Scripture: Luke 21:5-19
We are in the midst of the season of the big three holidays. The vast majority of people get to experience their favorite holiday between October 31st and December 25th. Seventy Four percent of people declare that their favorite holiday is Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. With 46% of people marking it #1, Christmas is the far and away winner. I like those holidays, but some of my favorite holidays are not real holidays. Of course, I celebrate Star Wars day every May 4th, and I am also a big fan of Free Comic Book Day. One of my favorite holidays that is not really a holiday is Zombie Day. This is really a family tradition that has been going on eight years now. On a Saturday in October my brother and I get together to celebrate all things zombie. We watch zombie movies, play zombie games, and even put up zombie decorations. We are both zombie fans, and we are not the only ones. A few weeks ago, the premier of the Walking Dead had huge numbers, beating out Sunday Night Football as the most watched show that night. Zombie media is just part of a larger picture though. In the past eight to nine years there has been a dramatic rise in the Dystopian media. Some of these stories focus on apocalyptic events that create a complete collapse of society, such as the zombie media or things like the very popular Mad Max reboot. Other Dystopian media tells stories of totalitarian governments that have created harsh new world orders such as The Hunger Games or Divergent series. Dystopian stories are nothing new, George Orwell wrote the seminal 1984 all the way back in 1949. However, these stories that focus on bleak futures have dramatically increased in number and popularity. What is most notable about this trend is that it is being driven by teenagers and people in their twenties.
There are a lot of theories as to why young people are attracted to this kind of media. Some think it is a form of escapism. For several years Millennials have come to age in an economy with a tough to get into job market. Dystopian fiction shows in an entertaining way that it could be worse. Others theorize the popularity has to do with the fact that we live in a hyper-connected, hyper stylized world so more back to basic survival stories in a harsh reality offer a counter point. Finally, there literary critics who state that the strength of Dystopian fiction is that it easily allows the human condition to be explored. By stripping away the mores of society or putting people in bleak conditions, it is easier to illustrate the best qualities of what makes people more than just the walking dead.
The fact that we can look to Dystopian media, stories where characters have to overcome a harsh and oppressive reality, as entertainment as a form of entertainment does speak to a level of privilege we have. The reality is that many people in this world are already experiencing a Dystopian reality. In Syria, refugees flee from a country that has completely collapsed, and a society that has broken down. More notably, in places like Iraq Christians have suffered terrible persecution because of their faith. Their daily reality is in many ways more terrifying and harsh than anything in fiction. Yet in the same way the courage, hope, and faith these believers show is more heroic and inspiring than anything a writer could conjure up. Today is the international day of prayer for the persecuted church. We will be joining Christians from all across the world in holding our brothers and sisters in Christ up in prayer. When we consider the horrific situations these persecuted believers endure, it is easy to despair. However, this morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus himself said this would happen and it reminds us that we should have hope above all else.
There are multiple scriptures in the New Testament like this morning’s that mention the very real threat of persecution. Despite that, many people still equate Christian persecution with arcane ideas like the Romans feeding Christians to the lions. The reality is that persecution still happens today and it happens more regularly now in the past. More Christians have been killed for their faith since 1900, than the previous 1,900 years combined. Figuring out just how many Christians suffer and die for their faith annually is a bit of a tricky proposition, but last year it was estimated that a Christian is killed for reasons related to their faith at an average of every five minutes. The candles up here, represent believers who have died under persecution since our worship service started. Persecution happens in many different places around the world. There are over 60 countries around the world, mostly in Africa and Asia, where persecution takes place. This persecution can take the form in cultural pressures or in the form of formal government restrictions and punishments. Persecution is more than just Christians losing their lives. Each month, 214 churches or Christian properties are destroyed. A lot of time the destruction of these churches is particularly harsh blow. In the Middle East especially, it is not uncommon for a mob to destroy and burn a church. This is done intentionally because the local laws will allow for current church buildings to be open but they prohibit the construction of new ones, so once it is destroyed it is gone forever. Each month approximately 722 acts of violence take place against Christians. This can include beatings, abductions, imprisonments, or forced marriages. More often than not the persecutors are people the Christians know, their neighbors or their family. This fulfills what Jesus said would happen in this morning’s scripture: “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.”
