February 21, 2016

Stand Firm in the Lord

Passage: Genesis 15:1-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Service Type:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

It is not likely that many of you would know the geographical location of Pangnirtung. Pangnirtung is an Inuit hamlet, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, located on Baffin Island. The reason I know the name of this hamlet is because my late Aunt Gwen went there as a young woman and served for many years as a missionary. When I was a boy I attended prayer meetings at our church and we commonly prayed for missionaries, and my aunt was one for whom we prayed.

She was one of those individuals who appeared to have boundless energy. About two years ago—my aunt was then in her 93 year—my wife asked her what her secret was in maintaining such a youthful vibrancy and energy for life. Her response was, in essence, “I spent so many years in the far north that I am just now starting to thaw out.”

But more than her boundless energy it was her steadfast commitment to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus that inspired me. She remained faithful to the worship at that little country church near the family farm where she returned to live following her years at Pangnirtung. Even though there was only her and maybe a dozen others joining for worship I know where I would find her on a Sunday morning. For me, she was one of those people who gave a living definition of what the Apostle enjoins—“stand firm in the Lord.”

It is noteworthy that the Apostle Paul writes—“join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” We might have expected him to say that we should imitate Christ. After all, in this same letter Paul had written, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” But here he invites believers to imitate him. Paul is an astute pastor. He knows that we need others in our own orb and sightline who show us the way. The faithfulness of others we know and see inspires and encourages our faithfulness. Furthermore, know that your faithfulness is an inspiration to others. Standing firm in the Lord is a help to others who amidst the blows of life are starting to stagger or buckle a little.

Our congregation contributes to the work of a missionary named Reg Reimer as part of our Outreach initiatives. Last December Reg participated in the “Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution” conference at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome. Reg is numbered among “the world’s 14 leading religion scholars in their respective regions;” he represented Vietnam and Laos. The project is run by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights.

A highlight of that conference for Reg was the participation of Helen Berhane. She was held for 32 months in a metal ship’s container in Eritrea, a country second only to North Korea in its cruelty toward Christians. Hundreds of Christians are held in these boiling-by-day and freezing-at-night metal boxes, some already for 11 years!

Reg writes: “Helen, a stunningly beautiful woman and accomplished Gospel singer, was imprisoned because of her unquenchable witness for Christ and her “unsilenceable” voice! To force her to recant, she was tortured “in so many ways it would fill a thick book”. When released from prison after a worldwide advocacy campaign, she required a wheelchair.” You can find her songs posted on YouTube. The English translation of one song about her experience of persecution is titled All Alone. It is an amazing witness of the Lord’s presence with her—it contains lines like this: “When the heavy cross weighs on me, My Beloved …still… you are with me.”

I am profoundly inspired by people like Helen Berhane who “stand firm in the Lord” in the face of terrible persecution. It should be noted that Paul writes his letter to the Philippians while in prison. When he encourages believers to stand firm in the Lord in this way, the way he is speaking about is the way of the cross. (Philippians 3:18). This way is difficult and some are discouraged by it. Some hear the stories of people like Helen Berhane and think them foolish for not recanting. Think of the Philippian church members explaining to newcomers—“well our founder is currently in jail, but that is ok, loving Jesus is still a good thing!” Think of how faithfulness in worship is regarded as maybe being a little too religious; there is a societal aversion to be perceived as religious.

So as I think about my Aunt who would be regarded as religious and this gospel singer who endured much I note that their standing firm is “in the Lord.” What I mean is that according to their own testimony they have found their experience of Christ in their life to be a relationship with one who never abandons them. This is to say that their “standing firm” isn’t so much a comment on their character as it is an affirmation of the character of the One they found loves them without reserve. This is never to diminish them as persons or their character—it is to say that both of them would point us to Jesus. And if they were thinking that any should imitate them it would be in so far as such imitation was to promote our relationship with Christ.

I believe that I first heard the question posed by Stephen Covey in regard to the busyness of our lives and the frustrations of not having enough time for what was important. The question is: “Do you ever feel like you are caught up in the thick of thin things?” We Christians may not face persecution in our country but we do face the distraction of a lot of thin things. To take our stand in the Lord is to stand on solid ground. Remember Jesus’ parable of the two builders—one who built his house in the sand the other on the rock. When the storm came the foundation made all the difference. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock,” said our Lord. (Matthew 7:24-27). Stand firm in the Lord.

2. We are at the second Sunday in the season of Lent. The lectionary leads us to read Paul’s admonition to “stand firm in the Lord”; perhaps the framers of the lectionary know of the challenges of giving up too early on any Lenten disciplines we may have purposed to undertake. The Lectionary also has us read a gospel story of Jesus’ determination to fulfil his ministry even though opposed and threatened.

It is clear that when the gospel writers pen their stories of Jesus they have people in mind who will read their story. In the portion of Luke we read today Luke is writing of incidents of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He includes this story of Jesus being warned to flee Herod’s murderous intent where Jesus refuses to be intimidated by Herod or his messengers—he will continue his work and meet his appointed end or goal. Luke relates Jesus’ heart-breaking lament over Jerusalem and his love for its people—though they reject him.

