Sunday, September 24, 2017

When Towers Fall

[Preached on a Sunday where our church invited local first responders to attend, be honored, and receive tokens of our appreciation for their service to the community.]

I wonder if there were any warning signs. Any conspicuous cracks, any trembling. But up until then, it probably seemed like such an ordinary day. And then, from one minute to the next, everything just changed. The masonry gave way. Screams of terror filled the air. I wonder if there was any smoke; certainly there were great big clouds of dust permeating the atmosphere. But the blocks of stone fell, this way and that. To those passing nearby, the sky seemed like it was raining bricks. The lofty tower collapsed. No wonder the people screamed out. But the stones crashed to the ground in a hail of rock, and any denizens of first-century Jerusalem passing beneath were crushed.

And the only reason we know about it today is an almost off-hand comment of Jesus recounted by Luke. Jesus was in the midst of teaching. He publicly urged his disciples, in the midst of the crowd, not to live by way of anxiety; not to waste their time worrying about what to eat, what to wear, where their meals would come from; not to invest their energies in all these pursuits, but to focus on enthroning God as king in their lives and trusting his provision (Luke 12:22-31). But to do this, Jesus said, you have to stay ready for God to act. Don't be encumbered by the constant frenzy of activity in life, running to and fro to make sure all your needs are taken care of; no, think carefully whom you're really serving, and organize your life lightly, so you're equipped to spring into action as soon as the alarm sounds: “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning,” he says (Luke 12:35).

Jesus warns that a crisis is around the corner, a crisis that will send everyone into a frenzy: “I came to cast fire on the earth,” he tells them (Luke 12:49). And, turning his attention to all the onlookers who gathered round and eavesdropped on his instructions, he challenged them: If they know that clouds coming in from the sea are carrying rain, and if they know that wind blowing up from the desert is going to be hot – if they can link cause-and-effect in the weather, if they can figure out that smoke and heat are signs for fire, if they have the smarts to make those kinds of inferences on the earth and in the sky – then why can't they read the signs of the times? Why don't they put together the clues about how the world is shaping up (Luke 12:54-56)? And if the signs are pointing to a crisis around the corner, then why don't they get their affairs in order and settle their accounts, lest they suffer the full weight of all their debts (Luke 12:57-59)?

And when Jesus says that, some folks in the crowd pipe up with some input. They want to chat with Jesus about the latest tragedies coming across the Jerusalem news wire. Evidently, a group of men from Galilee had taken their families to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the temple – a fairly ordinary turn of events. But some investigation had to be taken – we don't know any of the circumstances – and things got out of hand. The hot-headed governor Pontius Pilate gave his soldiers permission to go poking around in the sacred temple precincts where the sacrifices were taking place – areas Gentiles were forbidden to go on pain of death – and amidst all the furor, the soldiers butchered some of the Galileans who only came to worship their God in peace (Luke 13:1).

Jesus addresses it, and he mentions in passing another piece from the local interest section of the daily paper: he talks about “those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them” (Luke 13:4). That was the day the mortar and masonry gave way. That was the day the bricks fell from the sky, and dust and screams filled the air. That was the day eighteen people in Jerusalem were crushed to death beneath the plummeting stonework of the Tower of Siloam.

We don't know anything more about it. It was just a local incident, something that poked into the news cycle for a week, maybe, and then was old hat. Other than the Gospel of Luke, no writer of the era records it for us; and Luke only gives us these couple of words. But what Jesus wants us to clearly know is that there was nothing special the Galileans in question had done to provoke Pilate's wrath, and there was nothing special those eighteen people had done to deserve death any more than the people who were just out of range and walked away unscathed in body. Those Galileans were not worse sinners than any other Galileans; those Jerusalemites were not in deeper debt than anybody else who lived in Jerusalem (Luke 13:2, 4).

The truth is that unaccountable tragedies strike. Houses and barns catch on fire. Buildings collapse. Cars crash. Trucks overturn. Hearts go haywire. Breathing gets impeded. In many cases, there's no one-to-one correlation when tragedy strikes. When a house catches fire, it's not the hand of God reaching down to punish the occupants. When the brakes go out on a car and it crashes, there's no deep spiritual dimension to the event, most of the time. That's just life in a world where we're all complicit in sin. And those who suffer in that way have no reason to say, “Why me? What did I do wrong?” The truth is that, while some of these are consequences of carelessness, they're not usually punishment. It's just the way our world works. Many of you read stories like this in the paper all the time, and some of you are on the scene yourselves.

But here's what I wonder. Here's why I wish Luke had more paper on hand when he composed his inspired history. He records the death toll and the cause of death, but that barely amounts to a headline. I wonder about the aftermath. When the tower collapsed at Siloam, when the stones fell and ended the stories of those eighteen people, I wonder if anybody besides those eighteen was injured but lived to tell the tale. I wonder if anybody was pinned and in need of assistance. And I wonder if they got it.

