“Living Sacrifices”

International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Romans 12:1-2, 9-21

November 7, 2021

Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service

Pastor Nicoletti

Our sermon tonight will be shorter, as we have heard from Dawn this evening, and as we will also take time after the sermon to pray for the persecuted church.

As we consider that theme, and how we can pray for the persecuted church, we will consider two texts.

One, we have already recited together: Psalm 69. There the focus is especially on deliverance for God’s people from their circumstances, and that is certainly something we should and will pray for.

Our second text comes from Romans 12. And there the focus is on how God’s people respond when they face suffering and persecution. Romans 12 is the text suggested by the Voice of Martyrs ministry for this International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, and some of the thoughts I’ll share are based on their resources.

With that said, let’s hear now from our second text from Romans 12.

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening.

The Apostle Paul writes:

12:I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[…]

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is the word of the Lord.  (Thanks be to God.)

There are a number of ways for us to pray for the persecuted church. Tonight we consider two main categories: we should pray for an end to their persecution, and we should pray for how they endure their persecution. Or, to put it another way: we should pray for their circumstances, and we should pray for their hearts.

For An End to Their Persecution

First, we should pray for an end of the circumstances of persecution that they face. And Psalm 69 speaks well to this. In fact, simply going through and seeing the different movements of this psalm is a helpful way for us to consider how we can pray for the circumstances of our brothers and sisters facing persecution around the world. You may want to turn to the psalm as we go through it – either in a Bible or in the bulletin.

The first movement comes in verses one through three, and it summarizes the emotional pain and the distress of the persecution. David is not concrete here – he is describing to God what it feels like. He says:

Save me, O God!
    For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
    my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
    with waiting for my God.

Whatever the details may be, this is what the persecution feels like. And the first way we can pray for those facing such persecution is for deliverance from this deep distress.

Next, David turns outward, and he gives us the second circumstance we can pray for: the injustice of false accusations. David says in verses four and five:

More in number than the hairs of my head
    are those who hate me without cause;
mighty are those who would destroy me,
    those who attack me with lies.
What I did not steal
    must I now restore?
O God, you know my folly;
    the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

The persecuted are accused of wrongs they have not done – asked to restore what they have not stolen or damaged. Whether in the case of the early church, when Christians were falsely accused of cannibalism, or in the case of the church in some parts of the world today where Christians are accused of being traitors to their country, a second circumstance to pray for is false accusations.

Third, David highlights the concern those who are persecuted have for the fellow believers around them – fear that those other believers will struggle in their faith when they see the persecution falling on those around them, or fear that the persecution will spread to those weaker in their faith. David says in verses six through eight:

Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
    O Lord Yahweh of hosts;
let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me,
    O God of Israel.
For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
    that dishonor has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my brothers,
    an alien to my mother’s sons.

A third circumstance given here to pray for, is to pray not just for the Christians facing the persecution directly, but other, weaker, Christians around them, as they observe that persecution.

Fourth, David returns to the theme of injustice. Only now it is not the injustice of false accusation – it is the injustice of persecutors calling good evil – calling faithfulness to God itself an evil thing. In verse nine through twelve David prays, saying:

For zeal for your house has consumed me,
    and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
10 When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting,
    it became my reproach.
11 When I made sackcloth my clothing,
    I became a byword to them.
12 I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
    and the drunkards make songs about me.

A fourth circumstance David gives us here is to pray for Christians as they endure having their good works called evil.

Fifth, David turns most directly to his relationship with God. In verse thirteen he prays “As for me, my prayer is to you, O Yahweh.” From there he pleads with God to deliver him. “Answer me, O Yahweh,” he prays in verse sixteen, “for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.” “Make haste to answer me” he prays in verse seventeen.

This section – verses thirteen through eighteen – is, in many ways, the heart of the prayer. It is the direct appeal for God, in his mercy, in his relationship with the persecuted, to bring deliverance. Simply put, it is a prayer for help, rooted in faith in God.

We sometimes treat such direct prayer for help and deliverance as less spiritual than other kinds of prayers. But reading the psalms, it is hard to believe that that is the case. And historically, other Christians have not seen it that way.

We see this, for example in the desert fathers of the early church. John Cassian, of the fifth century, latched onto this kind of prayer as it is found in the first verse of Psalms 70. That verse reads: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” Cassian took that verse, and used it as a short prayer of deliverance, and eventually included it in the daily liturgies in the early monasteries he influenced.

Every day, the faithful of those communities would pray: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.”

