I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary to guide us through various biblical books and themes in our weekly worship. One of the many benefits of doing this is that it’s helped me come to a better appreciation of days that have been set aside to focus on a particular issue for the worldwide church to consider. With that in mind, today is the “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church” and the suggested Scripture readings reflect this focus, including ours from Luke 21.
I confess that the notion of a “persecuted church” is difficult for me to wrap my mind around or even begin to understand or appreciate. It’s all too easy for us living in the United States in the 21st century to think of “persecution” as an abstract concept, as something that has only occurred sporadically in the history of the church. But in fact—and sadly—it is alive and well even today. By one estimate put out by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, “more than 70 million Christians have been martyred over the last two millennia. More than half of these were in the 20th century under fascist and communist regimes. For the early 21st century, [they] estimate that 1 million Christians were killed over the 10-year period from 2000–2010, an average of approximately 100,000 Christians killed each year.” That’s an astounding number that is difficult to grasp or even conceive. But it’s important that we try for these are our brothers and sisters. One of the things that’s helped me put hearts and faces to numbers like this has been getting to know International students. I can’t hear about these persecutions without thinking of some who have even been a part of our church family—Victor and Maria, Martin and Yoyo—for whom persecution isn’t a theoretical possibility but is what they actually face when they return to their native countries.
In our passage from Luke, Jesus is telling his followers that persecution will fall upon them after he dies, rises, and ascends to heaven. And though we aren’t currently experiencing such persecution in the United States, nonetheless there are some important reminders here of what our attitude in life ought to be at all times during our earthly sojourn.
This account from Luke 21 begins innocently enough. In verse 5 we’re told, “Some of [Jesus’] disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.” In the presence of the beauty of the temple, the disciples are struck and comment upon the temple’s magnificence. This is Herod the Great’s Temple Mount whose size and beauty were considered to be greater than most of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Herod began rebuilding the temple in 19 BC and he used marble and gold to decorate it. Its outer court was five hundred by three hundred yards. And its “beautiful stones” and “gifts dedicated to God” would have included tapestries, gold and bronze doors, and golden grape clusters.
But Jesus, being ever mindful that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” shifts the focus of the disciples’ admiration from earthly to heavenly considerations. In verse 6 we’re told that after the disciples’ remark about the temple’s adornment, Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” So, Jesus notes, no matter how impressive the temple may be, there will come a time when all of its stones will be thrown down until none are left. In stating this he’s predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that later occurred in 70 AD by means of the Roman army under Titus who was a general and later became emperor. And Jesus uses this imminent destruction later in the chapter to point to the final destruction that will occur at the end of the age when he, the Son of Man, returns to judge the earth and establish the new heaven and earth.
And he’s successful in turning the attention of his disciples away from the beauty of the temple towards more important matters. In verse 7 we see the disciples shift their gaze in asking, “Teacher,…when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” And so starting in verse 8 Jesus provides his disciples with some concrete things to watch for after he is gone. He begins by stating, “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.” So the first thing that the disciples need to be wary of is false teachers and prophets who will be false in claiming to be Jesus and in claiming that the end times are near. About them, Jesus clearly tells his disciples, “Do not follow them.”
In addition to having to deal with false leaders providing false prophecies, his disciples will additionally “hear of wars and uprisings” in verse 9. But, again, his disciples are to disregard these rumors. Jesus tells them not to worry about them. “[D]o not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” Again, Jesus is providing his disciples a “heads-up” of things to watch for once he is gone. And he is also letting them know that though the time when the temple will be destroyed is near, the end of the world is not.
In verse 10, he tells them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” clarifying again that “wars and uprisings” will occur but they won’t be an indication that the end of the world has arrived. Not only that but, verse 11, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.” With all of these statements and predictions, it’s evident that Jesus is no longer speaking about the near future—the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—but he has shifted from the micro to the macro, intermingling events from the final end times with the beginning of the end times and kingdom that he, who ever has been God and King over the entire cosmos, inaugurated when he came to earth in the form of a man. And until he, the Son of Man, returns once and for all to finally to establish the new heavens and earth, we will continue to experience wars and great earthly quakes and calamities.
