This is the time of the year when nothing happens. Well, not nothing, but nothing really exciting. In the north country, winter takes its hardest bite out of the countryside. Here in Missouri, spring nibbles around the edges, but it is not so reliably warm that you can plant stuff outside yet, and the days are still brutally short, and the biggest holiday is Valentine's day when it seems to me that the card companies are the only ones celebrating. This year, February is also host to Lent, with Ash Wednesday bringing the solemnities of the penitential season to bear already on the sixth.
This is the perfect time of year to think about perseverance. We have so much to persevere through. There is cold weather, and the end of the football season (at least for the next month or so), and lots of gray days, if the weather is typical. Just dwell on the idea of perseverance and it casts an ominous pall over one's mind. It is not a cheery or inviting idea.
Which is odd, since it is considered quite the Christian virtue. Look it up in the Bible, and you find that in the New Testament alone, it appears twenty-two times, and almost always as a good and desirable thing. It is not connected to fun or pleasure. It appears to be connected, rather, to the realities of normal, daily life. You need to hang on, endure, put up with, and have patience. Sometimes it is connected to sufferings. More often it is than not, for the Christian.
Jesus mentions it only once in the Gospels, in Luke 8, in the explanation of the parable of the sower. The seed that falls into the good ground is explained as representing the ones who hear the Word with honest and good hearts and hold it fast, bearing fruit "with perseverance". And there you have the heart of it. The life of the faithful Christian is all wrapped up in enduring the realities that the Christian encounters in daily living, and facing the foes that may arise, and yet continuing in well-doing and holding fast to the faith which, at times, may seem to have little to recommend it.
Many times the Psalms speak of this needed perseverance, but they never actually use the word. Actually, in the Psalms, endurance is something God does, and His mercy does. So when we persevere in faith or in holiness, we are showing our likeness to our heavenly Father. But when the Psalms speak of perseverance, they talk about the Lord making me not afraid, the Lord causing me to lie down in peace, the Lord as my stronghold, committing one's self to the Lord, calling upon the Lord, and the like. In other words, the perseverance of the child of God is the work of God.
The perseverance of the saints in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, is never a done deal. It isn't a thing by itself, or actually a thing, period. It is a process, an on-going act of living in the good will and love of God. The Psalms are filled with "I will" statements. I will call upon the Lord, for example. I shall wash my hands in innocence, And I will go about Thine altar, O LORD. I will give thanks to Thee, or I will praise Thee, or I will rejoice, or I will confess, or I will bless the Lord at all times. Essentially, they teach about trust in the Lord, and recognizing His hand for good in our lives.
On the other hand, the Psalms are also filled with statement like, The Lord preserves His faithful, and, The Lord will give strength to His people, and, The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. Over and over again the patience of the people of God rests on the Lord and His goodness - and they are not disappointed or ashamed.
This on-going act of perseverance is a large part of the life of the Christian, as in Ephesians 6, With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and something to be sought after, as in 1 Timothy 6, But flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. It is the gift of God, Romans 15, Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, and it is much to be desired and sought after from God. It is almost synonymous with the life a Christian leads. Paul speaks of it in 2 Thessalonians 1 as something he boasts about in the Thessalonian Christians, and John seems to sum up the Christian life with the word in Revelation 1:9, I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos, because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Perseverance is needed to be a Christian. Back in the time of the first Christians, the faith was illegal, and persecuted by the government periodically and with deadly force. Our situation is different. The Christian faith is still a legal religion in America. There are quite a number of places where it is no longer legal in the world, and other places where it is formally legal, but Christians may be abused and even murdered just for being a Christian with impunity. Christians in those places exercise heroic perseverance. But here at home, we haven't gotten to that point, yet.
It is coming. A couple of decades ago, I was documenting the refusal of cities to allow congregations to obtain building permit, and the arrest of people in a few communities (big cities, actually) for holding Bible Studies in their homes (zoning laws were used). Today people are being harassed for carrying a Bible with them to read in their free time, or for reading aloud - not loudly, just aloud - from a Bible in a setting where many people were reading out loud from various books. Some schools which tolerate violently anti-social commentary or wildly sexual and inappropriate statements on T-shirts have insisted that some of those wearing Christian-themed shirts go home and change, citing the possibility of causing offense. Christians bearing a cross and perhaps reading from the Bible near abortion providers have been ordered to stop and go away, and have been arrested for failure to comply. Now, I believe that once legally ordered to stop, we ought to obey the law. But you can stop traffic and burn flags in the middle of the street in most of our major cities without danger of being arrested, because that has been adjudged "protected free speech" by our courts. How a meek Christian witness can fall outside of such legal protection is logically puzzling.
