IDOP –International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, November 21st 2021.
May these spoken words, be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, our Crucified Risen Lord and Saviour. Amen.
SLIDE 1 – IDOP ‘Prayer for Birth of Hope.’
Today we are joining in an event held in various churches across the West in November. It is called IDOP – International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Some hold it on the first or second Sunday of the month, we are holding it today. A deliberate focus upon the persecuted parts of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
‘’I, John your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. ’’
John is persecuted, exiled to Patmos. Yet we see how he began his letter.
The focus on Jesus.
‘To him who loves us, and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen!’
Despite the suffering, Jesus is his focus of praise. He knows he is loved, as are all who suffer for Christ, he and others have been freed from their sins and they are called to serve God, regardless of the cost. And even though the suffering he experiences is due to his following of Jesus, Jesus is the focus of praise.
His description of Jesus: ‘the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.’
The believers he writes to, saw Rome as the ultimate power – it ruled much of the known world. Yet John says, despite how it looks, they are not earth’s true ruler, the one whose blood was shed – the one who suffered the power of Rome – this one who had been raised, Christ was and is THE Ruler of the Kings and kingdoms of the earth.,
The firstborn from the dead – he is the guarantor of the final resurrection of all who belong to him. Death will not have its final word.
He was the faithful witness. The GK word for witness is martyr. He suffered, he was pierced, he was slain, yet he remained true.
Jesus who is his focus, is one who suffered, who was raised, and who was exalted. John worships a Jesus of the scars, a suffering God; he worship Jesus, who guarantees the final resurrection, that death is not the end; he worships Jesus who has authority, glory, power, whose kingdom will not pass away or be destroyed.
That is his upward focus. But he looks around him. He sees these 7 diverse churches, he sees them as brothers and sisters. They are kms away yet he says ‘your brother’.
Companion in the suffering. Companion can be translated – fellow participant. He is sharing with these 7 churches in the tribulation – which is another translation of the word for ‘suffering’. His suffering, at this point, is that he is in exile / imprisoned on Patmos. Yet these churches, to whom he writes, are also currently under persecution or have been – one of their members, Antipas, has been martyred.
He is their brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that is ours in Jesus.
Yet when we hear this word, ‘tribulation’, let us not be mistaken – sometimes we associate that word ‘tribulation’ with only an end times meaning, yet Jesus himself had said, on the night before his own great suffering : John 16:33 –
‘’These things I have spoken to you so that in Me, you may have peace. In this world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.’’
Paul and Barnabas when speaking to the new disciples of Jesus, gave these words: ‘’it is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God.’’
This was part of Paul and Barnabas seeking to strengthen the church. We read ‘’they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying – what we just read.’
Now, to allow a tangient, the mere fact that Paul and Barnabas returned to these places must have been an encouragement – Lystra had been the place of a great healing miracle, yet also where Paul was violently stoned (they left thinking he was dead after the stoning); in Iconium, they saw a great number of Jews and Gentiles become disciples, yet they learned of a ‘plot to ill-treat them and stone them’ so they fled to Lystra (where as we heard the violence caught up with them). Finally Antioch. Again Jews and Gentiles coming to faith – Acts says ‘’the word of the Lord spread through the whole region.’ But again ‘the Jews incited God fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city, they stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region.’’ Paul and Barnabas had experienced persecution, some of it violent and life threatening.
Yet they chose to come back to their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, to encourage and strengthen them. Paul shares these tribulations that had began in the planting of these churches, were not over. John now is facing tribulation, suffering.
He is on this island of Patmos, in the Aegean Sea, exiled, or imprisoned, on a ‘’bare, volcanic island’’ (Ladd, Revelation, p30), which is about 16 km long and almost 10 km wide. His sufferings are different from those of the 7 churches. But he is persecuted for the same reasons – due to his faith in Christ. He is there because ‘of the word of God and of the testimony of Jesus.’
John, is a persecuted Christian, writing to persecuted Christians; the letter of Revelation is from a persecuted Christian to persecuted Christians…
As Open Doors writes: ‘’From the very beginning, the church has been no stranger to persecution. Much of the New Testament was written to encourage Christians facing oppression. These faithful believers are encouraged to hold on to their hope by apostles whose own lives will someday be sacrificed for their faith.’’
My heart, is that for All Saints, we will have a deep heart for the persecuted Christians.
