In the Book of Daniel, chapter 3, we read of three teenagers that made a choice to follow God even though it could have cost them their lives. The text portrays an unabashed anti-Semitism against these young men. They were required to submit to a political act of swearing allegiance to the Babylonian government by bowing down and worshiping a huge image of King Nebuchadnezzar. To these young men such an idolatrous act would rob God of His glory. When confronted with this life or death situation they refused to bow and said to the King (3:16-18), “We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
Do you get the impression that these teens were nominal believers who suddenly started to get serious about their faith? Rather, I think they had already made a choice to obey God more than they wanted to escape their pain. It was the crisis that made this very personal commitment visible to all.
About 400 years ago, a Jesuit by the name of Francis Xavier landed in Japan and spent two years establishing the church. In just a generation, Christianity rose to 300,000 followers. At the end of that century, nationalism started to influence the Shoguns to change their policy regarding the church and to view Christianity as a Western influence and non-Japanese. Shishaku Endo’s historical novel “Silence” (coming out as a movie this year) recounts how all Jesuits were expelled from Japan and all Christians were required to renounce their faith and register as Buddhists. The government would go into the villages and place on the ground an image of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child- called the Fumie. Any Christian who stepped on the Fumie would be released, and those who refused would be jailed or killed. This pogrom was one of the most effective exterminations of Christianity ever carried out.
What if the mayor of your town suddenly came with the National Guard and made us file one by one out of house or church to step on the Fumie? Maybe that is an unrealistic scenario. Perhaps the Fumie for you might be pornography or sexual temptation; how you handle your money or your attitude toward those in need; whether you forgive those who have hurt you deeply or whether you respond with bitterness and revenge. These tests of faith might have various manifestations, but I dare say, their outcome would be determined by the choices that you have already made.
Martin Luther King once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in a moment of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at a time of challenge and controversy.” (1963)
I know a mission’s executive who has a sign in his office that reads, “If now, so then.” It means that crossing an ocean does not make you a missionary if you are not already one here at home. I think the same is true for our commitment to Christ. “If now, so then.” If we have not committed ourselves to live for Jesus today, we will probably not be willing to die for him tomorrow.
And so Joshua, as he confronted Israel and said, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” Polycarp, the 2nd century Asian Bishop, when asked to swear allegiance to Caesar and not to Christ said, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Martin Luther, excommunicated by the Pope and defending himself before the Emperor said, “My conscience is taken captive by God’s Word, I cannot and will not recant anything. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. So help me God!”
In 1555, two men were being burned at the stake in Oxford, England for refusing to recant of their personal faith in Jesus Christ. Hugh Latimer turned to Nicholas Ridley as fire started to engulf their bodies and said, “Be of good cheer, Ridley. Play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace…as I trust will never be put out!”
All of these were people of conviction because they had made a prior decision to follow God, no matter what the cost. For without the anchor of commitment, our faith will be at the mercy of the ebb and flow of mood and opinion; and when the Fumie is set down before us, we will stumble and live like heretics for a time until overcome by grief and sorrow.
Perhaps the beginning of this New Year is a time for some of us to make a re-commitment of a faith grown cold. For others, this may be a time for a commitment that moves us from a nominal believer in Jesus Christ to a disciple. Growth in faith will not take place all at once, but it will not happen at all without a commitment. Then, our faith will grow inch by inch, much like a baby learning to crawl, as we learn to live as a disciple of Christ wherever God puts us—even as we confront our Fumie. It will be painful, sort of like the pins and needles you feel in your leg as it begins to wake up from being “asleep.” But as Os Guinness has said, “Better pins and needles than no leg at all.
Adapted from my January 14, 2015 Chapel Talk at Wheaton College (IL), which you can see in full at http://www.wheaton.edu/WETN/All-Media/Chapel/Undergraduate