The Father and Those who Persecute You

“The Father and Those who Persecute You” 6-21-15 Father’s Day- after the Charleston Church shooting at Emmanual AME where 9 were shot; Psalm 74:1-8, 18-23; Mt. 5:10-12

For a video of this sermon, click here:
For a video of Tucker Bemis’s baptism, click here.

I was hoping to have a nice sermon for Father’s Day- but I changed my sermon three times- in light of the events that happened in our state Wednesday night. How do we jive that we have a heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us and then at the same time there is persecution of His children here. The simplistic solution would be to say, “God is good, people are mean, but God will win.” The complexity is to get into how good is God or how mean are people and who is in control of what. I am not real certain that we absolutely have to understand all of that- at some point we have to have faith in the goodness and the ability for God to conquer our evil somehow. But what we do say as a cornerstone of our faith is the cross. It is in the central place in our sanctuary. The cross was the worst persecution- a totally innocent Jesus- killed be a very powerful Roman government and a very strict religious group. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and lived that out. The Romans were conquered by the Christians not by an army of bishops and laypeople- but by a steady conversion to a loving way. The persecution had to stop because there were so many. It was not an army or protests in the street that really conquered the Romans – it was love. Jesus taught and lived that the persecution on the cross is not as final as we might think. The resurrection brings meaning to Jesus’ persecution and to our own. The Father allowed the cross of His own Son. But the cross is not the end- and the death of these nine in Charleston is not the end either. Persecution has been upon the church from the beginning. I do not want to play down the racism and prejudice involved- a sermon on that terrible sin is coming later. What shocked me is that these brothers and sisters of ours were killed in a church in a Bible study that they welcomed this man into. I. THE REALITY OF PERSECUTION- Psalm 74 asks how long will the people of God continue to suffer. There are people who have said to me, persecution of Christians will never come to South Carolina. But it has. Not just last Wednesday but many times in our relatively short 240 year history. The British burned many churches- many of whom were Presbyterian. Presbyterian churches in Indiantown in Williamsburg County, Yemassee, Georgetown and York were burned. I actually saw an article by two Harvard professors in answer to a question as to whether the British burned churches- their answer was basically “No” and they forgot and redefined their history. The ruins are still there- go to the Sheldon church in Beaufort County.  When Sherman came to Columbia legend is that he was going to burn First Baptist but that a person outside pointed him to another church down the street- and they burned that one instead- Washington Street Methodist and Ebeneezer Lutheran, the rectory and education building of Trinity Episcopal at the time both blacks and whites worshiped in these places. He burned other churches too like the Episcopal churches in McPhersonville and Norway, SC. In the civil rights battles of the 60s there were bomb threats to the African American churches- the gathering place for blacks. Flint Hill Baptist in Rock Hill was burned. In 1996 eight African American churches were burned in SC. In 2000 Antioch Baptist (African American) in York County was burned. These are not African American churches only- they are the church of Jesus Christ- part of who we are- our brothers and sisters in Christ. A sanctuary is a holy refuge. It is a holy place that is being disrespected. It is not that we need more laws- it is against the law to murder in a church or harm a church. We need changed hearts. If people respected God, they would respect His churches. We need to repent. Our schools and churches are to be safe places. It is not just Muslim extremists who are attacking, but deranged racists, and nihilists who think there is no reason to live. It is hatred- evil- a lack of respect for human life and God’s law that says, “Thou shalt not murder.” A murder in church is a horrible disrespecting of God.      There have been more Christians killed in the last 100 years than all the other centuries put together.   Today Christians in the Middle East are facing genocide. It is basically a conspiracy by the Shiites, the radical Sunnis to eliminate Christianity from its birthplace. The population of Christians in the Middle East has shrunk from 20% at the beginning of the 20th century to 5% today. 700,000 Syrian Christians have left- many of their churches burned. Similarly about 700,000 Iraqi Christians have left that country in the last ten years (Newsweek 3/26/15). Our passage in Psalm 74 lifts up to God- that our places of worship have been destroyed. In this hundred degree heat, it is hard to live without air conditioning. Yet most of these middle class Christians were kicked out of their air conditioned homes with stoves and refrigerators to go live in the non-air conditioned desert in tents.      Why are people so mean to Christians? I think the root is a spiritual evil- part of the struggle and battle against evil in the world. I’m not just talking about the devil- though I am sure the devil smiled at the cross and the reality of personal evil becomes evident in persecution. Human evil- the poison in our hearts takes control and becomes violent action. Evil does not want to be told it is wrong. Racists don’t want to be told they are wrong. People who are proud or selfish don’t want to hear that they are proud or selfish. People who are apathetic to persecution don’t want to hear that they should care more. It has happened many times that the truth is turned on its head. So Christians are seen as “haters” while people who love to hate good and the good people are seen as good.      Jesus said in this world you will have trouble. The word “trouble” is tribulation and persecution and implies difficulty. But then He said the most encouraging words, “But be of good cheer—I have overcome the world.”

