Sermons

Sun, May 12, 2019

Hope for the struggle

Series:Sermons

According to a recent report from the British Foreign Office… 

the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa…

is pervasive…

bordering on genocide…

and often driven by the state.

For example, the Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to flee the country––

such that the Christian population of Palestine has fallen from fifteen percent to two percent.

In fact, across the Middle East and North Africa as a whole… 

over the last century…

the Christian population has dropped from twenty percent to about four percent.

Millions of Christians have been forced from their homes…

kidnapped and imprisoned…

killed…

or simply suffered significant discrimination.

Churches have been bombed in Egypt…

and Christians killed by extremists.

Converts have been arrested in Iran, Qatar, and Algeria.

Christians have been labelled as “a threat to the stability of the nation” by the Turkish government.

While, in Saudi Arabia, school textbooks are said to promote religious hatred and intolerance towards non-Muslims.

Indeed, some form of persecution or harassment has been identified in over one hundred and forty countries.

“The inconvenient truth”, the report suggests is that “the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians”.

Of course, from our position of comfort, security, and freedom…

that’s hard to imagine…

or, perhaps, even believe.

Persecution is probably something that we only associated with the early Christians…

at the hands of the Roman Empire.

And in John’s symbolic vision––

from this morning’s reading from the Book of Revelation––

we seem to get a picture of that.

His vision describes a vast multitude of people of every nation and race…

standing before the throne of God…

robed in white and singing their praises;

and, we’re told:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.

 

And yet, despite how that might seem at first glance, it’s not referring to martyrs––

at least, not in the “classical sense”––

certainly not at the time when the Book of Revelation was written.

There was no formal or large-scale ‘persecution’ of Christians in the late first century.

Indeed, it would be many decades before Christians were systematically put to death for their faith. 

And while the author might have imagined an escalation in animosity towards Christians…

it’s hard to imagine that he anticipated systematic persecutions…

and executions.

As always, with the Book of Revelation, the imagery of the visions is complex.

The “great ordeal”, here, probably refers to some specific time of testing––

although laced with a fair degree of hyperbole;

while being “robed in white” simply symbolises them as having been faithful witnesses.

Despite how many might interpret it…

the reference to their robes being washed white “in the blood of the Lamb” is not a reference to sin…

let alone to Jesus’ death as a means of forgiveness.

Rather, the image is drawn from the Old Testament…

where Israel’s warriors were required to wash their garments after battle…

before they could worship.

That the robe cleansing comes… 

paradoxically…

from “the blood of the Lamb” is intentionally ironic.

 

In the context of the time when John was writing… 

this imagery is asserting that they had endured some sort of oppression and suffering…

but that they had not given in.

In particular, they had resisted the power and ideology of Rome––

especially its totalitarian claims;

its demand for absolute, unwavering allegiance.

They had refused to accommodate to Roman social and religious practices;

they had refused to bow down to the Emperor;

they had resisted the pressure to conform to their society’s and their culture’s values––

insofar as those values clashed with what they understood to be God’s values and God’s intention for creation.

And yet, preceding this vision of John’s…

and following it… 

there are other visions––

visions of chaos and destruction…

of famines, plagues, and natural disasters…

of wars…

and of economic and political oppression.

Within this particular vision, however, there is a remarkable promise…

made to those who similarly resist and endure, and who bear faithful witness––

that “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more… and God will wipe every tear from their eyes”.

Through this vision, John is trying to offer a sense of hope…

in a world seemingly consumed with violence and injustice…

where evil seems to triumph…

and where good, faithful people do, indeed, suffer.

He is trying to reassure them that if they endure…

if they resist…

then they will be vindicated; 

because God is ultimately in control––

not the powers of this world–– 

and God will have the last say.

 

Now that sort of image of God makes sense within the world-view of the first century––

a world where some sort of divine being was responsible for any exercise of power…

and a world that lacked a sense of impersonal causality…

where nothing “just happened”…

but someone, usually a divine being, was ultimately responsible for everything.

And that sort of image of God––

as controlling–– 

would have been very attractive, under those circumstances, to those who were suffering.

Ultimately, however, it’s an image of God that ought to be very unsatisfying for us…

in the light of our more sophisticated understanding of the world.

But it’s also an image that is potentially very dangerous.

After all, it’s the sort of imagery that seems to feed so much terrorist ideology.

At the same time, it also seems to suggest that salvation––

and heavenly rewards––

are the prerogative of those who have been faithful;

as if we earn those things by our faithfulness…

rather than by divine gift. 

But this vision was never intended as an answer to what happens to us after death.

Indeed, the focus here––

as throughout the Book of Revelation––

is on Jesus.

And, once again, the image of Jesus held out to us here

is of the Lamb who was slaughtered;

the one who gave his life––

not in violent retaliation or retribution…

but in faith and faithfulness.

It’s the image of the one who gave his life sacrificially––

not as some act of divine appeasement…

but simply in doing what was right…

in trying to make a difference…

and, in the very act of doing, precipitating change.

In that context, the vindication of the faithful…

is the vindication of those who follow in the way of the cross;

because, in their willingness to take a stand…

in their willingness to suffer…

in their willingness to ‘speak truth to power’…

not only do they emulate the example of Jesus…

but they, too, can precipitate change…

and provide an example for us all to follow.

 

Thus, even for us, today…

it is through our faithfulness to God––

following in the way of the Lamb who was slaughtered—

that God’s purposes will be fulfilled;

the creation will become what God intends it to be;

and we will find comfort and…

ultimately…

vindication…

in our struggles and suffering to see God’s peace and justice realised.

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