St Barnabas 19th July 09
If you look at the entire course of the church’s history, you will soon see that the majority of Christians across the world have at one time or another been persecuted. Go back to the first three centuries of the church and see how believers suffered under the Roman empire until the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. Look at the church in Saharan Africa and the Middle East and how it was almost completely obliterated by the advance of Islam from the 7th century onwards. Consider the tragic history of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how Christians persecuted each other. Those are just the first few examples that come into my head when I think of persecution over the centuries.
And of course persecution is a terrible reality for many Christians even today. In 2007 the Barnabas Fund estimated that “Up to 200 million Christians today are living in situations where they face discrimination, persecution or oppression because of their faith in the Lord Jesus. That’s ten percent of the worldwide Christian population”. Our gathering here on a Sunday morning would in many countries of the Middle East or Asia be deemed illegal. Your attendance here would be noted by the police, and information passed to your employers, your teachers, your family. Your right to decent housing or a suitable job would be severely curtailed. In some cases you would be thrown in prison, in others you and your family would be subject to bouts of apparently random violence.
But it couldn’t happen here, could it?
I don’t want to be too alarmist but there is growing evidence that within a generation, and certainly by the end of my active ministry, persecution of Christians may be a real possibility. Not necessarily heavy-handed police actions or mass arrests of believers, but low-level harassment, discrimination in employment, loss of funding, restrictions on what we are and not allowed to say. A week ago the Lords threw out an amendment to the innocuous sounding Coroners and Justice Bill which would have made it an offence for Christians to uphold publicly the Biblical teaching on marriage. The media seems to be carrying a constant stream of stories about people who have been sacked for wearing a crucifix, or offering to pray for a patient in their care. A Catholic adoption agency is considering whether to close because it believes the best environment in which children should be raised is the family unit of a man and a wife. That is the reality of life in Britain in 2009, and it’s only going to get tougher.
So are you ready? When the crunch comes, will you stand up and be counted a follower of Christ, or will you simply melt away into the crowd? That is question I believe all of us need to consider carefully, and it’s an issue we should be talking with one another and teaching about far more frequently than we do at the moment. At the very least, if I’m wrong about the coming persecution, we will as a result have a far better idea of how to stand out as a public witness for Christ, and that can only be a good thing, can’t it? But my suspicion is that all those texts in the Bible about taking up your cross, and the stories of people who have taken a stand for their faith will in the coming years start to take on a whole new meaning, and we will begin to look afresh at just what it costs to follow Jesus.
Which leads me straight on to our reading for this morning, from the gospel of Mark. Now admittedly this passage – Mark 6:14-29 – is not one that directly relates to Jesus, but its relevance to the first hearers of the gospel would have been clear. Mark’s gospel, let’s not forget, was written to Christians in Rome who were suffering immense persecution. Why, for example, does Mark of all the gospel writers mention in the temptation of Jesus back in Mark 1:13 that he was with the wild animals? Think gladiators, think lions, think early Christians and I think you get the idea. And when Mark’s audience heard about the fate of John the Baptist – which of all the gospel writers Mark describes in greatest detail – they could not help draw comparisons with the experiences some of their own number had suffered. Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death, you see, is not a deviation from his account of Jesus’ ministry or an interesting historical footnote, but an important lesson about what it means to make a stand for your faith, and the cost that may be involved in making that stand.
So bearing in mind all that I’ve said so far, what is it precisely that we can learn from the life and death of John the Baptist?
First of all, he was a man who knew the importance of a living relationship with the Lord. Of course, in many ways John the Baptist was a unique individual. If you recall the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel that we often read at Christmas, you will remember how his conception was announced in advance to his father Zechariah who was serving in the temple, and how he was identified as the one who would, in the words of Luke 1:17, … go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. John was a special person at a special point in salvation history. But he still had to make sure he lived up to that calling, and did all that the Lord had called him to do.
And it’s worth reflecting that the Holy Spirit which inspired and guided John the Baptist in such a unique manner is the same Holy Spirit which is actually the gift to all believers everywhere. His task may have been a one-off, and the way he performed it unrepeatable, but the way he was equipped to carry it out was exactly the same way as the Lord equips us today. And we too have a duty and a responsibility to nurture our life in the Spirit through public worship, through prayer, through reading of God’s word.
It’s striking that when you read accounts of the persecuted church today, you don’t find anyone saying, “I can’t be bothered to go to church this week. I think I’ll give it a miss” or “I know I should read my Bible, but frankly, I’m just too busy”. Believers in these situations know the importance of regularly deepening and sustaining their relationship with Jesus, both on a personal and at a church level. And if I am right and the Lord is sending us a period of sustained persecution, maybe one reason is that we have grown flabby in our faith, that we no longer prize our relationship with Jesus as we ought, that we are content to neglect our public worship and our private devotions, that actually our faith is not as important as it should be. One could even say that in the Western world belief has become a private leisure interest and our churches a kind of harmless social organisation. How much do we need to get back to a vibrant, living, Spirit-filled relationship with the Lord! Because otherwise when the going gets tough, there is no way any of us will be able to make a stand like John the Baptist, and we will fall. The churches will close or stand empty, and the next generation of believers will be lost.