What Jesus is trying to make clear to his disciples is that before the Son of Man returns, Christ’s church will suffer even as he did. In verses 12 and 13 Jesus lets his disciples know, before it occurs, what they can expect as a result of their committing their lives to being his followers. “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me.” The fact that these things will occur to Jesus’ followers all on account of [his] name is no doubt one of the reasons the common lectionary suggested this passage from Luke among those that would be appropriate to consider on this International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. For by definition, Christian martyrs are “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
Isn’t this what we see even in Scripture? As early as the book of Acts, Stephen is stoned to death because he proclaimed the Gospel of Christ. And, as we saw in the life of the apostle Paul—who when he was Saul consented to Stephen’s martyrdom—Paul, too, was suffering and imprisoned, awaiting his imminent death, as he wrote a second letter to his beloved son in the Lord, Timothy. Brothers and sisters, since the time of Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven and sending of his Holy Spirit to establish and guide and strengthen his Church, his body, Jesus’ followers have been ridiculed and tortured and killed,
Not for behaving immorally;
Not for mistreating others;
Not for seeking to overthrow those in authority;
Nor for being otherwise disruptive;
No, since the time of God establishing his church, Christians have been ridiculed and tortured and killed for proclaiming three things: First, that since the time of the Fall, part of what it means to be human is that we are now sinners;
we are now those who would rather do our will rather than God’s will;
we are now those who would rather love and serve ourselves rather than God;
we are now those would rather love and serve ourselves rather than those around us;
we are now those who would rather use nature, God’s created order, to our own advantage rather than being good stewards of God’s resources as he intended.
Second, Christians have been ridiculed and tortured and killed for additionally proclaiming that before the foundation of the world, God’s solution to our human dilemma was that we
own the wrongness of our fallen inclinations,
acknowledge our need for him,
and receive the means he has provided in his Son, Jesus Christ, that we might turn from our ways and learn from him how it is that we are to love him with all of our hearts, souls, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.
And third, Christians have been ridiculed and tortured and killed for proclaiming that to follow God’s ways rather than our own requires a change in behavior—requires that we seek to be holy even as he is. So God’s children are called to condemn the acts of the flesh, as exemplified by the fruit of the flesh listed in Galatians 5, namely “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” And, conversely, God’s children are called to promote instead the fruit of the Spirit in which we were made to live, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.”
And yet proclaiming these three things—that all of us humans are sinners, that the only means of being delivered from our sinful inclinations is Jesus Christ, and that to turn to Jesus requires a radical change in the way in which live—has ever resulted in ridicule, torture, and at times, even death for no one, but no one, likes to be told that their way of seeing things, of understanding life, is wrong and that there is only one way of seeing things rightly, the way of God in Christ. But it’s important that we do proclaim this message even as our persecuted brothers and sisters have ever done and do so today. For though in many circumstances our beliefs aren’t consequential, in the matter of salvation this is literally a matter of spiritual life or eternal death; it is literally a matter of a future life with Christ in heaven or a future death without him in hell. So it’s important that we as humans get this right.
And this teaching which we, God’s image-bearers, have found offensive enough to persecute and put people to death, began with John the Baptist, that great preparer of the way of Lord Jesus, and continued with Jesus himself, whom we’re called to love, follow, and emulate. For both John and Jesus taught that we’re to: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent for the kingdom of God has drawn near.
God’s kingdom drew near when he came to earth in the person of Jesus the King who since his death, resurrection, and ascension continues to rule this world at the Father’s right hand. And you and I are called to follow Jesus not only in proclaiming the message of repentance—of our salvation, our deliverance, our passage to our heavenly Father being only through him, but—and here is where we too often fall too far short—you and I are also called to follow Jesus in treating others the way in which he treated others, with love—and compassion—and kindness—and gentleness even as we seek to explain how all of our sin must be dealt with, and has been dealt with, by Jesus Christ on the cross. This incalculable price that God in Christ paid on the cross was God’s provision for undoing sin’s destructive effects in our relationship with God, with others, and even ourselves. For God, by his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection and ascension, and then by sending Christ’s Holy Spirit to mark and indwell us, has overturned those destructive effects and given us new and eternal life with him, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who, as we learned last week, is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all who turn to him live to him both now on earth and forever with him in heaven.
