Faithful to the End
Hebrews 12:1-4, 12
Originally preached Sunday Feb. 24, 2019 at United Armenian Congregational Church.
Thursday, February 24, is St. Vardanants Day in the Armenian Church. Each year, on the Thursday preceding Lent, Armenians all over the world commemorate Vardan Mamikonyan and his comrades-in-arms. We remember the heroic Battle of Avarayr against the Sassanid Persian state on May 26, 451AD. Historically, this is considered to be one of the very first battles in defense of the Christian faith. The letters exchanged between the two parties reveal the faith of our forefathers and their commitment to their Lord. The quotations are from the translation of Saint Yeghishe's book History of Vardan and the Armenian War.
In 428 Armenia, under the rule of the Arsacid dynasty, became a Sassanid dependency with a Sassanid governor. The Armenian nobles initially welcomed Persian rule, provided they were allowed to worship as Christians. However, Yazdegerd II was concerned about the influence of the Byzantine Church on the Armenians under his rule. He tried to compel the Armenians to abandon Rome and Byzantium and/or convert to Zoroastrianism. Heavy taxes were established to pressure the people to give up their Christian faith. Religious leaders were sent to teach and build temples for the purpose of converting the Armenians. Eventually, they saw that Armenians could not be intimidated, so Yazdegerd II ordered the magi to write a letter to Armenian leaders demanding them to accept the Zoroastrian faith. This letter explained the tenets of the Zoroastrianism in detail and ridiculed the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith, including belief in an incarnate God who was crucified, died, buried and rose again to ascend into heaven. They gave the Armenians this choice- . . .either answer this letter word for word, or come to court and appear before the Great Assembly.
Eighteen Armenian Bishops came together to compose a lengthy letter of response. They defended their faith by explaining their beliefs and quoting from both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. They shared the Gospel of salvation and confirmed their commitment to their Lord, even inviting the Persians to accept Jesus and the Christian faith as well.
From this faith no one can shake us, neither angles, nor men, nor sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any horrible torture. All our goods and possessions are in your hands, our bodies are before you; dispose of them as you will. If you leave us with our faith, we shall choose no other earthly master but you, and in Heaven we shall choose no other god but Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.
But if you require anything beyond this extensive testimony, we are ready; our bodies in your hands; do with them as you please. Yours to torture, ours to submit; the sword is yours, the necks are ours. We are no better than our forefathers who, for the sake of this faith, surrendered their properties, possessions, and bodies.
After making a reference to Jesus' death for our salvation they write that since Jesus the immortal God died for us . . .
. . .we shall die as mortals, in order that once we are dead He might welcome us as immortals. Do not, therefore, examine us further after all this, because our covenant of faith is not with a man, that we may be deceived like children, but is an indissoluble covenant with God, from Whom it is impossible to detach and separate us, not now, not later, not forever ... and ever.
What a testimony in word and action! Fifteen hundred years ago Vardan and 1,036 brave heroes of faith gave their lives to remain faithful to their Lord. Through the centuries, many Christians have died for their faith as martyrs. Even today there are places in the world where those who testify to their faith face torture and death. Most of us, however, are called upon maintain our faith by living faithfully in this world. This task is considerably easier, since the Lord has been so wonderful to us, and helps us every step of the way.
After Joshua led his people to the Promised Land, the Hebrew tribes conquered much of the territory. They soon discovered, however, that in this new land, they were surrounded by nations with different faiths and practices that were not compatible with their religious convictions and covenant law. There was a great deal of pressure to accept these other gods and other forms of worship. It was a challenge for them to remain faithful to the one True God. In this context, Joshua challenges his people to be clear and decisive about the God they will serve- then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord ( Joshua 24:14-15).
Today's passage is also very appropriate. What impact does the testimony of our ancestors have on our lives today? How do we respond to what they said, how they lived and their courage to die in order to remain faithful to their faith in the Lord Christ Jesus? Today we are not physically threatened because of our faith as they were, but we should not minimize the existing challenges we face. The dominant culture of our society has a tendency toward an easy comfort and a self-centered lifestyle (individualism). We are experiencing a redefinition of moral values, compartmentalization of our lives and aversion to commitment as we are pressured to worship at the idol of self-autonomy. The author of Hebrews encourages us to fix our eyes on Jesus, throw off all hindrances and the sin that entangles us and run with perseverance without growing weary or losing heart.
What price are you willing to pay for your faith? What sacrifices are you willing to make to remain faithful to the Lord? In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Hebrews 12:4). Maybe you haven’t yet, but are you ready if is required of you? Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed (Hebrews 12:12).
- Rev. Hendrik Shanazarian