In Jerusalem that day, were there any folks who tried to dig survivors out of the rubble? When the clouds of dust filled the air, and children cried and men and women shrieked and turned tail, did Jerusalem have any selfless people who ran toward the crash, into the hail of rock, putting themselves into harm's way – like Jesus said, refusing to “fear those that kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (Luke 12:4)? When the Tower of Siloam fell, who was first on the scene? Who cleared away the rubble to recover bodies, check for life signs, give medical treatment to the wounded? Who cleaned up afterwards, when all the dust had settled and the shaken neighbors tried to resume life as usual?

On the days when towers of Siloam fall in our community – when buildings collapse, cars crash, bodies fail, buildings blaze – on all those days when unaccountable dangers intrude into our world, I'm glad we have people who do all those things. Who are willing to charge toward the rubble and the dust, the furor and the smoke. Who stay dressed for action and keep their lamps burning and their pagers on. Who take methodical care of the gear they'll need to be ready. Who are reliably there when emergency strikes, amidst any crisis that might lurk around the corner. Even this morning already, some have no doubt been called into action in medical emergencies and more. Thanks to their efforts, the Towers of Siloam that fall in Lancaster and Chester Counties rarely leave scars as deep on our community as that Tower of Siloam left on a Jerusalem neighborhood two thousand years ago.

In all this, they remind me of the one who told us about the Tower of Siloam in the first place: Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who acknowledges above in heavenly society all who acknowledge him here below in human society (Luke 12:8). Because Jesus Christ, this eternal Word of God, wasn't content to stay safe and sound in heavenly society. We were in trouble, and he saw us as “of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). And so his Father dispatched him to the earth, to take on flesh in a world on fire, a world in crisis. When our sin made a hazard out of the world and put our souls in jeopardy, Jesus Christ responded to the call. He came, he lived, he warned of the fire and the fall, he taught us the road map to spiritual safety. And then this Galilean offered himself as a sacrifice.

You see, when our souls were trapped in impending fire, he braved that fiery judgment; he plunged into our clouded condition on the cross, all so he could pluck us as a brand from the burning. And when Jesus had pulled us to safety, he breathed his life-giving Spirit into our breathless lungs. He shocked our dead hearts into the rhythm of heaven's beat. He bandaged our wounds with his righteous life. And he poured on them the medicinal wine of his resurrection joy. And for those rescued and resuscitated and restored by him, even now he attends to our recovery in this hospital he calls his church, his open arms of healing hospitality. He promises to rebuild all that's been charred and ruined in all the world, and in the meantime he recruits us to his rescue crew and sends us forth in his name.

And when he found us amidst the smoldering rubble, desperately in need of help, all he asked was that we turn away from burning and collapsing things and trust his outstretched hand reaching for us. To turn and no longer lean on the splintering wood of our dead works – that, he calls repentance. To trust in and surrender to his outstretched hand offered in rescue – that, he calls faith. And so it's no wonder, when he tells the story of the Tower of Siloam, that he cautions the crowd, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). Unless you get off the splintering wood, unless you dive out of the path of the crushing rocks, unless you evacuate into the arms of a Savior, a Rescuer, you'll be a casualty. Because none of the constructs of human society, none among all our Towers of Babel, are any more stable than Siloam's tower. Our lives were always meant to be about so much more (Luke 12:23). But “fear not, for you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Fear not: Jesus is on the scene. And the gospel, the good news, is but the siren of his nearness. Trust and obey!

If you're here this morning, and you realize that you're still leaning on anything that can one day burn or collapse – the food you eat or the clothes you wear or whatever you drive, the prayers you say or the language you speak, the good deeds you do, the lifestyle you live, the rules you live by, or anything of the sort, anything that could ever fail you, anything that can burn or collapse – if any of those are the things you're leaning on, and you have just now realized your need to trust only in the Savior's hand, I'd love to talk with you this morning after the service. Because I promise: he is here to rescue you, to revive you, to restore you, and to lead you to full health and safety in his kingdom. And whenever we grow faint, weak, and sick, he will be here to revive us again. Praise God for the Son of Man! And praise God, too, for all who imitate the Great Rescuer and stay ready to come to the rescue themselves, whether of property or of life, of body or of soul. Thank you. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Last Words for the Hopeful Living: Sermon on 1 Peter 5

September 20, 1866: “A lion killed a woman yesterday morning, and ate most of her undisturbed.” November 13: “A lion came last night and gave a growl or two on finding he could not get our meat: a man had lent us a hunting net to protect it...” The next day: “Lions sometimes enter huts by breaking through the roof.” December 13: “When we started this morning after rain, all the trees and grass dripping, a lion roared, but we did not see him.” January 28, 1867: “When at Molemba … afterwards, two men were killed by a lion...” July 17: “A lion roared very angrily at the village last night.” October 17, 1872: “Two lions growled savagely as we passed.” April 7, 1873: “A lion had wandered into this world of water and ant-hills, and roared night and morning, as if very much disgusted...”

Those passages all come from the diaries of David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer who famously spent most of his life in Africa, disappearing and then dying there. And Dr. Livingstone, one need not merely presume, knew for himself what it would be like to be attacked by a lion. In the 1840s, in what's today Botswana, he defended one village's herds and flocks against a lion and was very nearly killed for his trouble. The lion was wounded in the bushes, and yet it still rushed out faster than Dr. Livingstone could see, and – well, I'll let Dr. Livingstone tell you himself:

Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. … Besides crunching the bone into splinters, he left eleven teeth wounds on the upper part of my arm.

