I think many of us were quite relieved this week to see the Sudanese woman and her baby pictured with Pope Francis in the Vatican. As you may recall Ibrahim was the mother sentenced to be executed for converting from Islam to Christianity and for marrying a man of a different religion. Under Sudanese law, she was considered a Muslim because that was her father’s religion, and it made no difference that she claimed to be raised as a Christian by her mother. Muslim women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men in Sudan, and Ibrahim married a Christian man.
Although her sentence was dissolved, officials prevented her from leaving Sudan. When she attempted to travel to the U.S. in June with her husband and two infant children, officials asserted that she was using fake documents. The family then went to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, where they met Italy’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Lapo Pistelli who was finally able to bring her out of Sudan to Italy.
And we have to wonder, just how well would we fare in the same situation . . . condemned to hang unless we recanted our belief in our lord and savior Jesus Christ? It is a test I am sure none of us would want to endure . . . . but it is Ibrahim who shows us that great faith is possible and that God saw her and her infant baby through this terrible ordeal . . . shaken but unharmed. What a blessing it must have been for her family to see her alive and well . . . and what blessing for all Christians everywhere to witness the prime example of what it is to be a Christian believer . . . able to endure prison and hardship chained to a wall (and giving birth there no less) and at the same time ready to meet the Lord as a martyr for the faith at any minute.
Which brings us to the message from Paul this morning in today’s lectionary . . . “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
This week we witnessed in the news the destruction of Orthodox Christian churches pretty much all over Iraq and the indiscriminate killing of Christians pretty much everywhere in that country as well. As this degenerate form of Islam takes hold over the Middle East we will no doubt see more and more killings of fellow believers for no reason other than being a Christian, or Nazarene, as they call us.
In our part of the world we witnessed our own government trying to circumvent the 1st amendment forcing Christians to choose between our loyalty to our nation and our loyalty to God and the faith once for all delivered by the saints.
And we wonder . . . why now? Why all of a sudden are believers in Christ being singled out as deserving harassment, dismemberment, torture and death? Why does the world all of sudden hate us so?
Jesus of course would tell us that it is nothing new at all . . . in fact the world has always hated true believers in Christ and in the kingdom because the world hated Christ first. It should be of no surprise to any to us that the Jews, God’s chosen people, are hated more than Christians because the world first hated God before Christ came and so the Jews today are condemned for defending its people while the terrorist organization, Hamas, is pitied as an innocent bystander.
It is of course like the world has suddenly been turned on its head as we all wait to see what will happen next. But if the prophetic witness of the scriptures is correct, there is much more to come and it will become far worse for Christians in the future. But as bad as it gets . . . as Paul continues today . . . “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Very often we get the physical world, which is temporary, confused with the spiritual world, which is eternal. Being finite beings, we are not able to comprehend fully the spiritual world so we focus on the world of here and now, the one that we know. But every once in a while, the spiritual world will give us a hint of what is really going on and how we might be prepared for the future.
Such an event happened this week in Mosul, in Iraq, a city once named Nineveh where the prophet Jonah, it is written, was sent by God so the people might repent and turn from their wicked ways. In the story, the people listen to Jonah, and they do repent, much to Jonah’s dissatisfaction, because God had given him the power to destroy that city and its people if they did not repent. But repent they did.
Well this week the prophet Jonah was in the news worldwide because it seems that the Sunnis terrorists decided among themselves that the tomb of Jonah was a threat to them and they decided to destroy it, which they did. But was Jonah’s grave really a threat or was it something else that made them lash out at a prophet of God now dead for over two and a half thousand years? What was the consequence of destroying a tomb from 800 B.C.? In the eyes of the world it was one sad day to see something so worth saving lost forever from our collective historical conscience. But in the eyes of the spirit it should truly be a wakeup call for many; well worth the destruction of a temporal building if it leads even one person to believe. For by doing this deed, the long lost story of Jonah has been resurrected into the mainstream of our reality and what was once a Bible Story told to children in Sunday School has become a subject of intense study.
Jonah, you may recall was the man who was swallowed whole by a giant fish (or leviathan) as described in the book of Jonah. Perhaps, you too remember parts of this story . . .
Jonah was a prophet who was sent by God to the City of Nineveh to preach doom to all in the city because of their evil ways. Jonah didn’t want to go there because he knew that as soon as he started preaching that the people were evil and that God’s wrath was about to come upon them, he would be killed. Prophetic preachers weren’t treated very well back then either, especially if their message was doom and gloom.
So, Jonah decided to shirk the responsibility that God had laid upon him. So what did he do? He did what many preachers do when faced with an unpleasant task . . . He ran . . . as fast he could in the opposite direction. Well, as you may know, one cannot hide long from God, and while he was on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea sailing away, God sent a horrible storm. The men on the boat didn’t know what to do, and they thought they were all going to die.
But Jonah knew the truth, and told the men to throw him overboard so that their lives would be saved. And so they did. As soon as he hit the water the storm ceased. Jonah, who was now in the water, was swallowed by a tremendous fish at God’s instruction. For three days Jonah sat in the belly of the whale contemplating his own death as the digestive fluids from the whale started to eat away at his flesh. But, guess what? He didn’t die. God, in his mercy, and in his grand design, saved Jonah and instructed the whale to beach itself, where upon it threw up everything in its stomach including Jonah. And the place where it threw Jonah up was none other than the shore of the City of Nineveh now called Mosul in modern day Iraq.
By this time of course Jonah was set straight in the eyes of God. He had been punished for his cowardice and was reawakened in his faith. Jonah mends from his ordeal and vows to God to become the best missionary ever and willingly sets off for Nineveh to preach the bad news that God had in store for them.
But that’s not the whole story. You see the people of Nineveh were startled out of their wits on seeing Jonah . . . probably by two things. (1) the message of this prophet from God claiming judgment soon to befall them, and (2) the look of this man, Jonah, who had been half digested by a giant fish. Most likely he looked white as snow from the acid and like a dead man, walking. Consequently, the people heard the message and saw the error of their ways and turned back to God, all because of Jonah, his rebirth from the belly of the whale, and his missionary message of life and death.
In Dr. John Stott’s final book before he died, he tells us that it is no accident that God’s mission, requires great sacrifice . . . in time, in talent and in resources . . . and all too often in the ultimate sacrifice of death, in order to accomplish God’s plan of redemption for the world. He tells us that our mission in Christ is much like the mission of Christ who died so that we all might live. In such a way Joseph was given up for dead and planted in the foreign land of Egypt . . . but out of this ‘planting’ a nation of believers, ‘God’s Chosen People’ was born and raised up. Also, in much the way the circuitous mission of Jonah in the belly of the whale awakened the people of Nineveh to the error of their ways and they lived, both they and their children and their children’s, children who would eventually become the ancient nation of Assyria . . . fundamental to the continuation of the house of Israel in the future time of King Nebuchadnezzar.
Today I think the story of Jonah should awaken all Christians everywhere in the world that now is the time to choose. Will you conform to the world in all its evil and die in your sins or will you conform to God’s will and keep his commandments (even in the face of torture and death) and live? Some may find they are too afraid to make this decision but as Paul reminds us today “it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Amen
This sermon is part of the ministry of the Word at Saint Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY in the United States and a Continuing Church in the Anglican Tradition. If you have been helped by any of the sermons or thoughts expressed on this sermon blog, we would love to hear from you at anglicanchurchofsaintnicholas.org .
Please also consider sending a gift in any amount using the form below . . . .