This past Sunday (March 30, 2008 ) I had the honor of preaching my first sermon. It was given at the Presbyterian church where I work and had its beginnings in last semester’s final exam for Biblical Interpretation class. Entitled “The Power of the Cross“, a video of the sermon can be found at the top of this page. Based on I Peter 1:3-9, the scripture passage is the apostle Peter’s words of encouragement to believers living in the pagan societies of the ancient world… words that have a lot to say to today’s believers who live in an increasingly neo-pagan world. Here’s the reading, followed by the text of the sermon…
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (I Peter 1:3-9)
(Show a copy of last week’s Easter bulletin, which has the quote He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” on the cover.) I was excited to see this last week because it’s exactly what I will be speaking about this morning. This new birth – this living hope – is an absolute certainty for all who trust in Jesus. Our hope is sure because of the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What an appropriate thing to talk about this first Sunday after Easter! This is the core of today’s message.
What’s different from last week is this: last week was a celebration. A celebration of resurrection, of new life. This week, the holiday is over and we need to return to our daily lives, where things aren’t always so pleasant. We need to apply this hope to the real world.
Last year about this time three Christian men living in Turkey were martyred for their faith, tortured and killed by Islamic radicals at their place of business. One of the young men left behind a wife and three children. I heard about this because one of the young men happened to be friends with one of the recent graduates of the school I attend.
The news hit close to home, and it made me think: As a Christian, if something like this were to happen to someone I loved, how would I react? What could be said? What could be done?
That’s the context in which today’s scripture reading takes place. Yes, Peter’s words ring with Easter joy – but they also ring out in the middle of very dark days. Peter’s letter was written at a time when the early church was facing increasing persecution. In fact Peter was writing to them – rather than preaching to them – because they had been forced to flee their homes in Jerusalem and move hundreds of miles away. In their hardship they were looking to Peter, the Lord’s friend and companion, for answers to tough questions. What should we do? How should we live under these conditions? Peter wrote this letter to answer these questions.
Living here in America it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be beaten or killed just for being Christian. But even in this country, if you take a stand for your faith you may find yourself in hot water. For example, if you have the courage to stand up at your place of business and say “no, that’s not right” to a company policy that isn’t fair – you may lose your job. If you teach your kids to stand up for what is right and they may be picked on at school. If you talk about God among your friends, you’re almost sure to be asked at some point “you’re not one of those Christians, are you?” Every day people who take a stand for God are held up for ridicule in our society and in the media. How do we deal with this? How do we keep living what we believe in the face of opposition?
The book of I Peter gives a complete answer to this question, and I recommend reading the whole thing when you have a moment – it’s only about three pages long. For this morning tho we are just looking at the first nine verses. These two paragraphs aren’t so much about advice as they are about encouragement – and isn’t that what we all need to hear when life gets tough? Peter knew this, so before giving his advice he reminds us of the foundation of our faith and the certainty of our hope.
Peter begins his letter to the persecuted church with these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” How can he say this? How can he be so “up” in such a “down” situation? Peter’s words of praise to God aren’t simplistic or Pollyannaish – he has good reason for what he says, and he goes on to explain why:
“According to His great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”
In one short sentence Peter takes us from the valley of despair straight to the gate of heaven itself. He says God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.” As Pastor Jeff pointed out a few weeks ago, being ‘born again’ is not a question of joining some socio-political movement. In its truest sense being ‘born again’ is what defines a Christian. It means to be given a brand new beginning by God’s mercy and power, not by our own doing but by the finished work of Jesus on the cross.
For those of us who have experienced new birth in this way, Peter says we are born to a living hope – not a dead hope, not a false hope – it’s a living hope. That is, because Jesus lives, we live, and our hope is alive. His resurrection opens the door to our own resurrection. Paul says in I Corinthians 15: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” That’s what Peter is getting at.
This salvation, this living hope Jesus brings means many things: it means our sins are forgiven. It means our eternal lives begin now and reach into eternity. Eternal life isn’t just for the future, it begins in this life and carries forward. It means we can live our daily lives in a relationship with the Living God. It means the Holy Spirit marks us as God’s own. It means that our lives have eternal meaning and purpose, and we have a responsibility to work with God in discovering and realizing that purpose. It means we have been born anew into the family of God, so that all other Christians are our brothers and sisters, quite literally. Every one of these things could take a whole sermon to talk about! These are just a few of the riches that become ours through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The same God who brought Jesus from death to life holds our lives in His hands, and that is the foundation of our hope. But Peter doesn’t stop there. He says we are born into “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” We can’t inherit something unless someone dies, but Jesus has done just that – and he shares His inheritance with us, both now and in the life to come. Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also.” This is our inheritance and it cannot be destroyed.
It is being kept, guarded by God. A little later Peter says “you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for salvation” – both the inheritance and the inheritors are being guarded by God. The word Peter uses here for guarded in the Greek has military overtones to it. Just as a group of soldiers might guard something, you and I and our inheritance are being guarded. God has set up a perimeter around us that nothing will ever break through. Our inheritance and our salvation are absolutely secure and nothing can take them away. Nothing can snatch us from God’s hands. In Romans 8 Paul says:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is such an important thing to get our minds and hearts around, because it is the foundation of our faith, the foundation of our lives both now and in the world to come. Christian salvation isn’t about saying “I hope I make it.” You’ve probably heard people say things like, “I’ve been a good person, I’ve never killed anybody” or “I’m doing the best I can, aren’t we all?” Salvation doesn’t depend on us – it depends on God. It depends on what Jesus did for us on the cross, on the power of His death and resurrection. He keeps the inheritance for us – it’s all being guarded by His hands and by His holy angels. We are safe. No matter what happens, and no matter what we see around us. And that is our hope, which we hold onto by faith, faith being (in the words of Hebrews) “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Having made this point, Peter then gets around to addressing his readers’ questions. In verses 6 & 7 he says:
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while… you have been grieved by various trials… so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may… result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
These trials will only last a little while, Peter says. He doesn’t make light of them; he uses the word “grieved” to describe them. And life’s hardships do grieve us, don’t they? From petty unkindnesses to our own failings, to sometimes even members of our own families, life is difficult and we really do live (as the old song says) in a ‘graceless age’ and it hurts.
He says it’s our faith being refined like gold in the refiner’s fire. It’s being tested – not like a test in school – more like being “documented” the way a scientist might run an experiment and document the results. In other words, how we respond with faith to the trials that come our way – is being documented by God, written down in His book – and at Jesus’ return our faith will result in praise and glory and honor, both for Jesus and for us. Our steadfastness, our faith, our hope, will be our glory and our honor when Jesus returns.
Peter says: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” Even in the middle of life’s trials, we can trust our Lord and follow Him. Even when we are being prejudiced against for our faith, the joy of the Lord, joy that His Holy Spirit gives, joy that is “filled with glory”, that is, weighty, this joy lives deep in the depths of our being, out of reach of anyone or anything that could harm us in this life. The joy is there, reassuring us that we are His. And in this confidence we can face all of life’s trials.
Living by God’s power, and not by our own, makes it possible for us to do far more than we can imagine. The woman I talked about at the beginning whose husband was martyred over in Turkey – here’s the rest of her story. When the reporters came to ask what she had to say, she said one thing: “God forgive them for they know not what they do.” The Turkish press, which has a reputation for being very hostile to Christianity, commented: “She said in one sentence what 1,000 missionaries in 1,000 years could never do.”
This is the power of a life lived secure in the light of eternity, sure of God’s salvation, confident in the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May each of us come to know and live in this power more and more each day. Amen.