The Servant Who Endures

Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9

Half Truths

In the last year or two, a number of the small groups here worked through some curriculum written by Adam Hamilton which is titled Half Truths. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of reading the book or watching the videos as of yet, the basic premise is that there are things that Christians often say without really thinking about it which are not really biblical and are often damaging. These are things like:

Everything happens for a reason……

It must have been God’s will……

God won’t give you more than you can handle……

God helps those who help themselves……

God said it, I believe it, that settles it……

Love the sinner, hate the sin……

In the discussion surrounding each of these, Hamilton argues that there may be a kernel of truth at the center of each saying, but as articulated and used in general conversation each is more harmful than helpful.

I’m not going to regurgitate Hamilton’s book to you this morning, but these “half truths” seem like a good place to start our reflection. They are (in my assessment) bumper sticker stop-gaps–they are pithy things we say when we don’t know what to say, usually in response to something we don’t understand…… like injustice, or death, or change.

A lot of them have at least a tangental connection to a question that has plagued human philosophy for millennia: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Does that not continue to be a relevant question? 

We all know someone–or more than likely several someones–who have had more than their fare share of hardship, or grief, or suffering. 

We all know someone whose time on earth was cut short.

We all know someone who–despite their generous sowing of kindness and love–has only seemed to reap thorns and brambles.

We all know someone who deserves better out of life than they have received.

 

This doesn’t seem right to us. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem just. And we don’t really understand why it is so.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate when we become so uncomfortable by these rough edges of life that we strike out at those suffering with one of these largely thoughtless aphorisms. At times when we would better off say nothing at all, we feel the need to say anything so we can feel like we did something.

Insulated Christians?

I continue to find that there are a good deal of people who identify as Christians and who genuinely believe that this identification with Jesus should somehow insulate them from the troubles of life. 

Like Hamilton’s “half truths,” this can work itself out in damaging ways. 

When we point this at ourselves, we can despair and lose hope–after all, if only we were closer to Jesus we would  not experience these things…… and yet we seem unable to be “good enough” to cross that threshold into a trouble-free life.

More often, however, we point it at others–not to their faces, perhaps, but in our minds and perhaps through gossip: 

“Did you hear about so-and-so? They made that bed for themselves……” 

Or: “Those kids wouldn’t be like that if they brought them to church…….” 

Or: “What do you expect? You know who they were growing up!……”

In their own ways, these are all expressions of the falsehood that bad things only happen to people who deserve them.

Job

Far too often, I fear we have become more like Job’s so-called friends than the Jesus we follow.

Job’s story (if you remember it) stands somewhat unique in the scriptures in the ways it directly challenges the kind of bumper-sticker theology that we are tempted to develop out of the Psalms and Proverbs. Job is described as an exceedingly just and faithful person–the most godly person you can imagine [Job 1:1]. He is also described as what many Christians today would call “blessed,” in that he has all the trappings of success: a big family, good health, a great amount of wealth, and even community influence (it seems). He is the paradigm of the good, successful, godly life–a role model in every possible way.

And in one–or actually two–fell swoops, all of it is gone. Most of his family have died tragically. All of his wealth has been taken from him. His health gets so bad he cannot even function anymore. And ultimately Job is joined by a few other community leaders (or so we are to suppose of them) who insist repeatedly that Job brought this on himself. 

For roughly the next 35 chapters, they insist that bad things just don’t happen to good people; that Job must have brought all this onto himself by doing bad things in secret; that he must have only appeared to be good, and that these catastrophes have only proved that he was really a bad dude all along.

The biblical book of Job stands as a vivid corrective against this temptation to assume that a person only experiences hardship if they deserve it. It proclaims to those with ears to hear that bad things do happen…… and they happen to good people too…… and our attempts to understand why bad things happen are usually fruitless. 

Jesus’ Response to the Question

It’s natural to try to make sense of life. But the testimony of the scriptures–which I suspect is confirmed through the experiences of each person here–is that the hardships of life are not reserved for those who deserve them. 

Every day, we are aware of people who deserve better than what they get.

Every day, we are aware of people who deserve worse than what they get.

Our Heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”–that’s what Jesus said (Matthew 5:45). That was his way in that moment of acknowledging that human life is unpredictable when it comes to such things. 

