Baptism and Suffering
43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
peoples in exchange for your life.
5 Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you.
6 I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
Luke 3:15-22 English Standard Version (ESV)
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ, which we have just read about in the Luke passage. I don’t want to dwell on that, but I’m going to mention another verse which makes the connection with today’s theme.
In Mark 10, after James and John had asked for preferential treatment in the coming kingdom of haven, Jesus said this rather puzzling thing:
“You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”
Meaning I think that Jesus was about to undergo the most dreadful suffering, and this was what he meant by “the baptism I must be baptized with.”
My last two sermons here have been very broad, so I want to focus, and the focus I believe God has given me today is “the persecution of Jesus’ followers, then and now.”
Whenever I come across a Lectionary reading with a bit missing, I want to read the missing bits!!
So today’s passage, Luke 3 verses 18-20, reads as follows:
18 So with many other exhortations he (John the Baptist) preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had
done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
John has been telling all and sundry the good news that the Messiah has come, he’s been telling God’s message, as are we called to do!
So our theme is: “The Persecution of Jesus’ followers, then and now”. (Our OT reading from Isaiah 43 is also very relevant here, although I won’t be talking about it.)
Two weeks ago, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a review of Christian persecution worldwide, saying:
“Today I have asked the Bishop of Truro to look at how the British government can better respond to the plight of persecuted Christians around the world.
“We can and must do more.”
Jeremy Hunt added:
“Yesterday my family and I walked a short journey to our local church, and enjoyed an uplifting Christmas service. We attend as a simple matter of personal choice, but since being appointed Foreign Secretary, it has struck me how much we take that choice for granted: others around the world are facing death, torture and imprisonment for that very right.”
How many, around the world, are today facing imprisonment, torture, and death?
Estimated 60 million people across the world are currently displaced from their homes because of persecution, and the large majority of these are Christians;
Last time I preached 23rd December, I gave you a very large number, 1.7 billion, as the total number of Christians in the world.
Here’s another large number: every month 250 Christians are killed just for being a Christian.
The UK Government’s intervention comes after a large-scale outcry over the treatment of Mrs Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who faced threats to her life after being acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan:
`Mrs Bibi was held for 8 years under a death sentence for supposed blasphemy after she allegedly drank from the same well as Muslim neigbours.
Her conviction was overturned by Pakistan's supreme court earlier this year.
Large crowds took to the streets to protest against the court's decision, and our Government was accused of not doing enough to help her.The review will be led by the Bishop of Truro, Rt. Rev Philip Mounstephen, who was executive leader of the Church Mission Society until November, when he took up his current role. He said he was honoured to lead the review: “Part of the Christmas story tells how Jesus was himself the victim of persecution so it seems particularly timely to launch this review at this season.”
The Independent Review will have three aims:
Mapping the persecution of Christians in ‘key countries’ in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Provide an ‘objective analysis’ of the level of UK governmental support on offer, and
Provide recommendations for a ‘cohesive and comprehensive policy response’.
Jeremy Hunt noted that others had also spoken out for persecuted Christians:
a) Prince Charles, speaking on 4th December in Westminster Cathedral, said:
“Earlier this year, I had the great joy of meeting a Dominican Sister from Nineveh [northern Iraq], who, in 2014, as Daesh [ISIS] extremists advanced on the town of Qaraqosh, got behind the wheel of a minibus crammed full of her fellow Christians, and drove the long and dangerous road to safety.”
b) Justin Welby in his sermon introducing the Reveiw, highlighted the persecution of Middle East Christians, stating:
“When the Church of Jesus Christ is attacked, it is an attack on Christ himself – when any part of the Church suffers, we also suffer and yet distance and ignorance take away the pain we should feel.”
“Christian Solidarity Worldwide” is a UK based Christian organization which works to defend, uphold and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief in over 20 countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Through advocacy, it challenges world leaders to fulfil their duty to protect religious freedom.
“Across the world, about 215 million Christians suffer persecution, according to the campaign group, Open Doors.”Open Doors publishes the World Watch List, comprising the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians, which it describes as “more than 200 million believers in the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian experience high levels of persecution because of their faith.” And “over 3000 Christians have been killed for their faith, more than double the number noted in the previous recording period”
“The International Society for Human Rights” has found that Christians are the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination.” The ISHR is another international body, formed in 1972, out of the International Declaration on Human Rights. It and its national member groups serve to support people persecuted for their beliefs, and investigate violations of the Declaration on Human Rights.
