3/7/2012 sermon: Perpetua on terror

Location: St. Andrew’s Burke, VA
Text: Psalm 34:4

Delivered out of all my terror

The fourth verse of our Psalm today says:
I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me out of all my terror.

It is easy to see why we read Psalm 34—and this verse in particular—on the day we remember Perpetua and her companions. These were courageous martyrs for their faith at the turn of the third century in Carthage (in modern Tunis). Thanks to Perpetua’s diary, and that of another prisoner, we know of her last days—an ordeal that so impressed those who witnessed it that the church grew as a result of their deaths. The Lord didn’t deliver Perpetua and her companions from martyrdom, but they didn’t even pray for that!

Growth of the church certainly wasn’t what the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus had in mind when he directed that Christians who would not recant their faith be put to death. The favored method of execution was to use wild beasts, an end that would surely bring terror to anyone who faced such a death.

Now—despite our recent familiarity with this Emperor’s name through K.K. Rowland’s use of it in her Harry Potter books—historians have shown that these events were not works of fiction; they actually happened. Among the first to be arrested in North Africa were five new Christians taking classes to prepare for baptism, one of whom was Perpetua. She was about 22 years old at the time, and had a husband and an infant son. When her companions asked Perpetua for a vision of their fate, she saw herself and the others climbing a very tall ladder that reached up into the sky. But to get onto the ladder they had to avoid a huge dragon. In Perpetua’s vision she saw that she had to tread on the head of the dragon to get up onto the ladder, but when she got to the top a kindly old man met her and gave her sweet milk. This might not sound like a vision of salvation to us—after all, the vision revealed that they were going to die! However, Perpetua and her companions viewed it as a sign of their salvation, and rejoiced that they would be “victorious” in the end.

On the eve of their deaths they all preached to the crowd that had gathered to witness their execution, stressing the joy they would take in their suffering. As they eyewitness account tells us:

As the day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear… “You have condemned us,” they said, but God will condemn you… the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged…. And they rejoiced that they had obtained a share of the Lord’s sufferings.[1]

“I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me out of all my terror.” Our delivery might not be in the way that we expect—or in the way WE might desire, but the witness of Perpetua and her companions tells us that the Lord DOES, indeed, deliver us out of all our terror, and awaits us with sweet milk at the end of our journey.


[1] From The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, by Herbert Musurillo (Oxford: University Press), 125-126.

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