Lately I’ve been sitting with my daughter while she does her Year 12 assignment on Tiananmen Square. We talked about quality of life issues and human rights, and I described the paranoia we had in the ’80s over Communism, and the terrible things done to Christians behind the Iron Curtain. She asked me if I would die for my faith, or recant under torture, trusting in God’s power to forgive.
I wanted to say, “Yes, absolutely” – but I had to admit that I didn’t know. I would like to think I could stick it out to the bitter end, but I know perfectly well that I’m not a very courageous person. I’m far more reed than rock. Put me in a room where there’s even a verbal confrontation, and my mojo evaporates! A quick flick through Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs is a very confronting thing. I’m totally intimidated by saints, both ancient and modern, who have suffered for their faith. For me, it would take a special, 11th-hour, God-given sort of backbone to endure under torture. No amount of working up to it seems to have benefitted me. I remember trying to toughen myself up, from as far back as the age of 12, but all it seems to have done is (a) give me a sharp and bitter tongue, and (b) feed a persecution complex. In short, trying to be someone I’m not, results in ugliness. So I’m going to have to once more place my reliance in the Holy Spirit, because I don’t think I have what it takes, and I’m going to have to be okay with that.
I’m kind of in good company here. Saint Peter didn’t start out brave; he started out bravado. Put a sword in his hand and he’ll wave it about; but put him in a courtyard next to the place where his notorious best friend is being ruthlessly shredded, and, well … who wants to be next? In that moment he can totally understand why Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea only ever came to see Jesus on the sly. They had so much more to lose; maybe, he thinks in that awful heartbeat, they were the smart ones.
I don’t know if they were smart or not. Nicodemus, a Jewish man with a humanist “people power” Greek name – I imagine him as urbane, educated, used to moving in the best circles, treading a tightrope between the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and the Romans – brought his questions to Jesus under cover of night. Joseph the tin merchant was a wealthy businessman who believed but was sensitive to public opinion, so he is described as a “secret believer”. These weren’t people who stood up for their faith in Jesus “and consequences be damned”. They were hedgers and, to some extent, cowards … like me.
So can a cowardly person do anything good for God? I have good news for you. Yes, they can. You might not be the magnificent Deborah, leading the armies of Israel against the oppressors of Canaan. But you might be tentwife Jael – married to a turncoat, but a girl who knows how to nail in a good tent peg. You might be Nicodemus – not very brave, but you’ve got influence in high places when you need to use it. You might be Joseph of Arimathea – precious about your reputation, but you’ve got money at your fingertips. You might be Peter, who’s either all talk or brash action, but who freezes if he lets himself overthink.
Let me tell you about what these frightened people did. They were the lever that moved the world. Their actions – done off-stage for the most part – were pivotal moments in God’s plan. Jael assassinated the Bin Laden of her day, because opportunity knocked and she simply used what she had in her hand. Nicodemus prompted one of Jesus’ best sermons, which includes the world’s most famous Bible verse; and as my pastor Nick pointed out today, was so moved from darkness to light that he provided twice the burial spices for Jesus that the average royal person received, underlining Jesus’ status as the King of Kings. Joseph took the gospel to Britain, and Britain took the gospel to all of Europe and beyond. Spotlight-hating Peter preached to several thousand people on the Day of Pentecost. He worked among the Jews to show them that their Messiah was suffering servant, Passover lamb AND coming King. He was martyred, but by then his courage and humility were such that he insisted on being crucified upside down, saying he wasn’t worthy to die the same way as Jesus. He was the fisherman who shook the world.
Scared? Intimidated? Self-conscious? Brand-protective? Don’t have a kick-ass testimony? Feel like you’re not a very good Christian? Think you’re not hero material, that you’re just an also-ran? It doesn’t matter. God has always used the foolish things to shame the wise, and the visionary things to shame the tangible. Don’t be paralysed by what you see as your disqualifications. Worry about being brave later. Today, just have a look and see what’s in your hand, and do what you can. See where it takes you.