This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Unting Church for Sunday 19th May 2019. It was a special service of prayer and reflection for the Church under Persecution and for Muslims seeking God during Ramadan.
Sirach 2:10; Romans 12:12; Hebrews 12:1; Ephesians 6:18
Two weeks ago, (on my birthday would you believe it), I was in tears at the end of the service. I was crying not because it was my birthday, (47 years is nothing to be ashamed or desolate about), but because one of my heroes of faith had died. A young woman who had authored four books alongside countless blog posts, emails, and tweets; a young wife and mother with a three year old and a one year old child at home, and only thirty seven years old, passed away in hospital after complications following treatment for an otherwise ordinary, unrelated health complaint. The shock of her death caught me off guard and I wept for her, for her family, and for her legacy. Sometime when we lose a hero of the faith we lose something few others understand.
Today I want to speak about two more heroes of the faith, one thirty years dead and another old but alive in this life, heroes of the Christian Church in the twentieth century. I do that in honour of the work that the Church is doing at the edge of its world, which nonetheless is the centre of God’s attention.
One of these great heroes, someone perhaps better known to you than the recently called home Rachel Held Evans, the young mother of my opening paragraph, is the Dutch survivor of the Nazis Cornelia Arnolda Johanna ten Boom. Corrie, as she is known, passed away in 1983, (the year I turned 11), and I remember her story from a cartoon version of her book “The Hiding Place”. I’m sure I saw a movie version around the same time too. After her release from penal detention in a German camp, a place where her sister had died of illness and neglect, a place to which all the ten Boom women had been sent for the crime of keeping Jews hidden from the Gestapo, Corrie travelled widely speaking of God’s grace to her and her family. She was and is remembered for her love, and her attempts at forgiveness, even when met by a former camp guard at one of her rallies. Corrie proclaimed for all of her days that God is always good, even in Ravensbruch. Corrie’s was a story of dedicated faith and the message was inspiring to me as a church-going Aussie kid who liked to read. I suspect it may have been for you too.
Another cartoon book hero of my Christian childhood, and another Dutch person of dedicated faith, is Andrew van der Bijl. Brother Andrew and his Beetle full of Bibles is a legend of our religion, taking his chances with the Communists who routed the Nazis from Eastern Europe only to plant their own special kind of restrictiveness. Unlike Corrie, Brother Andrew is still with us, although he’s just had his 91st birthday last week so we take nothing for granted. Brother Andrew is no longer smuggling Bibles under the Iron Curtain, not because he’s old, but because the need is no longer there. However, his Open Doors organisation is still involved in supporting the Church and proclaiming the gospel in places where it is dangerous and difficult to do so. In fact Andrew had already pulled back from his work in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 so as to focus on an area of greater and ongoing need: the Muslim World.
We are currently in the Islamic month of Ramadan. Okay maybe “we” aren’t, but that’s the month our Muslim neighbours are living in at the moment, and it is a time of daylight fasting and prayer for them. In view of this, Open Doors in Australia and New Zealand is encouraging local churches in our countries where it is relatively easy and safe to do so, indeed places where it is downright cushy, to join in prayer for two key things. First, that Muslims in their dedicated acts of devotion this month, in their prayer and fasting, in their searching and beseeching, are met by the Living Word of God who is Jesus. Oh God, let those who seek God earnestly find God completely: let them see Jesus. So that’s first, and that’s awesome. Isn’t is awesome? Yes, it is. And second, that we would pray safety and protection upon the Church, and local churches, in nations where Ramadan is a central event. There’s no baiting here, but there is reality, that when Ramadan comes around some believers in the Quran seek to purge the world of infidelity and impurity by knocking over the Christians. Maybe they’re tired and hungry, maybe they’re radicalised by the nature of their devotion, but Ramadan can be an especially bad time to be a Christian. So we stand with our brother-sisters in Christ that they are protected from violence, and that they take up opportunities to show love and compassion for their neighbours who are seeking God with fervour.
In many of the countries where Islam is the majority religion, and in some where it is the official or state religion, there was once a vibrant Christianity. Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and in the days between Jesus and Mohammed the countries that are now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (to name only four) had numerous bishops and cathedrals. I am not here to talk about the destruction of those cultures in the seventh century, or the ways in which Christianity fought back in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in Crusades and the Reconquest of Spain: but I am going to point to what has gone.
In recent weeks, since Easter really, we’ve had a few readings from Revelation. We have heard how Revelation was addressed as a letter of encouragement and sent to seven churches as a prophetic act for the building up of all people toward the end of the first Christian century. The question I’m asking today is what happens to Churches who do not overcome? Churches can die; look at the seven churches today and you will see that many are no longer places of Christian worship. Yes they were finished off by the Muslim invasions, but they were on their way out long before. If churches like Ephesus and Colossae (near Laodicea), fellowships founded by St Paul and governed by St John as bishop can be gone in a couple of generations how can we presume this will not happen to us? Brother Andrew’s counsel is “strengthen what remains,” which is why we must pray now for the Church where it is under assault. Paul wrote to one group of Christians undergoing hard times and external pressure saying rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, check out Romans 12:12. To another group he wrote pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…to that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints, see Ephesians 6:18. If you’re suffering then pray, if you are not suffering but you are aware of others who are suffering then pray. Whether we are in the first group or the second, and I hope it’s obvious where we are today, the call to prayer for the saints is non-negotiable, and I encourage you to heed the invitation of Open Doors and Brother Andrew to hold up our sister-brothers in prayer.