John the Baptist was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. What about us?
Secondly, he was a man who both knew the word of God and lived by it. So when Herod divorced his first wife in order to marry the wife of his half-brother, he felt he could do no other than speak out. After all, Herod’s actions fell short of God’s standards in several respects. Leaving one wife for another; committing adultery; marrying the wife of your brother – all of these were serious infringements of the law of Moses. And it’s not as if Herod as a Jew was unaware of these commands. Indeed this might indeed explain why as Mark says in verse 20, Herod feared John and protected him. For as long as he was alive, John acted as the voice of Herod’s conscience, reminding him of what he should and shouldn’t have done, acting as a kind of tame confessor. But that in the end is also why Herodias was so eager to do away with him. You see, the world in general doesn’t like people who stand up for the truth, people who are willing to make a stand for what is right. It mocks them as fundamentalists, as intolerant, as bigots, and when that doesn’t work, it does everything within its powers to silence them.
So the question is – how prepared are we to stand up for the truth of God’s word? No doubt when Herod decided to end one marriage and begin another, he somehow managed to convince himself that it was OK, that somehow the laws of Moses didn’t really apply to him. And isn’t that exactly what happens we face today? People using clever arguments to undermine what the Bible says, who claim you can’t apply the word of God to their own particular situation, or that it’s no longer relevant to the ways of the world today. And unless we ourselves are firmly rooted and grounded in Scripture, and hold to it as unique, precious revelation from God, it’s also too easy to get swept along or at least confused by these arguments. That, you see, is the real issue at the heart of those arguments within the Anglican Church today. Yes, issues of human sexuality may be the presenting issue. But deeper than that, the real issue is whether we can believe the Bible to be the word of God, and stand under its authority or whether we stand over it and only pay attention to the bits we like.
However in order to maintain a high view of Scripture it is important that we ourselves read it and understand it thoroughly. I despair of folk who tell me that church meetings have too much Bible in them, or that they have more important things to do than read their Bible day by day. Sure, the Lord knows our busyness, and He is aware of all our pressing needs, but He would like to get a word in edgeways sometimes! And the most reliable way we hear Him speak is through prayerful, careful reflection on Scripture, and learning from one another how to apply His word. After all, let’s remember the reason why many churches have drifted away from the faith delivered once for all to the saints is not that their members woke up one morning and decided they could move on from the word of God. It’s rather they got busy, they got distracted, and no longer paid close attention to what the Lord was saying. And so, without even really knowing it, they began to slowly, slowly drift so their faith became more and more shaped by the world around them, and they took on the values and the priorities of the day. How true is that of us, I wonder?
John the Baptist, however, refused to compromise to the spirit of the age, and when it was right to do so, he spoke out, even at great personal cost to himself. And the reason why he did this? Because thirdly he was a man who desired to glorify Jesus above all else. Again, you may remember that at Christmas we often read the introduction to John’s gospel which contains these words: There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
And if we were to stop and ask ourselves what it means to be a witness of Christ, then we would realise it has nothing to do with what so many false cults and sects mean by witnessing. It means standing up for truth and justice, and being willing to be counted as someone who is not ashamed to be a follower of Jesus. It means making a stand, and saying there are certain limits beyond which we will not go, and there are certain types of behaviour we can and will not accept. It means putting the values of the kingdom first before our own comfort and our own priorities.
But, and this is a very important point, it also means speaking in such a way that our words and actions also reflect our love for Jesus and for our neighbour. After all, I am sure you are aware as I am of the sort of Christian who gives the church a bad name, who is always writing angry letters to the local paper, or stands outside meetings with placards or handing out inflammatory leaflets. They are taking a stand all right, but they give the impression they are doing so more because they are angry or offended, rather than have the love of Jesus Christ burning deep within them. Whatever Herod may have thought about John’s denunciation of his second marriage, he couldn’t deny that the man sitting in his prison was a righteous and holy man. There was something about John the Baptist that meant the light of Christ shone in him and through him.
And because John the Baptist loved the Lord more than anyone or anything else, he was in the end prepared to pay the ultimate price. As the executioner came down the steps with his axe in hand, he didn’t say, “Sorry, it’s all been a terrible mistake” or “Could we have a little chat about this?” He knew that his work on earth was done, and he would be about to receive his ultimate reward. His one calling in life had been to put Jesus first, from beginning to end, and nothing, not even death itself, would deflect him from that calling. And so as his head was brought to Salome on a platter, John the Baptist became only the first of millions of believers over the centuries who have chosen to pay the ultimate price for following Jesus, and are in certain parts of the world are paying that price still.
So what about us? When the crunch comes, will you stand up and be counted a follower of Christ, or will you simply melt away into the crowd? The answer all comes down to how much you really love Jesus, and how much He really is Lord of your life. For in fact you actually love your work, your home, even your family more, then the chances are you will not be ready to stand up for your faith. Jesus, you see, is looking for people who are hungry for a growing, living relationship with Him, who love and live by His word, and who desire to glorify Him above else. So the question is: are you, are I prepared to be those people? Will we take the story of John the Baptist seriously and will we let him be our example and our inspiration?