  1. THE LIMITATION OF PERSECUTION- Persecution is always limited by God. God will put an end to it. This is why Jesus could say “You will have trouble but be of good cheer.” He has overcome the world. The worst the world can do cannot take away your soul. Revenge is not ours- it is the Lord’s. God is the judge- not us. It is not that it doesn’t matter what you do. We do not have to take our defense in our own hands. It is not as if Jesus was saying, “Crucify me, it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t matter.” No, it hurts- it matters. But Jesus knew even the worst we do cannot stop God and the power of the resurrection. It is not all up to us- it is not up to our knowledge, our skill, our strength, our police, our laws, our barriers and locks, or the distance we are from trouble makers. Don’t get me wrong- I am for doing all we can to make us safe and better people. We are ultimately in God’s hands- He is our heavenly Father- and no one can take us out of His hands- who can separate us from the love of God- not death, devil, sorrow- or even the powerful Roman soldiers and law or the cross. In the end- God wins- and He cares a lot more than we do about the actions of humans. It amazes me we can look at ISIS beheading other Christians and look the other way and say, “It’s not my bizness.” Or we can see famine for the Christians kicked out to the desert and mountains by ISIS and say, “It’s not my bizness.” Or when a person loses a job simply because they are a Christian or want to keep the Sabbath. Or when a pastor and 9 congregant get shot- and we say, “It’s a different denomination and a different church in a different city.” Do you hear? It’s like we are saying “As long as it isn’t me- it’s ok.” No we cannot solve all the world’s problems- but we are called to at the very least pray for the problems we hear about.  What can stir us out of our slumber to God and others? How much evil will it take before we wake up and say – we need to repent?      Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” One of the limitations of persecution is that in trying to snuff out the love of Christ it actually multiplies it. The Republic of China kicked the missionaries out in 1955 but instead of killing the church it grew from 1 million then to 100 million today. In the early church when people were led to the lions and they refused to recant- people would say to themselves- I would like something to die for and live for. III. THE HANDLING OF PERSECUTION- Our passage says to pray, rejoice, and bless 1. Pray for those who persecute you. Many prayers have been sent up asking God to change the soul of those who hate in our land. I cannot change them. But the Spirit can. Many prayed- victims’ families prayed for the conversion of Dylann Roof. But we pray not just for their conversion, we pray that God would see and do something. Leave it in God’s hands- not yours.   2. Rejoice when you are persecuted- why? Why? For some, this world’s comfort is all there is and to rejoice in persecution makes absolutely no sense. Yesterday at the AME church in Chapin there was a prayer service. The pastor there said that evil is a live- but it will not keep me from praising God. Hatred would like to steal your soul and your song. 3. Our passage says to bless those who persecute you. People might expect to hear- defend yourself- strike back- curse those who persecute. But the One who said on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” invites us to bless the persecutors. At the same time- the cry for justice for the protection from those who mean it for evil goes up to our Lord. He particularly hears the blessing of the persecuted. Such blessing amplifies the cry into God’s ears.      There was a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal about the relatives of those who were killed. They were blessing the shooter at the bond hearing. So the daughter of Ethel Lance said, “I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.” She asked that God have mercy on the shooter’s soul. A family member of Anthony Thompson said, “I forgive you and my family forgives you.” Hatred did not win. Forgiveness keeps hatred from continuing.      The Witness of Emanuel AME has stood firm. It is a firm reliance on a heavenly Father who sees them through. The shooter said he almost didn’t do it because they were so nice. The state Senator who shared his desk with Senator Pinckney on the floor said that he was the most gentle of the 46 legislators.” One young man at the church jumped in front of a bullet meant for his aunt. Five families came forward during the weapons charge hearing saying they forgave the shooter or asked for God’s mercy for him. The love and grace that goes beyond human ability shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Father is not absent nor uncaring. He is raising up His people with love once more conquering hate.

