Trust in the Face of Persecution
Then I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God. And he cried with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, 3 saying, "Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads." 4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed. One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed: 5 of the tribe of Judah twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand were sealed; 6 of the tribe of Asher twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand were sealed; 7 of the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Levi twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand were sealed; 8 of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand were sealed. 9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen." 13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, "Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?" 14 And I said to him, "Sir, you know." So he said to me, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 "Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. 16 "They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; 17 "for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." Revelation 7:2-17
John survived it. Peter and Paul didnít. Iím talking about the Christian persecution that began under Emperor Nero and continued on and off for 200 years. It began with the fire that destroyed three fourths of city of Rome. Nero was blamed because he was so hated as a leader. He looked for a scapegoat and found one in the small but growing group of people known as Christians. They were already thought of as odd. Rumors said that they practiced cannibalism because of their belief in the Lordís SupperÖ that it was the body and blood of Jesus. But most obnoxious to Romans was their refusal to worship the Emperor. Nero was creative. Some Christians were dipped in wax, placed on poles, and lit on fire for human torches. Nero even said, "Now you truly are the light of the world." Most were torn to death by animals in the Circus Maximus. When you watch TV and see images from the Vatican, you will notice a tall obelisk that stands over 25 meters high. This stone pillar was made originally in Egypt before the time of Jesus. It was taken to Rome and placed in the Circus Maximus. It is the only obelisk from ancient Rome that still stands. Now it remains as a stone of remembrance of those horrible days of Christian persecution.
Today as we celebrate All Saints I would like to remember those saints especially who gave their lives as they remained faithful unto death. I would like you to think about Christians who are being persecuted today, and most of all I would like all of you to be prepared for persecution that may happen in the future.
1. The Meaning of Revelation Seven
The Book of Revelation was written by John the Apostle to prepare the church for times of persecution and especially for the great tribulation coming at the end of time. This book was not just written for people in Johnís day as some believe or for the last disciples left before the second coming of Jesus. It was written for all Christians from the time of Jesusí ascension until He comes again. Many misunderstandings of the Book of Revelation have caused people to think that doesnít apply to them right now.
The 144,000 people mentioned here is not literal. It is symbolic. That number represents all the people who have and will believe in Jesus and are part of the true Israel, that is, those who truly believe in Jesus the Messiah. Revelation is filled with symbolic language. Jesus is described as a lion (5.5) and a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes (5.6). Those who try to interpret these visions literally end up hopelessly confused.
So what is the meaning of this symbolic language? The prophet Ezekiel had a similar vision (chapter nine). Jerusalem had fallen into idolatry and mixing of religions. Godís judgment fell upon this city with massive death and destruction. But God spared a remnant of believers who were symbolically marked on their foreheads. Likewise in Revelation John is telling us that the world flaunts its idolatry and mixing of religions in Godís face. It taunts God to come and judge them. God has done that in the past. Whole civilizations have been wiped out. But in the end manís stubborn refusal to listen to Godís prophets and particularly to Jesus will end in their destruction. John wants us to know that Christians will be caught up in that destruction. And before that they will be persecuted by those who challenge God: "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation" (7.14). They will die, but they will not be separated from God. They will "serve God day and night in His temple" (7.15).
Some people have asked me what is the earliest form of the "cross"? Youíll be surprised that it is not the familiar image of wood or metal. The earliest form of the cross is the "sign" of the cross made at Christian baptism and throughout life. That sign was carried over from Johnís vision by Christians to remind themselves that they were sealed by God.
2. The Reality of Persecution
If you came to church this morning because you wanted an easier, more comfortable life, you came to the wrong church. There are plenty of false churches on every corner that preach that message. Their Gospel is "Commit your life to Christ, and He will fix all your problems." That is not the Gospel of Jesus. His Gospel is what we heard last Sunday: "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon and learn from Me for I am lowly and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11.28-29). Rest for the soul is not necessarily the solution to all your problems in life. Rest for the soul is that quiet confidence that no matter what difficulty I may be or will be going through, God is with me, and in the end He will save me. I might even die because of it, but He will still save me. Rest for the soul is the forgiveness of sins and the promise of Godís righteousness. Rest for the soul is Godís acceptance of you and me even though we have not deserved itÖ and acceptance won for us by His love and the gift of His Son to suffer judgment in our place when He died on the cross. He is the ultimate sacrificial lamb.
It is that kind of faith that is strengthening and encouraging modern day saints and martyrs all over the world. They know that though the world may hate them, God does not.