At the beginning of Luke 13, some people bring news of recent catastrophes–some Galileans who were killed by Pilate, and eighteen who died when a building collapsed (perhaps in one of the region’s frequent earthquakes).

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No…” Jesus says…… (Luke 13:2-3a NRSV)

“Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No…” Jesus says…… (Luke 13:4b-5a)

They did not bring these things on themselves. They were not targeted and taken out by a strategic strike by God. Life is dangerous. Life is short. Life is fragile.

That’s the lesson Jesus tries to impart on his hearers there in Luke 13. He urges them to awareness of the brevity and fragility of life–to be aware that they don’t know how much time they will have on this earth–and to live into the fullness of abundant life in God’s Kingdom of the Heavens.

Why Not?

A mentor of mine used to suggest that if a question cannot be answered, try turning it around. So if we cannot easily answer “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, we should instead try asking “Why shouldn’t bad things happen to good people?”

Maybe (in some ways) that’s a less comfortable question–but I do believe it gets us closer to the bible’s description of life and faith.

Three hundred years or less, St. Anthony the Great summed up the whole of the Christian life in this way: “Our great work is to lay the blame for our sins upon ourselves before God, and to expect to be tempted to our last breath.”

Within this corpus of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, one also finds examples like that of the wise woman Sarah. It is said that Amma Sarah “waged warfare” against a particular temptation for thirteen years. “She never prayed that the warfare should cease but she said, ‘O God, give me strength.'”

A Difficult Road

Difficulties will be a part of any Christian’s life, because difficulties are part of every person’s life. In our redemption, we do not somehow cease to be human; rather, we become more fully human–more fully what God intends and desires that “human” means and becomes.

Jesus himself experienced tremendous hardship–even and ultimately a sham trial and capital punishment. To anyone who chose to follow him, Jesus did not suggest the road would be easy; rather, he suggested they should expect to receive the same treatment he himself received. In John 15 (for example), Jesus reminds his disciples:

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you…… Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:18, 20 NRSV)

Suffering Servant

This brings us back to today’s scripture lesson.

Here in Isaiah 42, we find the first of what has come to be called the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah.  These are poems that describe someone called “the servant of the Lord.” Jewish interpreters tend to read these as either describing a messiah figure (the more classical reading) or describing a restored and fulfilled Israel (the more modern reading). 

Christian interpreters usually see them as anticipating Jesus the Christ, especially in light of the Servant Song found in Isaiah 52 and 53, which describes a servant:

who is “lifted up” (52:13), 

whose appearance is “marred…beyond human semblance” (52:14), 

who is “despised and rejected by others” (53:3), 

who “was wounded for our transgressions” (53:5), 

and who “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). 

As we followers of Jesus have traditionally read these texts, we understand that the servant in Isaiah 42 is the same as the one in Isaiah 53. The servant who suffers in chapter 53 is the same one who preserves the suffering in 42. The one who experiences injustice in chapter 53 will “faithfully bring forth justice” in 42.

The way of this Servant-Who-Endures is a gentle way that invites instead of demands: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (Isaiah 42:2 NRSV).

The way of this Servant-Who-Endures is persistent and enduring, despite obstacles and obstructions: “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4a NRSV).

The way of this Servant-Who-Endures opens up pathways of good news–and good news precisely for those on the margins of society: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6–7 NRSV).

This Servant-Who-Endures paves the way for us to endure as well. Just as was his own experience of life, our own will not be without hardship. In fact, we may find that following the Servant-Who-Endures will place us at odds with the government and other people of faith. Just as with Jesus himself, we may find that it feels like the world hates us [John 15:19]. 

Outro

But if we are following the way of the Servant-Who-Endures, we will discover that we can abide in the blessedness of Christ’s Kingdom even “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11 NRSV). 

Because in Christ, we realize that our blessedness and experience of God’s favor is not conditional upon the circumstances of our life, but rather independent from them. That God’s love for us is not limited to our ability to live rightly or follow the rules, but is rooted fundamentally in our very creation: because we exist, we exist as creatures loved by God. 

And as we begin to grasp this reality in our developing relationship with Jesus, we learn that we are able to endure not because of our own strength or stubbornness, but because of the endurance of the Servant-Who-Endures, who offers his presence and power to endure whatever the world may throw our way. We may even find ourselves discovering that we can, in fact, “Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12 NRSV)–not by trying harder, but by growing in relationship and trust with the Servant-Who-Endures and learning ever-more of his love.

