This year, we opted to observe the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church three weeks after the rest of the world (yes, that’s a little odd, but then, we’re kind of an odd group, so I still consider it appropriate...). But even though our decision to push the observation back was due primarily to the personal schedules of the people involved, it still worked into God’s timing just about perfectly.
Last week, a number of news outlets here in the United States carried a story about the hostage crisis by Muslim extremists in a hotel in Mali that ended with the deaths of 27 people... but my heart was saddened by how many headlines emphasized that an American was among the hostages, as if that’s the detail that makes it news-worthy here in our country. The fact is, the group now calling itself ISIL has been murdering people in one iteration or another for over 250 years, and thousands of people -- even Muslim people -- die every day because they aren’t toeing a particular religious party line somewhere the world. In 2014, it was reported that the number of Christians martyred for their faith in Christ had doubled from the previous year. But my fear is that unless we hear about the death of an American, or about how refugees fleeing from persecution might affect us here in America, we have little knowledge of or interest in these people’s suffering.
You have the opportunity every day to make a difference in the lives of your brothers and sisters around the world. If you truly believe that “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), then I would encourage you to be on your knees, praying for strength and heart and endurance for your family members overseas. You may never have met them, but you will meet them someday -- and on that day, you may be surprised at how they thank you for prayers that sustained them in the hardest moments in life.
We talked a little about that as we concluded our sermon series on the life and ministry of Moses. Spoiler alert: Moses died, and he never got to set foot inside of Canaan (though neither of those should really be spoilers, if you’ve been following along).
It’s telling that, when Moses was given the news by God that he was to climb Mount Nebo and die there, and he was reminded by God why he was never going to enter into Canaan with his people, Moses wasn’t upset or angry or scared. In fact, his very next act was to bless the tribes of Israel in God’s name and for God’s glory. He gave thanks, even in the midst of the hardest point in his life. I thank God that, in His providence, He had us bump our observance of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church to the week of Thanksgiving here in America, because it helps put things into perspective with a laser-like clarity.
We tend to thank God for the good, comfortable things (which is absolutely good to do), and the most mature of us remind ourselves to give thanks for how God sustains us in hard times with snippets of blessings (though technically, that’s still thanking God for the good things). The most complicated kind of thanksgiving is when we thank God simply for who He is in our lives, regardless of the situational blessings we find ourselves in (whether on good days or hard days).
Can we give thanks to God that we live in a country where we can worship Him without fear of dying for doing so? We’d be remiss not to, especially given what so many of our brothers and sisters are going through today.
Can we give thanks to God for how He sustains us when we suffer through our slight persecutions, or our health scares, or our personal losses, or other kinds of hard days? Absolutely, since it’s only through His grace that we get through those things.
But can we give thanks to God not only for the tangible blessings He provides us, but simply for His general character? Can we thank God for being a consistently, perfectly loving Father, in such an inconsistent and imperfect world?
It did my heart good to see so many people getting misty-eyed yesterday when we looked at Moses’ final moments on the mountain, and we saw how God sat down with His friend, and made sure that Moses’ final sights in this life were of the breadth and riches of the land that he’d successfully brought Israel to take possession of. And then God Himself lovingly, caringly buried His friend when he passed.
I thank God today not only for what He’s done for and in me, but for who He is. That’s who I want everyone around me to know...