Monday, 12 April 2021

A Vision of Jesus

 A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

18th April 2021

Acts 6.7-15; 7.1-2a, 51-60

Listen to this sermon here:

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads as follows:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; 

this right includes freedom to change … religion or belief, and freedom, 

either alone or in community with others and in public or private, 

to manifest [their] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

And yet persecution remains a very real and present reality

for many Christians, and also many people of other faiths, around the world.

I can still remember my visit to Bucharest in Romania, back in 2000,

when we went to stand at the place on the street

that was directly above the underground cell

where Romanian pastor and long-term prisoner Richard Wurmbrand

was imprisoned and tortured 

during the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s.

On his release, he inspired the founding of Release International

which, alongside organisations such as Forum 18

seeks to highlight the plight of persecuted Christians 

and other minorities around the world.

Their websites offer a depressing and distressing picture 

of international persecution,

from Islamic State in the Middle East, 

to Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria 

to Hindu extremists in India.

Countries where freedom of religion is officially restricted are many, 

and include places I didn’t realise had such restrictions, such as

Azerbaijan, where prisoners of conscience jailed and tortured 

for exercising freedom of religion and belief, and

Tajikistann, where there is a ban on and punishments for 

all exercise of freedom of religion or belief without state permission; 

together with severe limitations on numbers of mosques,

and the jailing of Muslim, Jehovah's Witness 

and Protestant prisoners of conscience 

on alleged "extremism" charges.

And I could go on, and on, citing further examples 

from Georgia, Belarus, Turkey, and many, many more.

Many of us will remember the visit of Rev Samson from the Kachin Baptist Convention

who came to speak at Bloomsbury in 2018.

Just this week I received an update from him, 

which I’ll ask Libby to circulate round the news email for you to read in full.

In it, he gives an update on the situation in Burma, also known as Myanmar,

following the recent military coup.

He says,

The Kachin Baptist Convention in Myanmar has, despite oppressions from the majority and dictatorship's tyranny, grown into a religious institution with over 400,000 members, 427 churches, and 19 associations, and consistently stands on the side of civilians and justice according to the Bible's teaching.

He goes on,

Under the rule of militarized dictatorship, the civilians of Burma/Myanmar are denied all fundamental human rights stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

For instance, the citizens of Myanmar live in fear of the unknown future of being arrested or tortured on a daily basis. The citizens of Myanmar are denied ownership of a property even if they are entitled to own it. The citizens of Myanmar are banned to know the truth via information blackout. 

Moreover, any religious organizations faces discrimination and oppression if an individual religious organization does not speak in favor of ]the armed forces of Myanmar].

He movingly describes the armed forces as a terrorist organisation, and concludes his letter with a request for us:

In this painful and traumatized situation, KBC would like to request humbly and earnestly for worldwide Christian brothers and sisters’ support to the following matters:

a. To support us with most effective and impactful prayer service.

b. To help us by advocating freedom from dictatorship.

c. To assist by voicing up to lift up information blackout in Myanmar.

d. Most importantly, please help us uprooting dictatorship in Myanmar with any possible strategy available.

As you have prayed for us, your Christian brothers and sisters from Myanmar pray for all of you to be for God’s glory. May God’s blessing be upon all.

And those of us who live in a relatively tolerant country like the UK

can struggle sometimes to realize the horrific truth

that persecution on religious grounds is a daily reality

for so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.

And yet, this is the background against which 

much of the New Testament was written.

When we read of Stephen being stoned to death

or Paul facing beatings and floggings

or John in Revelation speaking of hardship and martyrdom,

we need to realize that for many of those in the early church

the threat of imprisonment and death for their faith was very much a reality.

And we therefore need to read the stories that are told in the New Testament

against this background, 

in order to appreciate the context for what we are hearing.

Something which fascinates me in this story from the book of Acts, 

is what happens to Stephen as he is about to be stoned to death.

Did you notice it? – it was something very strange indeed…

something which has never happened to me

and something which I’d be surprised 

if it had happened to anyone else here this morning, 

(although I could be wrong about that).

The strange thing that happened to Stephen 

was that as he faced his moment of death,

he was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw heaven opened, 

with Jesus, referred to as the son of man, 

standing at the right hand of God.

In other words, just before Stephen was called upon 

to make the ultimate sacrifice,

just before he had to remain faithful unto death,

he had a vision of heaven, 

in which he saw God seated on the heavenly throne

with Jesus standing alongside him.

Now, strange though this vision is, it is not unique either:

The author of the book of Revelation reports a very similar experience

which we’ll read together in a moment

The book of Revelation was originally written to Christians 

living in seven cities in Asia Minor

at the heart of the Roman empire

And it was written by a pastor called John 

who was himself imprisoned for his faith.

Only a few years before it was written, the people he was writing to 

had been subjected to some terrible persecutions,

with the Emperor Nero taking Christians and tying them to stakes

and setting fire to them to light his gardens,

or throwing them to wild animals in the amphitheatre.

So it was in that context that John wrote the following:

Revelation 1:9-18  I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  10 I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet  11 saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea."  12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,  13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.  14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire,  15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters.  16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.  17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,  18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.

Do you see the similarities

between the vision Stephen received,

just before he was stoned to death

and the one which John speaks about 

in his context of persecution?

In both visions, heaven is opened, 

and Jesus, described as the ‘son of man’

is seen standing in glory…

Now, why is this, I wonder?...

What is it about a vision of Jesus standing in heaven

that is so appropriate in a context of extreme difficulty?

Well, I think the answer has something to do 

with the events of the Easter weekend.