When Saint Benedict came across this practice, he amplified it even further, including it in every one of the seven periods of prayer that the monks in his communities would pray – so that seven different times a day the people were called on to pray together: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.”

In the same way, at the heart of Psalm 69 is a prayer for assistance – a prayer for God to not delay, but to come and deliver quickly.

From there, David goes on to pray, sixth, for comfort. He recounts in verses nineteen through twenty-one how he has been stripped of earthly comforts, and implied in his account is a plea with God to be for him the God of all comfort. And with those verses we are reminded to pray for comfort for God’s people as they suffer.

Seventh, David calls for justice. In verses twenty-two through twenty-eight he calls for judgment on those who are persecuting him. And we must join in this prayer as well. We must pray that God will bring destruction on the enemies of his people. We should especially pray for this in the form of conversion – that God would destroy their hard hearts and replace them with living hearts towards God. But whether in conversion or in judgment, we must pray for God’s justice.

Eighth, and finally, after one last prayer for deliverance in verse twenty-nine, David turns to God in worship. He worships God himself in verses thirty through thirty-three, and then he calls on others to worship in verses thirty-four through thirty-six.

As we pray for Christians facing persecution, we should pray for their ability to continue to worship God – in their hearts, in their lives, and in their congregations – even in the midst of their persecutions.

So as we pray for the circumstances of persecuted Christians, we can pray for their emotional pain, we can pray for the injustices they are enduring, we can pray for the other Christians around them, and we can pray for God to deliver them, to comfort them, to take action towards their persecutors, and to help his people worship him regardless of their circumstances.

These are the ways Psalm 69 helps us to pray for the circumstance persecuted Christians face.

Of course, many of us will note that Psalm 69 also points beyond David. In verse 4, and again in verse 9, and then again in verse 21 we have words and phrases that will later be applied to Jesus Christ.

With those allusions we are reminded that the suffering of persecution is a sharing in the suffering of Christ. Which means that God’s people are to imitate Christ when they face suffering and trials of various kinds.

And that leads us then to the second way we should pray for persecuted Christians: prayer for how they endure their persecution.

For How They Endure Their Persecution

Because as important as prayer for the circumstances are, in many ways, how God’s people respond to persecution is the real heart of the battle. Satan is happy to have Christians killed, sure. But that is not his chief aim. His chief aim would be to have them deny their Lord – either directly in renouncing their faith, or indirectly, by responding to persecution with sin.

And this is where Paul’s words in Romans 12 come in. Paul calls on God’s people to be living sacrifices. And while his language there is much broader than the issue of persecution, it certainly includes it, as we see in verses fourteen through twenty-one.

We must pray for our brothers and sisters facing persecution that they hold on to Christ in the faith. And with that, we must pray that they continue to reflect Christ in their actions.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice … do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind … let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good … love one another with brotherly affection … outdo one another in showing honor. … rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer … bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … live in harmony with one another … repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all … if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all … never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God … if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

That is what our brothers and sisters are called to in the face of persecution. And that is a high calling.

Some who face persecution are older and more mature in the faith. But many are not. Many are new to it. Many are still getting oriented to their faith. And all have their own sins, their own shortcomings. And as they face persecution, there is a battle not only for their physical lives, but for their spiritual lives. And we must pray for both.

We must pray that our brothers and sisters will suffer well. We must pray that God would be glorified in how they respond to the injustices they face. We must pray that they will keep the faith and finish the race. We must pray that if blood is shed, that it would be the seed of the church.

And so, we must pray for our brothers and sisters’ hearts and souls as they face persecution. That is the second way we must pray for them.

Thinking of Ourselves

And as we think of these things – as we think of our brothers and sisters suffering persecution around the world, we should pause and think of ourselves as well.

First, hearing of the suffering of other Christians around the world should put in perspective the sort of trials that we face in our post-Christian setting.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. We should take discrimination against Christians in our own country seriously. We should beware of forms of soft persecution, and we should take advantage of the legal protections we have here to protect ourselves and other Christians. I’m in favor of all of that.

But when we face those kinds of challenges, we should beware how we speak of the struggles here, lest we speak as if they are comparable to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters who face much more dire circumstances. When we think of our situation, we are quick to see what is wrong. But when we see the suffering of other Christians around the world, we should also be compelled to give thanks for the many protections we do have.

Second, we should pray – as we often do – that we do not fall into persecution ourselves. It is good and right that we pray for ourselves that we would not need to pray Psalm-69-style prayers. We should pray that God would spare us such things. That is a second thing for us to consider.

