Reverend Terry Penney
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      This weekend we will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with our country and our world under a variety of COVID restrictions, depending on where you live. For many, it will mean smaller gatherings than normal, maybe less family being able to travel, and, for those living in areas where levels of COVID continues to rise, increased stress and fear. In whatever manner you are able to gather, in person or virtually, we pray that God will give you and your family rest, peace, and blessing this weekend!
      In John 14 Jesus says to His disciples “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid." This is to prepare them for what is coming, His death and subsequent resurrection, and ultimately their persecution. At the beginning of this chapter, He tells them to not be troubled, and in chapter 15 He says they would be hated and persecuted. He goes on to say they would be thrown out of synagogues and killed, and be scattered and have trials and sorrows, but they should take heart, because "I have overcome the world". 
      It is in the context of impending hatred, persecution, suffering, beatings, imprisonment, and death that Jesus speaks these words, and in the reality of that context that the writers of the New Testament taught and encouraged the early church. Luke records that right after the Spirit coming at Pentecost the apostles were arrested and thrown in jail, then arrested again and whipped, A short while later, Stephen is stoned to death, and intense persecution begins for the early church as Saul tries to destroy the church and starts to drag men and women to prison for being followers of Jesus. Then Herod Agrippa starts his persecution and has the Apostle James killed and Peter arrested. Paul and Silas are beaten and whipped with rods and thrown in prison in stocks and chains. Yet, knowing all this would happen, knowing there would be many who would suffer, be beaten, imprisoned, stoned, thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, and more, Jesus says, "I am leaving you a gift-peace of mind and heart. So don't be troubled or afraid."
      What are we finding troublesome in our context today? Are we being threatened with beatings and imprisonment if we talk about Jesus or attend church? Are we being arrested or facing death for having a Bible? Do we risk our personal or family safety for being a Christian? Have we been cut off from our families, told we are no longer welcome in our parent's home, and considered as dead to them because we chose to follow Jesus? No. We here in Canada and Nova Scotia are not living in that context!
      We are in the midst of a pandemic, not a persecution. Are we having to endure restrictions and discomforts because of it? Of course, but so is everyone else, from schools to businesses, to politicians and institutions, to the rich and the poor, the Christian and the atheist, the conservatives and the liberals, communists, and socialists, to all nations and the entire world. Everyone is affected. Is this a sign that the end times are here? Maybe. Likely. Possibly. But this is not a persecution of Christianity. We are not being singled out or targeted. We are not being imprisoned, tortured, and put to death because we follow Jesus. Not here. Not us. Not today. But somewhere, today, in our world, followers of Jesus are dying, not because of COVID, but because of persecution and hatred, because of their faith, maybe because they dared to attend church, or went to a homegroup, or were caught with a Bible, or had shared the gospel with a neighbor. Somewhere today someone counted the cost of following Jesus, of gathering as a church, of singing praises to God and praying together, of preaching, teaching, and sharing the gospel, and decided that Jesus was worth the cost. Some shivered as they prayed. Some dared not turn on a light for fear of being found. Some walked all through the night to get there, sat in the heat on the ground, or met under a tree. Some had no food and little water. But they gathered. They worshipped. They prayed. They shared the Word. And they were filled with joy and thanksgiving! They rejoiced! Because they had received a gift that the world could not give them! A gift that Jesus promised us and that only Jesus gives! A gift worth every discomfort, pain, struggle, suffering, every trial we could endure, even death itself!
      So as we come into Thanksgiving, let's be thankful for the blessings and freedoms we have in our country and our province! We are free to pray in public, in church, and at home, so let's take advantage and be a people of prayer! We are free to own a Bible, read our Bibles, and study them, so let's be readers of the Word, students of the Word through personal study and devotional time! We are free to gather together for worship, prayer, and the Word, for encouragement, teaching, and fellowship, so let's be the church and be together! We are free to talk about Jesus and share the gospel with our community, so let's engage with our community, talking with people around us who don't know Jesus!
      Yes, there are health-related restrictions, and yes, if cases go up, tighter restrictions may come, but that's not faith-related but health-related, and not targeted at the church but at all gatherings! We are still the church and we are not under persecution! We can freely worship God! Wearing a mask doesn't stop you from proclaiming the gospel, from singing His praises, from praying, or from being the church! When all gatherings were curtailed because of COVID, we were still able to do church online! So let's push past the irritants and discomforts and be who God has called us to be and who we are free in our country to be, followers of Jesus, His body, the church! And let's be thankful!