“Go Down Moses” 6-14-15

“GO Down Moses”  6-14-15 Exodus 10; Hebrews 11:24-29 at Lake Murray Presbyterian by Dr. Ben Sloan

For video of this sermon, click here: https://youtu.be/ZWGchgFgd68

I have no recollection where I first heard “Go Down Moses.” But it literally resonated to my soul. It is a deep bass song- and crazily- I was singing bass from infancy and I was singing this old deep blues spiritual before I even thought about what it means.      To set people free requires a willingness to go down. The people who signed the declaration of independence were willing to give up- to pledge their fortunes to a higher cause. Most of them gave everything up. People were willing to die in order to be set free from King George. To involve ourselves in World War 2 required giving up. We could have thought that staying on this side of the Atlantic will keep us safe. John Calvin had a comfortable life style. His father was the lawyer to the bishop and he had an endowed religious position. He could have lived a nice, quiet upper middle class life. But instead he chose to give all that up to try to make the church more biblical and to adhere to its own standards. To set people free always requires risk and a cost. This is ultimately shown in the person of Jesus who came down for us- gave himself sacrificially for us. My hopes are that we will see here that to find real freedom in life we must risk- live by faith and not by sigh. And that we will (in general) value freedom over safety.  I will explore how Moses went down in giving up this world, in giving up his pride, and in not giving up but persevering.

  1. GOING DOWN FOR GIVING UP STATUS– The book of Hebrews and Jewish tradition implies that Moses could have played it safe. He could have remained a prince of Egypt.  He could have rationalized the freedom of his people away.  Certainly Moses risked it all to appear before Pharaoh and say let my people go or these plagues will come upon you.  He threatened the most powerful ruler of the world to his face.  Moses said, when God asked him to go down to Pharaoh, but I stutter.  I would be stuttering too.

Risk your reputation– your popularity- your world and you will find you are set free from the burdens of such things.     There is a show called, “Somebody’s Gotta Do it.”  It features people marching to the beat of a drum that only they can hear.  Mike Rowe says that we have $1.2 trillion in student loans and yet he knows 6 welders he sent to North Dakota that are earning six figures a year with no student loans.  Thomas Edison “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  Who wants to go to Pharaoh?  Faith allows us to go forward.  Who will go for me- whom shall I send?

 

  1. GOING DOWN THROUGH THE SEA FOR TRUST IN THE LORD- Hebrews talks about another time Moses went down. He went down into the sea bed. This had never been tried before. Now hind sight is 20-20.  But this was a risky thing to do.  Not only did he risk with his words, he risked his whole endeavor and his whole people by doing something radical.  The people were saying by going into the sea that they would rather trust God and die than to be slaves.  Heb. 11:29 seems to indicate the people passed through on dry ground because they had something the Egyptians did not- faith.  The Egyptians had money, the Egyptians had power, the Egyptians had horses, chariots, weapons- but their lack of faith led them to their confusion and demise.  The lesson for us is not that people need more stuff.  It is that people need faith in a God who can rescue them from the people who just want stuff.       When an addict reaches a point where they say I would rather trust God even if it means my body will die than to go back to my drugs- they have reached a good point.  When a person says, I would rather trust God and leave my abuser than to stay with the one who is physically abusing me- even if I don’t know where I am going and don’t have it all planned out- they are set free.  When a person risks their comfort to say something for Jesus Christ- to stand up for what is right- then they will find they are not slaves to political correctness and to the tyranny of what other people think- but they are set free to be who they were designed to be.      Mike Rowe said that the people who have most satisfaction is when people look around- see what everyone else is going and go the reverse way.  It is cognitive dissonance.  In a time when everybody gets a trophy it is important to be able to go against the tide, take the reverse commute.

