Dealing with persecution

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 25th March 2018

Readings – Psalm 69:1- 18; Mark 14:43-65

Hussein is a 68 year old believer in Uganda. He spent most of his adult life as a leader of the local Muslim community. He secretly converted to the Christian faith in 2006 but kept his faith hidden for over 10 years. Then he offered his land for the building of a church. A local mob set out to kill him, and three young men visited him, pretending to be interested in getting some Bibles. Hussein has now fled to a refugee camp, having lost everything.

Hannah grew up in North Korea. She found life there too difficult there and fled to China where she became a believer. But then she and all her family were discovered by the Chinese secret police and deported back to North Korea where they were detained in a labour camp. There Hannah’s husband was killed for his faith. Hannah managed to escape to South Korea but remains in fear of her life. Hannah is not her real name.

In India a Christian family wanted to bury their baby girl. But local Hindu extremists demanded that the child be buried outside the village. Eventually the family paid a large amount for the burial to take place on the land they owned. But the night after their girl was laid to rest, a mob attacked the family and burned their home to the ground. The mother, father and other daughter were all injured in the process.

These are just a few of the stories collected by Open Doors, a charity which seeks to support the persecuted church worldwide. This charity reports that across the world over 200 million Christians face high levels of persecution, and that this persecution is rising. Last year at least 692 churches and Christian buildings were attacked. More than 1922 Christians were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned. They also calculate that every month over 100 Christians are forcibly married against their will.

Now none of us have ever faced the same level of opposition because of our faith in Jesus Christ. But even so I guess we all can think of situations where people make fun of us, or single us out because we dare to call ourselves a Christian. Perhaps you live with a family member who can think of no earthly reason why you would go to church this morning. Perhaps you work in a setting where publicly expressing your faith is a disciplinary offence. Perhaps you are at a school or college where you are very much on your own as a believer. Sometimes it really is tough to follow Jesus, isn’t it?

But if we are familiar with the gospel of Mark, then we shouldn’t be surprised by our treatment.

If you there at the film night the other week, you will know that the gospel of Mark falls into two halves. In the first half Jesus reveals exactly who He is through a series of extraordinary miracles. He feeds five thousand people, He calms storms, He raises a sick girl from the dead. The natural question everyone is asking is, “Who is this man?” And in Mark 8:29 Peter provides us with the answer. This Jesus is none other than the Messiah, the one promised by the prophets of old, the one who would come and set God’s people free.

But then the gospel takes a surprising twist. From that point on Jesus begins to predict His suffering and death. Not only that, but He teaches His followers there will be a real cost in being a disciple. And His teaching is more than just theory. As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, the religious leaders ramp up their opposition. As far as they are concerned, there is no way that anyone who rides into the city on a donkey can be a king. He can only be some sort of deceiver leading the crowds astray, a dangerous threat to the spiritual and religious order of the day, someone who must be stopped come what may.

So in today’s passage these leaders finally make their move against Jesus. They’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, really, ever since this carpenter’s son from Galilee first began His ministry. Now under the cover of darkness, away from the bustle and noise of the city, they have their perfect opportunity and they are determined to deal with Him once and for all.

So how exactly do they deal with Him? Five points come out of this passage:

First of all, they treat Jesus like a common criminal.

Verse 43: Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders. Because that is the way you deal with rebels, isn’t it? You send out a large force to catch Him and you make sure they are appropriately armed. No matter that for the past three years Jesus has done nothing but good and never used violence or threats against anyone else. In the eyes of the religious authorities Jesus is nothing more than a lawbreaker and deserves to be treated as such.

Around the world today that is exactly how followers of Jesus are also treated, as criminals, as lawbreakers just because they own Him as the only Son of God. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is an offence to have any non-Muslim place of worship in the country. Believers have to meet in secret, and if they are discovered to be worshipping Jesus, they run the very real possibility of death. I often wonder how I would react if it became illegal in this country to follow Christ, and whether I would be willing to risk my life for the name of Jesus.

