The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

God is faithful

When does Spring begin? The Met Office regards 1 March as the first day of Spring, although others insist that the correct date is 20-21 March, which is the Vernal Equinox. For most of us the fact that the days are getting longer and the daffodils are beginning to bloom means that winter is passing and springtime has arrived! It is an encouraging time for us all as we look forward to the longer, warmer days of summer.

The passing seasons remind us of the faithfulness of God. Following the devastating flood, which happened in the time of Noah, God gave a wonderful promise to all subsequent generations. God said, “As long as the earth remains, there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” He also gave the rainbow as a sign of his eternal covenant with Noah and his descendants and all living creatures. God told Noah, “I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is a sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives.”

The great reality of our life on earth is that God exists. He is eternal and he created each one of us. The heavens and the earth declare his glory and the changing seasons reveal his care. There is something deep in every one of us which responds to him. Some react against him and determine to live their lives as if he does not exist, but many are instinctively drawn to him.

Thomas Chisholm’s well known hymn affirms, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee; Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not, as Thou hast been Thou for ever wilt be. Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed Thy hand has provided – Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

As we move forward into the Spring, and then the Summer, it is good to know that we can do so trusting in the living God. We can rejoice in his presence with us each day to cheer us and guide us. He will also give us strength for each day, bright hope for the future, and every blessing we need along the way.