"The Prophet's Paradox "#88-15
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 13, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Daniel: 10 - 12
It had been just three days since he was released from prison. Pastor Chang was 83 years old. The lines on his face and the silver in his hair would tell you that he knew better than most that being a leader in the underground Chinese House Church Movement, being a pastor, meant that you would have some prison time. The prison sentences were usually three years long, and this was the third that Pastor Chang had been through. He was old enough to remember when the communist party came to power in China and Chairman Mao's new government did all they could to remove all Christian influence from the country. It wasn't so much about beliefs. The communist party could care less about what individual Chinese citizens believed, as long as they kept those beliefs to themselves. The imprisonment program wasn't about privately held beliefs. It was about control. Any government that aims for total control of its citizens would understandably be threatened if its citizens were ultimately loyal to a higher authority.
And so for many followers of Jesus in China, and especially for leaders like Pastor Chang, prison time was just a fact of life. Nik Ripken talks about this in his book titled, The Insanity of God. In 1998 Ripken visited China to learn about the House Church Movement, and he interviewed many people, including the 83-year-old Pastor Chang. Because there were so many Christians in the Chinese prison system, it was very likely that you would meet other Christians when you were sent there. And when these Christians met, they would do what Christians do. They would encourage each other and band together and meet together. And they would lead other people to Jesus, and they would mentor new believers and equip them and strengthen them so that when they got let out and sent back into their communities, they would go and plant more house churches. Ironically, the Chinese prison system had become sort of an informal seminary program for the House Church Movement.
When China outlawed Christianity shortly after World War II, there were maybe a few hundred thousand followers of Jesus in China. But after 25 years of intense persecution and imprisonment, there were millions of followers of Jesus in China secretly meeting in house churches, in groups of no more than about 15 to 20. And now, some people estimate that there are over 100 million followers of Jesus in China. And it has become what may be the greatest expansion of Christianity in history. And Pastor Chang lived to see it. And three days after his release, there he was back at it, in a house church doing the very thing that had gotten him thrown into prison in the first place. Pastor Chang, specifically, and the Chinese underground House Church Movement, in general, display what author Jim Collins called, the "Stockdale Paradox."
Stockdale Paradox is named after Jim Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam during the Vietnam War for seven and a half years. Not only did Stockdale endure years of torture and isolation and sensory deprivation. Even more than that, as the senior-ranking military officer in the prison camp, he commanded and organized an underground resistance. Among all the other prisoners in the camp, Stockdale had memorized every one of his fellow prisoner's names. There were about 300 of them, and he instilled in them a tap code form of communication with a certain number of taps in a certain order with certain rhythm, you could send a message across the camp, letter by letter. And he led the men to use this tap code, to build and sustain solidarity among all the prisoners, and to organize their resistance.
And even more than all this, Stockdale, as the highest-ranking military member, he made himself a symbol of resistance in the camp, which often got him singled out for special forms of torture. There was one occasion when he was tortured for multiple days and on the third day of his torture, when he felt like he was ready to break, he heard the sound coming from the other side of the camp. Someone was snapping a towel, snapping out a message letter by letter, "God bless you, Jim Stockdale! God bless you!"
When Collins interviewed Stockdale about this, years later after he had gotten out and come home, he asked him, "Who didn't make it?" And Stockdale said, "Well, that's easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said, 'We'll be out by Christmas.' And then Christmas would come and go. Then they'd say, 'We'll be out by Easter.' And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it'd be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart." And Collins asked him then, "How did you make it?" Then Stockdale said, "I never lost faith in the end of the story." Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, summarized this attitude, this mindset, as the "Stockdale Paradox." It's when you confront the brutal facts of your present reality. No matter how difficult they may be, you confront them—yet never lose faith in the end of the story.
On this program, we've been listening to the prophet Daniel, and we've come to the end of the book. And especially at the end of this book, but all throughout the book, Daniel displays, what might be a biblical version of the Stockdale Paradox, the prophet's paradox. Daniel, now at the end of his life, a seasoned 80-year-old prophet, God gives him a vision of the future. And it is a turbulent future, sometimes violent and from a human perspective, an uncontrollable future. But God keeps speaking to Daniel, and He keeps speaking through Daniel so that you and I will never lose hope, never lose faith in the end of the story. Listen to these excerpts from Daniel 10-12, and see what speaks to you.
In the third year of Cyrus, the king of Persia, a word was revealed to Daniel, and the word was true. It was about a great war. And understanding was given to Daniel in a vision.
In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three whole weeks. For three weeks I did not eat any choice food. No wine, no meat entered my mouth. And as I was standing by the bank of the great river, the Tigris River, I lifted up my eyes and there before me stood a man clothed in linen with the belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like gemstone. His face was like lightning, his eyes like blazing torches. His arms and his feet like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice—the sound of his words—was like a sound of an army.
And when I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face, and he said to me, "O Daniel, a man, greatly loved. Understand the words that I am speaking to you. Stand up, because I have been sent to you." When he said these words, I stood up, shaking. And he said to me, "Do not be afraid, Daniel, because from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and you humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard. And I have come in response to your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me, 21 days. And Michael, one of the chief prince's came to help me. And I remained there with the kings of Persia. But I have come to tell you what will happen to your people in the days to come."
