Be Faithful Unto Death

Revelation 2:10 Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

“Grace to you and peace from him who is, who was, and who is coming,” (Revelation 1:4, EHV)

For the past ten years, there has been an influx of Marvel movies. Heroes taking on bad guys. Iron Man vs. Iron Monger. Captain America vs. Red Skull. Dr. Strange vs. Dormammu. Thor vs. Loki. Black Panther vs. Erik Killmonger.

Then the heroes team up against bigger and badder villains. The Avengers vs. Ultron. The Guardians of the Galaxy vs. Ego, the Living Planet.

If some of you don’t know any of this stuff, that’s OK. Obviously, I’m geeky enough for all of you.

Last week, one of the biggest movies in the history of film opened with up to eighty superheroes fighting against one super-bad guy – Thanos, and his infinity gauntlet.

The key with all these movies is that good always defeats evil. But, evil will always creep up again. That’s true in superhero movies. That’s true in the Bible. And, that’s true in Christian history.

A real-life villain in the second century would have been Marcus Aurelius. He became the Roman emperor in 161 A.D. Aurelius was a great stoic philosopher, but he was also fierce and cruel persecutor of the Christian people. Under his rule came cruel torments and punishments throughout Asia and France.

A real-life hero of the Christian faith was St. Polycarp. St. Polycarp was put to death for his confession of Christ under Marcus Aurelius. Polycarp had been a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. He had been appointed Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp steadfastly refused to worship any Roman gods or emperors. He knew that the Lord God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5) and will not share His worship with any man or idol. Polycarp’s refusal to compromise his confession of Christ cost him his life.

The Roman soldiers who arrested Polycarp tried numerous times to save the old man’s life by having him recant his faith. The captain of the soldiers said to Polycarp, “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense?” As if to say, “Come on, Polycarp, just do this one small thing. Then all of this will go away and your life can get back to normal.” But Polycarp was unwilling to share the glory of Christ with another. He would rather die than compromise the pure confession of Christ, even if it was just lip service. Polycarp answered the captain, “For eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never wronged me once. How, then, shall I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?”

In the spirit of Polycarp, this is the same confession every Lutheran makes at confirmation. Two of the questions that are asked in the Rite of Confirmation are:

Do you intend to continue steadfast in this teaching and to endure all things, even death, rather than fall away from it?

Do you intend faithfully to conform all your life to the teachings of God’s Word, to be faithful in the use of the Word and sacrament, and in faith and action remain true to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as long as you live?

The response to both questions is, “I do, and I ask God to help me.” Christ calls us to confess Him clearly and boldly before the world, that He alone is the way to the Father (John 14), even to the point of death. But, Jesus also gives us this beautiful promise: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

These confirmands are making a serious vow today. It is a vow of life and death.

I pray that they will be stronger in their faith and be able to keep their confirmation vows better than the rest of us. We have become a nation of wimps when it comes to our Christianity.

Christians are being persecuted and slaughtered across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. 100 million face persecution. Thousands are murdered every year. It is a holocaust happening right now.

In the first few centuries, Christians were crucified, burned, stoned, and fed to lions under Roman rule. Today, believers are being blown up, incinerated, shot, crucified, and beheaded.

Christians across the globe practice their faith knowing they might die because of it! Meanwhile, here in America, Christians don’t go to church; we don’t stand up for our beliefs; and we don’t accept God’s Word in its entirety. Not because we fear violence … but because we simply cannot be bothered.

Iraqi Christians are in danger of having their heads removed from their bodies. We can’t bother to remove our heads from our pillows.

Coptic Christians are in danger every time they enter their churches. We only come to church when it is convenient for us.

African Christians will walk miles to attend a worship service because there is nothing more important to them. We can’t attend a worship service because our weekend is filled with soccer tournaments and hunting trips and anything else that is more important to us than God at that moment.

We are lazy. We are lukewarm. We are selfish. We are apathetic. … We are cowards.

In dozens of countries around the planet, Christians go to church, read their Bibles, and profess their faith fully aware that these decisions might get them killed. In many cases, they are converted to Christianity knowing their conversion may well cost them their lives. These men and women ready to give up everything — their very lives, if necessary — for what they believe.

And what about us? Many of us can’t be bothered to drive a few minutes to an air-conditioned building to worship with our brothers and sisters for an hour or two on a Sunday. And why? Because it means sacrificing a relaxing morning. It means having to get up and get dressed before noon. It means maybe missing the first quarter of Packer games in the fall. We are afraid of standing up for our faith, not because we are in danger of being dragged out of our home, beaten, burned alive, and hung from a bridge. But because we might have to deal with some angry internet comments or frowny face emojis or losing some friends or getting a poor grade from an atheist professor or being called a bigot by the crowd.

