Sermon: Our Faithful God.
“Sing unto the LORD, praise ye the LORD: for he hath delivered the soul of the poor from the hand of evildoers.” [Jeremiah 20:13]
For those who know Christianity, this statement of the Prophet Jeremiah must strike us all as being a little odd. Almost everyone knows that Christians by and large have rarely been “delivered” from the hands of evildoers.
I am currently reading a book on the history of Eastern Orthodoxy. It is entitled “Volume I,” but includes the Russian Orthodox church under the Soviet Union – which leads me to ask, what will volume II include?
Anyway, the fascinating part of this period of history is that, just before the revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church was experiencing a “Silver Age.” Many great things were taking place within the Church just as the Bolshevik Revolution seized power. And subsequently, under Lenin, the government started the persecution of Christians in the USSR. Bishops, priests, deacons, and nuns were executed in the most heinous fashion. On the day after the Romanov Family was executed, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Federovna, who founded Saints Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy was buried alive because of her faith.
The Soviets executed clergymen with particular brutality. Besides being buried alive, they were also killed by pouring cold water over them in subzero temperatures until they were frozen. They were thrown into boiling water, crucified, whipped to death, and chopped with axes. It does not seem that any of them were delivered from the hands of these evildoers.
But these stories, although shocking in their depravity and cruelty, nonetheless are NOT shocking in that Christians, generally, and clergy, specifically, have been the target of persecution throughout the centuries. This is a common theme and a common story whether we are talking about ancient Rome or Constantinople or are talking about Africa or Asia in the 19th Century. And this story continues today whether the Christians are in China or Egypt, whether they are in Iraq or Pakistan, or whether they are in the Sudan or India.
Yet, Jesus Himself told us that we would be persecuted and reviled:
“But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues, and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.”
So, if we who are Christian understand that we will be reviled, persecuted, beaten, tortured, and even killed because we believe Jesus to be the Christ and the Son of God, then how can we honestly sing praises unto our Lord? How can we be filled with such joy and such peace? In other words, from where does our peace come?
This is the question with which every Christian MUST come to terms. It is what gives us strength, even in our old age as we approach a natural death. And it is what gives us strength to weather any type of adversity.
What is clear is that our peace comes from outside ourselves AND from within. It is NOT a learned peace but rather one that is given to us through our faith. But, it is also one with which we must cultivate.
Let us look again at our Gospel Lesson. Jesus is sending His twelve Apostles out, into the world. He is trying to embolden them, but at the same time, prepare them for how others may react:
“Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the house-tops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Jesus references fear three times in this passage. His first commandment to us is NOT to fear because nothing will be unknown or a surprise. This is the hallmark of our Christian God. There is no “hidden” agenda. God is honest and above board with us, with hardly any surprises. It is we who create the surprises by not listening or by coming in with our own preconceived notions. But God does not surprise. He is consistent and dependable. Therefore, we Christians should not fear.
The second reference to fear is again telling us not to fear. We should not fear anyone with the power to kill us. They may have the power to kill or harm, but they cannot destroy that which of prime importance – our souls! The ONLY person who can do this is we, ourselves. Only we can give others the power to destroy our souls. Knowing this gives us strength to withstand anything.
Preserving our faith is of paramount importance, and for this reason, Christ gives His Apostles another instruction which we should all keep in mind:
“But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.”
Unlike some people who will tell you differently, God does NOT want us to suffer if we can avoid it. We ARE to flea when and if an exit is given to us.
This reminds me of the story of the man who was caught in a flood. As the waters rose, he prayed, “Oh Lord, I have faith in you. Please, sweet Jesus, save me from the waters.” As the flood continued, the man had to climb onto his roof. As he prayed the same prayer, a motor boat came by. “Climb on board; we will save you.” “No thanks,” said the man. “I know that the Lord will save me. I have faith.” So the boat left.
Well the waters continued to rise, and the man had to get on top of the ridge cap of his roof. Once again the man prayed to be saved, and just then another boat came by. “Climb on board!” came the command. “No thanks,” said the man. “I know the Lord will save me.” So the second boat left, and the waters continued to rise.
Finally, the man had to climb on top of his chimney as it was the only part of his house that was not under water. So the man prayed to God again in just the same way. Just then a coastguard helicopter came by. They lowered a rope ladder to the man and said, “Climb on up. We will save you.” “No thanks,” said the man. “I have faith. I know the Lord will save me.” So the coastguard left, the waters rose, and the man drowned.
So when the man got to heaven, he had to ask the Lord why He allowed the man to drown, even though the man had great faith. “Why didn’t you answer my prayers?” asked the man. “I did,” said the Lord. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”
The old adage is “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” This is not always true, but if He does provide a means of escape, we are commanded to take it. We are to flee.
But, if no matter what the situation, we are NEVER to deny our faith, even if it means our death. Denying the Truth is NOT an escape route. In fact, it is the opposite. And we need to remember the final fear.
That final fear is fear of the Lord. This is the ONLY legitimate fear of which Christ speaks. We are to fear the Lord, for only God can kill both body AND soul. And this means that we MUST testify to that which we KNOW to be true.
Keeping in mind the fact that nothing is worth fearing except God should give us an inner strength to withstand anything we may face. This is the inner strength of which I spoke earlier. But there is an outer strength that we must also keep in mind:
“But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak, for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.”
There is a strength that comes from outside us. It comes from God, and it is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit not only gives us utterance, He also gives us the strength to withstand anything against which we may come.
But the original question I asked is “From where do the joy and the peace that Jeremiah wrote about, come?” Lack of fear may give us strength, but not necessarily peace or joy. Where does a Christian’s peace and joy come from?
Our peace AND our joy comes from Jesus Christ; it comes from knowing God’s love through His Son; and it comes from the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. In other words, it comes from God, Himself, through the Blessed Trinity. This is the peace that the world cannot give us. This is the joy that others who are not Christian do not fully understand. And this is the peace that passes ALL understanding but that resides in all and every Christian who loves God and loves Jesus.
So, let us be a thankful people. Let us thank God that He has protected us all these years and blessed us with a country that allows us to worship as we choose. But let us also praise God with unceasing words of joy for giving us His Son and for giving us life eternal.
And let us also praise God even if the world turns against us, like the Russian Orthodox Church suffered when their government turned against them. For our God IS a loving God that wishes us no harm, that will wipe away every tear, and that will deliver us ultimately from the hands of all evildoers.