As the Church Year winds down to the end, we are increasingly being drawn in by the readings to a discussion of what our religion really means to us. The Gospel of Christ continually begs the question . . . can your faith survive persecution? How strong is your religion in the face of evil and imminent death? Are you ready to die in your convictions to the faith? These are the questions that haunt us at the end of our church year and as well as at the end of our lives.
It has been said, there are no atheists in foxholes on the battlefield. When the bombs are dropping and bullets are flying . . . that is the time when every man finds true religion. It is when life is sweet and safe, and the outlook of the future is secure that one finds people who say “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping the God’s commandments or by going about as mourners before the Lord of Hosts?” That is . . . Why should we try to remain honest and pure when, indeed, the only ones having any success at all seem to be unbelievers and wicked people?
I can’t think of a time when the words of the scriptures today were more appropriate to our times than now. Within this past year, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Christians throughout the world have been murdered, tortured, raped or brutalized in some way or another for their belief. We hear about this news usually in a round-a-bout manner because it does not seem important enough to make the newspapers or television. It seems it cannot compete with the Kardashians or the political climate of the day or with white on black crime – so we don’t hear and because there is no outcry, it is assumed that the church simply does not care. But of course we do care, but we care in a way that is not expected by the world, because though we are in the world, we know we are not part of the world. In effect, though it seems to the world we have lost, thru Christ our King we have already conquered in all things.
Paul writes to the Colossians in today’s lesson . . . “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
The world cannot understand this because the world is lost in error and a slave to the god of this world. It is through the cross of Christ that Christians have already conquered the worse that the world can offer and so whether we live or whether we die it does not matter, for we are, in fact, the Lord’s possession.
But many who are not quite so sure in this belief may ask how do we develop within ourselves and our friends and families this certainty of faith?
John Stott, one of the foremost evangelicals of our day explains that you must learn that. . . Belief doesn’t come first. One begins with entering in to the experience–going to church, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, meeting other believers in fellowship. If you do this, then eventually, worship will shape your believing. We go to church first and foremost to find a relationship with God. And out of that comes the shaping of belief. If indeed the preaching we hear is centered on the gospel and the worship is faithful and reverent you will begin to cultivate an abiding relationship with God and with each other and true religion will grow. . . . And as it grows you will not be able to contain it within yourself. Others will see in you a change that can only be described as joyful expectation and an inner peace that passes all understanding.
But there is another side to the story that Jeremiah decries today in the prevalence of false religion promoted by false teachers . . . “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.” Jeremiah speaks of a religion spread by false teachers that is devoid of belief and lacking in faith . . . it is indeed an empty religion.
No book, not even by the atheist, Carl Marx and his followers, is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible. Jeremiah and all the prophets were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of false worship. Jesus applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day: ‘These people [he said] … honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6). And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to many churches in our world today. In many churches today worship has become ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear . . . religion without God.
And you know what? Many people sense this and leave these churches . . . sometimes never to return again. They are scattered as Jeremiah describes, sometimes never to have a relationship with God again. And because of this, their shepherds and leaders are damned.
So where does that leave the true church in its quest to promote true religion and abiding faith in Christ – the King of Glory? We must always be aware that in fact . . . we do not convert people . . . God does. The Church is merely a participant in God’s mission of salvation. It is our primary task, as believers, to reflect Jesus in our individual and corporate lives . . . to worship and to proclaim Christ in word and deed. Judging by the number of cars I see parked in driveways on my way here each Sunday, there are countless numbers of people who choose not to be involved with church at all. Through the internet we can and do communicate with those who sit home each Sunday. Our sermon blog has become an extension of this pulpit where more than four hundred people read sermons each week. On things like Facebook younger people are contemplating God and the meaning of life in coffee shops and at home and so we have tried to adapt in order to help reach them. But the truth of it is that Christianity is a social religion done best in community with other believers. One cannot be a virtual Christian in a virtual world . . . you need to find others and worship and pray with them – for where there is two or three, there is Christ in their midst.
All of us need to realize that Christianity is in its very essence a rescue religion. It does not seek to restrain you . . . or to subject you . . . or to enhance you in any way . . . Christ seeks only to save you and to enrich your life with true joy and a blessing that the world cannot give.
Some believe that they can worship God without including Jesus Christ in the mix. They don’t trust the gospel and believe the New Testament to be a fable made up by the early church to gain followers of the new religion. But you must know that Jesus Christ is at the center of both the Old and the New Testaments. Without the power of the cross and the blood of the Messiah sacrificed for us, there is no help for anyone . . . for without the cross we are all lost in our sins. Christianity without Christ then is a frame without a picture, a door without a handle, a body without breath. In effect Christianity without Christ is completely worthless in every respect . . . in fact Paul describes Christianity as “foolishness” in the eyes of a world that denies Christ. And so the true Church must continue to endure the hardship, insults and hatred that so many inflict on it.
Endurance is the key word for us in the reading today from Paul. Endurance to persevere under all circumstances. Endurance to run the great race and win the victory and the crown at the end of our lives. Endurance to succeed where others have fallen. Endurance to be tested to the point of breaking. You might think that love, kindness, patience and understanding are the key words in the description of a believer, and they are important qualities. But, it is endurance against all odds that is the metal from which we are to be forged.
All of us, I am sure, have stories to tell of our life and times when we overcame obstacles in order to become better people. God willing, most of us will never face the kind of persecution that others are facing in the world today. I am sure many of us have gone from overcoming small obstacles to overcoming larger ones. Sometimes the obstacle might be a bully in school, or a bad habit, or rocky marriage or an awful job. Sometimes we are triumphant and sometimes we are not. But the mark of a true disciple is that we try, and are true to the end.
But regardless of what may befall any of us we must always bear in mind that we are the Lord’s possession for
God is our refuge and strength, *
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
Though its waters rage and foam, *
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.