We flee from church, and we’ve never even had one blown up with people inside.

In his death, Polycarp left no room for doubt as to what he believed. And just like his Lord, he suffered for it. Jesus warned Polycarp and He warns all of us, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

When faced with the prospect of being burned alive, Polycarp said, “You threaten with fire that burns for a season and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment which is reserved for the ungodly. Why do you delay? Come, do what you will with me.” By God’s grace, it seems Polycarp had taken our Lord’s words in Matthew 10 to heart: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (v. 28).

Polycarp then walked into the fire, with his arms tied behind him. History reports that the flames curled around and away from him, and the fragrance of myrrh was smelled by all. So, a soldier was commanded to run Polycarp through with a sword. When that was done, so much flood ran from him that it quenched the very large fire.

Confirmands, are you willing to be like Polycarp? Parents of the confirmands, are you willing to die for your faith? The rest of you, will you walk into the flames rather than denounce your Savior? Are you willing to be a hero, take up your sword of the Spirit and the shield of faith, and fight for your faith against the spiritual and temporal villains who keep coming at you?

If it were left up to us – left up to these confirmands – there isn’t a chance that we would remain faithful unto death. We wouldn’t even remain faithful until we left this building.

But there is One who can make us faithful. One who was faithful to us.

Jesus knows what it is like to truly be humiliated, persecuted and willing to die for what He believed in – us. Jesus was born into a world that didn’t want Him – where the king of the country tried to murder Him as an infant. Members of His boyhood home tried to throw Him off a cliff. Religious leaders continuously plotted against Him. One of His best friends betrayed Him. Another denied Him. The rest deserted Him. None of them truly believed in Him.

He was unfairly arrested, lied about by perjured witnesses, declared “guilty” for declaring that He really was the Son of God. He was beaten, laughed at, spat upon, scourged, and condemned to die by a man who knew He was innocent. When He was crucified, one criminal challenged Him and the passersby mocked Him. It can honestly be said – with only the rarest of exceptions – from the beginning of His life, until the moment He breathed His last, Jesus Christ was misunderstood, misinterpreted and maligned. He was seldom respected and often rejected.

Still, it is for the very people who didn’t want Him, who hated Him, who detested and despised Him that Jesus was born. Search the annals of history and you will not stumble upon anyone like the Savior. In Jesus, the Innocent is traded for the guilty, the Perfect for the flawed, and the Eternal for the temporal.

For every cowardly act on our part, Jesus stood strong against the temptations of Satan.

Every time we put Him last on the weekend, He made us and our salvation His singular thought on the cross.

Every time we are afraid to be forsaken by our friends or family because of our faith in Jesus, He endured being forsaken by His heavenly Father.

He suffered for our laziness. He surrendered Himself for our selfishness. He was resolute for our cowardice. He remained righteous for our apathy.

He was crowned with thorns so that we might receive a crown of glory.

He walked the streets of sorrow so that we might walk streets paved with gold.

He endured an eternity of hell on the cross so that we might spend an eternity in heaven with Him.

He was covered with blood so that we might be covered with His robes of righteousness.

Confirmands of all ages, look at who your Jesus is. Cherish how much He loves you. Believe in the constant forgiveness He offers you. Worship Him who adores you.

The villains in the movies teach us that evil never dies in this world. It just keeps coming and coming. In the face of this evil, are you going to cower in fear, hunker down, and keep your mouth shut – hoping no one will notice?

Or, are you going to remain faithful even to the point of death, so that Christ might grant you the crown of life?

The only way to fight for your faith is if you remain connected to your faith. Jesus is the Vine. You are the branches. He is your life. Apart from Him you can do nothing. You will fall. You will fail. You will remain an apathetic, lazy coward. But connected to Jesus you have forgiveness of sins. Through Jesus’ baptismal waters you have the divine authority to overcome Satan, the greatest super villain of all. Through Jesus’ almighty Word you have the power to live the life He desires. Through Jesus’ Holy Supper you have the confidence of eternal life in heaven. Through Jesus’ absolution you are forgiven for every apathetic, lazy, cowardly act so that on the Day of Judgment you will stand as a bold confessor of the faith, wearing your crown of glory. A crown, not because you were faithful, but because Jesus was faithful to you.

Confirmands of all ages, you stand before the altar of God and make vows to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from your Christian faith. Today you are being sent out into the killing fields. When your enemies are gathered to humiliate you, degrade you, unfriend you, imprison, crucify or burn you, how will you respond?

Here is how you will respond. You will be faithful unto death. Not because of the vow you make before God’s altar in church, but because of the vow Christ made to you on the altar of His cross. He is the One who is speaking in Revelation 2:10. He is the One who gives you the assurance. He is the One who makes His promise to you: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Amen.

“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and might belong to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 7:12, EHV)