But the third thing for us to consider comes from Romans 12. We should stop and ask ourselves if we are the kind of people who, if we faced persecution ourselves, would present our bodies as living sacrifices. If we, in the face of unprecedented hardships would have a response that would be characterized by love for one another, and brotherly affection. If, in the midst of conflict, we would be noted as people who seem to be trying to outdo one another in showing honor. If we would be marked by our tendency to be patient in tribulation, constant in prayer, and rejoicing in hope. If we would bless our persecutors rather than curse them. If we would seek peace with all – even our persecutors. If we would seek to overcome evil with good.

It’s a theme we’ve discussed before, but it’s worth coming back to tonight. We have had what a few people have referred to as a sort of apocalypse the last 20 months or so. Not an end of the world, but the technical meaning of the word – an unveiling or unmasking.

And one of the things that has been unmasked is our hearts. We faced unique hardships. We faced unique social conflicts. And we each reacted.

How did you react?

If you were to take Romans 12 and turn it into a grading rubric – if you were to honestly rank yourself in each of these dimensions, on a scale of 1 to 10, how did you do?

I don’t bring that up as a dig or as a guilt trip. I don’t bring it up targeting one side of the debates and not the other. I bring it up for us all. I bring it up because in an indirect way, we each got a little glimpse of how we respond when we feel threatened or mistreated. Which is likely a little preview of how we would respond if we were to face persecution.

Some of us should maybe be encouraged by how you did. But many of us should acknowledge quite a gap between Romans 12 and our behavior.

For many of us, we weren’t so characterized by love for one another, or by brotherly affection. For many of us, no one would mistake our words or our actions for an attempt to outdo others in showing honor to other people. We had little patience in tribulation, we were not constant in prayer, and we did not rejoice in hope. We spoke far more curses directed at our perceived enemies than blessings. We did not seek peace, but we often provoked further division. We did not seek to overcome evil with good, but our response to others showed just how much we still were conformed to the ways of this world.

Of course there is a continuum. And each of us is somewhere on that continuum. Where did you fall?

If you see where you fell, and you feel ashamed, you should acknowledge a few things.

One is that the right place to bring your shame is the cross of Christ.

A second is that it should impress on you just how much our brothers and sisters facing persecution need our prayers. Responding to persecution with blessings rather than cursing – responding to evil with good – loving our enemies, all of it is really hard. Seeing our own struggles and failures under much less dire circumstances should impress that on us. And it should drive us to earnest prayers that our brothers and sisters under much more difficult circumstances would still respond more faithfully than many of us would have.

But a third thing we must do if we look at our behavior over the last 20 months and feel is ashamed, is that we must recognize that Christ is not done with us. And you can therefore treat this revelation of your heart as a gift. Because it can be. It can be something of a diagnosis. And it can motivate you to seek change.

We should pray and work that we not fall into persecution in our land – that is one thing we should do.

But another thing we must do is pray and work to become the sort of Christians who could receive persecution and respond by offering ourselves as living sacrifices – the sort of Christians who have been transformed by the renewing of our minds … who would bless and not curse … who would overcome evil with good.

Whether we ever receive persecution or not, we should strive to be those kinds of Christians.

And so, as we pray for the persecuted church, let us also pray for ourselves. And let our emphasis not only be on our circumstances, but on our hearts. Let us pray that we would be transformed into the kind of people Paul here calls us to be.

Conclusion

Our circumstances are not like those of our brothers and sisters whom we have heard of tonight. We are very different.

And yet still, we are united.

As we remembered just a few weeks ago, the Apostle Paul wrote of the Church saying:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. […] The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, […] God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” [1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 21-22, 24b-26]

As we think of the different parts of the Church around the world, those small pockets of the Church suffering under persecution right now may seem weaker with worldly eyes. Though I suspect that seen with spiritual eyes, it may be we who are weaker.

But in either case, we are one. And we need one another. For there should be no division in the body. No matter how different the cultures, no matter how different the language, no matter how many miles separate us, the fact that remains that we are called to care for one another. “If one member suffers, all suffer together.”

And so, let us lift our brothers and sisters up in prayer. Let us do so individually, as we go from here. But let us do so together as well.

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:

This sermon draws a few thoughts (though not its overall structure or content) from the sermon resources provided by “The Voice of the Martyrs” for the 2021 International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians: “New Life in Christ – An Overcoming Faith”

Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1-72. TOTC. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973 (2008 reprint)

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