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"Life Worth Living"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 31, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: John 12:12-36

Richard, the medieval era king of England, was called the "Lionheart." When he was away in a far-off land leading his army into battle, his little brother John seized control and tried to make himself king. When Richard returned in 1194, he banished John and redeemed his loyal subjects. Around these events has grown the legend of Robin Hood. My favorite version of the Robin Hood story is the 1973 Disney cartoon version. If you've seen it, my favorite character is the singing rooster, the minstrel. At the end of the movie, while Robin Hood and Maid Marian are getting hitched, the rooster explains how the false ruler got cast out. He said, "Lucky for us, folks, King Richard returned, and, well, he just straightened everything out."

My favorite part is the beginning, the song that he sings. "Robin Hood and Little John running through the forest, laughing back and forth at what the other one has to say, reminiscing this and that, and having such a good time. Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly, what a day." For the sake of better understanding the following that has grown around this ancient Jewish historic biography that we've been following called the Gospel of John, to help us understand the following that has grown up around this book and other books like it, we could understand the followers of this king, sort of like Robin Hood's, not in the sense of robbing from the rich to take care of the poor; although, if we actually believed that this king revealed in the Gospel of John is the real deal, then we will see our riches in a radically different way.

But, no, the main point of comparison is that Robin Hood, because of his trust in Richard, the true king, because of his loyalty to the true king, because of his hope that the true king would return and straighten everything out, Robin Hood hated his life in the world that John had fashioned for himself. Something similar can be said of those who have come to follow this King described in the Gospel of John.

John tells us, "When the great crowd that had come together for the Passover Feast heard that Jesus was coming, they took palm branches, and they went out to meet Him, shouting, 'Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the King, the King of Israel.' Many people went out to meet Him, and the Pharisees were saying to one another, 'Look, you are doing nothing at all. Look, the whole world has gone after Him.'

"Then, some Greeks who had come up to worship for the Passover Feast, they went to Philip with a request, Philip, who is from Bethsaida in Galilee. They said to him, 'Sir, we want to see Jesus.' Philip goes and tells Andrew. Andrew and Philip go and tell Jesus, and Jesus replied, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I am telling you the truth. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Whoever loves their life will lose it, while whoever hates their life in this world will keep it to eternal life. Whoever serves Me must follow Me, and where I am, there My servant will also be. My Father will honor the one who serves Me.'

"'Now My soul is troubled. What shall I say? "Father, save me from this hour." No, it was for this reason that I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your Name.' Then a voice came from heaven, 'I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.' The crowd there heard it, said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to Him. Jesus said, 'Now is the judgment on this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself.' He said this to indicate the kind of death that He was going to die."

This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

What does Jesus mean, "Whoever hates his life in this world will keep it to eternal life"? Consider the legend of Robin Hood. Only because of Robin Hood's trust in the true king, only because of his loyalty to the true king, only because of his undying hope that the true king would return and set things right, only in these circumstances could we say that Robin Hood hated his life in that world, in the world that the false ruler had set up for himself. See, Robin Hood knows that the current ruler is a pretender, and he knows that the true king will return. If someone forces him to choose between a temporarily comfortable life lived under a lie and a difficult life lived in loyalty to the true king, then he will choose the truth every time. I say, as a follower of this Jesus, that I hate my life in this world. I do not mean that I aspire to be a hateful person. I do not mean that I hate God's gift of life and the goodness of His creation. I do not mean that I want to die. I only mean that it is because of my love for the true King, it is my love for His coming kingdom, that I refuse to settle for anything less.

Even if we were offered a more comfortable life, we know what true life is, and we refuse to settle for anything less than universal acknowledgement of the kingship of Jesus. We refuse to settle for anything less. Because anything less is a life not worth living. It's a dark life. It is a dead end that we would not wish upon our worst enemy. There are some people who have been deceived by the lies of the present ruler of this age. This way of life that I have just described sounds insane to them. Maybe that's where you are. I want you to hear me out. I want you to know that even if I say that I hate my life in this world, I want you to know that God loves this world. God loves this world so much that He would send His one and only Son to lay down His life for this world that is lost in the dark. God loves this world so much that He would raise up His Son from death to show the truth to this world.

Don't listen to the lies. Don't listen to the lie that anybody can believe anything they want about God as long as they don't tell another person that what they believe is wrong. Don't listen to the lie that Jesus is just one option among many ways to God. Don't listen to the lie that you and I can decide what's best for us, that we get to be the ruler of our own lives. Don't listen to the lies. The truth is that Jesus is the Way; Jesus is the Truth; Jesus is the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. People who were loyal to King Richard during the temporary rule of Prince John were hated. Prince John persecuted them. He tried to silence them. So also, we should not be surprised when the ruler of this age persecutes the followers of King Jesus and tries to silence the followers of King Jesus.