It would be easy to imagine that Luke knows his gospel will reach the hearing of believers facing persecution and opposition. He knows of others who face the distraction of many thin things. Luke wants them and us to know something about our Lord and his determination to give himself for us. As I read this portion of the story about Jesus I find that I am both encouraged and challenged by his determination to be for me. Jesus will not be deflected from his determination to stand firm in the one he calls the Father.

Luke tells us that some Pharisees warn Jesus to get away from the region because “Herod wants to kill you.” The Herod spoken of here is Herod Antipas. He is one of the sons of Herod the Great who was in power when Jesus was born. Upon the death of Herod the Great his kingdom was divided and Herod’s son Antipas became the ruler of Galilee and Perea. This is the Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded and when people said that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead Herod was troubled by Jesus. Luke also tells us that Pilate sent Jesus to this Herod for trial to no avail. Jesus refused to speak to Herod. Herod, hoping to see Jesus perform a miracle, treated Jesus contemptuously.

As we hear our Lord’s response to the threat the words of Psalm 27:1 (our Psalm reading) comes to mind. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Jesus knows the one he calls the Father to be his light and salvation and his fears are ordered accordingly. Jesus responds, “Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” The euphemism “today and tomorrow” that Jesus uses is an expression that means indeterminate time. I will finish the work I set about to do and it won’t be cut short. Yet there is a time that he will complete the work; when he is finished—“on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus implies that his enemies have no power over him until the time set by God for Jesus’ passion and death. To stand firm in him is to rest secure that no enemy ever has the last word about his people.

Now why does Jesus call Herod “that fox?” Some have noted that in first century the term fox was used of people in power to distinguish from a lion. Meaning that a lion was powerful and the fox not so. Perhaps we would say that their bark is worse than their bite. But I wonder if this is more to call the bluff of the Pharisees. Luke’s gospel paints a general picture of the Pharisees as being opposed Jesus. They are not his friends. So when they come and tell Jesus of Herod’s murderous intent are they genuinely concerned for Jesus’ welfare or is it a rumour designed to drive Jesus from their region. I note that Jesus says—you go tell that fox for me. He takes them at face value and invites them to give Herod a message from Jesus. I think he calls their bluff.

Have you found in life that some people will give a certain piece of advice ostensibly because it is good for you when in fact it was purely out of self-interest that the advice was given? Sometimes the enemy endeavours to show themselves to be a friend—“Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14). We may wonder how to discern. We don’t have Jesus’ perceptive abilities. I think Paul’s admonition helpful here. Stand form in the Lord. Bring our questions to him by prayer and the study of his life. Stick to the course that is obvious. Do what you already know the Lord wants you to do and the course about a particular decision will emerge. Jesus knew what his ministry meant he should be doing—taking the advice of even well-meaning Pharisees (if they were) that would deflected him from that course was rejected.

From time to time people will come to the church seeking aid (usually financial). As I hear them tell their story I know that the little bit of financial help we may be able to offer will not make a great deal of difference in this story that they are telling and living. I have gotten braver in my older years and often now in the course of conversation ask—do you have a church where you worship? I invite them to come here. And I share with them how worship of God grounds life and guides us to live in company with the only one who truly loves us and wants what is best for us. I tell them the very best advice I have to give is that relationship with God blesses life. Winning the greatest lottery pales in comparison to what God has in mind for you. I share how it is that weekly worship reassures me of God’s love in the midst of a world that in my experience shouts otherwise.

And what I say to them I say to all. It is part of what we know to do. Sometime amidst the thick of thin things a believer gets sidetracked and experiences a sense of being adrift or lost in a fog. It is good to retrench in the things we know to do. The fog will soon lift and the moorings secured.

Returning to the gospel story we see that Jesus is not deflected by threats of enemies nor the cunning of those who would derail him posing as friends. And even if these Pharisees were genuine in the concern for Jesus’ welfare, Jesus is not sent of course by it. Friends, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for our sakes and no cunning of his great , enemy will keep him from his appointment. Is this not, in part, why Paul could write “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.” Stand firm in the Lord. You can trust him to bring you all the way home.

3. According to a BBC news report, "South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and workers often report feeling stressed. So in order to make people appreciate life, some companies are making employees take part in their own pretend funerals." The employees sit next to a coffin and write out letters to loved ones, then hug a picture of themselves, and then lie down in the coffin. A person dressed in all black, symbolizing the Angel of Death, then comes and shuts the coffins—"Enclosed in darkness, the employees reflect on the meaning of life." The article says this is a "bonding exercise designed to teach them to value life."

It seems to me that I value life not because death defines it as a limited commodity; rather I value life because of the One who rendered death mute and took all the limits off of life. I value life because of the one who gave himself for me. Return with me to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Every time I lead a committal service at a graveside I read this text from Philippians: “He (Jesus) will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.