“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: Mohamed Gurhan was born and raised as a faithful Muslim in the country of Somalia. It was not until he was in his twenties that he began to question the faith he had been raised in, and soon he embarked on a religious journey that finally ended when a friend gave him a Bible. As he read about Jesus, the Holy Spirit created faith within him, and he was baptized. What joy there was for him to finally know his Savior! But if he had any illusions that the life of a Christian is easy, they were soon shattered. Being a Christian in Somalia brings dire consequences. He was arrested, fired from his job, twice lost his home and worldly possessions, and had his children kidnapped multiple times by Muslim relatives. But the worst was yet to come. When he began to work as a translator with Lutheran Heritage Foundation, the government issued an order for his death, and he and his family were forced to flee into hiding, where they remain to this very day.
Jesus was thinking about people like Mohamed Gurhan and his family when He spoke the words of our text for today. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Martin Luther liked to say that when we baptize a child, as Samantha was this morning, we do them no favors. Now, obviously Baptism has wonderful benefits, but what Luther emphasizes with such a statement is that being a Christian means having enemies, those who want to harm us spiritually or perhaps even physically. It’s easy for us to simply shrug off this story or the others I will tell this morning, because we live in a country where no one is going to issue an order for our death because we confess Christ- at least not yet. But that would be a mistake, for we still have determined enemies, and while persecution is much more subtle among us, it is no less real. Baptism has made you and me enemies of Satan and this sinful world, and they will stop at nothing to attempt to tear us away from our Savior. Jesus has told us that this will happen, and history tells us the truth of His words.
The year was 1523. Only a few years earlier, Martin Luther had started the Reformation, and it was already spreading throughout Europe. With great joy at the rediscovery of the Gospel, two Augustinian monks from the town of Luther’s birth traveled north to the Netherlands. These two men, Johann von Essen and Heinrich Vos, then proceeded to preach the doctrines of Martin Luther, that man is made right with God not through any work of his own, but only through the grace of Christ alone, which is grasped through faith alone. But such preaching and teaching could not be tolerated in an already troubled country. They were brought before the rulers and told to repent of their errors and reject the teachings of Luther. They refused, and on July 1st, 1523, Johann von Essen and Heinrich Vos became the first men to die for the sake of the Reformation. They were burned at the stake, an act that demonstrated to people on both sides how serious this religious conflict really was. They were the first Lutherans to give their lives, but would hardly be the last.
Jesus declared to the disciples, as well as to you and me, that persecution would come not only from friends and family, but from the political and religious leadership as well. “But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” Persecution is a public thing, and throughout history it has often been official government policy. But as I’ve said before, this often happens in a more subtle way. Religious freedom is slowly eroded away, and Christians are restricted in how and where they can express their faith. Secular atheism is pushed on our students in high school and especially in college, as our children have their faith attacked by those whom we trust to educate them. The word Jesus uses here for ‘persecute’ means to run after someone, to harass them, and when we understand this definition, we can see persecution all around us. It is difficult for us to see this as a good thing. Facing persecution from our friends and family is one thing; how can we stand up against the power of rulers and governments if they choose to persecute us? But Jesus resolves to use the persecution of His saints before kings and governors to serve the cause of the Gospel.
Polycarp of Smyrna, besides having a funny name, was one of Christianity’s earliest bishops. So early, in fact, that he probably knew the apostle John personally. He fled from persecution several times, but finally gave himself up, saying, “The will of God be done.” His Roman captors drug him to the arena, where they demanded that he reject Christ and offer incense to the emperor. The local ruler wanted to let this elderly man go, and said to him, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ.” Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Having made this bold confession of his faith and trust in his Lord Jesus Christ he was condemned to be burned alive. There in the arena, before kings and governors, Polycarp of Smyrna gave his life for the sake of Christ.
Jesus warned us about persecution, he even warned us that we may, like Polycarp, be called upon to stand before rulers and authorities for the sake of His Name. But even this tragedy, that someone should be persecuted or even killed simply for confessing the truth, can be used by Jesus for the good. He says, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Persecution is an opportunity to witness, to confess the faith that has been delivered to us. The martyrs of Christian history went to their deaths confessing Jesus, and many people were converted as they died. We may perhaps never receive a greater chance to stand up and confess the hope that is within us than when someone is persecuting us for our faith. Jesus uses persecution, He uses the deaths of His saints to spread the Gospel, the proclamation of His own martyrdom.
The year was 33 AD. Only a few years earlier Jesus of Nazareth had emerged, claiming to be a prophet of God, claiming to be the promised messiah, but more than that, declaring Himself to be the Son of God. For this He is persecuted, they drag Him before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor. There He gives the good confession: “so they all said, ‘Are you the Son of God, then?’ And He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’” He is condemned for that confession, for daring to identify Himself as God in the flesh come to bring salvation. His own family, the Jewish people, hand Him over to the Romans to be crucified, and there He gives His life, He sheds His blood. But there is an important difference between the martyrdom of Jesus and the other accounts I have told you about today. Mohamed was persecuted and Johann, Heinrich, and Polycarp gave their lives for Jesus, but Jesus gave up His life for you. He gave up His life to defeat your enemies, those who persecute you, those who attempt to tear you away from Him. On the cross that day He crushed Satan’s head, meaning that while your enemy can rage and roar, even stirring up persecution against you, he does not have the final victory. Christ has defeated him and delivered you. He paid for all of your sins so that Satan has nothing to accuse you with. And with His resurrection on the third day, even death has no victory. Persecution can even take the lives of God’s saints, but as Johann, Heinrich, Polycarp, and countless other Christians throughout history knew, death has no final victory, but instead the victory remains with Christ. They triumph even as their lives are taken because Jesus has paid for their sins, just as He paid for your sins and my sins. We are reconciled with God, and so we can face persecution with confidence that the victory has already been won.
Jesus teaches us in our text for today that persecution is a sign of His return again in glory. It is a characteristic of living in the last days, the time between Christ’s Ascension into heaven and His coming back as He has promised. On that Day, the persecution of Christians which has characterized human history since the cross will end. “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” All of creation will quake in anticipation of Christ’s long awaited return, and then He will appear. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory.” For those who trust in Jesus Christ, those who have been claimed by His blood, those who have been baptized into His death and resurrection, this is a sight of rejoicing. We will look and see the crucified one returning to bring us from this valley of the shadow of death into His new creation, where there will be no more sorrow, no more sin, no more persecution. Our enemies will be trampled under, and victory will be given to those sinners, you and me, who have been covered in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, while on this earth we languish, suffering under sin and persecution, we know that our Lord has not abandoned us. We know that the persecution and even the death of Christ’s saints are simply the signs that Christ’s return is coming ever nearer. Because we have been delivered by Jesus, because He holds the victory, He says to us: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Our redemption is indeed drawing near, and so we cry this day and every day: “Come, Lord Jesus!” In the name of our returning Lord, Amen.