It’s no coincidence that this passage comes in the lectionary

just a couple of weeks after Easter.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was the victim of torture, 

and was murdered for no crime other 

than an accusation of blasphemy

The similarity between Jesus’ death,

and the struggles being faced today by those around the world

who are facing imprisonment for ‘blasphemy’ is obvious;

as is the similarity between his experience of torture and death

and the experience of Stephen in the book of Acts, 

or those in John of Patmos’s churches who had suffered under Nero.

And the point of these visions seems to be this:

to provide heaven’s perspective on the earthly situation.

From the point of view of those living on the earth

it really can seem, on occasions, that all is lost.

From the point of view of the person facing persecution and martyrdom,

it can seem as if God has lost all power

and that the forces of evil in the world are absolutely in charge.

From the point of view of those living on the earth

it can feel like Jesus has abandoned his followers to a terrible fate

at the hands of those who want to kill them.

But it is at this point, when the earthly perspective can seem so bleak,

that the heavenly perspective comes as a gift from God.

Because, when the earth is seen from the viewpoint of heaven,

things appear very different…

When seen from heaven’s point of view,

all is not lost at all, God has not lost power, 

and evil is not in charge.

This is the significance of the vision of God seated on the heavenly throne

as lord of the whole universe.

Jesus has not abandoned his followers.

Rather, he is seen standing in glory in heaven

as true king over the earth.

You see, appearances can be deceptive,

and just as the crucifixion of Jesus was not defeat but victory,

with the power of death being broken at the resurrection,

so too the persecution and martyrdom of Jesus’ followers is not defeat,

but rather it is the faithful witness which points the world to Christ.

It’s no co-incidence that history has shown 

that the church grows when it is under persecution.

From the early years of the Christian faith 

as we find them in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters,

to Communist China in the post-war period in the twentieth century:

when the church follows its Lord in offering faithful witness unto death,

others respond to that witness and rise up to take their place.

The terrible, frightening, but glorious truth

is that the good news, of the love of God for all people,

is spread not through yet another evangelistic project,

but through the faithful witness of those who take up their crosses

and follow Jesus without compromise.

And it is the realization 

that Jesus is has not gone,

that through his suffering on the cross 

he is united with those who face lives of suffering,

and that through the vision of him ascended and glorified,

the path to life is open 

to those who would follow him through death,

it is this realisation that gives the courage to remain faithful

even in the face of persecution.

In the Hebrew Bible we find the story of Daniel,

thrown into the lion’s den

for refusing to worship the King Nebuchadnezzar;

and Daniel is still under threat of losing his life

when he receives the following vision

which by now is starting to sound a bit familiar to us:

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14  As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.  10 A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. …  13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel, like John, like Stephen, has a vision of heaven opened,

and sees the Son of Man standing in glory.

And like them, this vision is granted at precisely that point in his life,

where he might be tempted to think that God has abandoned him.

After all, the king of Babylon in those days seemed all-powerful,

and from an earthly perspective

it seemed that there was nothing anyone could do to oppose him.

But the vision which Daniel has of the Son of Man,

as king of an everlasting kingdom,

is one which puts into heavenly perspective 

any power the earthly king in Babylon might appear have.

The message for Daniel is the same as we have met already:

From an earthly perspective it can appear that evil is winning,

but when seen from heaven’s perspective,

God is very far from powerless,

and is in truth the almighty one enthroned above all earthly powers.

So what might this say to us,

particularly to those of us who are not given to visions of glory?

As I have said, we who live in this country at this time

don’t face the same levels of persecution

that others around the world face on a daily basis.

Now, I’m not saying we’ve got it all easy – of course we haven’t,

we may not be facing imprisonment, torture and death 

for no greater crime than going to church,

but nonetheless, we face our own share of problems,

which might tempt us to doubt that God is still powerful.

We face situations in our own lives,

where from an earthly perspective it can certainly appear

as if Jesus has lost his power.

I mean, at a local level, we might well ask the question,

of why it is that so many people in the area around this church

are not able to hear the good news of life and love 

that comes through a relationship with God in Christ Jesus.

It can appear to us, sometimes, 

as if we might as well give up trying to bear witness to the love of God,

because people never listen, and nothing ever changes!

Or, more widely, we might ask the question 

of why it is that so much evil still happens in the world,

with bad things happening to good people on a daily basis?

It can appear to us, sometimes, 

as if we might as well give up praying for the world,

because what is the point when things remain the same?

Or, more personally, we might ask the question of why it is 

that we fail to overcome our sinful human nature,

as we carry on doing and saying things that we know we shouldn’t.

It can appear to us, sometimes, 

as if we might as well give up trying to follow Jesus,

because nothing is ever going to change.

And, well… yes… the temptation to give up is very real,

and the motivation to press on with following Christ

in the face of difficulty and discouragement 

can seem very lacking.

And it is to us, as we face our own doubts and difficulties,

that Stephen, and John, and Daniel’s visions come with renewed power.

If we can learn from them to see the earth as heaven sees it,

to see our own lives as heaven sees us,

to realize that the Spirit of the risen Christ is vital and active in the world,

and that God’s power is greater than any earthly power,

Then maybe we, like so many before us, can receive from that vision

the courage, the determination, and the perspective we need to carry on,

to fight the good fight, to endure, to and overcome.

To those of us who sometimes want to give it all up

the risen Jesus comes in both suffering and power,

to be with us in difficulty, to renew our strength, 

and to give us the gift of his Holy Spirit

who sustains us, guides us, and points us to the one who was dead, 

but is alive for evermore.

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