If there is a single place in the world that epitomizes the worse of persecution today it is Mosul in Iraq. Even to this very hour Mosul is under the control of ISIS, and ISIS has persecuted the Christians of that city in horrific ways. Mosul was the city with largest Christian population. Two branches of Christianity had their base and center of operations in Mosul. The region has been in Muslim control for over a 1,000 years, but despite that Christianity survived and thrived in the city. For more than a millennia the church bells would signal to the faithful it was time to worship the risen Christ, until ISIS came. The first thing they did was to silence the bells and destroy the churches. ISIS systematically sought to root our Christianity. They went around and marked the houses belonging to Christians, with the symbol on the front of the bulletin. Thousands of Christians in Mosul were killed some in brutal, unimaginable ways. Age or gender did not save those believers as women and children were among the martyred. Those who were not killed, fled. Over 100,000 Christians fled the city and are now refugees. While it is currently impossible to know, it is thought that the city is now completely devoid of Christians. We have a wide variety of Dystopian media that display bleak and possible futures, and we consume this media for entertainment. However, the worlds in these stories does not often get as bad as the reality that Christians face in Mosul.
I do not know about you but hearing stories about the horrible atrocities that Christians endure elsewhere can make me angry or perhaps fearful that persecution of that nature could happen here. Fear and anger though lead to hate, and hate always leads to suffering. Fear, anger, and hate should not be our response to persecution. That is not the way of Jesus, that is not the message of the gospel, and giving into those base instincts is not how we stand firm and win life. One of the most amazing aspects that arise out of the persecuted church, is that those Christians who are suffering very rarely turn to anger and fear. Listen to the testimony of this man from Iraq who is among those displaced by ISIS:
Did you hear his hope? Even though he is displaced and living in miserable conditions he still has joy because he is a believer. He does not hate his persecutors, but rather he prays that God will play with their hearts and change their minds. He prays that they will come to know Jesus. In this morning’s scripture, Jesus said: “But make up your mind not to worry before hand how you will defend yourself. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” The man in the video is full of words of wisdom that cannot be contradicted and they cannot be eradicated. Persecutors may destroy and take lives, but they cannot kill, they cannot destroy the gospel, and they cannot take hope or joy from the heart of a Christian.
Because of this, more often than not persecution has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of destroying the gospel message, persecution causes it to grow. A ministry called “The Timothy Initiative” seeks to train pastors to plant and serve churches in places in the world with a great need for pastors. Many of these locations around the world are in countries with persecution. On their website this organization shares a testimony from one of their pastors, “When I was studying as a TTI student last year, we had been constructing a church building. Meanwhile 150-200 people came there with weapons and they destroyed our church building and beaten us very badly. But I thank God Almighty who delivered us miraculously from that dangerous situation. After 3 months of this incident many people were added to the church as a result of that particular persecution. After few months I had been giving baptism for new believers, the same opponents came and tried to disrupt the baptism, but I thank God for His faithfulness and protection and God enabled me to baptize 33 people on that day.”
Persecution is happening today, but it is not a reason to despair. In Dystopian media there are two branches of stories. One branch, like the Walking Dead or Mad Max, is full of bleak realism. The focus of the story is how people manage to survive in the worse of situations. The other branch, found in stories like the Hunger Games, focuses on hope. The focus of these stories is no matter how bleak and dark the world gets, there is still a reason to have hope, there is still a good that will eventually triumph. Jesus promised in the gospel that persecution will happen, but the faithful can do more than survive these trying situations, we can thrive. All across the world Christians under persecution stand firm, they win life. We pray with them, but we also celebrate with them. We celebrate that in the face of beatings, hope burns on. We celebrate that even though some will die, ultimately not a hair on their head will perish because they have been granted eternal life. We celebrate because when it is all said and done, Christ has already won the victory- and no amount of violence or persecution can keep that gospel from being proclaimed.
On this day of prayer for the persecuted church, that is exactly what we are going to do. We have a faithful God who hears our prayers. So will you join your hearts and minds in an attitude of prayer as we pray for and pray with those brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted:
Hear our confession Oh God,
We can't really imagine what it would be like to suffer for your Name.
Open our hearts to the men and women sitting behind bars
because they voiced their faith in you.
Raise our consciousness level to the cry of those in need
simply because they bear the name Christian.
Cause us to respond to the youth whose education is denied
because they dare to name your Name.
Faithful God, make us aware of those
for whom at great cost, and greater peril,
quietly call themselves your disciples
in a world where being a Christian means persecution.
We hold them in your Light.
Ancient of Days, help us to kneel with them in prayer
to stand with them in solidarity.
Let them know that
across the miles, beyond the silence,
we add our prayers to yours for them.
Help them to know they are not forgotten.
May they feel the prayers of your people calling out in their behalf.
Show us concrete ways our lives can make a difference.
Tune our hearts to hear their cries,
when we wake,
when we eat,
while we worship
while we work and when we go to rest.
O God, keep them in our minds and we will hold them in our prayers.