Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent (3/15/15)
Traditionally the 4th Sunday in Lent has been called “Rejoice Sunday.” In the middle of the season of Lent we take this Sunday to remember that even as we sorrow over our sin, we can rejoice because Jesus came!
Text: John 3:14-21
Theme: Rejoice! The Son of Man Was Lifted Up
When is the last time you thanked God for being a Christian in America?
The headlines we’ve see over the last few months about what’s happening in Iraq and Syria give us a good opportunity to thank God that none of us have to worry about literally losing our heads for showing up here today. We American Christians have a lot to be thankful for in our lack of physical persecution.
Christians have been persecuted since Christianity began. Jesus promised that if they persecuted him, they would persecute his followers. According to church tradition, all of Jesus’ original disciples but one were killed for their faith. But in the history of the persecution of the Christian Church, there is one ten year period that earned the inauspicious title, “The Great Persecution”.
It began on February 23, 303 AD. Faced with mounting pressure from without and within to return Rome to its traditional values and religion the Roman emperor Diocletian set the bull’s-eye on the Christians.
Churches were burned to the ground. All Christian services were banned. All across the Roman Empire those who professed to be Christians were told to show up and hand over their Bible’s to the Romans so that every Bible in Rome could be burned. Christians in high places lost their jobs. Christians with homes found themselves homeless. The clergy were thrown into jail.
One year later, in 304, the persecution escalated. Rome decided that every Christian had to make a public sacrifice to the Roman gods – and if you didn’t you would be killed.
And so Christians died. Countless Christians refused to turn their backs on Jesus and died because of it. Whole communities of Christians were wiped from the face of the earth in what has become known as “the era of the martyrs.”
And then in February of 313 a Roman named Constantine took control of Rome. Supposedly, he had a dream in which his destiny was tied to Christianity, so he signed into law the Edict of Milan which formally ended “The Great Persecution.” And just ten years later, Constantine would make Christianity the official religion of Rome.
And then an interesting thing happened. Closet Christians began to come out of the woodworks. Christians who had hidden their faith for a decade, suddenly started professing Christ again. Christians who had caved to the pressure and pretended to worship Roman gods, started worshiping the true God again. And from this sprang one of the first post-persecution problems in the church.
You see, those who had stuck with Christ (displaying strong faith) – those who had lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters because they refused to turn their backs on Christ – they didn’t look too kindly on those weak Christians who had turned their backs on Christ to save their own skin. They didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
So some teaching, some healing had to happen.
Those Christians who had faced persecution and demonstrated incredibly strong faith needed to be reminded of an incredibly important truth. It is not the strength of our faith that saves us. It is the object of our faith that saves us – a lesson Jesus teaches very powerfully and clearly in John chapter 3. Continue reading