In this passage in Luke Jesus sought to bring comfort to his disciples by letting them know that the persecution that was to come into their lives as a result of their witnessing—of their bearing testimony—to him was to be expected. Yet he further—and importantly—gave them cause not to lose heart for life is more than what we experience or undergo while on earth. So he exhorted them in verses 14 and 15, “14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Jesus knew what was in store both for him and for his followers. He knew that after he died, he would rise from death and ascend to heaven and send his eternal and Holy Spirit to indwell his followers that they might never be separated from him. And it is by means of this Spirit—by his very indwelling them—that he would comfort, and help, and give them wisdom about what they were to say in the midst of the persecution to come.
And though he promises comfort, Jesus doesn’t try to soften what is to come. In verses 16 and 17 he states, “16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me.” These are betrayals of the deepest kind we can experience—betrayal by family members—betrayal by friends—even, for some, to the point of death. And all because they had given their lives over to following Jesus, teaching as he taught, seeking to live as he lived.
But Jesus states something extraordinary in the final two verses of our passage.
Despite this seizing;
despite this persecution;
despite this betrayal by family and friends;
despite this widespread hatred because of their following Jesus, nonetheless, he tells them “18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.” How is it possible that someone could be persecuted even to the point of death without “a hair of [their] head” perishing? How is it possible for someone who is persecuted even to the point of death to “stand firm” and “win life”? Clearly Jesus is addressing heavenly, not earthly realities, here. He is more making a statement of God being with those who are his even when they die, then he is making a literal statement about perishing hairs. Jesus is really just underscoring here teaching he’s given his disciples before.
In chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus also speaks of what would happen to his disciples after the first time he sent them out to proclaim the message of God’s kingdom having come near. Compare the many similarities. He states that they will be like sheep among wolves (16) and be brought before officials and flogged and arrested (17ff); he tells them not to worry for the Spirit of their heavenly Father will tell them what to say (20); there, too, he notes how family members will betray one another to death (21); There, too, he tells them they will be hated by all because of him (22); And there, too, he tells them not to be afraid (26). Specifically, not to be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul but to fear instead the One who can destroy both in hell (28)—in other words to fear God which the parallel in Luke 12 makes clear: “Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.” And in Matthew 10, too, Jesus reminds his disciples as well that if their heavenly Father is aware even of the lowly sparrow, they needn’t be afraid for they are worth more than many sparrow for even the hairs of their heard are all numbered (29–31).
So what Jesus continually did for his disciples was to remind them that their lives were not simply to be lived for him while on earth but that even though they died, their lives would continue with him in heaven. This is the basis of their standing firm.
So what can we, worshipping and fellowshipping freely without persecution in Ipswich, MA learn from Jesus’ words in Luke 21? As I mentioned in introducing this passage, though we aren’t experiencing persecution “there are some important reminders here of what our attitude in life ought to be at all times during our earthly sojourn.”
First, this passage is a reminder of our call to share the good news of the salvation that God in Christ provides with those who cross our paths. For in the end God’s ways are our only and best hope of bringing about God’s shalom—God’s peace—to a world devasted by sin. As British theologian Harry Blamires puts it,
The Church comes with a judgment upon the modern world: but it is not the kind of judgment which enables the Christian to feel superior; not the kind which makes him say: “What a ghastly world this is that we Christians have to cope with”—not that at all.
The Church’s judgment upon the modern world is very different. It is properly expressed when we turn to our contemporaries and say: “Look what we’ve done, you and I; luxury here and famine there; juvenile delinquency, prostitution, alcoholism, the revival of slavery, racial discrimination; look what we’ve done. Look what our human nature produces when it gets a free hand, unrestrained by God. Do you want it like that? Do you like it? Is that your idea of a worth-while world?”
In other words, the Church would have us turn to the world in judgment, with the utmost clarity and power in our identification of evil, yet in full acceptance of our common guilt—and, finally, with a deeply moving message of hope. For the Christian mind cannot separate from its judgment upon the world and its judgment upon the self, its realization that the world and its inhabitants are nevertheless God’s, by him created and by him redeemed.
Isn’t that a wonderful—isn’t that a biblical—perspective? Isn’t that the clear message of hope Jesus calls us to proclaim?