And as he was saying this, I bowed down with my face to the ground, and I said, "How can I, your servant speak with you, my Lord, my strength is gone. I can barely breathe." And he touched me. He gave me strength. He said to me, "O man, greatly loved. Do not be afraid. Peace be with you. Be strong, be strong." And as he was speaking, I was strengthened. And I said, "Speak my Lord because you have given me strength."
And then in Daniel 11, Daniel records the vision of the future that this man, this divine man gave to him concerning his people. He said that many foreign kings would come and rule over his people. And there would be one king who would rule with great dominion, and he would do whatever he pleases. But as soon as he arises, his kingdom will be broken.
His kingdom will be plucked up. And he says that other kings will come and they will wage wars. And they will raise armies. And their armies will sweep across the land like an irresistible flood, and the hearts of these kings will be filled with pride, but none of them will endure. They will all likewise be broken. And then he said to Daniel, "The violent among your people will rebel, and they will fail. And then more kings will come. A king will come and rise to power, but he will stumble and fall. And another king will rise up in his place. And in a matter of days, he will be broken. And then another king will come with a great and mighty army, but he will not stand. His army will be swept away, yet the people who know their God, the people who know their God will stand firm, and they will take action. And the wise among the people will make many understand, and some of the wise will stumble so that they may be refined, purified, and made white until the time of the end. And then in those days, your people will be delivered. Everyone whose name is found written in the book. And many, many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake. Some to everlasting life and others to shame and everlasting horror. But the wise will shine. They will shine like the brightness of the heavens above. And those who turn many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and ever. As for you, Daniel, you go your way. You go your way to the end. And you will rest and you will rise to your assigned place at the end of the days." That's from Daniel 10-12.
When someone asks you, what do you want to hear first—the good news or the bad news? What do you say? Some people want to hear the bad news first so that they can get it out there and figure out what they have to deal with. Other people want to hear the good news first so that they can keep that in mind as they try to process the bad news. Some people don't want to even hear the bad news, like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.
Other people don't want to hear the good news, like Chicken Little, who is so certain that the sky is falling, that nobody can tell him otherwise. The Stockdale Paradox, and more importantly, the prophet's paradox would have us see both. Confront the brutal facts of your present reality, but never lose faith in the end of the story. Long before there was a Stockdale Paradox, there were the holy prophets and the apostles. They lived and they told a story that confronted the most brutal facts of our present reality. This mortal life is fraught with danger, they told us, filled with difficulty. And the human heart is desperately sick. Who can understand it? My heart is sick and your heart is sick. Even your heroes are plagued by their own personal prejudices and their self-serving hypocrisies. Even the people you love and trust the most will hurt you and lie to you and fail you. And you in some ways will betray them, because all of us are under attack. We are caught up in a great spiritual war. We are targeted by powerful, territorial, demonic princes, and principalities. And we get a glimpse of this war in the book of Daniel. And besides all this, death is coming for all of us, and eternal shame is a real possibility.
Those are the facts of this present mortal life. As brutal as they are, the prophets and the apostles will not let you bury your head in the sand. At the same time, if you listen to those prophets and those apostles, they will never let you lose faith in the end of the story. The prophets will point you to the promised Messiah, the Commander of the heavenly armies, who will come to destroy the forces of evil. And the apostles will testify how that Commander, the eternal Son of God, with lightning on His face and fire in His eyes and the sound of an army in His voice was born as a baby. And He took the Name of Jesus for us. He came to stay in the camp with us. He appeared as a prisoner among us. And the apostles tell us how He was singled out for a special form of torture and how He became, not just a symbol, but the Deliverer of our victory, how He endured the cross, scorning its shame, rose from the dead and sat down at the command center in heaven. And now is sending forth His Spirit to organize an underground resistance. And He refuses to let this present suffering define you. But He is subverting it to refine you until the day He comes and raises you from the dust of death—whole again, full again, body and soul again, because you are His people.
A man, a woman, a boy, a girl, greatly loved. And even now in the midst of this war, his message comes across the camp. Be strong. Hold on to the end of the story. Nik Ripken interviewed Pastor Chang in China and many others who were part of that million-strong underground House Church Movement there. Nik saw this prophetic, apostolic, paradoxical faith at work in them. Nik asked them, "How could a peaceable House Church Movement make a Goliath totalitarian regime feel threatened?" And they offered a scenario in response. The security police come to harass a believer who owns the property where the house church meets. The police say, "If you do not stop these meetings, we will confiscate your house and put you out into the street." And the property owner answers, "Do you want this house? Then you must talk to Jesus because I have already given this property to Him."
The police say, "We don't have any way to get to Jesus, but we can get to you. And when we take your property, you and your children will have nowhere to live." And they answer, "Then we will be free to trust God, not just for our daily bread, but for our shelter as well." And they say, "If you keep this up, we will beat you." And they answer, "And we will be free to trust Jesus for our healing." And they say, "Then we will put you in prison." And they answer, "Then we will be free to plant more churches there." And they say, "If you do that, we will kill you." And they answer, "Then we will be free to be with Jesus forever."
Would you pray with me? Lord Jesus, Commander of the heavenly armies, Son of God, Firstborn from dead, strengthen Your people around the world enduring persecution. And help us to confront the brutal facts of our present reality and never, never lose faith in the end of Your story. Because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
NO Reflections for December 13, 2020
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding" arranged by Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"Hark the Glad Sound" arranged by Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)