Just posting this up here, a few days after I preached two slightly varying versions of it at the weekend. The first can be found on our website where you can hear how it departs from the script, the second departed even more from the written word with an illustration of being pushed around by little children (thank you to my helpers- they were very keen to push me around) and an extensive tangent into the physics of the Tour de France and how the peloton is like the church…
but this is what I actually meant to say:
A few words from the passage we heard from Ephesians- Chosen, predestined, his sons, guaranteed inheritance- good language, encouraging. That’s the kind of stuff we need to hear when we are facing opposition. Because the kingdom of God faces opposition. People feel threatened when we talk and live as though God is not merely a fanciful idea or a helpful thought process but actually is real and makes a difference in our lives. There are times when we feel it might be easier if that were so- and we are always at liberty to live like that- no one will stop you. But if once we have known- whether through an experience of God’s reality in prayer or worship, through being involved in a God-moment of some kind (and those range from the pleasantly ‘oh, look at that’ to the jaw-dropping ‘woah!), or from something that has changed within us… whatever it may be, once we have known that God is real to live as if he is not is to deceive ourselves.
A few words from the passage from Mark’s Gospel- arrested, grudge, beheaded… not so encouraging… especially when that’s John the Baptist we’re talking about. But let’s make sure we’ve got the timeline correct here- Herod hears about what Jesus and his disciples are doing, and is afraid that John, who he had executed some time ago has either risen from the dead or that his spirit is somehow in Jesus… John was arrested, imprisoned for a time and executed some time fairly early on during Jesus’ ministry- which may be why in Luke’s Gospel we read of John’s disciples coming to visit Jesus- John can’t come because he’s imprisoned- but that’s speculation… The reality is that the opposition that faces God’s people takes varied forms, and can include physical persecution and execution. It did in the 1st century, and it still does today.
But- and this is important… John’s arrest and execution didn’t stop Jesus, his disciples or the crowds who came to see him. The persecution of the early church caused the Gospel to be preached in new and different cities. The illegal and underground church spread across the whole of the Roman Empire and did what armies had failed to do. The Chinese church was systematically wiped out and foreign missionaries forced to leave during the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s- and it is the largest church in the world today… Opposition is a hallmark of the life of the church- where Christianity is alive and well, with Christians living out their faith, then it challenges the values and worldviews of a society that would prefer God and Jesus to be put on mute and sidelined as a seasonal attraction. Living here, we don’t face the threat of physical violence, though it may come and there is certainly a sense in which speaking out about our faith can have consequences- in the age of social media many people are quite willing to post a remark onto the internet that they might not say to anyone face to face.
So when the kingdom is on the move, when God is at work, there will be opposition. We need to know this, so that we can be prepared for it, so that we can pray into that situation- In an article about the persecuted church in nations in the middle east, one Christian asked that the western church should pray for them to have strength to prevail, not for rescue or removal from the situation- they know that they are in the right place, serving God. We can pray for those who persecute us- pray that they would come to know God. We can take spiritual authority over the situation- as Christians and as the church we have been given that responsibility and that authority. In our gospel readings over the last few weeks and in our daily readings this past week we’ve heard how Jesus gave his followers spiritual authority and sent them out to do just this. We may not be used to considering spiritual opposition and conflict- but the Bible makes it abundantly clear that it was there- where the kingdom was growing, where God was at work, the opposition was both physical and spiritual. And the same is true now. I wonder how many of us pray specifically for protection over our families when we know things are going to be difficult- we look ahead in our diaries, see exams, busy times at work, medical appointments we are worried about… and do we think to take spiritual authority over those times? This last winter our boiler has gone on the blink several times- and each time has been on the night before something important in our church life… but these things don’t mean we should stop.
What we need to realise is this- Wherever there are Christians who allow their faith to be visible- in those places there is opposition to what God is doing in that place through those people. If we choose to give up in the face of opposition, then we may have a quieter and more peaceful life, but it will be poorer and we will not be living in obedience to the one who has saved us. If we choose to face that opposition, but do so in our own strength (either as individuals or a church), then we will find ourselves drained, overburdened and losing sight of why we started in the first place. If, however, we recognise that our own strength is not enough, and rely instead on the strength of God who is in us, then we will rise on wings like eagles, we will run and not grow weary, we will reach the goal that lies ahead of us… opposition exists. But we don’t need to be afraid- we’re never outnumbered when we stand alongside God.