But in addition to reminding us of the importance of sharing Christ’s good news with others, this morning’s passage also serves as an encouragement to us, Christ’s family. For, brothers and sisters, if persecuted disciples can stand firm despite what they went through—so can we. Though we may not be experiencing persecution, I am certain we all experience suffering for though believers we are not spared the effects of a fallen world.
Life can be scary, but because of Christ we can stand firm.
We may undergo physical and emotional suffering, but because of Christ we can stand firm.
We may lose earthly jobs or goods, but because of Christ we can stand firm.
We may experience poverty of spirit and wonder whether God really cares or sees our suffering, but because of Christ we can stand firm.
We can stand firm because Scripture teaches us that God won’t ever leave us or forsake us.
We can stand firm because God tells us he is with us in every trial—every joy—every circumstance, big or small, important or mundane.
We can stand firm because Jesus Christ has sent us his very Holy Spirit to be in us—to indwell us—so that we can know that not only are we never alone but by this very Spirit we are able at any and all times to pray to—to talk with—to come before the throne of our Father in heaven and can know that we have his ear—we have his attention—because we are his children, because we belong to him.
We can stand firm because Scripture teaches us beyond a shadow of a doubt that God in Christ is not only with us, he is also for us.
And we can stand firm because God has not only given us himself but he has given us each other that we might help one another in all of the ups—and downs—and in-betweens of life.
So, brothers and sisters, let us stand firm knowing that nothing in this life or the next can or will ever separate us from the love God has given us in Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord.
And all of God’s people said, “Amen!”
Let us pray.
 Todd M. Johnson goes on to indicate that the definition they used of “martyr” may be more broad than that typically used and that it includes “five essential elements: a. “Believers in Christ”. These individuals come from the entire Christian community of Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Anglicans, and Independents. In 2010, there were over 2.2 billion individuals who were Christians. Cumulatively, since the time of Christ, over 8.5 billion people have been Christians. b. “Lost their lives”. The definition of “martyr” is restricted to Christians who have actually been put to death, for whatever reason. c. “Prematurely”. Martyrdom is typically sudden, abrupt, unexpected, and unwanted. d. “In situations of witness”. “Witness” in this definition does not mean only public testimony or proclamation concerning belief in Jesus. It refers to the entire lifestyle and way of life of the Christian, whether or not he or she is actively proclaiming at the time of death. It is here that some might take exception to our methodology. That is, persons who are acting out of Christian conviction (such as in defying unjust orders from police or soldiers, or trying to restrain mob violence) and are killed as a result might not be making an explicit verbal proclamation of their faith at their time of death. However, they are counted as martyrs to the extent that their actions in such situations are a testimony to their faith. e. “As a result of human hostility”. This excludes deaths through accidents, crashes, earthquakes and other “acts of God,” illnesses, or other causes of death, however tragic. The Case for Higher Numbers of Christian Martyrs. <http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/research/documents/csgc_Christian_martyrs.pdf>
 i.e., the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt.
 Reformation Study Bible note on Mark 13:1.
 Crossway Study Bible, Luke 21:5–6 notes.
 Matthew 6:19–21: 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.; Luke 12:32–34: 32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
 Also predicted in Daniel 9:27: “And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” Crossway Study Bible notes (Matthew 24:15) that “Jesus clarifies that the complete fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy will be found in (1) the Roman destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and (2) the image of the Antichrist being set up in the last days (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:14).”
 NIV Study Bible: “Synagogues were used not only for worship and school but also for community administration and for confinement of accused persons while awaiting trial.”
 Todd M. Johnson in The Case for Higher Numbers of Christian Martyrs. <http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/research/documents/csgc_Christian_martyrs.pdf>
 Acts 7:54–8:1.
 Ephesians 1:4–5: 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will
 Galatians 5:19b–21a.
 Galatians 5:22b–23a.
 Matthew 3:1–3: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”[Isaiah 40:3] ;Matthew 4:12–17: 12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”[Isaiah 9:1,2] 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”; Mark 1:14–15: 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
 Luke 12:5.
 Luke 12 has a shorter parallel in vv. 4–7: 4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
 The Christian Mind, pp. 102–104.