Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
The past century was the bloodiest century in the history of the world, a fact with which we are all familiar. The 1900’s saw two gigantic world wars, Korean conflict, Vietnamese civil war, African genocides, South American drug wars, and too many oppressive dictators to number- all this is not to mention the constant strife in the Middle East. It is also not to mention the Civil Rights movement in our own country, necessitated by the horrifying hatred played out at the hands of our own government as well as the Klansmen. We have only just survived the most violent, heartless time since the earth started to spin.
And yet so many of us are unfamiliar with persecution. We only know that word from a book. Is that not strange? How can we, who have survived so much suffering, still be unfamiliar with Jesus’ last “beatitude?” And can we truly consider ourselves blessed, we who ignore the way to blessing set out by God himself?
In the middle of last century there was a pastor named Richard Wurmbrand. He had the misfortune of surviving Nazi rule to live under Communist rule in his native Romania. Can you imagine? Begin arrested by both the Nazis and Communists in the course of ten or fifteen years? How would you feel about Jesus’ words, when you found yourself persecuted for righteousness’ sake over and over again? What if you were ripped away from your wife and children and placed in solitary confinement for a decade? What if that happened twice?
These questions were not hypothetical to Wurmbrand. He spent somewhere around twenty years as a guest of the state for doing nothing but preaching the gospel of Jesus. He was rewarded for his faithfulness to the word by being abducted, secluded and whipped.
And as horrifying as Wurmbrand’s situation was, his reaction was just as surprising. At least for those of us who would equate missing a football game with suffering for the gospel, it is surprising.
He rejoiced. He sang. He danced.
Does that sound crazy to you? Well, it did to him, as well. It seemed totally absurd to his guards. He remembers that he even made a deal with the guards. He would get to tell them about Jesus and they would get to beat him. I cannot speak for anybody else but I want faith like that. I want to trust Jesus like that. I want to believe him when he tells me that I am “lucky” (Philip Yancey’s take on that little word we translate “blessed!”) when I am considered worthy to suffer with Jesus. I want to obey Jesus even when he tells me to rejoice and be glad in that day. Remember, what he said?
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
One day, as Pastor Wurmbrand sat, dejected in his cell (nobody said he was perfect), those words of Jesus came to his head- rejoice and be glad in that day. Out of obedience, he stood up on his shaky knees and started to dance. He started to sing. He started to clap his hands. Just like Paul and Silas so long ago, Wurmbrand praised his Lord for his freedom in the midst of chains.
And the guards? They thought he had lost it. They felt bad for him- pity is not something Communist jailers are known for, mind you! They gave him bread. They gave him extra rations. They blessed him. The guards themselves were bringing Jesus’ kingdom to come in that jail cell. Crazy.
That is the mysterious secret about being persecuted for Christ. If we are bold enough to believe Jesus, he will turn even our most painful moments into time he shows that he is for us. Again. Crazy.
Suffering, joy, persecution, luckiness- these are words from the same family. But we will never know the life Jesus offers to us if we are unwilling to join in his suffering and death.
Do not run from suffering and even persecution. Rejoice and be glad. Sing and dance. God is for you.