The 2018 Report from Aid to the Church in Need (covering the two years June 2016 to June 2018) is the source of the “215 million”, but this figure is corroborated by Open Doors. Examining the two-year period up to and including June 2018, this report assesses the religious situation of every country in the world.
From the Aid to the Church in Need Report summary:
In the period under review, the situation for minority faith groups deteriorated in 18 of the 38 countries – almost half – found to have significant religious freedom violations. Especially serious decline was noted in China, where Beijing’s largest unregistered “house church,” 1,500-member Zion Church, was closed in September after refusing a government directive to install security cameras in the sanctuary. In many of the others – including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Eritrea – the situation was already so bad, it could scarcely get any worse.
Worsening intolerance towards religious minorities meant that for the first time two countries – Russia and Kyrgyzstan – were placed in the ‘Discrimination’ category.
Compared to two years ago, more countries with significant religious freedom violations showed signs of deteriorating conditions for faith minorities – 18 countries, up four on the figure for 2016.
An increase in religious freedom violations from state actors – authoritarian regimes –resulted in more countries showing a decline in religious liberty compared with 2016.
Conversely, a sharp decline in Al Shabaab militant violence meant that Tanzania and Kenya – ranked as ‘Persecution’ countries in 2016 – were re-categorised ‘Unclassified’ in 2018. While fewer Islamist religious freedom violations were noted in some countries, the position manifestly worsened in many others.
That’s enough “current affairs” to be going on with – but the information is there on the internet, just search for “Christian Persecution” and you’ll come across the sources I’ve been citing.
Let’s get back to our text! Luke 3:18-20
“So, with many other exhortations he (John the Baptist) preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”
John the Baptist was imprisoned by the king whom he had openly criticized for immorality.
When John was asked by tax collectors and soldiers how they should live, he didn’t tell them to leave their jobs, but rather to live honestly and rightly, advice which applies equally today. Christians today by simply living and saying what God requires, can provoke a similar reaction as John. (see earlier in this chapter, Luke 3:12-14)
Luke is such a wonderful Gospel writer, he puts essential detail into every episode, and here, whereas Mark tells a great deal about what John did and said to Herodias, Luke, who we presume had a copy of Mark’s Gospel in front of him as he wrote:
“But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. (Luke 3:19-20)
Soon after this, during the infamous “dance of the veils” by Salome (details in Mark 6), John was killed by Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who inherited the regions of Galilee and Perea as his territories. The gospels portray him as a complex man. For a start, he has an unlawful marriage. At some point, he apparently stole Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip. That put him in opposition to John the Baptist, who opposed the union (Mark 6:18), leading Herod to arrest John (Matt. 14:3).
Herod Antipas’s wife, Herodias, hated John with a passion. (Presumably for publicly criticizing her betrayal of her former husband—Herod Philip—and her marrying his brother.) Eventually, after her daughter Salome delighted Antipas with a special dance at his birthday party, Herodias was able to manipulate him into giving the order for John’s death by beheading (Mark 6:21-28).
Lest you think that beheading is a thing of the past, a historical horror, it isn’t. Our friend from Sudan, Waleed, told us that his parents and hi wife’s parents were all beheaded by the Janjaweed in Sudan in 2003, and you may have heard reports of beheadings by Dayesh in recent years.
In John’s account of Jesus’ teaching to the disciples during Holy Week, the “Upper Room Discourses” (some scholars suggest that John is summarising Jesus’ teaching after the Resurrection as well), John writes:
"I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation (Greek “affliction”, other versions “persecution”, The Message rather understates it as “difficulties”). But take heart: I have overcome the world.”
In the 1st century Christians were persecuted – but today we’ve heard how Christians today are equally persecuted.
If we’re not experiencing any reaction to us, we should ask, “what am I not doing?”.
If you are getting some backlash, be glad!
In any case, pray for the many persecuted Christians you are aware of.
Loving Father, as so many Christian people around the world are suffering persecution for their faith, bless them through their troubles, be very close to each one of them, and show us how we can help.
For the sake of your Son, our Saviour, who suffered death to bring us all back into your family,