Which football team is the best?
Auburn University? Probably not
Clemson University? There’s an argument to be made there.
The University of Georgia? Nope. Alabama beats them too easily.
No matter what, even really no matter how badly our team is doing that season, we rush to their defense when someone attacks our team. I imagine many of you felt that about the University of Georgia just now!
Football comes back this coming weekend! And with it, the wide-ranging, never settled, debates about who has the best football team. Statistics will be wielded like swords, expert opinions like shields, clashes will occur between friends at cookouts and pundits covering the games. Rankings will create passionate debate and not a few strains on relationships.
Rushing to the defense of something sacred to us is human nature. It’s like a sixth sense. We know when we’re being attacked, we know when something we hold dear is under attack, and we rush to its defense.
We rush to the defense of things like football, family, cherished friends, our political commitments, and especially religion.
Perhaps nothing stirs debate, and defense, more than religion. Especially when we think that our values or beliefs are under assault. We rush to its defense, to champion our cause and prove that we’re right.
Think back to times you’ve felt the need to defend what you believe. Maybe that’s been in person, with someone who challenged what you believe and why. Maybe that was the last time the age old baptists v. Methodists debate came up. Maybe it was on social media, especially the last time you got into an argument over what someone posted.
At the end of all these arguments, when we’re done with our defense at the dinner table or online, we don’t really feel any better and no one has changed their minds. And yet, we keep arguing, keep fighting, keep defending, with the end result of bruised egos, broken relationships, and embarrassment all around. And yet, we keep defending.
Around the world, it’s common to feel threatened because of your religious beliefs. In many countries, Christians face tremendous threats. In some places, the level of persecution comes near the United Nations’ definition of genocide, according to a recent report by the BBC. One in three persons around the world faces religious persecution with Christians facing more persecution than others.
In especially the countries of Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Christians face persecution from governments hostile to them and fundamentalist citizens of the home religions of Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism. India ranks in the top ten of all countries persecuting Christians because of its sometimes militant Hinduism. North Korea ranks first with their outright ban and oppression related to their communist, atheistic, beliefs. In China, Christians are regularly persecuted, imprisoned, and beaten. And in Myanmar and Cambodia, fundamentalist Buddhist monks make a regular habit of committing suicide bombings against Christian churches.
Yes, Christianity is losing its cultural status in the global west, but whatever loss of privilege we face is nothing compared to our brothers and sisters who live in India, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, and Iran; which is a list of only some of worst countries persecuting Christians.
In the scripture for this morning, Daniel is under severe persecution because of his religion; a persecution born of threats that reminded me very much of the threats our brothers and sisters face around the world. Let’s hear the famous story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den in Daniel, chapter 6.
Worldwide, Christians under persecution need help.
In most of these areas, according to Open Doors USA and Voice of the Martyrs, the request for help for these Christians is twofold: bibles and prayer. Those under persecution simply pray, read their bibles, and proclaim the gospel. They have found the joy that comes from being loved unconditionally by Jesus Christ, they know the freedom and release that comes from knowing we are forgiven without condition, and they worship God for that.
They act much like Daniel. When he knew of the coming persecution, he simply continued his religious practice. He didn’t seek to draw attention to himself, he didn’t get showy or defiant of the law; he simply continued his practice. His devotion was great. His commitment to God and his faith mattered more than his devotion or commitment to his country, whether Judah or Persia. He was just himself; authentic in faith expression, in the face of grave threats to his life based on his religion.
Which baffles me.
Daniel has risen to prominence in the Persian empire. The fall of the Babylonians has been good to Daniel. Within an effective administrative structure established by King Dairus, Daniel has risen to the top. Darius has three direct reports, named presidents, and Daniel is the standout star of these presidents. He is so good that Darius wants to make him ruler over all the empire, second only to the king. Daniel would then rule from Pakistan to the Mediterranean; from Greece to Egypt, and from Kazakhstan to Tunisia. The land area is massive, the number of people huge, and Daniel is about to have reign over all of it. He’s on the cusp of absolute greatness and tremendous power.
As a foreigner, native Persians absolutely do not want Daniel to come into this new position. They are both jealous and xenophobic. So, in a move reminiscent of the Netflix hit House of Cards, Daniel’s colleagues and underlings conspire to get him removed; killed if necessary. They get the king to sign the interdict, the law, that all prayers must be directed to the king and the king alone for thirty days. They absolutely know this will entrap Daniel, snaring him in their web, resulting in his legal murder.
And the crazy thing, the baffling thing, is Daniel knows all this and still allows it to happen. The scripture notes that Daniel knew the document had been signed. He knew he was in trouble. And almost certainly, he knew that the law was the conspiratorial result of his success. He knows all this, he knows it’s a trap, and he does nothing to defend himself.
But why not? He has a platform. He has power. He knows he’s ensnared but he has all he needs to entrap the conspirators. He could reverse his fortunes in a heartbeat. It might require some Machiavellian tactics, but he’s got everything he needs to save his life and defend his faith. He should use his power and position to rush not only to his own defense but to God’s as well!
For Daniel’s not powerless.
Just like us: we’re not powerless. In the face of attacks against us, our beliefs, our faith, and our God, we have a platform. At dinner conversations, in the line at the register, and especially on facebook, we have the ability to rush to the defense of ourselves and God.
When someone challenges our beliefs, when we’re under assault for being Christian, when one of the usual suspects on our facebook feed says something meant to upset and provoke, we have a platform, we have power, we have resources, with which to defend.
And so we do defend, because otherwise the wrong beliefs may get out there. Otherwise, Christian loss of privilege in this country might be made worse.
Like Daniel, we have power, privilege, and position, and we can use them to rush to God’s defense.
But that’s the baffling thing.
