The Eyes of God

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Recently Bishop Robert Martin was with us, and I interviewed him in a service. He is the Bishop Marsabit, a vast arid region in the far north of Kenya. I was shocked to hear him say that if someone converts to Christianity from a Muslim background in his diocese, they have three options, and three only: hide, leave, or be killed.

The oppression of Christians is nothing new, of course. In our home groups we've just started studying the apostle Paul's joy-saturated letter to the Philippians. He wrote it from prison. Eventually he was executed for his faith. And today the suffering continues around the world. Almost daily at the moment we seem to hear news of severe persecution. When you hear such news, how do you react? What do you think God is doing?

We're back to this astonishing and faith-building prophecy of Zechariah, and to the second half which runs from chapter 9 to the end. Barry Webb in his Bible Speaks Today commentary sums this whole section up under the heading "Through suffering to glory". That's a phrase that certainly applies to our passage this morning – as well as to Christian discipleship. That is the pattern of the life to which Jesus calls us.

Last week Ian took us through chapter 8 – which as Ian drew out is wonderfully and directly relevant to our present situation at JPC.

Now we come to 9.1-8. If you're not there yet, please open that up.  This is a self-contained word from God sandwiched between astounding prophecies of hope for God's people under pressure. But as always the Scripture is realistic about present realities as we wait for those hopes to be realised. Here we're assured that God is present and active during the wait, which is so often a time of suffering.

I have three headings. First, the Lord sees when his people are oppressed. Secondly, the Lord speaks against the oppressors. And thirdly, the Lord stands guard for his people.

The Lord sees, speaks and stands. You could say that he uses his eyes, his mouth and his feet. God is spirit, of course, and doesn't have a physical body. Except that in our Lord Jesus Christ he became flesh and blood. God is intensely and truly personal. And that means we can relate to him personally. We need to know that in times of trial. So let me take those headings in turn.

First, THE LORD SEES WHEN HIS PEOPLE ARE OPPRESSED

I have a guide to praying for the persecuted church that summarises the global situation at the beginning of this year. It features 45 countries in which Christians are persecuted. The source of that persecution can be religious in character, or it can be secular. Here's what that prayer guide says about North Korea:

It is illegal to be a Christian or take part in any Christian activity. The security forces sometimes set up fake prayer meetings to catch Christians, who have to practice their faith in great secrecy. Those caught may be detained in prison labour camps, where they are typically treated worse than other inmates. They are abused, tortured and worked to death. Some are executed. Tens of thousands of Christians are thought to be languishing in these concentration camp-style centres.

Such is the closed nature of North Korea that we don't see what's going on. So when such things are happening, we need to know that God sees. And he does. He tells us so here. This prophecy is topped and tailed by the eyes of God. Here's verse 1:

The oracle of the word of the LORD is against the land of Hadrach and Damascus is its resting-place. For the LORD has an eye on mankind and on all the tribes of Israel …

And then, at the end, verse 8:

Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.

That verse makes plain what the context here is. God's people are being trampled on by their arrogant enemies. They are being oppressed. And what we have here is an immediate assurance that God sees what's going on. We might not see him. We might not feel watched over. But God does see.

There are two immediate implications of that for us. The first is that this means that God does not necessarily step in, in advance,to prevent the oppression of his people from happening. This is important. We need to have our expectations right. This is a fundamental characteristic of discipleship. Suffering precedes glory. The Lord does not rescue us from suffering – so that we don't suffer. He rescues us out of suffering. That means that we can expect that we will get into it first.

That applies to us as the global church, the family of God and the Body of Christ world-wide. It also applies to each one of us who follow Christ in our individual lives. That is what it means to follow a crucified and risen saviour. In some sense we share in his sufferings. That is the consequence of the fact that by faith we're united with Christ. It's also a means by which Christ draws us ever closer to himself.

The other implication of the fact that God sees what's going on as his people have a hard time is that we can be assured that he has not abandoned us. We are not alone. We are not unseen. God does see. He does care. And he will act. We can be sure of that. He tells us so – not least, right here.

So, first, the Lord sees when his people are oppressed.

Secondly, THE LORD SPEAKS AGAINST THE OPPRESSORS

Here's a summary of the situation in Nigeria:

The lives of many Christians in Nigeria are being taken or torn apart by the ruthless campaign of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram…

Anti-Christian atrocities have become common... Nearly 1000 Christians were killed in 2012, and attacks are continuing on almost a daily basis. Incidents in the past year have included raids on homes and villages that left dozens dead and scores of houses destroyed, the abduction of Christian girls who were then coerced into renouncing their faith, the bombing and torching of churches, and an attack on Christians at a bus station that killed hundreds. Despite its efforts to stop the violence, the government has not succeeded in effectively containing it, or in bringing those responsible to justice.

The Nigerian government has not succeeded in bringing those who persecute and kill God's people to justice – but God will succeed.

How will God bring such suffering to an end? By his word. God's word is powerful. When God speaks, things happen. God spoke, and the world came into being. God speaks, and the dead are raised.

That word "oracle" in verse 1 could be better translated "burden". So it would read:

The burden of the word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach … [and so on.]

There is a sense of compulsion, urgency, even dread in the meaning of the original word. And then in verses 2-6 what we see is the relentless forward progress of God's word, shattering God's enemies in order to rescue his people. Redemption required judgement. Rescue does require the defeat of those who reject and oppose God.