On September 21 Pastor Manuel was killed by FARC guerillas in Columbia. FARC stands for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. These followers of Marx and Lenin claim to represent the poor people of Columbia against the wealthy elite. They came to his house, took the pastor outside away from his wife and children and shot him five times. If these guerillas claim to support the poor, why would they kill a poor village pastor? It is because, like Marx and Lenin, they do not believe in God, and they have made government their god, their idol. Anyone who teaches otherwise is in their way. It reminds me of King Nebuchadnezzar who persecuted Jewish people and ordered them to bow down to a golden idol which he had created. Three famous saints of old refusedÖ Shadrach, Meshach, and Abenego.
Asia Bibi appeared in court in Pakistan on October 14th. Her family and two others are the only Christian families in their village. She worked on a farm with other Muslim women, and they got into a heated discussion about faith. The Muslim women were pressuring Asia to convert to Islam. Asia said the "Jesus died and rose for my sins, what has Muhammad done for you?" Her statement cut to the heart of the difference between these two religions. One is about man trying to save himself and the other is about God saving His people. She was charged with blasphemy and now awaits judgment from the Muslim influenced court. Please pray for these people. You can read more about these suffering servants at www.persecution.com, the website of Voice of the Martyrs.
Persecution is not just happening in far away places. A few years ago the son of one of our seminary students was working on an art project for his second grade art class at a public school in St. Louis. When the teacher saw that he was making a cross, she threw it in the trash can and told him he had to make something else. New interpretations and blatant misunderstandings of our Constitution are being used to try to silence Christians in America.
3. Facing Persecution
This is not all doom and gloom as you might think. God has prepared His people for these inevitable problems. Jesus said in our Gospel lesson today, "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5.11-12).
Some of you may remember our seminary student from a few years ago, Adefris MeKasha. Adefris fled Ethiopia following death threats from Muslims in that country. As long as you didnít talk about the cross and Jesus being the only way of salvation, they didnít care Adefris said. But as soon as you started to focus on the real Gospel, they became irate and vicious. He came to America under the guise of attending a meeting. He left the meeting and took refuge in a Salvation Army Church in Kentucky. For several years he was separated from his family until they could finally immigrate. But in spite of all these hardships you could never have met a happier man. Today Adefris is a Lutheran pastor in St. Louis. God gives strength to those who suffer in His name.
Facing persecution really involves two things. First, it is to be expected. When we forget this we often complain and may even become angry with God. "Why is He letting this happen to me?" But the real question is "Why is it not happening to me?" Jesus said, "Come, take up your cross and follow Me" (Mat 16.24). Gayle Sayers is still the NFLís all-time career kickoff return leader. His quickness and agility befuddled defenses and enabled him to dodge tackles. But one of the things that made him a great player was that he expected with every kickoff to be vigorously pursued by eleven highly trained athletes. It was that expectation more than anything else that motivated him to rocket into motion and to be so successful. Anyone who thinks that kickoff returns should be a waltz in the park is doomed. Anyone who thinks this Christian life should be easy, is also setting himself up for a great disappointment.
The second thing we need when facing persecution and the thing that gives us joy in the face of persecution is confidence in God. Stephen was the first to die for his faith in Jesus, and he kept his confidence in God through it all. Even as they dragged him out of the city and began stoning him, Stephen was looking to Jesus not to his persecutors. That is why he, like Jesus, was able to forgive those who were murdering him.
What might we expect when it comes to persecution? Criticism, ridicule, snide remarks regarding our faith in Jesus? Realistically I think we have to look ahead to potential political persecution. It is nothing new going as far back as Nebuchadnezzer and Nero. We have to admit that political winds are changing. The new hate speech law that was signed into existence has much to commend to itself. No one should be abused for their beliefs. But I am afraid that some who created this legislation want it to go farther and could use it to silence those who would say the homosexual behavior is displeasing to the Lord and a sin. The results could be difficult for usÖ fines, imprisonment, and even confiscation of property. But that will never stop the church, and that doesnít mean God has forsaken us. It will only mean that we will function in a much different way.
I would like to end by referring back to those three saints I mentioned earlierÖ Shadrach, Meshach and Abenego. Even as a Sunday school boy I remember how impressed I was with their trust in the face of persecution. When given one last chance to worship the idol or be killed in the furnace, this what they replied: O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up." (Daniel 3.16-18). Do you remember what happened next? The king looked into the furnace and saw not three but four men. And the fourth he said looked like the son of the gods. We know that fourth man was Jesus, and we know that God was just fulfilling His promises to preserve His people whom He has sealed for redemption.
God grant us such trust in the face of persecution. Amen.
Pastor Michael P. Walther
All Saints, November 1, 2009
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1300 Belt Line Road, Collinsville, Illinois, 62234
618-344-3151 / fax 618-344-3378
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2009
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