III. GOING DOWN IN PERSEVERING WITNESS- vs 27- “He persevered because he saw Him who was invisible.”  This is unusual language.  He saw the one who was invisible and so he persevered.  The point was that Pharaoh had a hard heart and was blinded to God and His presence.  But Moses saw the unseen God.  He believed by faith, and that kept him from giving up when Pharaoh said “No.”       You may have a friend who has said no to you about the faith many times.  But while there is breath there is hope.  Persevere in your witness.  Maybe some tragedy will come along in their lives so that they will look for God.     You could have said that Moses failed when he went to Pharaoh.  He failed when he went and Pharaoh and Pharaoh said you are lazy- you have too much time on your hands- make bricks without straw.  The people fussed at him for trying to rescue them.  Each of the plagues involved a failure.  Moses wasn’t convincing.

A police exam in London read: You are on patrol in outer London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street. On investigation you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby. Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants—a man and a woman—are injured. You recognise the woman as the wife of your Divisional Inspector, who is at present away in the USA. A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realise that he is a man who is wanted for armed robbery. Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent. Another man is crying for help, having been blown into an adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim. Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take. The officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen, and wrote: ’I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.’   When we are faced with difficult situations- seemingly impossible ones- let us not fade into the crowd, but make a difference.

Moses didn’t fade into the crowd- but came down out of concern for freedom of his people.  Jesus did not stay in heaven, but came down to us out of concern for our freedom of soul.  Moses and Jesus risked in order to humble themselves for the sake of the people.
We go down to others with the hope of the world not because we think we are better than they are in terms of the world.  We go to them as one beggar goes to another beggar and tells them where the bread is.
 

Abraham Began the Witness 6-7-15

[For a video of this sermon, click here]