Take a look, then, at verses 2-6 – remembering that the places and cities mentioned are all representative of enemies and oppressors of God's people. Verse 2:

and [the Lord has an eye] on Hamath also, which borders on it,
Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise.
Tyre has built herself a rampart
and heaped up silver like dust,
and fine gold like the mud of the streets.
But behold, the Lord will strip her of her possessions
and strike down her power on the sea,
and she shall be devoured by fire.
Ashkelon shall see it, and be afraid;
Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish;
Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded.
The king shall perish from Gaza;
Ashkelon shall be uninhabited;
a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod,
and I will cut off the pride of Philistia.

You can see the impact of the powerful word of God. God's people live surrounded by enemies: to the north, Hadrach, Damascus, Hamath, Tyre, Sidon; to the south, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod, Philistia. But the Lord will strip, strike down, cut off.

There is a kind of case study here of the city of Tyre – a typical example of an oppressor across the ages. Tyre is an intellectual, economic, military, and financial centre. It's a place of tremendous wealth and power. But it cannot stand against God's powerful word.

What is the result of "the burden of the word of the Lord" being against his enemies? Fear, anguish, hopes confounded, the death of leaders, depopulation, pride destroyed. God's victory is comprehensive in the end. But even from amongst God's enemies some are saved. Verse 7:

I will take away its blood from its mouth,
and its abominations from between its teeth;
it too shall be a remnant for our God;
it shall be like a clan in Judah,
and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites.

That is, they will be purified and adopted into God's people. Even for the oppressor, there is hope if they will turn to the living God in repentance and faith.

So first, the Lord sees when his people are oppressed. Secondly, the Lord speaks against the oppressors, with devastating effect on them and redemptive effect for God's people.

Thirdly, THE LORD STANDS GUARD FOR HIS PEOPLE

On Iraq, my prayer guide says this:

The Christian population has been reduced to a quarter of the size it was in 1990. Hundreds of thousands of believers have fled their homes… Iraq's Christians have few safe havens left.

Pray for Iraqi Christians, who are so endangered both in their homeland and in the places in which they have sought refuge. Ask that, even as they struggle to find a safe haven, the Lord's faithfulness will be their shield and rampart … against the violence they face. Give thanks that some Muslims recognise the rightful place of our brothers and sisters in Iraq, which was home to believers for centuries before the arrival of Islam. Pray that this attitude will prevail over that of those who seek to harm Christians.

If you are an oppressed Iraqi Christian, you need hope that things will change. The other day I was in an ancient churchyard, full of the grave stones of Christians who have died over the centuries. On the grass overlooking this scene was a wooden bench. On the back of it were carved the words of Hebrews 11.1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Even in the face of death itself – the worst and greatest of all the oppressors of God's people – we can have a sure and certain hope of a glorious future. And it is that future hope that draws this particular prophecy to a close. Look again at the promise of verse 8. The Lord says:

Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.

We are to picture what the Lord calls "my house" – the temple of God, the household of God, God's people. He will dwell with us. Heaven will come to earth.

And God will "encamp" there. That is exactly what Jesus did. God and man, in the words of John 1.14, he …

… became flesh and dwelt [that is, set up camp] among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus has encamped among us to rescue us, and the day will come when he will return in victory. All the oppressors of God's people including sin, Satan and death will be destroyed. That is our sure and certain hope.

So the Lord says he will "guard" his people …

… so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them.

He is more powerful than all the forces of the oppressors arrayed together. The enemies of God's people will be constrained and banished. And it will be forever. Never again will God's people be marched over and crushed. Never again. This rescue will be for all eternity.

Conclusion

Last Monday a letter was published in the Times from some members of the House of Lords, including one of our number. Here's an extract:

Sir, We urge the government to respond to the plight of 100,000 displaced Christians living in life-threatening conditions in Erbil in northern Iraq, who have been forced to flee from the Islamic State's brutal persecution.

Although local Christian communities have established a handful of refugee centres, thousands of people, including newborn babies and the elderly, are packed into church halls or tents. Others live in steel structures and on the concrete floors of unfinished buildings; many people have no adequate shelter from temperatures as high as 45C.

Although the UN, the Department for International Development and British non-government organisations have responded quickly to humanitarian needs, supported by the British public, there is an urgent need for a longer-term solution to ensure lasting safety and stability: either "safe havens" for those who wish to remain in their own land (which has been their home for 2000 years), or an organised exodus. Many countries have taken Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Britain is conspicuous by its refusal. We therefore urge the government to grant some Iraqi Christian refugees asylum in Britain…

Amen to that. That's an example of the way in which this prophecy of Zechariah encourages us to respond to the oppression and suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.

God sees. And with the help of God's Holy Spirit, we should see like God. Let's make sure that as far as we can, we get informed about the oppression and persecution of the church across the world. We cannot shut our eyes to it. See like God.

God speaks. And we too should speak. We should speak out as we have opportunity. And above all we should speak to God in prayer. In the light of his word, pray that the Lord will act. And if we pray that and mean it, then we must also be ready to act as we can – however limited our room for manoeuvre might be. And we should pray and act confident that God hears and will act himself.

God stands guard. However terrible things seem to get, we should have a confident and unshakeable hope that God is going to bring his people into an eternal future of peace and security in his own loving presence.

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