Friday, January 17, 2014

To Death

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you,  and you will suffer persecution for ten days.  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
-Jesus, Revelation 2:10 (NIV)

Last week, Hiroo Onoda finally surrendered.
     He didn’t in 1945, when the rest of the Japanese Empire surrendered to the Allies. While other Japanese soldiers returned to their families and started new lives, Hiroo remained at his post on Lubang Island in the Philippines. He had been deployed there in 1944 as an intelligence officer, tasked with carrying on a guerrilla war of sabotage against the Allies. He was given two orders: “Never surrender, and Never take your own life.” And he was given a promise: “Whatever happens, we will come back for you.”
     He didn’t surrender in the years following the Japanese surrender. The three other soldiers still with Hiroo at the end of the war either walked away or died in the intervening years, but Hiroo remained at his post. He fought the war he had been deployed to fight, occasionally getting into shootouts with police. His actions even killed several Filipinos, though he was later pardoned for those crimes. Point is he stayed at his post and fought. Though most would have called it a fool’s errand, a lost cause, he followed his orders. He didn’t surrender, and he waited for the day when his fellow soldiers came back for him.
     He continued the fight that the rest of Japan had given up, in fact, for nearly thirty more years.
     It wasn't until 1974, when Japanese adventurer Norio Suzuki located him, that he finally ended his war. (Suzuki was traveling around the world, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”) Suzuki couldn’t convince him to lay down his arms alone, however. He had to fly back to Japan with photos. The Japanese government tracked down his former commanding officer, Yoshimi Taniguchi (who had become a bookseller), who flew back to the Philippines to fulfill his promise and officially relieve Hiroo of duty.
     Onoda became something of a hero on his return to Japan. He wrote a book, collected back pension, and was encouraged to run for government office. Eventually, though, he moved to Brazil where he got married, raised cattle, became involved in local government, and established an educational camp for Japanese teenagers. In 1996 he returned to Lubang Island and donated US$10,000 to a local school. In Brazil, he was awarded honors by the Air Force and the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. 
     Last week, at the age of 91, he surrendered in his last battle, with pneumonia.
     You might question the wisdom of Hiroo continuing to fight a lost war for thirty years. You might feel sorrow at the time he wasted, though I doubt he would have looked at it that way. You might well mourn the lives lost because he continued to fight. But one thing you can’t do is question his faithfulness. He lived in a makeshift camp in the mountains of Lubang Island for thirty years, while the rest of his countrymen rebuilt their lives and their nation. Faithfulness rarely runs much deeper than that.
     It’s much easier to accommodate to the changing winds around us, and so that’s what most people do. That’s why Jesus had to remind churches that seemed to be fighting a losing battle that they should “be faithful, even to the point of death.” Those believers were hiding in the mountains, metaphorically speaking. Anyone looking on from the outside would say that the war was over, and they had lost. There have been lots of believers through the intervening centuries, and many today, in fact, who have found themselves in the same circumstances. And all of us, from time to time, have at least found that we’ve held unpopular views, swam against the currents of culture. We’ve all had the experience of feeling like we’re fighting a war that most everyone else gave up on long ago.
     It can be hard to remain faithful when everyone around me says that it’s foolish to keep caring for my neighbor. My neighbor should get a job and care for himself, and, anyway, the government has programs to take care of the poor.
     It’s hard to be faithful when people whose opinions I care about tell me that it’s foolish to worship some God I can’t see, and who doesn’t even seem to care that much for the people he supposedly created. When they say that it’s much more sensible to trust in human achievement, rational thought, and empirical, impartial science.
     It’s hard to be faithful when the world I live in says it’s foolish to think that Jesus was raised from the dead and will come back to raise from the dead those who believe in him. It’s an outdated belief, I’m told, that smacks of ignorance, superstition, and mythology. It has no relevance in a modern world.
     It can be hard to be faithful when we’re told that it’s foolish to waste time worrying about sin. Life is short, everything about our world says, and we should squeeze everything we can out of it, as often as we can. We should just try not to hurt anyone else, as much as possible.
     It can be hard to remain faithful when we’re told that our convictions are motivated by hate, prejudice, and intolerance, even when we try to communicate those convictions with humility, gentleness, and love.
     So we need to hear the orders again, too: “be faithful, even to the point of death.” 
     That’s dramatic. It’s meant very short lives for some believers. For others, it’s meant long, difficult lives. It can mean walking into the swords or guns of militant enemies of the faith, or it can mean living with the enmity and ridicule of neighbors and even family. It might mean imprisonment, or it might mean living free but with a sense of loneliness and isolation. We all need to be reminded of our orders: “whatever happens, don't give up. Don't go back to living by the rules and priorities and whims of a world that doesn’t know God. Continue to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost might be.”
     And we need to hear the promise: “I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” That’s the difference between us and Lieutenant Onoda: Jesus will come back for us one day, but not to tell us that we’ve lost the war. He’ll come to tell us that we’ve won. He’ll come, not to pin a medal of valor to our chests, but to reward us with the prize for victory: life. Life that’s eternal in duration and perfect in quality. Not shattered by death, or darkened by evil, or plagued by disease, or threatened by hatred and violence, but full of joy, love, peace, and fellowship.
     This life is ours because Jesus, too, was faithful to the point of death. He asks us only to be as faithful as he was. If we’ll share in his faithfulness, we will share in the joy of his life.

     So may we be faithful. May we follow him in everything we do and say. And may we never lay down our arms in the battle against our own tendencies to give up until he comes to tell us it’s time to stop fighting.

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