Persistent Hope

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25

Persistent Hope

This passage from the oracle of Isaiah has become so familiar to some of us that we fail to realize its significance. Here, God through Isaiah pulls back the curtain of time and enables us to peek into eternity. What we see looks strange and phantasmagorical to us—a bizarre, dream like glimpse into a reality where things just don’t work the way we expect. And yet it also depicts the direction—if not the destination—of God’s redemptive work in us and throughout all of creation.

My friend Mindi sums it up like this: 

Isaiah 65:17-25 contains the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the ways of this world no longer have a hold on us. The prophet envisions a time when everyone enjoys what they have worked for, where the struggle of this world disappears and untimely death is no more. This vision is of peace and prosperity, of hope for all, where there is no domination, despair, and exile.

This vision is often too much for us to hope for, and yet it remains the persistent hope and activity of our transforming God. 

Part the First

Unlike Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17], we are all too aware of “the former things”—those systems and processes that have influenced and frequently impeded progress. In churches as in life, we are often stymied by claims that “we’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “Such-and-such did it that way.” In life as in churches, we often carry our past wounds into the present and the future, often stunted by the pain of grudges and the impossibility of reconciliation and forgiveness in past relationships.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17 NRSV)

Part the Second

Similarly [Isaiah 65:18], the idea of newness and change generally creates not gladness or joy, but fear and trepidation. We face a future—and even a present!—that feels uncertain to us. The world doesn’t work the way it used to. The old rules of life no longer produce predictable results. And so most of us struggle to sort out how to live a good life or embody our faith in this new reality. 

Yet God speaks through Isaiah:

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:18 NRSV)

Part the Third

Our world is filled with grief and sorrow [Isaiah 65:19b]; with lives tragically cut short [Isaiah 65:20a]; with people working their whole lives only to have nothing to show for it, or working hour after unending hour at a series of jobs and still not earning enough for their family to eat and survive [Isaiah 65:22a]. We are afraid for the world our children are inheriting [Isaiah 65:23a].

And to all these things, God says “no more!”

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19b NRSV)

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Isaiah 65:20a NRSV)

“They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.” (Isaiah 65:22a NRSV)

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
(Isaiah 65:23a NRSV)

The Reversal of Fortunes

The gladness and joy of this vision comes about because in it we catch a glimpse of God’s future when these injustices and fears and pains will be eradicated from the human experience.

Where there are now those who die before living a full life, Isaiah imagines a day when someone even 100 years old is considered an adolescent. [Isaiah 65:20]

Where now far too many do not receive fair compensation for the labors they perform, Isaiah imagines a day when everyone gets what they have worked for. [Isaiah 65:21, 22b]

Where now we fear for the world of our children’s future, Isaiah imagines a day of blessing and wholeness and security that will permeate not just their experience, but the experience of generations to come. [Isaiah 65:23]

Hard Work

What Isaiah anticipates 2500 years ago continues to be the impossible dream of today. 

But what stands out to me is not the content—it is not a matter of what Isaiah describes God doing. What stands out to me is that nowhere in the scriptures is it suggested that these transformations of ourselves and of the created order will be easy. 

If anything, we should expect they be hard. In last week’s reading from Haggai, this transformation was described in earthquake-like terms:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

The book of Revelation—in peeking behind the curtain some years later—envisions the Lord God of Hosts (or more literally, “Yahweh, commander of armies”) waging war on the forces of darkness as God brings about the imagined world Isaiah suggests. Jesus—our front-line general in this conflict—is depicted as a military leader through whom God will achieve victory. In chapter 19 of Revelation we read:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”” (Revelation 19:11–16 NRSV)

Nowhere in the bible is it suggested that these changes will come about with a snap of God’s fingers. Everywhere we look, we see difficult language describing how God will make these things so—throughout history, and through those among us who partner with God.

It will not be a simple matter for all of creation to be transformed according to God’s desires. ……Just as it is not easy for our individual hearts to be transformed into Christ-likeness. 

Where Are We?