WORLD WATCH LIST SLIDE 2
Important to remind ourselves of the broad picture.
Open Doors researches the current situation for Christians. When they released their latest report in Jan 2021, which is called ‘The World Watch List’, the numbers were stark.
1 In 8 Christians Are Persecuted For Their Faith.
In 2018, it was one in 12. It is growing.
And it isn’t only the amount of persecution but the severity.
For the first time ever, all countries ranked in the World Watch List, score at least “very high” levels of persecution and discrimination. 12 countries saw “extreme” levels of persecution and discrimination, another increase from 2020.
To break it down further. Persecution has intensified and reaches at least 340 million Christians today. That’s 1 in 8 worldwide,
we heard that young boy’s Jeovani’s moving story of forgiveness in the Central African Republic. 1 in 6 in Africa, face high levels of persecution.
It is 2 out of 5 in Asia, and 1 in 12 in Latin America.
(Source, Open Doors Australia, https://www.opendoors.org.au/persecuted-christians/blog/1-in-8-christians-persecuted-for-their-faith-world-watch-list/)
We focus on Afghanistan.
Even before the Taliban took over, Afghanistan was rated Number 2 on the World Watch List.
The church in Afghanistan has long been forced underground. For decades, Christian converts have faced dire consequences should their faith be discovered. Conversion is seen as a betrayal of Islam, family and culture.
If a convert is exposed, the full weight of that culture will bear down upon them. The family may try to save their honour by disowning or killing the believer. And this extends beyond the family, to the tribe and the clan.
And all this was before the Taliban took over.
Since the collapse of the Afghan government, the Taliban have vowed to reinstate their extreme version of Islamic law, including amputation, stoning and flogging. Under Sharia, a convert from Islam is considered an apostate. Apostasy may be punished by death.
It is hard to imagine the Taliban will stop short of imposing the harshest punishments on apostates who abandon their religion.
Faced with this, some Christians have fled the country, others have been unable to leave.
But some have chosen to stay, to continue to be the presence of God’s church, despite the risks.
Christians still inside Afghanistan tell that the Taliban are searching houses for anyone connected with the West or with Christianity.
For some, looking on as the Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan, August 15 must have felt like the death of a nation. For the tiny underground church in that country, already facing some of the harshest persecution in the world, the fall of Kabul must have felt like the day hope died.
But on that very day a child was born to a hidden Christian family – a baby girl. It felt like a sign – that God had not forgotten the Christians of Afghanistan.
“God gave us new life that day,” a local contact told Open Doors. “It was like God telling us: ‘My children, I have got this.’”
*Their names have been changed.
SLIDE 3 ‘SAAD QUOTE’.
Saad*, whose baby girl was born that day told Open Doors: “A list has been circulated with our names on it. Some [Christians] have been killed. Some have been kidnapped, some have disappeared. It feels like the morning after a cataclysmic explosion. We feel disorientated. We feel alone. We are afraid.” Afraid of that knock at the door.
Women and girls are especially vulnerable. Fatima* is another hidden believer. “If you love us – if you love Jesus – pray for us,” she asks.
She says: “The pain of living for Jesus and risking everything to follow Him – there’s nothing new about that. That has long been the reality for believers, even before the Taliban took control.”
Another member of the underground church said:: “How we survived daily, only God knows. He knows because he has been kind to dwell with us. But we are tired of all the death around us.”
So are our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan to search, for hope alone? Or is this challenge also ours?
Psalm 82:3 shares God’s heart for his people “Stand up for those who are weak and for those whose fathers have died. See to it that those who are poor and those who are beaten down are treated fairly.”
Hope has a name
The Bible tells us that God stepped into our suffering and lived among us. “He has been kind to dwell with us.” He is Emmanuel, God with us.
Emmanuel is Jesus. And His church is the body of Christ here on this earth.
The Bible tells us that we, the church, are to be the light of the world, arms of the living God wrapped around each another; His word of encouragement, His care and provision. The bearers of His hope.
Hope has a name. Yours.
SLIDE 4 – US WE TOGETHER
John’s words challenge us. He in Revelation had that vertical and horizontal focus. His vertical – the suffering God, the risen one, the exalted one. Yet he had a horizontal focus. I John – though I am stuck on an island far away from you – your brother and companion in the suffering, and kingdom and patient endurance. His vision – is ‘US, WE, TOGETHER, ONE CHURCH, ONE FAMILY.