But not theologically. Christ told us that the world hated Him, and that it would hate us also. In decades gone by, the Christian church, as we could observe it outwardly in this country, did not stand up for the Christian faith well. The world came into the church and taught us to hold our peace and not make a scene or attract much attention to ourselves. We kind of came to believe that it was okay to believe as long as we didn't bother anyone else with it - and by bother we seemed to mean 'let them know that we believed or what we believed that set us apart from the world around us'. The world didn't need to lean on us, we seemed to be keeping a lid on ourselves pretty well. And catechesis (teaching the faith) disintegrated in most churches so that people today who sit in the pews often do not know basic Bible history or what it is that the churches have taught in their history, and what "Christian" actually means.
In recent years there has been a re-awakening of faith and teaching, accompanied by the divisions in many churches between what is called "liberal" and what is called "conservative" (both probably inaccurately). As many congregations began to shake off the sloth of the fifties and the sixties, the world awoke to the reality that 'Christian' was beginning to mean something again, and they began to take umbrage at the clearer confession of faith, and specifically of Christ. We should expect that as our culture grows coarser and cooler toward the Christian faith, the hostility of the world will become more tangible. Our perseverance will be put to the test with increasing frequency and increasing vitriol if this cultural decay continues on its present course.
Yet, even today, with no one at the lake of the Ozarks openly assaulting us, we have need of the perseverance which is required of all Christians. We have everyday life to deal with. There are the financial problems that some of us wrestle with - probably most of us, at our own level of difficulty. There are the health issues which claim our attention. If they are not our personal issues, they are likely to belong to someone close to us and dear to us. The temptations of the world around us continue to grow - and temptations don't have to be to open sin. They can be temptations to keep up with the 'Joneses", or the lure of technology which seems to be running faster than our budgets or our comprehension can keep up with. There are computers, and flat-screen TV's and Ipods and cell-phones, and all the accessories that go with them, and they seem to come packaged with this "you gotta have it" kind of urgency, right in the package. And if you can avoid all of those tests, life just keeps on keeping on day by day - dull for some, hectic for others, and alternating between the two with infuriating persistence for the rest of us.
The temptation to do something to make life sparkle a bit, or to take a short-cut so that life can slow down a step or two is often pretty attractive. Finding the time for prayer, or for Bible Study can be a challenge. At other times, finding the energy to fit those things into our daily schedule can be our problem. And just remembering to walk by faith and live to what you believe and confess is a task that may slip our minds. Perseverance means hanging on, enduring, putting up with, and having patience with life and with ourselves, so that we continue to be who God has called us to be in Christ, and continue to remember our forgiveness (both received by us and given by us to others), and the rich blessing of God on us which are so easy to take for granted.
The good spouse God has given us might easily come to feel like a burden or an irritation if we forget to give thanks, and count the blessings we have. We can quickly forget who we are and imagine ourselves as really decent people, and take offense at those around us, unless we persevere in looking into the Word and seeing our sinfulness honestly reflected in the Law. We might begin to get defeated or depressed by the times we live in or events in our lives if we forget the great love of God and do not pause to remember our Lord's death on our behalf, and the gift of forgiveness and life which is ours, but at His expense.
Sometimes it is just difficult to remember that we live under the Gospel and the grace of God and not under the Law and under the pressure to achieve something holy or noteworthy in the way of our conduct before we can rest in the love of God for us. We experience that when we begin to wonder if our troubles are due to our failure to meet some standard or live up to God's expectations. I know I face that temptation now and then, so I am guessing the devil can work you over with that sort of thinking sometimes, too. Those are the times we need to recall our unworthiness and to hold on to the words of absolution we hear in the service each week, and remember that the voice that spoke them was the voice of Jesus - that is, the one chosen by Him to speak those words out loud to us.
Even without extraordinary persecutions, perseverance is a difficult thing for the child of God. It is so difficult that we need God to work it up in us and make it happen - and God's ways are not always our own - we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Anyhow, the month of February put me in mind of the perseverance of the Christian in the long winter of this world. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.