Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. John 11:49-50
Grace, mercy, and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I read an article stating Christian persecution was the most underreported story last year. More Christians were martyred in the past century than the number that died in all the centuries before. It is true that we've heard very little of it.
Gary Lane of Voice of the Martyrs noted the secular press sees Christian persecution as a human rights issue. As an example, most reporters see the persecution in southern Sudan, Africa, as a war about economics or ethnicity. "No, he said, it is holy jihad--radical Muslims in the north waging jihad against the Christians in the south. And the secular media will not report that." About 2 million Sudanese have died in 19 years of fighting. In my former congregation of Omaha, we have seen dozens of Sudanese Lutheran families immigrate to America rather than face death at the hands of their tormentors.
Christian martyrdom is flourishing today around the globe. Our brothers and sisters in the Lord are making the supreme sacrifice to keep confessing the name of Jesus. The Islamic world is a hostile place for Christians: in Saudi Arabia, for instance, Christianity is illegal, and conversion from Islam is punishable by death. In Pakistan, the death penalty is prescribed for anyone who "blasphemes" Islam. What is witnessing for Christ but confessing that there is no other name, given among men, which brings salvation?
The communist world is no better. Groups that monitor religious persecution say the Chinese government is cracking down as never before on "underground" Christians--those who do not join the state sponsored political churches. Christians in North Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, Laos, and Uzbekistan are also facing fierce persecution.
We hear so often about Jewish persecution in the Second World War, but analysts estimate close to 100 million Christians were martyred in the so-called ‘modern' 20th century. This trend promises to continue. Can any good come out of such evil?
Why would God allow his true followers to suffer so? The Bible teaches us that we must all pick up our cross and follow Jesus. For some, the cross is heavier than others. They must leave their home country or face death. But Jesus promised that "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many more times as much in this age, and in the age to come, eternal life" (Luke 18:29-30).
Our text for today points out the origin of persecution. This is how they treated our Lord. The high priest of Jerusalem said it himself. "It is better that one man died for the people than that the whole nation perish."
According to this thinking, the end justifies the means. Murder may be wrong, but if it promotes good for a greater number of people, then it is better to kill one group of people so that another group may have a better life. This is the greatest evil that is threatening our world today. They thought this way about Jesus, that if he were out of the way, the Roman government would allow the high priest and his courtesans to continue to hold power. So Jesus had to die.
What Caiaphas and his modern counterparts who hold power in countries that persecute Christians don't realize is that the will of God will be done despite their evil efforts. God allowed Jesus to be killed, but from his death he destroyed the power of death for all who would follow Christ. God allows his people to die rather than forsake the name of Jesus. But out of their deaths he raises them up to eternal life. Out of their suffering a legacy of faithfulness is told. Out of their brave witness, their dying breaths, comes a lesson in what faith is really all about. The Christian faith is about trusting Jesus with everything, your life, your wealth, your family, and your loved ones.
As Luther penned in his hymn, A Mighty Fortress, "Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife. Let these all be gone. They have yet nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth."
It's not that we Christians have some sort of death wish. Just the opposite. We want to live in this world to proclaim the good news of a loving God to everyone who will hear it. We are to obey the governments that God sets over us. But when the forces of evil in this world become intolerant to the message God has given us, and they want us to give up the hope that Christ leaves with us, we must obey God rather than men. We can never give up the name of Jesus. We should never even give the impression that there is any other way of addressing a supreme being apart from the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The word of the Lord puts us in a crisis. Jesus said, "If you confess to follow me before men, I will confess you before my Father in heaven. If you do not confess me before men, I will not confess you before my Father in heaven." Luke 12:8. Confessing the name of Jesus may mean the loss of property, honor, position, loved ones, even our life in this world. But not to confess the name of Jesus would cause us to lose that which is far more precious than these, eternal life. This is the crisis we face.
The reading from Ezekiel today of the valley of dry bones reminds us of this truth. Ezekiel saw the bones and prophesied to them. They came together and formed a body, with muscle and skin. But they were not alive until the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, had breathed upon them. In the same way, unless we have the Spirit of God in us, we are dead already. But with the Spirit of God who brings us faith in Christ, we are made alive, and nothing can take that life away from us. This is what strengthens the martyrs to give their life rather than deny Jesus. It will strengthen us also for the battles of faith we must face today.
It is such a blessing to live in a country that protects religious freedom. It seems there are many who would rather protect people from any contact with religion in this country. The laws were made to free us from being forced to bow the knee to a false God at the threat of our life. That is a wonderful freedom, to worship God in Spirit and truth.
What can we do for those who do not have this freedom? Pray. Pray for persecuted believers around the world, for their protection, strength and care. Pray as they live as witnesses for the Gospel before their accusers. Pray for their families and the believers they leave behind. Pray for Christians who are not suffering persecution that they would not be immune to the suffering of others and that God would strengthen us if persecution were to come our way.
Contact the State department of our country and ask them to act aggressively on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world. Stay up to date on worldwide persecution. Don't think that if the media is not reporting it that it must not be happening.
Encourage oppressed Christians by using your freedom to live for Christ and witness for the gospel. Be clear in the proclamation of the truth of Scripture that there is no other name by which we must be saved. You may even be able to write to suffering Christians to encourage their faithfulness.
God doesn't cause evil, but he can make good come out it. After September 11 we saw many acts of charity and kindness done in the name of Jesus. Out of the martyrdoms God works faith through their example of true faith. We are encouraged in our minor struggles of faith when we see the martyrs accepting persecution and death rather than turn away from Jesus.
What Caiaphas intended as evil for Jesus, God worked for good for us. Jesus was crucified that we might be set free from sin. May God use our lives to encourage others to keep the faith. Amen
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