“Abraham Began the Witness   Gen.  14:17-24; Heb. 11:8-12;  6/7/15; Rom. 4:16-22; Isa. 51:1-3 This summer we will begin a series on people of witness.  I want to begin by saying that the person who is the father of our faith was an unusual, steady, and gracious witness for God.   Abraham is called “The father of our faith.”  He is also given a complimentary title “Friend of God.”    When you want to do something, then you want to learn from the ones who did it before you, and if you really want to be creative in how you do things- look at the origins.  So an aeronautical engineer who wants to be creative may want to study the Wright Brothers. A president studies George Washington.   Abraham was the father of our faith.  That is one of the titles given to him in Romans 4  He is also called in  2 Chr. 20; James 2;  (in our call to worship) “God’s friend.”  In some way being someone of faith in God and someone who is a friend of God go hand in hand.  Prayer is after- talking to God- believing that God cares for you as a father or a friend.  Abraham knew  God not as an enemy – but as a friend.  Remember that great passage in John 15- Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this- he lays down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants- but friends. If you put your faith in God, and show that by listening and heeding Him- He becomes your friend.  The goal is not to know about God or guess about God- or make God the way we want Him to be made- but to be friends with Him.   Abraham as the father of faith- is called a friend of God- Jesus tells his disciples if they listen to Him and He lays down His life for them- they are His friends.  Therefore, we are all called to be friends of God by the father of faith. I. ABRAHAM THE FATHER OF FAITH- Romans 4 describes Abraham as the father of the faith- all who believe can claim him as father.  He believed God though he didn’t see where he was going he left.  He believed God- though he didn’t see how he could have a child.  He believed God- though he didn’t see how he would ever receive the land (he was a nomad- the only land he bought was for Sarah’s burial).  He believed God because God was God.  Many times we don’t believe God because we portray onto God our human attributes.  We make God like us- weak, helpless, pushed around by circumstances and us.  The Creator of the Universe is not surprised and is not blown by every wind of culture or rebellion.    I have always found it quite interesting that Abraham, the father of our faith, clearly gave into doubt.  Sarah told him that she was too old to have children- he believed her and had a child by Hagar- Ishmael the father of the present day Arabs.  His doubt led to interesting consequences- but God used his doubt too.   So if you have some doubts don’t panic.  But also remember that faith is a better choice than doubt.  In our world people value doubt as if it is an end in itself.  Doubt gets you to a choice of many closed doors at once and you are paralyzed by which one you should go through.  Faith allows you to move forward in life with assurance, hope, and meaning.  The good news is that Abraham was not condemned for his doubt- there was grace for the father of faith.      I have known Christians who feel like it is great thing to doubt and it is somehow an evil thing to have faith.  They have really been twisted up.  They brag on their doubt and they doubt the little faith they have.  On the other hand, there are those who have faith. .  Isaiah says these great words- “Look to the rock from which you were cut and the quarry from which you were hewn.  Look to Abraham your father and Sarah who gave you birth.  When I called him he was but one but I blessed Him and made Him many.”  The Father of our faith bore fruit- physically- he had a son.  But the descendants as numerous as the stars or as many as the grain of sand are his spiritual descendants.   When God blesses us- the faith grows.  God blesses us when we listen to Him by His Spirit speaking through the Word. We are a chip off the old block.  Our faith looks at its core- like his. Abraham is the Father of our faith- but God shows that just as He multiplied Abraham- He can multiply us.  That is the context of Isa. 51.Your witnessing to your faith is not up to you.  As you are faithful and obedient and not embarrassed- God multiplies. II. ABRAHAM THE FATHER OF WITNESSING- If Abraham did not pass the faith on, we would not have faith today.  He is the singular original point that God chose to bring belief and hope to the world.  It is through Abraham’s physical line and spiritual line that Jesus has come into the world.  Jesus by both his existence, teaching, and practice is a witness to God’s love, grace, and to our hope.  How did Abraham witness? 1) He kept the faith.  Abraham had some doubts but he didn’t drift off into space or wallow in his doubt. He kept the faith that God would show him where to go when he left home.   He kept the faith that God would provide descendants for him- even when Isaac’s life was threatened.  God promised Abraham descendants- Abraham had only 1;  God promised Abraham the land- He only owned a burial plot. God says I’m going to send you out.  Abraham says “where?” God says, “I’ll tell you later- now just go.”  I will give you a land.  Abraham says, “Where?”  I’ll tell you later just wander. I’ll give you a child.  “How?”  I’ll tell you later just wait.  God says, “Sacrifice your child” Abe says, “Why?” I’ll tell you later- just go up the mountain- and he did each time.  I am always trying to figure things out before I do them.  But we believe in order to understand. 2) He lived the faith.  Tim Keller said, Abraham lived a big life.  He mastered life and did not let life push him around.  Abraham was a man who focused on God and not on himself.  He was willing to walk by faith and not by sight.  He was generous to Melchizedek.  He was not so caught up with things that he couldn’t give to the Lord or to others.  Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.  It is not that Abraham believed in God- but He trusted God – as His friend. Can you say God is your friend? 3) He passed the faith on.  He taught Isaac so that later God was called “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (1 Kgs. 18:36; 2 Chr. 30:6;   Mk. 12:26).”  He passed the covenant and the promises on so that every generation knew that God swore to give the land to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob (Dt. 28:13, 20:30); Isaac was circumcised as a sign of his faith- much like we baptize children today as a sign that we pass the faith on. He taught Isaac about worship and sacrifice.  He taught the people who worked with him and traveled with him.  Basically, he was not embarrassed to tell anyone about his faith.       I heard a minister say the other day that he had a parishioner (I’ll call Joe) who had trouble with his faith.  He said he was taught growing up that he had to witness, and he said he just couldn’t.  He was shy and didn’t know how to begin and was honestly too scared to try.  His minister growing up had told him that if he didn’t witness he was in a state of disobedience to God.  So for him it was like a spiral downward.  He didn’t witness and then he felt guilty that he didn’t witness and then that made him more afraid to witness.  But years later the man came to another minister and asked, “What happened to Joe.  He is witnessing to everyone and people are responding.  The minister said, “All I told him was that he didn’t have to.”  It is interesting to see that there is not a lot in Genesis about God saying to Abraham, “You must tell everyone about me.” Abraham’s way was simply being faithful, and then not shrinking back from speaking about his faith in his friend.   It was an attitude like: I am going to be who I am going to be, and I will tell everyone why I am this way- because of my faith.  He served others and glorified God by what he did.  So today- heed the advice of Isaiah- “Look to the rock from which you were cut- look to Abraham your father- when I called him- he was but one but I blessed him and made him many. “