And notice something very important about the way Jesus responds. For His disciples it was a gut instinct to meet violence with violence. We know from the other gospels it was Peter who according to verse 47 cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. But Jesus wants to do nothing that justifies such use of force against Him. As we shall see later, if He had, His very mission to save and rescue us from our sins would have been placed in jeopardy. No, even though part of Him might have wanted to fight back, He knows that Scripture must be fulfilled. He allows Himself to be counted as a common criminal, aware that a cross awaits, because ultimately that it is the only way you and I could be saved.

But, as we saw last week, that did not make the pain He was going to endure any less real. And I’m not I talking here simply about physical pain. After all, at the head of this armed mob was Judas, and I can only begin to imagine what Jesus felt when He saw him approaching. Yes, Jesus knew Judas was going to betray him. He knew all about Judas’ meeting with the religious leaders and the thirty pieces of silver they paid him. But Judas had been one of the twelve. He had been sent out to preach the kingdom. He may well have performed miracles in Jesus’ name. Had three years of close friendship really come to this?

We may never fully understand why Judas betrayed Jesus. But informants are probably the most deadly weapon the state can use against the church. In North Korea parents don’t tell children about their faith, in case they report something to their teachers. If there are secret meetings of believers, it is assumed that some of those present will be spies. Personally, I cannot conceive of meeting in such awful circumstances, knowing that someone would report me as soon as the service was over. Such acts of betrayal are so effective in dividing and discouraging the church. Perhaps this is an additional reason why everyone around Jesus fled when He was arrested. If one of the twelve was an informant, you may well be asking yourself who else was willing to spill the beans.

So the religious leaders treat Jesus as a common criminal. They use a paid informant. Thirdly, they tell lies about Jesus.

Verses 55-56: The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.

Now if you are familiar with this gospel, you will know that Mark paints a very human portrait of Jesus. There are occasions when Jesus is angry, or tired, or hungry. For forty days He is alone in the desert being tempted by the devil. Just imagine if at any point Jesus had had a moment of weakness or given into temptation. Not only would the ruling religious council, the Sanhedrin, have been able to convict Jesus of doing something wrong. It would also mean that Jesus was not who He said He was. Jesus would no longer be the Son of God who could offer the perfect sacrifice for us on the cross. He would be a liar, our faith would be based on falsehood, and we would still be dead in our sins.

Perhaps that is why for two thousand years sceptics have sought for evidence to undermine the claims of Jesus. The remarkable thing is, they are still looking. But that doesn’t stop those who refuse to believe writing stories, and producing films, to show what they say is the true story of Jesus. After all, when faced with the goodness and the perfection of Jesus, the religious authorities did everything in their power to manufacture evidence. The fact that even with the testimony of so many witnesses they failed to come up with any charges is proof, if proof were needed, that Jesus really was, and is, the one He claimed to be.

But when it comes to unbelief, facts rarely soften the hearts of those who cannot accept Jesus to be the Son of God. I know too many people who will hold on to the most extraordinary claims about Jesus rather than admit He is who He says it is, no matter how overwhelming and how strong the evidence before them. And in such cases I know my words aren’t going to make a difference. I can only pray for the Lord to have mercy on them and to soften their hearts.

However the authorities remain determined to convict Jesus irrespective of the truth before them. That is why when they cannot get the evidence they want they go on to twist Jesus’ words.

Verses 57-59: Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.'” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

Now in Jesus’ time the temple was a truly impressive sight. It took 46 years to build, and it dominated the skyline of Jerusalem. It was seen as the place where the Lord chose to dwell among His people. Once a year the High Priest would offer sacrifices in the most Holy Place for the sins of the people, and every day crowds would flock to the outer courts to offer sacrifice and fulfil their vows to the Lord. It was where Jesus Himself had been dedicated to the Lord when He was a baby and where, aged twelve, He had declared it to be His Father’s house.

Yet it is also true that Jesus had prophesied destruction of the temple. Mark 13:1-2 tells us that: As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” And of course, as these were the words of Jesus, they came true. Within forty years of Jesus’ trial the Roman soldiers entered the city of Jerusalem. They destroyed the temple and threw the stones onto the streets below. You can see still see where they landed today, and the dents they made in the pavement underneath.