Which brings us to another point…… Isaiah describes what God is doing. But where are we in all this? If we imagine that cosmic battle illustrated in Revelation, whose side are we on? What are we doing to advance the cause of Christ? 

If we want to be on God’s side, then we will be working towards the fulfillment of God’s priorities. We will be working to achieve God’s vision of peace and wholeness.

This is not, of course, something we can do on our own. Author Dallas Willard has written that “The greatest temptation to evil that humanity ever suffers is the temptation to make a ‘Jerusalem’ happen by human means” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.380). What he means is that we try to use our own power and ability to bring about the reign of Christ in the world. But doing this—whether through our attempts to legislate morality, to establish a “Christian nation,” or whatever—it always winds up “eliminating truth, or mercy, or both.” 

This is not God’s way. These are not God’s weapons. 

God’s way and weapon is love. It is relationship. It is invitation. 

It is impossible to advance the cause of Christ while utilizing the powers of this world. Only the power of the Kingdom of God as known and expressed through Jesus will bring about the vision of Isaiah, and John, and even of you and I today. 

This hope of transformation has persisted throughout the centuries and millennia because God has written it on our hearts. Because it is an intrinsic part of God’s redemptive plan—not just in this life, but for all of eternity. Because ultimately, this life here and now is a training ground for our eternal work and existence with God. No matter our biological age, we are now children and adolescents whom our Divine Parent wishes to train, and in whom our Divine Parent wants to instill certain priorities and values and lessons. This is boot camp, preparing for the day when we can be set loose in God’s universe and empowered to “reign with him,” as the scriptures imagine.

This future reality is what gives meaning and purpose to it all. 

And for those of us who place our trust in the One True God, we realize that there is nothing that will prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled. There is no way that the enemy can derail this vision of life as God intends it to be lived. There are no obstacles that keep us from the love of Christ, and the fullness of Kingdom life that begins now with our “rebirth”, and continues, unabated by death, into the eternal future with our loving God.

There is a reason for this persistent hope. And that reason is God. The very God who loves you, who has committed an eternity of resources to develop you into who you are created to be, and who will never—NEVER!—give up. As Eugene Peterson was said to sum up the gospel message:

God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
And God is relentless.

The Hope of A Savior

 

1Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The Hope of a Savior (Saved from Saving Ourselves)

Throughout this Easter season, we’ve been looking around 1Peter for hope in hard times. This morning, we finish this series, ending largely where we started: If we are to find hope amidst the storms of life, we will find it when we anchor our hope in God alone.

Perspective

But before we get to “how letting God save us directs us to hope,” we have to attend to the issue of perspective. This (in fact) is where Peter begins our reading—with an attempt to reorient the perspective of the Christians receiving his letter. He starts out:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1Peter 4:12-13a).

Those receiving this letter have a perspective on hardship. We all have a perspective on hardship.

Maybe we decide hardship is the consequence of our own choices

Maybe we decide hardship is God testing us…

Maybe we decide hardship is just an unfair game of chance, a roll of the dice that lands in favor of some and against others…

Whatever we come to believe, it is certain one cannot live long in this world without struggling with the age-old question of why bad things happen—and especially why they happen to good people.

Peter’s audience has some preconceived notions about hardship, too. And they think hardship shouldn’t be happening to them. They believe hardship is something that happens to other people……you know, people who aren’t like us?

There’s something about this that feels a bit like the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18, in the parable Jesus told there: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11 NRSV)

According to Peter’s audience—and many Christians believe the same today—bad things happen to bad people. If you’re living right, and if you’re following Jesus, then they believe bad things shouldn’t happen to you.

This connection between hardship and sin almost seems hardwired in our human brains. There is even support of it in various parts of the Bible—especially in the Psalms and Proverbs. And this is (probably) rightly so—this is what we might call the “normative pattern of life.” Most of the time for most people “you reap what you sow” (Gal 6:7; cf. Hos 8:7; 2Cor 2:6).

But words like “normal,” “most of the time,” and “most people” reveal that these patterns are not universally true for everyone, everywhere, and all the time.

Peter’s audience thinks they are living according to the “normative pattern of life.” They are following Jesus. They are practicing kindness. They are actively working to be part of the Body of Christ. They may even be sharing their experiences of God’s love and grace with others.

But if they’re doing everything right, why is everything going wrong?

