Our CEO, Scott Sanders introduces our "Being Present" Advent series with a reflection from Isaiah on what it means to pursue peace during this season.
Content warning: Discusses torture, abuse and persecution.
In my job, I have the honour of hearing and sharing the stories of people who have endured unimaginable pain for their faith in Jesus yet who, in the face of this pain, seem to remain present and focused on one thing: that Jesus came to save. As one Eritrean believer told me:
“Jesus is the medicine of the world and must be shared.”
Isn’t that a beautiful thought? Christmas signifies the coming of ‘the medicine of the world’ - the eternal inoculation from sin and death. The one true God and Saviour of the world, Jesus.
On a recent trip to Indonesia I met with teenagers who had converted from Islam to Christianity and, as a result, had been disowned by their family. They were outcast and alone in a worldly sense. But when asked what message they would most like to share with Australian young adult followers of Christ, these teenagers had the audacity to reply, “Embrace Christ because in the midst of your severe trial and troubles in life, Jesus will always be there giving you a reason to live, regardless of what problems you're going through. Embrace him as the most expensive possession you could ever have.”
As I paused and reflected for this devotional on the words of Malachi 4 (written around 430 B.C.), I recalled a vivid memory of a time that I spent with a beautiful North Korean believer. When I met this woman, she was 69 years of age and had survived nine North Korean labour camps, enduring countless beatings at the hands of the guards in these camps. She had both seen her husband killed for following Jesus, and had watched her daughter in her mid-twenties starve to death in her own arms.
Yet it was something this woman had said about daily life in the labour camps that jumped back into my mind upon reading this passage. She told me how, every couple of weeks in camp, the prison guards would choose a couple of 'Christians', and would march them to the front of the daily roll call assembly. They would be made to lay face down (so that they could not look towards God) and the other prisoners would then be forced to walk over them until they died. Once dead, their bodies would be burned, and the ashes would be scattered over a specific path that the prisoners walked each day to conduct their forced hard labour chores. I remember her telling me that one of her greatest fears had been knowing that one day people would be walking over her ashes too, and that it had terrified her. Now, reading Malachi 4 to write this advent devotional, verse 3 sounds eerily similar to her story:
"Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act," says the Lord Almighty.
To be honest, one of the things I often struggle to reconcile is how to be truly present with those who - like this amazing North Korean woman - suffer persecution for their faith in Christ. Like so many people, my knee-jerk reaction is to pray that the persecution would just stop. But the more time I spend with persecuted believers, the more I realise that my job is not to end persecution – it’s not even to stop it growing – but instead to give people the strength and boldness to stand in the face of it and shine as brightly as they can.
You see, despite the immense suffering this woman endured, it was her ability to be present in a spiritual sense to those around her that I will never forget. Why? Because the thing that I didn’t tell you about my 69-year-old friend from North Korea is that, inside this labour camp, she started a secret church. A community of believers who would meet of an evening at the pit toilets where the stench was so bad that the guards wouldn’t come, who would sing songs and share scriptures. And my friend would pray, asking the Lord who she should share the gospel with - who she should literally risk her life for - so that they might come into an authentic and real relationship with Jesus. In the midst of her persecution, this North Korean woman showed a strength and boldness to stand and shine as brightly as she possibly could.
So this advent, as we reflect upon the ‘medicine of the world’ who came to earth so that all humankind could be reconciled to Him, I invite you to think about those who share our faith, but not our freedom. I invite you to be present with those people who are persecuted for their faith, and to join me in covering them with prayer that they'll have the strength, courage and boldness to live a life focused on Jesus.
And may we ourselves learn from their example this Christmas, and boldly celebrate the message of Jesus - the greatest gift we’ve ever received - in response.
God Bless you this Christmas season.
Daily Reading Malachi 4
4 See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
4 Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.