So the issue was not whether or not Jesus had prophesied the destruction of the temple. It was what His words meant. To the religious leaders Jesus was attacking the whole religious and political system of the day, and they would do anything to twist His words to fit their agenda. Yet Jesus was only standing in line with the prophets of old who had foretold the destruction of the original temple back in 587BC. They too had warned of what the Lord was going to do; they too had urged His people to repent. Yet they too were ignored, rejected and often killed.

The tragedy is that the religious leaders who so delighted in learning the law of the Lord were unable to heed its message. And they could not and would not hear what the Lord was saying to them even now. To me, this is a reminder that sometimes persecution comes not from those who outside the church, but from within. There are too many examples over the centuries of genuine believers being martyred by the religious authorities and such deaths grievously hinder the witness and the mission of the church in the wider world.

To sum up where we have got to so far: the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have treated Him as a common criminal; they have used a paid informant; they have told lies about Him, and they have twisted His words. But all this is as nothing to their refusal to acknowledge the truth of what Jesus is saying.

Verses 60-62: Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Sometimes you need to give a straight answer to a straight question. Here Jesus is asked directly if He is the Messiah and the Son of God. Again, if He had fudged the question or tried to dodge the proverbial bullet, there is no way that He could be our Saviour. Oh yes, the temptation to deny His identity was there. In the Garden of Gethsemane He had pleaded with His Heavenly Father to take the cup of judgement away from Him. He knows that what comes out of His mouth will seal His fate. It will not be a quick execution, either. The spitting, the blindfolding, the beating will just be the start.

But nonetheless Jesus says, I am. We perhaps miss the force of what Jesus is saying in our English translations, because the two words “I am” in the original Greek are the same form used by the Lord when He reveals His name to Moses at the burning bush over a thousand years earlier. Jesus makes a direct and very public confession that He is God. And just in case there is any doubt He also claims to fulfil an Old Testament Scripture that the High Priest would have known so well.

Back in Daniel chapter 7 we have a mysterious vision of someone called the Ancient of Days taking their place on a throne. It is a picture of God sitting down to judge the nations and declare victory over the kingdoms of this world. As Daniel watches this vision, he sees one like a son of man being led into the very presence of God. This Son of Man is given authority, glory and power over all peoples and nations. His kingdom, we are told, is one that will never pass away or be destroyed. And standing there, before the High Priest, Jesus explicitly states that He is this Son of Man. He is about to stand in the presence of God Himself and receive the kingdom foretold by Daniel and the other Old Testament prophets.

That is quite an extraordinary statement, and it’s one that is too much for the High Priest to handle. Verses 63-65: The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him.

Now today the followers of Jesus even as we speak also being beaten, imprisoned and even killed because they confess Jesus as their Messiah and declare Him to be the Son of God. But you might ask, what lessons are there for us here in this country as we think about this subject of persecution?

First of all, it is really important we understand that the United Kingdom is no longer a Christian country. The idea that the values laws of our society somehow vaguely mesh with the values of the gospel is already several generations out of date. There is a rapidly growing gap between what society believes and what we as Christians believe. This is most seen in the area of human sexuality. We believe marriage is between one man and one woman. We believe everyone is made in the image of God, born male or female. Such views are well on their way to being criminalised. Sadly there are those in the church who have adapted their beliefs to fit in with the views of society. They are not our friends when it comes to upholding the truth of the gospel.

We now live in a culture where all kinds of lies are being spread about the Christian faith. The rise of social media doesn’t help, and in general most news outlets are not sympathetic to those who are followers of Jesus. The words of the Bible are often twisted or distorted. The idea that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, is seen as either offensive or eccentric.

Now it is easy to admire or romanticise the fate of persecuted Christians. But their lives are tough, really tough. We need to pray for them and support them in whatever way we can. And we also need to ask ourselves: are we ourselves willing to bear the cost of following Jesus? Are we so grateful that Jesus died for us that we will follow Him no matter what may happen to us? Today let us consider what it means to take up our cross and let us rededicate our lives to Him in His service. For His name’s sake. Amen.

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