Peter’s answer to this question is that their perspective is too short. They are focused on the here and now when they need to adopt a God’s eye view of their situation. What they are experiencing isn’t strange. It’s not unexpected in the least. Had he wanted to quote some Bible or Jesus here, Peter would have had ample fodder:

There’s the story of Job, who the story makes clear has done nothing to deserve the hardship that befalls him.

There’s Jesus’ teaching at the end of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mt 5:11 NRSV).

There’s the frequent comparison by Jesus between discipleship and carrying one’s cross (Mt 10:38; 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23).

There’s the inquiry about the man born blind, as Jesus demonstrates his disability is not due to anyone’s sin (John 9).

And there is (of course) Jesus’ own story, in which the NT makes it clear Jesus did not deserve to be killed (Lk 23:15-16; Acts 2:23; usw.)

Peter could have made direct reference to any of these things, but he doesn’t even mention the innocence of Jesus. Why? Because they know these things already. And because Peter realizes that appeals to logic and facts do not change hearts.

The only sure-fire way to change hearts is to expose them to our transforming God. That’s what Peter encourages them to do. Developing God-vision requires exposure to what God sees, and they can’t see what God sees unless they delve deeper into submission to Christ as Lord.

Now Peter does share what he believes they will discover. As I mentioned already, Peter thinks they are short-sighted, and that God’s view is much longer than is our own naturally. If they can capture a glimpse of the long-view of God, they will see how facing hardship the way Jesus does brings him glory because it demonstrates his love more completely—and concretely—to the world. Peter believes that if they can see the way God can redeem their suffering to advance God’s mission, they will face it with more determination, bravery, and faithfulness than they would by assuming themselves to be mere victims of chance.

Savior

But this is not where Peter stops. Nor—despite the time I have taken this morning—is the reorienting of perspective even his primary point here. The focus is really on what these Christians can do, and what they cannot.

There’s quite a long list of what they can do:

1. They can practice humility (5:6a—”Humble yourselves”)

2. They can submit to God’s desires (5:6b—”under the mighty hand of God”)

3. They can trust God to judge and/or vindicate them (5:6c—”so that at the proper time he may exalt you”)

4. They can trust a loving God with their concerns and fate (5:7—”casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you”)

5. They can guard themselves against irrational thinking and practice self-control (5:8a—”Be sober-minded; be watchful”)

6. They can discipline and strengthen themselves in body, mind, and spirit (5:8b—”Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”)

7. They can resist temptation (5:9a—”Resist him”)

8. They can ground everything they believe and do in the solid rock of Jesus (5:9b—”firm in your faith”)

9. They can pursue unity and solidarity with Christians around the globe (5:9c—”knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world”)

They can do all these things—but you know what they can’t do? You know what we can’t do? We cannot save ourselves. 

“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1Peter 5:10 ESV).

We cannot save ourselves:

No matter who we are, no matter what our lot in life;

No matter whether we have experienced the “normative pattern of life” or an incredibly abnormal one;

No matter the language we speak or the color of our skin;

No matter our occupation or our economics or our age;

No matter whether we wield the power and authority of kings or cleaners, of debutants or drivers;

We cannot save ourselves. We need a savior.

And hope of all hope, we have a savior.

The Story of Jesus

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was born. He was just as human as you and I, yet somehow also fully God. As he came of age, he called disciples—traveling and teaching and performing the odd miracle.

His teaching centered on the Kingdom of God—an alternate vision of the world he expected his followers to live into.

Jesus paid little respect to the power players of his world—even the popular religious voices—and instead spent his time with what everyone thought were “the wrong kind of people.”

He taught us to “turn the other cheek” to the violence of our world, and then he demonstrated his own teaching by not fighting back as they sent him to the cross.

In his death, Jesus exposed both the violence that drives us and that there is an alternate way—a way of peace that destroys death and hate forever.

Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we can have confidence that we too will experience resurrection and abundant life when Christ’s Kingdom is made complete. There will be a time of reckoning—of answering for sins and of wrongs set right.

If we accept Jesus as our Savior and Lord, then God’s grace, mercy, and life is extended to us. With a God’s-eye view, we will faithfully endure whatever hardship comes our way because we know that through it all God remains with us—because we can be confident that God’s love abides with us—because Jesus assures us we have deliverance. In John 10:27-28, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:27–30 ESV)

Thank God, we don’t have to save ourselves.
Thank God, we have the hope of a savior.