The other question raised by Open Doors’ call, at least as far as I see it, is what does Christianity have to say to people who seemingly have nothing to lose? What is the Christian response to Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps? What about entire families of Pakistani Christians living almost as slaves making bricks because they can’t get better jobs without denying their Lord? What about the widows and orphans or the child-less parents made across Sri Lanka after resurrection services were bombed and terrorised on Easter Day? What does our religion say to such as these, and if it can’t speak coherently to Christians standing against the crimson tide of martyrs’ blood, what can it possibly offer to Muslims seeking God during Ramadan?
An interesting insight which I don’t think I’ve preached on, and which I have certainly never heard in a sermon, is that Emmaus was a Roman garrison town in the time of Jesus. Now of course there were Judeans living there too, it was a town with a base and not a base in and of itself, but I wonder…I wonder, were the two on the road on the night of Easter Day hoping to change sides? Yes, great, we know the story of Jesus appearing on the road and explaining the whole Bible from page one and Genesis 1:1 to page two thousand and twenty and The Map of Paul’s Journey to Rome. We know about the breaking of the bread and Jesus disappearing without even a cloud of smoke or unleavened flour. But were Cleopas and his friend (his wife) simply returning home after a disastrous Passover in the big smoke, or were they doing a Judas (or a Josephus of the next generation) and getting their names on the safe list with the local constabulary? Tired apostles, or trying apostates? And how do we feel about that sort of thing now; the Christian father for whom it is all too hard to live another day for Jesus in Baghdad or Beirut or Bishkek, and who converts to Islam to save his family from poverty and murder? Words from the Hebrew Tradition just prior to the time of Jesus remind us to consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken? Or has anyone called upon the Lord and been neglected? You’ll find that in Sirach 2:10, if you have a Bible with Sirach in it. It’s a great encouragement, but it might not be enough if Jesus doesn’t meet you on the road and come in for tea. In Hebrews 12:1 we are reminded that since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we can lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us. But what if there are no witnesses where you are, no great stadium filled with the athletes who have already finished the marathon to cheer you on over that last 400 metres of your own race? What if you are running for Jesus, but you’re running alone, and the weight of expectation is too much to bear, so you drop all Christian expectation and try to run life unencumbered rather than dropping out of life entirely? We must pray for them, and more importantly pray with them.
So, two things, the same two things that the New Testament writers and editors, along with Andrew, Corrie, and Rachel have said.
- Run in a group. Stay close to Jesus by staying close to those of your friends who are staying close to Jesus. Pray for your own strength, ask God to strengthen what remains of your dwindling energy. Seek God until you find God, then keep going in deeper in the confidence that God is good, even in Ravensbruch.
- Be the group that others run with. Exclude no one from the pack, no matter what condition or colour their shirt (or all colours). It is good to pray for those who persecute you, and pray for those who are persecuted, that’s Jesus stuff, but do more than pray. You can petition for change, post letters and tweets of encouragement, be one of the great crowd of witnesses who yells the same story as Sirach of how God came through for you. This is not just a local thing, being faithful to the Christians of the Wimmera, be the group that is The One holy catholic and apostolic Church: run with the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and let them know too.
And one more thing, pray with those who experience violence and resistance, not only praying for them. Pray for them in the words they pray for themselves; they do not pray what we might think they pray, or even how we might pray if we were them. Pray with Christians in Muslim-majority communities that the persecutors would come to see Jesus as saviour and master, not that the persecution would stop. As iron sharpens iron the Church in these places doesn’t want to become safe: they grieve for us in Australia because in our faith we have become fat and lazy, our prosperity is a bigger barrier against Christ than their persecution in their view. So we pray that Muslims would see Christ and turn to him because Christ is the better option for life, not because we want the bullying will cease. That is the prayer of a dedicated faith.
This week, indeed from the evening of May 5th (on my birthday, would you believe it) until the evening of June 2nd, more than one and a half billion people will spend every daylight hour fasting and praying for guidance from God, and wisdom for a God-honouring life. Some of them will make mistakes and go and kill Christians in their misguided piety, but think of the thousand million crying out for a revelation of God, a revelation we have seen. Open your heart and open your mouth, let them know that you are with them in the name of Emmanuel, God with us.
Two weeks ago I wept in exhaustion because a channel of the voice of God was rendered silent by a medical complication. This week I am tired of weeping over the many channels through whom the voice of God has never spoken; voices never released to proclaim the Father’s glory, the Son’s compassion, the Spirit’s comfort, the soul’s rest. Open your heart to God and ask that those mouths will be opened by grace to declare all praise to God, the merciful and compassionate one.