Der Vasken's Sermon on January 19, 2020
Jan 22, 2020
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last Sunday we spoke about the life of John the Baptist as it was the feast day of his birth and we saw much more about him than first meets the eye. We saw that baptizing people was only one aspect of his short but productive life. And we saw how his message of faith speaks to our 21st Century lives every bit as much as it did to 1st Century lives.
Today, I want to continue that thought by looking at the life of another saint. This saint is far less known to the world. His name is all but forgotten. He is a saint unique to the Armenian Church. So I want to continue speaking about faith today and I want to do that by looking at the life of a man who lived hundreds of years after John the Baptist.
This coming Thursday in the Armenian Church is a day dedicated to a saint who lived a very long time ago. Thursday is the Feast of St. Vahan. St. Vahan lived in the first half of the 8th Century. He is a saint unfamiliar to many people, but back around 730 A.D., he made the Kingdom of Armenia and the Empire of Persia stand up and take notice of his faith in Jesus Christ. Read these words: "I prefer eternal life in Heaven over the temporary days of this world." These were the final words of this humble saint as he faced his executioner and remained firm in his faith.
St. Vahan's life story is remarkable. As a young child, Vahan witnessed his parents killed by the invading Persian army. He and many other Armenian children were taken to Persian lands to live and learn the ways of Islam. While serving in these foreign lands, the Persian rulers granted the captured Armenian children, who had then grown into adulthood, the right to return to their ancestral homes. Vahan promised his Persian leader that he would return one day soon, but after returning to Armenia, his Persian ruler died and Vahan felt he was released from his promise.
While in Armenia, Vahan fell in love and married and he re-established himself as the true owner of his father's land. The other Persian rulers, however, demanded Vahan's return and started to chase after him. He fled from one location to another over a number of years, leaving his family and home behind. At each place he went, the people of that region became endangered because of his presence. So Vahan eventually decided to surrender himself and explain to the Persian rules his desire to remain in Armenia and practice his own religion.
The Persian rulers had him immediately thrown into prison and according to history, he suffered many, many unspeakable tortures and was ultimately beheaded. At the time of his martyrdom, his executioner tried one last time to make Vahan convert to the Persian religion. Here is what he said to Vahan: "Oh you pathetic little man. You could live to see another day instead of this day of death. Why don't you choose life? Why do you prefer death?" And Vahan answered him with these words: "I prefer eternal life in Heaven instead of the passing days of this world."
In other words, with his last words on earth, St. Vahan spoke of his unshakable trust in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the promises of Heaven. With his dying words, he witnessed to the world around him that he believed with his whole being that eternal life comes through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And for his firm, Vahan earned his eternal life in Heaven and was canonized into sainthood by the Armenian Church.
This story always reminds me of the faith of our genocide martyrs. They could have converted but instead they held on to the faith of their ancestry, the faith of their families, the faith of their heritage and like St. Vahan, they "preferred eternal life over the passing days of this world." What should we learn from the life of St. Vahan--a man whose life and faith bear witness to us today thirteen centuries after his death? I think it is simply this. St. Vahan's life needs to be held up as an example for us all and not forgotten and not placed only as a date of remembrance in the calendar. His life speaks to us from the pages of history. His life tells us to bear witness to our Christian faith and to hold our faith in our heart and in our soul and let it breathe into today's world.
He is telling us that persecution like he faced, no matter how terrible, cannot shatter hope or corrode faith or suppress love, or silence courage or even invade the soul if we have a relationship with the Son of God and understand the value of the relationship. Persecution, in whatever form, is difficult for everyone, and persecution comes in different forms for everybody. For some people disease is a persecution; illness is a persecution; depression feels like persecution and loneliness is a terrible form of persecution faced by too many people. Persecution, in whatever form, is difficult for everyone, but it is impossible to face if we face it without our faith in Jesus Christ.
So as we look at the life of this quiet saint of the Armenian Church, ask yourself:
- What difficulty am I facing in my life today?
- And have I asked God to face it with me?
Something for all of us to think about.