During the 70-some year rule of the Soviet Union, Christians were persecuted. Dr. Nik Ripken traveled to the former Soviet Union and interviewed hundreds of people who had lived through this. Now, sadly, many Christians succumbed to the pressure. Many Christians traded true life in Christ for a comfortable life under a lie, but many resisted. Nik Ripken interviewed them and collected thousands of hours of stories and testimonies and reported them in his book titled The Insanity of God. In there, he tells the story of Demitri. Demitri's family lived in a small rural village under the Soviet Union. The governing officials had closed down their local church and had closed down the churches in the surrounding villages and sent many of their pastors into prison. The closest church for them was a three-day walk, which they could only make every few months.

After some time, Demitri was pondering this, and he said to his wife, "I know you're going to think I'm crazy. I have no formal training whatsoever, but I am concerned for our boys that they are growing up not knowing about Jesus. What do you think if I were to gather them together once a week and read a Bible story and for us to talk about it and for me to give some of the training that they are missing?" Well, what Demitri didn't know was that his wife, for years, had been praying that her husband would do just this. They started gathering once a week to read from the Bible, to sing and to pray. In a little village, nothing can stay hidden for long, and so the neighbors started asking if they could come and be a part of their weekly gathering.

When the group grew to about 25, the authorities noticed, and they confronted Demitri, "You have started an illegal church." Demitri said to them, "What do you mean? I am not a pastor. I have no religious training. This is not a church building. All we are doing is reading from the Bible and praying and singing together. Sometimes we share money with a poor neighbor. How can you call this a church?" They said to him, "We don't care what you call it. This looks like church to us, and you will stop if you know what's good for you or something bad will happen." Well, they continued meeting. When the group grew to about 50 people, the authorities made good on their threats. Demitri was fired from his job. His wife lost her teaching position. Their sons were expelled from school, but that little group of followers, they banded together like Robin Hood and Little John.

One evening, as Demitri was reading from the Bible and discussing it with the group, they heard a bang on the door, and an officer and a squad of soldiers burst in, and they arrested Demitri, and they sent him to prison 1,000 kilometers away from his family, and he stayed there for 17 years. Years later, when Nik Ripken was interviewing Demitri about this ordeal, he explained that the greatest challenge was his separation, his isolation from the body of Christ. Demitri said every morning, for 17 years, he would stand next to his bed in his cramped prison cell, and he would lift up his arms in praise to God, and he would sing a song to Jesus. The fellow prisoners, they laughed at him. They jeered him. They cursed at him. They would bang metal cups against the iron bars to drown out his voice. They would throw rotten food at him and sometimes their feces.

Another discipline that Demitri practiced was any time he could find a little scrap of paper and something to write with, he would write down every word of Scripture that he could remember from those years of leading his little community in worship. He would write down and fill up the whole little scrap of paper with words from Scripture, and then he would plaster it on the wet cement wall of his cell as an offering to Jesus. The guards, when they saw it and came in, they would beat him to punish him. The physical beatings he endured did not compare to the psychological torture that they inflicted on him. They told him lies. They told him that his wife had been murdered and his sons had been taken into custody of the state and were living as wards of the state. This tortured Demitri. He finally one day said to God, "I give up." He said to the guards, "You win. I will sign a confession, whatever you want. I must get out of here and find my sons."

They said to him, "We will prepare a confession for you to sign, and you will sign it tomorrow. After that, we will let you go." After all those years, the only thing he had to do to be set free was to sign a confession declaring that he was no longer a follower of Jesus. He sat in his cell that night in despair. He had failed. That same night, 1,000 kilometers away, something compelled his wife and his sons and his brother to gather together to pray for Demitri, to intercede for him. Demitri reports years later that the Almighty God graciously, that night, allowed him to hear the voices of his family praying for him.

In the morning, when the guards came with the confession, he was standing by his bed resolute. He told them, "I will not sign that confession. You lied to me. I know that my family is alive, and they are still in Christ," and so he stayed in prison. Sometime later, he was walking through the prison yard, and he found there what he considered to be the greatest gift from God, a full sheet of paper and a pencil. He took it back to his cell, and he wrote every word of Scripture that he could remember and every prayer and every song. Then, he turned it over, and he filled up the back with Scripture passages and stories, all that he could remember. He tells later, "I knew it was foolish, but I couldn't help myself. I plastered it on the wall. This was the greatest offering that I could give to Jesus in my cell."

When the guards came in and saw it, they were infuriated. This time, they said they would execute him. They drag him out of the cell and lead him to the place reserved for execution of condemned prisoners. The other inmates see Demitri being led out, and they begin to stand one by one in their cells, all eyes on Demitri. Then, Demitri remembers they began to sing. These hardened, condemned criminals sang in their cells the song to Jesus that they had heard Demitri sing every morning all those years. Demitri said, "It was the greatest choir ever assembled on earth." The guards backed away from him in shock. They said, "Who are you?" He answered, "I am a son of the Living God. Jesus is His Name." After 17 years, they released Demitri, and he returned home to his family.

