Compassion, Kindness and Provision – Remembering the Persecuted Church
by Sue Berry
Readings: Gen 21:8-21, Matt 10:24-39, Rom 6:1-11, Ps 86; 1-10, 16 17.
Today our reading in Genesis looks at the distressing circumstances faced by Haggar and her son Ishmael who have been cast out and left to wander through the desert. Whilst in Matthew’s gospel, the reading focuses on Jesus’ words of warning and encouragement to the disciples, about what to expect when the gospel is shared. He encourages them not to fear. Woven through both stories are the compassion, faithfulness and provision of God in the face of persecution.
Abraham has two sons. The first, the son of a slave woman, is born out of Abraham’s and Sarah’s understandable doubts that God promises will be fulfilled. The second child is born to them in their old age against all odds. During a household gathering both Ishmael and Isaac are playing and enjoying themselves, all however is not well. Sarah does not want to see the son of a slave woman as a reminder of her long wait and sorrow to inherit along with her son. She wants this slave woman to be cast out; Abraham on the other hand doesn’t want to do it. Ishmael after all is his son too. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah wants. It is through Isaac the promise is fulfilled. However, God reassures Abraham that Ishmael too will be the father of a nation. Abraham rises early in the morning, puts food and a skein of water on her shoulders and sends away his son with the boy’s mother to wander in the wilderness. She has nowhere to turn no options to return to the household she’s left and is facing a perilous situation.
Hagar places Ishmael under a bush not wanting to see him die. She lifts her voice and weeps. God hears the boy and an angel speaks to her asking why she is troubled, telling her do not be afraid. God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. She is instructed to lift up the boy and take his hand. They are given a miraculous provision of water and life. God is bringing new life to both Abraham’s and his sons in their stories. Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence. We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast and God saves.
In the passage from Matthew’s gospel Jesus brings a message of encouragement to his disciples and tells them not to fear. Three times in this passage Jesus tells them not to be afraid when persecution happens as the good news of freedom in Jesus is shared. Jesus assures them that the truth will be revealed there will come a day when things will be seen as they really are and the power of the persecutor and the heroism of Christian witness will be seen at their true value, each will have its true reward and justice. Jesus encourages them to change their focus and to have a reverent fear for the Lord God, who has the ultimate authority and who can take the ultimate actions in his judgements, which have eternal rather than temporal consequences.
In the early church the Apostles were to die for their faith as they shared the gospel of Jesus Christ. They underwent suffering and persecution as their stories unfold in the book of Acts and elsewhere. Persecution has followed believers down through history.
For millions of Christians around the world today, following Jesus is a highly dangerous activity and at the very least it means facing abuse and discrimination, imprisonment or even death. Many lose their livelihoods or their homes. Families disown their Christian members turning their backs, severing relationships and causing multiple hardships. Millions have to keep their faith hidden, because following Jesus puts them outside the law. Following Jesus sets people free. To those in power – the dictators and religious leaders, the violent extremists, the rubber-stamping bureaucrats, freedom is a toxic substance. Despite the danger Christians in these countries are still sharing the good news of Jesus. In North Korea, Iran, China, Nigeria and in places where persecution is happening – Jesus Christ is building his church. It is growing.
Jesus also reminds his disciples of God’s compassion and provision. In his illustration of the sparrow a bird that appears to be of little value. God sees the sparrow’s activity (the word fall in the reading means to hop around, alight on the ground to feed and so on) and cares for it. How much more then that He cares for people. In the Genesis reading we see Ishmael and his mother suffering through the actions of others, abandoned and rejected. In the second we see that persecution will come to the disciples; both had consequences and outcomes which God would work in and through.
God is in control and sees the bigger picture. The instruction not to fear is highlighted in both readings. In these times fear has abounded much, affecting human behaviour with difficult consequences. Jesus wants us to know that he sees all the details of our lives. He wants to meet our needs, walk with us through the difficulties, bringing His hope, His compassion and His love to where we are. We are not forgotten; we are loved with an everlasting love and nothing can separate us from it. Whatever we may face we have one who intercedes for us Jesus Our Lord and Saviour.
The following prayer reminds us of those who suffer, of all who are persecuted and those who are responsible.
If you would like to find out more Open Doors serves the persecuted church world-wide information and prayer resources can be found at www.opendoorsuk.org. The image is by Elizabeth Lay: God will take care of you.