Daniel doesn’t act that way. It’s baffling because he holds the power, privilege, and position to save himself and defend God. But he doesn’t use any of it.
Which is the same for Christians under persecution around the world. It’s baffling that their only request is for prayer and bibles.
They aren’t requesting better arguments so that they can take down their Hindu aggressors, for example. They aren’t asking for better lawyers so that, when they’re brought into court for blasphemy in Pakistan, they have a better defense and can be acquitted. They aren’t asking for better weapons to defend themselves against tribes in Africa who make a habit of attacking Christian villages. They aren’t asking for better defensive weapons or bomb-proof churches to ward off Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar.
No, they ask for prayer and bibles.
And while asking for prayer and bibles, they keep practicing their faith, they keep worshipping, they keep studying their bibles, just like Daniel did in his upper room. They keep practicing and witnessing to their faith until, one day, like Daniel, they’re caught.
Except that, unlike Daniel, many of them end up imprisoned or murdered.
And yet, even knowing they face death and imprisonment, they don’t rush to their own defense. They just keep worshipping, they just keep praying, they just keep witnessing.
They understand, like Daniel, that God needs no defense.
Consider this: If God is who we say God is, God requires no defense.
If Jesus is who we say he is, he requires no defense.
If the Holy Spirit is as powerful as we claim, she requires no defense.
If God is truly all powerful as we claim, God doesn’t need our defense.
Thus, Christianity isn’t about a successful defense of what we believe. Especially because a successful defense can’t change hearts and minds. No one’s opinion is ever changed because of what any of us say on facebook. No one’s opinion is ever changed by getting into debates around the dinner table. We don’t change hearts and minds through rational debate about beliefs.
In fact, we don’t change hearts and minds at all. The work of changing hearts and minds belongs to God and God alone. Specifically, to the Holy Spirit.
And we make space for the Holy Spirit to change hearts and minds not through defense but through love.
Christians persecuted worldwide know this fact and live it out. It’s the love Christians show worldwide that has caused Christianity to become the fastest growing religion in the world. No amount of persecution by militant Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims; no amount of persecution by oppressive communist regimes; no amount of persecution by dictators or rival tribes, can stop the spread of the love of God.
In Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in China, and in North Korea, hearts and minds are being changed not because of successful defense but because of the love of Christ that’s shown by Christians there.
Just like when Daniel speaks back to the King. After spending the night in the lion’s den, Daniel shows love to the king. Daniel’s response to Darius the next morning is, “O king, live forever!” That’s the polite way of saying, “I’m so glad to hear from you!” Daniel could have been very angry with Darius about signing the interdict in the first place. Daniel could have judged Darius harshly for believing that he was worthy of people’s prayers. Daniel could have accused Darius of idolatry for believing that he was a god-king.
In fact, Daniel could have shoved Darius’s actions in his face, saying to the king, “Look, my God proved superior to your gods and to you. Bow down and worship him!” This moment, the morning after spending the night in the lions’ den, was the perfect opportunity for Daniel to defend himself, his faith, and God.
But no, there’s no defense. Instead, Daniel greets Darius warmly, kindly, with love.
That’s the power of this story. That’s the power of our faith. That’s the power of our witness. Love has the power to change the world for the better. Love is the way our faith spreads. Love is the answer to all the questions of our hearts. Love is what changes hearts and minds.
It’s the love we know from Jesus Christ, when we share it, that changes hearts and minds. That’s what makes space for the Holy Spirit to work.
Daniel loved his persecutor. Daniel loved his enemy. Around the world, persecuted Christians are doing the same thing. And Christianity is spreading like wildfire.
Let us live into that example. Let us stop defending our faith. Let us stop defending God.
Imagine the difference across our country if churches focused on loving others rather than defending the faith. Imagine the difference it would make if love replaced our instinct to defend when our beliefs come under assault. Imagine the difference if we simply prayed and read our bibles, leaving the rest to God.
The difference would be huge. No longer would the top two words used to describe Christians by nonchristians be “hypocritical and judgmental.” Instead, our faith would spread like wildfire. This country needs more love. And no one is equipped to give it better than Christians.
Defending God and defending our faith has done much damage in our lifetimes. Today, even this morning, let us confess, and renounce, our defense of God.
Then, after renouncing our defense of God, let us make a new commitment. Repentance means to do a 180; to turn and go the other way. And that other way is to give of God’s unconditional love to our persecutors, to our enemies, to the world.
Let us commit to simply love.
There’s an old hymn of the church we’re going to sing in a minute that goes like this:
“We will work with each other, we will work side by side. We will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; they will know we are Christians by our love.”
That hymn says exactly what our brothers and sisters under persecution are doing worldwide. Let’s make that our mantra. Love can change the world. The love of Christ shone through us can make all the difference in the world.
This morning, do you love your persecutor? Do you love your enemy? Do those around you know, without a doubt, that you love them? Unconditionally? Just as Christ has loved you?
In your online presence, do your facebook friends know that you love them? Do they experience the love of God through your posts?
They’ll know we are Christians by our love; our love that “is patient…kind…does not envy…does not boast…is not proud…is not rude…is not self-seeking…is not easily angered…keeps no record of wrongs”…does not fight on facebook…does not rush to God’s defense…does not bully others…loves enemies and haters…guards the dignity of others no matter how different…loves and accepts those who hate our beliefs…embraces the unloveable…loves all unconditionally. (1 Cor. 13) That’s the kind of love God gives us. That’s the kind of love we can give to the world because we met God’s love in Jesus.
God needs no defense. Let’s stop giving him one.
Instead, love your neighbor, love your friend, love your enemy, love your accuser, love your hater, love your persecutor, love your challenger, love your troll, love your social media foe, as God loves you: unconditionally.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.