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Faith in Impossible Circumstances: Jeremiah, Martyrs and Hope in Christ

Reading: Jeremiah 7:23-28, the account of the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas can be found here

May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our faith is profoundly true and one of the ways we can see this, is that it reflects well the realities of humanity. It does not simply focus in on the good and the easy, but on suffering, on unfairness, on evil people do. Afterall, right at the centre of our faith, at the centre of history is the Man, wrongly convicted, bearing the torturous cross up to Calvary. Today, the church remembers some early Christian Martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions, who through no fault of their own, paid the ultimate price for their faith in the amphitheatre in Northern Africa, because the first rabidly anti-Christian emperor was celebrating his birthday. Sometimes life can be desperately unfair. Today we are going to spend some time looking through the eyes of Jeremiah and these saints and through the cross at how Christians are invited to face their own trials and tribulations.

Our first reading this morning came from a pivotal moment in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is a prophet who in his lifetime was to really have a bad shift. He was called to warn the Israelites one last time to stop their evil, to plead with them to turn their ways back to righteousness. Our reading from Chapter 7 is just a little bit of a longer passage, where we hear that the Israelites of the time feel safe and secure in their evil. They are worshipping other Gods, they are stealing, murdering and committing adultery all the while thinking they are safe because they have God’s temple. They had become arrogant, feeling that they could do anything without consequence. They had even sunk so low as to begin practicing child sacrifice. Here in our bit of the chapter, we can see one last pleading from God, even now, to turn back from their sins and reset, give up on evil and worship God, even though they have committed so much evil. Yet, in the last line we see that God recognises that they have become too stiff necked, and will not be able to hear the warning of Jeremiah, right at the end we hear ‘truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips’.

If you read the rest of Jeremiah you’ll see that for this poor man of God, he got to see all this come to pass. He will see Israel destroyed. He will see the nation exiled in Babylon. He will see the destruction of Jerusalem. Can you imagine that? He had prophesied it of course, but just imagine everything you knew, your country, your history, your culture being destroyed before your eyes. But there is more in his tale. Because even though he travels with his people through this awful time of trail and suffering, Jeremiah also points his readers to the hope that God will save His people, that He will bring them back and that one day all will be made well. He does this through the tears of grief. Jeremiah remains faithful, he keeps his eyes on the hope and trusts the Lord as he passes through the fire of suffering.

The saints we celebrate today on the birthday of that evil, tyrannical, foolish emperor Severus Septimius, we executed this day just over 1820 years ago. It is one of the few surviving first hand accounts of early Christian persecutions that has survived to the modern day. When you read about their life and their death, it is so tragic. The two main characters are a young noblewoman called Perpetua who writes the first part before another eyewitness takes over and Felicitas her servant but also sister in Christ, with others of their church are led off to be killed by Gladiator and wild beast. I encourage you to read their account yourself, freely available on the internet. It is harrowing in its detail but these young people called home before their time are examples of Christian virtue in facing the hardest of situations.

Full of prayer and the Spirit, in the account we hear of how these Christians faced their death always looking to Jesus. They preach the good news to the crowd, even as they die, to soldier, gladiator, and spectator. In the end, the crowd are not so much entertained but horrified. They are not fearful but full of faith. They see their own suffering as an invitation to walk the way of the cross. The passage about their last day starts so interestingly because it says, ‘on the day of their victory’. In their suffering, these brave souls, find that the Lord is beside them, every step of the way, and their hope isn’t in this life, but in Jesus who will gives all life.

In lent, we all face the reality of the cross. We face the reality of an evil fallen world, we face the reality of the part we have played in that evil. But at the centre of the faith, at the foot of the cross, when nothing is left but faith in God, hope is born. At the foot of the cross, in our own suffering, we can hold onto the One who will bring it right. At the foot of the cross we are invited to not rely on earthly things, but onto God who saves.

For Jeremiah, for those brave Martyrs Felicitas, Perpetua and their companions, for the martyrs today their difficulties and suffering were always done in the blinding light of salvation, of promise, of the God who will make all things new. Yes, in scripture and practice, our faith reflects the reality of a broken world. However, in scripture we see everywhere through every trial the reality of hope being born. We are invited in times of trial to turn to the Lord, to rely on Him and to let Him walk with us to Calvary because it is in the darkest moments that the light of Christ shines all the brighter, as we rely on Him for salvation. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has and will not overcome it. Amen

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