Summary: This is a sermon about persecution and the persecuted church.
“USA! USA! USA!” the chant goes as the United States’ hockey team skates down the ice hoping to score a goal. All Americans wish to see the United States’ hockey team win, even those who don’t like or understand hockey. There is solidarity when our national team is playing. It’s more than a game; it’s about national pride.
In the weeks after September 11, there was a surge of national unity. People stopped looking at others as different. The bounds of race seemed to melt away. The bounds of social class seem to be vaporized. News reports indicated that in most major cities, crime dropped in the days after the attacks. There was solidarity. The United States had been attacked. It wasn’t a white and black issue. It wasn’t a rich and poor issue. It was a national issue. Our national security was violently shaken, and we all pulled together.
Last spring when Jessica Lynch was taken captive with her maintenance unit in Iraq, she became the symbol of the POWs. The petite girl from West Virginia looked like the girl next door. She was young, innocent looking, and she caught the hearts of the nation. There was solidarity. That could have been your daughter or sister or your best friend. We identified with her, because we knew her, or at least someone like her. Many thought, “What if that was my sister? What if that was my daughter? What if that was my friend?”
I remember a young couple that we used to attend church with. They had a little boy. They were an all-American family. Then she had a miscarriage very close to her due date. They were devastated. I saw my dad put his arms around them. There was solidarity there. My parents lost their first child a year and a half before I was born. They identified with the unspeakable pain of losing a baby. The mention of that loss must have brought back a flood of memories for my parents. The pain was relived. The questions were asked again. The ache in the heart was there.
We join in feeling the pain of others when we share a common experience. Someone who has never lost a child can never fully understand the pain of losing a child. Someone who has never been divorced can never fully understand the pain of divorce. Someone who has never faced the humiliation of racial prejudice can never fully understand what that is all about. Someone who has never been thrown in prison for passing out Bibles or telling someone about Jesus can never understand what that experience is like.
In his closing exhortation, the author of Hebrews writes, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” That is chapter 13, verse 3.
We have all heard the old saying, “Out of sight; out of mind.” It’s easy to forget something when it’s not constantly in front of us. As the memory of the World Trade Center attacks faded into the back our minds, we became less and less conscious of it, and things returned to the way they were before. Religious leaders proclaimed that a corner had been turned in reaching Americans for Christ. Church attendance surged. People were seeking God. The sad fact is that within a month church attendance returned to pre-9/11 levels. What happened? Quite simply, the memory faded.
“What does this have to do with anything?” you ask.
I’m glad you asked.
This is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The week of November 9-16 has been designated as the week to pray for our brothers and sisters who are suffering for the name of Jesus Christ around the world. Persecution? Wasn’t persecution a long time ago? Didn’t that end centuries ago? We don’t see persecution anymore. People aren’t really dying for Christ, are they?
The answer is yes. People are dying daily for the name of Christ. Others are imprisoned for preaching and teaching about Jesus. Some are imprisoned for passing out Bible. People are ostracized from their families for believing in Jesus. Persecution is as mild as losing a job. It is as severe as losing your life. It is real and it exists today. In fact, more people were martyred for their Christian faith in the 20th century than in the previous 1900 years combined. It shows no signs of letting up any time soon. Over 120 million Christian were killed for their faith in the 20th century. That’s more than the number of people who died as a result of war.
How can that be? The western world has traditionally been a relatively “safe” place for Christians. The rise in persecution is due mainly to the success of missionary endeavors of Christians. There are more Christians in the non-western world today than there are in the western world. Many of these areas are openly hostile to Christianity and its followers.