Jesus uses John to encourage the believers in these 7 churches.
How may we be used to encourage the believers in Afghanistan and Christians persecuted in other lands?
Making a difference.
Two ideas. Give. Pray.
The greatest need of the hidden Christians of Afghanistan today is hope.
And finding hope is not their problem alone, to be solved only by their prayers.
We, the body of Christ, must also find hope for Afghanistan, and impart it.
That hope comes not through wishful thinking but must be imparted through care and through prayer.
“Carry each other’s burdens,” Paul writes in Galatians 6:2, “and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” The law of Christ? Love.
There is little Open Doors can say publicly about its work in the region. This is for the protection of our brothers and sisters.
But Open Doors frontline partners enable the church to remain a faithful witness, to be salt and light despite the risks.
And the need, as well as the risk, right now is huge.
As desperate refugees scatter throughout the region and beyond, Open Doors partners are helping the church provide hope, and to be a witness to the love of God. They do so by giving unconditional support, including emergency relief.
As the Afghan winter sets in, the healthcare system is on the brink of collapse and the economy has stalled. Meanwhile, food prices have soared. According to the World Food Programme, 93 per cent of Afghans do not have enough to eat.
SLIDE 5 – SAAD QUOTE ABOUT DAUGHTER
Afghan Christian Saad told Open Doors: “For us, everything has been taken away. There are the hungry who need food, the naked who need clothes, prisoners who need freedom, and the lost who need God’s arm. “Where to begin?” he wonders. “I will begin with encouraging my wife that there is a hope for our daughter.”
We can help bring that hope. Giving is one way to help. Currently Open Doors Hong Kong and Open Doors Australia allow you to give directly to support the work and care for Afghan believers.
When you read Paul’s letters to persecuted communities, he not only encourages, he is also praying, interceding for them, even when he himself may be facing persecution or in prison. Today, our brothers and sisters need the prayers of the global church more than ever.
From Afghanistan, where she has chosen to remain, secret believer Fatima has a message for the church in the West. “When you pray, you meet us in the God’s throne room. This is where we are together. At the foot of the cross, where the full measure of love is known.”
Christians want to pray, but given the seismic scale of this upheaval, we can struggle to know where and how to begin. We can be sure of this: our prayers for the people of Afghanistan are not in vain. God will not withdraw his presence from this nation.
In Revelation 5, when the Lamb takes the scroll, the 4 creatures and the 24 elders fall down before the lamb. They each had a harp and it says ‘they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.’ These are the prayers of the saints up til that time. To think, our prayers – we feel they are weak, maybe we feel they are unanswered – but the prayers of those believers in those churches, are in the heavenly throne room… Your prayers are of great value to the Lord.
SLIDE 6 – OD WORKER QUOTE
One frontline Open Doors partner explained: “If you had not prayed for us, we would have been long gone. But we’re still here and we’re here to stay and to be salt and light for this region.”
And in that, through our prayers, there is hope for Afghanistan.
The birth of Saad’s baby girl, on the very day the Taliban took power, is a symbol of hope for Afghanistan. Adding our prayers to theirs is crucial for the birth of hope in this country.
The church in Afghanistan has not given up. We must not give up on them.
John had a vertical focus, but he had a horizontal. Jesus wanted to use him to bring hope, strength, encouragement to these believers. Two ways we can do that, for believers in Afghanistan and in other persecuted lands, is through our care and through our prayer.
May we invite God to lay on our hearts how we can support believers in Afghanistan and in other places where they are persecuted, and may he help them hold on to hope.
On August 15th, Saad, was standing in anticipation behind a curtain with the other men in his family, as his wife is giving birth. On that same day, the day the Taliban captured Kabul, Saad’s father declared over the newborn baby and her familyPsalm 20.
This was his prayer of hope. Let these extracts from Psalm 20 be our prayer of hope for Afghanistan. We used this psalm earlier and we now say it again but I invite you to join me in saying it, in effect praying this over the believers and the church in Afghanistan… the words will appear on the screen…
‘’May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
and grant you support from Zion.
May he give you the desire of your heart
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
and lift up our banners in the name of our God.
May the Lord grant all your requests.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory
Answer us when we call!’’