the genealogy of the Messiah.

And then we skip some verses.  And I want to pick those right up.  We won’t fully unpack them, but here’s the rest of Hebrews 11:

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

 

Essentially, you get the point.  I don’t need to continue to list off people of faith for you.  There just wouldn’t be enough time.  And the people he mentions are of questionable faith even at that.  They had their failures, those moments where they didn’t trust in God above all else.  But just like we said last week of Sarah, the promises of God don’t depend on us.  He fulfills them.  And that’s why we can trust His promises.  They’re His work, not ours.

I’m not sure we should skip the rest of this reading.  You can argue all you want right now about persecution of Christians in America.  Some say it’s happening, pointing to the way our culture looks down on us, or to the people who are being sued and losing their livelihoods.  Others argue that true persecution is only that which leads to martyrdom, that is, torture and death on account of the name of Christ.

Whichever way you want to define persecution of Christians, if this nation continues its current course, you, your children, and your grandchildren will be persecuted.  This is why we pointed out last week that Abel was killed for his faith.  This is why the author points to stonings, imprisonment, flogging.  Real persecution, however you define it, is something Christ promised the church.  From 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

There’s a new book out there, you can find it on Amazon, called It’s Dangerous to Believe.  At one point the author of the book, Mary Eberstadt, says Christians “are the only remaining minority that can be mocked and denigrated — broadly, unilaterally, and with impunity. Not to mention fired, fined, or otherwise punished for their beliefs.”

The book is a collection of stories, accounts of people losing things on account of their faith.  Chi Alpha, a Christian student college organization, was charged with religious discrimination and removed from California campuses because they would refused to open up the leadership roles of their organization to non-Christians.  That’s just one of countless examples.  You know of others.  Our culture is changing.

But don’t mishear me.  I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, one Christian from the Middle-East doesn’t want to hear Christians from America praying for God to stop persecution of Middle-Eastern Christians.  Her name’s been changed for safety reasons, but I’ll let her speak for herself.  She said,

The persecution is getting worse and worse and worse. But on the other hand actually, what has encouraged me, encouraged my faith, encouraged my church, encouraged everybody Christian in [the region] is that is the Church is increasing. A lot of Muslim people now, they are so confused about what is going on now. A lot of them are asking, ‘Who is this God whose name is Allah, who orders people to slaughter?’ They are confused and they are asking and wondering now days about ISIS and about what is going on. We are not afraid or worried that the persecution will increase. We are just feeling that this is God’s time. God is working perfectly now in the Middle East. Even with all these crazy stuff happening, God is really working now. So, I want to encourage you that, of course, you need to pray for your brothers and sisters in the Middle East who are suffering for being Christians and for their faith, but I am asking you to pray a different prayer. Don’t pray for the persecution to be stopped. … But pray for the Christians there, for their boldness, their encouragement, for their faith and that they can all be witnesses for God’s work and for God.

 

Wow.  She nails it.  As Americans, learning of our brothers and sisters in Christ dying for their faith in Christ, our first thought is to pray to God to put an end to the persecution.  But she’s asking us not to.  She’s asking instead that God would work through that persecution to continue to change the hearts, the minds, the souls, of those doing the persecuting.

What faith!  And yet, what this young woman is commending is exactly how the early church grew.  The eleven disciples who died martyrs for Christ.  Paul, too, and Stephen, among many others.  And yet the church was growing.  People were trusting in God.

Persecution does that, because it removes the unfaithful.  The American church is filled with people who are self-seeking, and who are, by false teaching, leading many people away from Christ.  Persecution helps stop that.  If you knew, for example, that the government was going to tax Christians double, and they posted an IRS agent at the front door of every church, would you still come?  Even more than that, if you knew that walking through those doors, could well mean your death at the hands of a masked assailant, would you still come?

Persecuted nations have a lot less denominations than we do.  For good reason.  Their faith, their trust in God is a matter of life and death.  They take it seriously.  Some Americans do too, but we’ve grown comfortable, and are starting to assimilate into our culture.  Increasing persecution will change that.

As persecution begins to increase, I look forward to hosting one of these brothers or sisters for a Bible class here.  I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get someone, but I’ll try.  To be able to listen to them describe life in persecution, how they continue to trust in God day by day.

That’s the last part of our text.  Looking at the surrounding cloud of witnesses.  All the people of the Old Testament he’s been talking about.  All the people of the New Testament era.  All the people of the early church and the churches throughout the ages.  There are a couple billion Christians living now, but there are even more who have gone before us.

That is the author’s encouragement to us.  You are not alone in this.  We are witnesses of God, we have seen His promises fulfilled.  And so he tells to cast off our burdens and the sins that cling to us so tightly, and to run the race that is before us, that is, to live the life that God has given us.  In all forms.  He’s talking about vocation.  Of loving your family, your neighbors.  Of sharing the good news of Christ with them.

That as we run this race, whether persecuted or not, whatever we endure along the way, that our eyes would constantly be fixed on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.  For Christ loved us so richly, that He was willing to go even to death for us.  That He endured the cross and the shame for us.   And that this Christ is now seated at the right hand of God the Father in Heaven.  Living our lives, running our race, trusting in God, looking to Christ alone to fulfill His promises to us.  You are forgiven and you have life in His name.
 

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