The Anchor of Hope

 

Intro to Series

Did you know that in the church calendar, Easter lasts for 50 days? Christmas lasts just 12 days. Advent lasts anywhere between 22-28 days. Lent lasts 40 days. But Easter—the season dedicated to celebrating hope and grace in light of Christ’s resurrection—is the longest holy season of the year.

And as things would have it, this year the Lectionary prescribes reading the letter of 1Peter during the Easter season.

1Peter is an interesting book. While it is has traditionally been identified with the apostle Peter, this letter addresses themes and situations that grew in urgency around the end of the first century AD. Specifically, this letter is addressed to Christians who are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ—those whose religious convictions have led to very real social, economic, and perhaps even physical suffering. They are being punished by a culture prejudiced against the Way of Jesus.

In the face of such difficulties—standing before such tremendous obstacles—these Christians are finding their faith tested in ways they could never have imagined. The simple act of following Jesus is costing them in ways we could never imagine.

This letter, then, meets them where they are. It acknowledges the suffering they are experiencing—the hard times they face. Yet it aims to reorient the reader toward joy and hope.

While the trials most of us face pale in comparison to those of this letter’s original readers, the wisdom that is offered is just as valuable to us today, as we too struggle to find hope in hard times.

That will be our theme for the rest of this resurrection season: Finding Hope in Hard Times. In the coming weeks we will reflect on

the hope of salvation (and how we are saved from ourselves)

the hope of meaning (and how we are saved from senselessness)

the hope of being chosen (and how we are saved from chance)

the hope of grace (and how we are saved from defending God)

and the hope of a savior (and how we are saved from saving ourselves)

But first, we begin where the author of 1Peter begins: by identifying the Anchor of Hope. Let us read.

1Peter 1:3-9

 

11 Reasons for Praising God

(adapted from New Bible Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-9)

This treatise on finding hope in hard times begins by identifying the anchor of our hope: the one true God. And then, in the next few verses, it offers us eleven reasons for praising God…… Eleven realities that are indisputable…… Eleven facts that are not conditional upon circumstances. Within these eleven points, we discover how the inalterable reality of God and God’s work gives hope in the midst of trouble.

[And yes, that means this sermon is going to have eleven points. I may have to skip the poem at the end.]

1. Our reading begins: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:3) The first reason to praise God is that God is father to Jesus Christ. Jesus himself talks about the closeness between he and the Father, even saying “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is our example, redeemer, friend……without a God who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” we wouldn’t have a Jesus either. So no matter what’s going on in our lives or world, there is something—someONE—to anchor our hopes to.

2. The reading continues: “In his great mercy” (v.3). This is the second point. It is mercy that motivates God—not condemnation, not anger, not jealousy, not pride. Contrary to the faulty images of God that so many of us hold, this verse is quite clear that God’s motivation in engaging us is driven by mercy. Jesus wants us to know this about God—he goes to great lengths to show it to us. And twice he even quotes Hosea 6:6, insisting that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13; 12:7). That our God is a God motivated by mercy is another reason to put our hope in God in all circumstances.

3. “In his great mercy, he has given us new birth” (v.3). this “new birth” is the third point. The new birth……the new beginning……the transformed existence that is given to us is a product of God’s great mercy. It’s that mystery that Nicodemus wrestled with in John 3. It’s that transformational reality proclaimed in Galatians 2 as Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive—but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son” (Gal 2:20 VOICE). Because of God, there can always be a new beginning, a new day, a new chance.

4. Point four. The author says that this new birth is “into a living hope” (v.3). In other words, the result of that new birth is a life of hope. This hope is qualified with the next two points, as its means and its object are made explicit. Yet it is also remarkable simply to recognize that on account of the inalterable reality of who God is and what God is doing, our lives can be filled with hope.