When Nik Ripken interviewed this man, and he says that as he listened to his story and all the things that he suffered and endured, Nik says that he felt himself being drawn to the life that Demitri lived—knowing Jesus, following Jesus, loving Jesus, living with Jesus. This is the only life that is worth living. People who don't know Jesus think this is insane, but we know Him. We live by the hope that the true King will return; the Lion of the tribe of Judah is coming. Just like the rooster said, "Well, he just straightened everything out. Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly, what a day."

If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me a prayer written by Thomas Kingo. "On my heart, imprint Your image, blessed Jesus, King, King of Grace, that life's riches, cares, and pleasures never may Thy work erase. Let the true inscription be, Jesus crucified for me. This is my life. This is my hope's foundation. This is my glory and salvation." Amen.

Reflections for March 31, 2019

Title: Life Worth Living

Mark Eischer: Once again, here's our Speaker Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. I have with me today Dr. Nik Ripken. He's got a doctorate in languages and cultures from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and he and his wife have served on missionary teams throughout the Horn of Africa within famine and war zones. They've resettled refugees, provided famine relief, operating medical missions, all while witnessing to the sacrificial love of God in Jesus.

And he is also the author of this book that I mentioned in the message, The Insanity of God, and particularly, that story of Demitri. So first, I just wanted to say, welcome, Nik.

Nik Ripken: Thank you, my brother. This is a treat.

Mike Zeigler: All right. So, tell us a little bit about how that interview with Demitri came about.

Nik Ripken: We set with about four or five people in the Soviet Union and sort of, you know, feeling our way, how to learn this, and finally, the interpreter looked at me and he says, "Now I know who you are and what you want, and that you're not just about publicizing persecution, but you want to know who Jesus is in all of this." And he said, "I'll pick you up at five o'clock in the morning." And he did, and took me five hours north, and I get to meet this bent, twisted, bruised, and broken man who had just months before come out of prison after being in there for 17 years.

Mike Zeigler: How did Demitri feel about you telling his story, and a story that would eventually cross around the world?

Nik Ripken: He talked to me for over six hours, and frankly, he was the most dangerous man I ever met because as he walked through the story that's in The Insanity of God, the book and the movie, I'm sitting at the feet of Daniel. I'm sitting with Joseph in Pharaoh's prison. I'm sitting with Esther as she's preparing to go in and talk to the king who could have her put to death, and I'm so overwhelmed, literally overwhelmed by his faith in present, active tense, that I just put my head in my hands and I thought, "Lord, if this man's testimony is normal biblical faith, am I even a Christian? Do I even know who Jesus is?" And so I had challenged Jesus: Are you capable of being the Lord of Lord and King of Kings? And Jesus showed up, first of all, in a powerful way in the life of Demitri, and he set the tone for years to come.

Mike Zeigler: I felt the same way as I read your account of it in The Insanity of God, and I like how you say that you, in spite of all that he had suffered, you felt drawn to him, to this life that he had lived.

Nik Ripken: I had experienced, if your listeners will forgive me a little bit, but I had experienced crucifixion for seven years, and now I'm getting to hear the other end of the story, when the stone is rolled away, that this man endured a crucified life in Christ for 17 years in prison, where they did horrible things. I mean, unspeakable things to him. And here he came out the other side.

He didn't just survive persecution. He ended up thriving in persecution. And now, having talked to his son a little bit over a year ago, he says, "My dad was told over and over again that his faith would die in this cell, and no one would ever hear his story." And his son says, "My dad, though, bruised, you know, still, and getting over the beatings and all those years in prison, gets out of bed every morning with a smile on his face, a song in his heart, because what they told him would die in that prison cell, his story now is all over the world."

And what we've learned from believers in persecution is don't exit the story before the resurrection takes place. Don't run away from what God is doing. He promised us that He would even orchestrate, in Matthew 10, our being arrested so that we could go to the principalities of the powers of the earth that we don't normally have access to. And He said, "I'm going to let you get arrested. I'm sending you as a witness to them."

That's what Demitri did for 17 years. He would not ever say you should look for this, seek this out. But when God orchestrates it, He sent you there to be a witness.

Mike Zeigler: If you want to hear more about Demitri's story and other stories of living the resurrection, check out Nik's book. Again, it's The Insanity of God. And Nik's name is spelled N-I-K, and his last name is Ripken, R-I-P-K-E-N. So Nik Ripken, The Insanity of God. Thank you so much for your time, Nik.

Nik Ripken: Thank you, my brother. And thank you for giving a voice to our brothers and sisters in persecution, also.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"God Loved the World So That He Gave" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009
Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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