5. So what is the means of this hope? That’s the fifth point here. It comes about “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v.3). Christ has been raised from the dead. We celebrate that most fully on Easter, yet this reality undergirds the hope that draws us every week. Without the resurrection, we would have no hope, as Paul points out in 1Thess 4:13. Without the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus’ death would have been “the most tragic waste in all of history” (Gal 2:21 VOICE). As we read in 1Cor 15, “If what we have hoped for in Christ doesn’t take us beyond this life, then we are world-class fools, deserving everyone’s pity. But Christ was raised from death’s slumber and is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death… Through Christ all of us can live again” (vv. 19-20, 22 VOICE).

6. This brings us to the sixth point. If the means of our hope is the resurrection of Jesus, the object—the reason—for our hope is surely the inheritance that awaits us as children and heirs of God (v.4). One of the ways we have understood the work of Jesus on the cross is to say he swapped places with us. Later in 1Peter 2 we’re told that Jesus “took on our sins in His body when he died on the cross so that we, being dead to sin, can live for righteousness” (v.24 VOICE). But if we swapped places, it also means that Jesus places us in his own position in God’s eyes, as God’s beloved children and heirs. Once again, as followers of Jesus, this is an inalterable reality in our lives—no matter how the storms of life may bluster and blow.

7. This inheritance, v.4 of 1Peter 1 continues, “can never perish, spoil or fade.” This is the seventh point. No matter what hostile elements may menace…… No matter the pollution that threatens to defile…… No matter our own fears of fading zeal or faith wasting away…… Our inheritance remains secure; it “can never perish, spoil, or fade.”

8. And why is this? That’s the eighth point. It remains secure because it’s keeping is not left with us: Peter tells us that it “is kept in heaven for you” (v.4). This is Peter’s way of saying what Paul means, when he says that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). In the Roman world, if you were a Roman citizen, there would be a record of your citizenship kept in Rome. No matter what happened in the world, that citizenship would be secure. But of course, just because you were a Roman citizen didn’t mean you were supposed to end up in Rome when you retired; quite the opposite: your job was to bring Roman culture wherever you were.
(cf. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.293)

9. That brings us to point #9: We “are shielded by God’s power” (v.5). This word “shielded” might better be translated “guarded.” It literally means “garrisoned.” And the point here is that we are “garrisoned” by the power of God so that we will be able to inherit. Nothing can threaten that. As an analogy, there are quite a few times the apostle Paul relies on his Roman citizenship to get him out of sticky situations. It provides him with certain protections not available to the average Joe. God is so intent on ensuring we inherit the promise that God uses God’s power to shield us and protect us—not preventing any harm from coming our way, but guaranteeing we do not face it alone and that God will see us through. Another reason to trust God as the anchor of hope.

10. Number ten. Peter tells us in v.5 that it is “through faith” that we are “shielded by God’s power.” Faith, then, is the means by which we are guarded by God. It is how we hold onto God’s promises. Our salvation does not depend on our actions, our morality, our righteousness, our knowledge, or our purity. It depends only on faith. It is only “through faith” that we begin the lifelong process of turning toward God. It is only “through faith” that we can submit to God and become like our savior Jesus. It is only “through faith” that we find salvation.

11. That’s the last point. Salvation. Peter says that we are guarded—”garrisoned”—”until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (v.5). Salvation—whether we do a good job explaining it or not—has past, present, and future components. Here in 1Peter 1, “salvation is described with reference to the past (Christians have been given new birth by God’s mercy), to the present (Christians are being shielded by God’s power), and to the future (at the last time will come the final deliverance from evil)” (IVP-NB Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-5). We can confidently anchor our hope in God because with God there is salvation. As the apostle Peter proclaims in a sermon early in Acts, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NIV11)

Peter, of course, in the remaining verses of our reading, goes straight into acknowledging the troubles his hearers are facing. He speaks of “suffering” and “grief,” of “trials” and the crucible of persecution. But he does it all with the foundation of knowing God as the anchor of hope.

As we’ll see in the coming weeks, Peter never dismisses suffering. He never demeans it by suggesting it is any less devastating than it is. He also, I believe, never glorifies it. Peter isn’t interested in creating martyrs—the people he is writing to are already being martyred.

Instead, he wants to help them come to terms with the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.

He wants them to know that God is with them.

He wants them to know that as followers of Jesus, they will survive this, even if they die in the process.

He wants them to know that—even in the face of tremendous adversity—it is possible to have hope and joy in your life. All it takes is anchoring your hope to the one and only God, who loves you and wants to see you through.

Amen.