Dr. Livingstone would have been killed and devoured, he admitted, if not for the intervention of Mebalwe, an elderly African believer who rescued him. I can't help but imagine, though, that it was a traumatic experience for missionary and native alike. Have you ever seen a lion in the wild? Have you ever heard a wild lion roar – not on a video, not that sound effect at the start of some movies, but seen it with your own eyes in person? I have. Four years ago, I was over in Kenya. Between networking and serving local church leaders, they sent us on a safari. Near the end, we pulled up into the midst of a whole pride of lions – at least twenty of them. They were reclining in the shade, sticky and full. I could smell the gore of their buffalo prey in the bushes; one of the cubs was still finishing his meal. I was close enough to almost count the flies dotting their faces and sides.

I couldn't help but imagine what the experience would be like if they were awake and hungry and on the hunt. In retrospect, I think: that van didn't even succeed in keeping out the baboon; what chance would it really have stood against a hungry and persistent lion? And can you imagine what it would be like, friends, to stand alone on the savannah, with nowhere to run, and have the gaze of a lion locked on you, to hear its 114-decibel roar and see its muscular paws part ways with the ground as he leaps toward you, to glimpse the powerful jaws snarl and gape and the pitiless hunger in his eyes? I can almost imagine.

In any of the villages that Dr. Livingstone visited, surely one thing must certainly have held true: When a lion is in the neighborhood, it would be positively criminal to let anyone go unwarned. That's just not something you do. If there were a lion on the loose on the Welsh Mountain, and the local news wasn't covering it, you best bet word of mouth would! It would be antisocial to let a conversation end without making mention of it. And so, as he draws his letter to a close, Peter writes: “Be watchful! Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

It would have been positively criminal for Peter not to warn us. Friends, we may go through this life and think that everything is fine, everything is normal, everything is safe and ordinary, and it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. But the truth is, you have an adversary. We have an adversary – one who opposes us in the court of God and in the court of public opinion, who aims to prosecute us, who will resort to any slander, any accusation, any dirty trick to entrap us and make the case against us. And not only that, but this enemy of our souls, “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), is hungry and restless. His aim is not to let you walk out of this life in one piece. He is on the prowl, “going to and fro on the earth, and … walking up and down on it,” as we read in the Book of Job (Job 1:7).

Peter compares this adversary of ours, the devil, to a roaring lion. And this devil is a consumer – he aims to gulp you down, to swallow you whole, to devour you and leave only scraps and fragments and shards of bone in his wake. That is a serious thing! If you came home this afternoon to hear a lion roaring in your house, you would not come in, sit down on the couch, and turn on the TV! You would not recline in your chair to crochet or do a crossword puzzle! You would get out and run through the streets, or barricade yourself in a room, and call for help with trembling hands and quivering voice!

Brothers and sisters, Peter is telling us that we may well find that devilish lion prowling when we get home, prowling on the street, prowling at work, even prowling amidst the pews. And that lion is hungry. And that lion is fierce. He may often whisper like a serpent, but he also roars to shake your faith, and all he cares about is that, one way or another, even if he has to stalk for years at a time... you'll be called dinner sooner or later. As much as the world sometimes has trouble believing in the devil, or in any dark spiritual power lurking with predatory intent behind the scenes, it's the honest truth, and that's why Peter is warning us. This is no myth, discarded on the ash-heap of history; this is no mere cipher for the base component of the human ego. This is a crafty, wily enemy on the hunt, looking to eat up your joy, your life, your living hope, and kill it by paw or by jaw. “His craft and power are great / and, armed with cruel hate, / on earth is not his equal.”

So what, brothers and sisters, are we called upon to do? In Peter's last words to we hopeful believers who still live in this devil-prowled world of growls and roars and claws and fangs, he counsels us, first, to be watchful and attentive: “Be sober-minded, be watchful” (1 Peter 5:8). We are not to simply pretend the lion isn't there. We are not to deny his existence. Nor are we to obsess over him, to the point life crawls to a standstill. We are to continue on our mission, we are to keep raising up the lambs and keep receiving our food with thanksgiving and keep marching with purpose from place to place; but we are to keep an eye and an ear open, and stay alert.

This does not mean seeing the devil at work in every pitiful inconvenience – he isn't likely hiding your car keys or mismatching your socks! But it does mean being on the look-out for his angle of attack. Where in your life might he leap from, creep from? What hill hasn't been laid low, what valley hasn't been raised, what crooked path hasn't been made straight as a highway for our God (cf. Isaiah 40:3-4)? What dark leafy cover or tall grass have you left for him to slink in, instead of bringing everything out into the light of the gospel? And are you listening for the telltale signs of roaring in the distance?

And then, Peter says next: “Resist him, firm in the faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). But how do you resist a lion that's ready to attack? Peter tells us to be firm in the faith – stand your ground, and don't give way. Don't turn your back on the lion when he's charging. Stand your ground. And your ground is “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The same faith, the same doctrine, the same sacred promises in which generations of believers lived and died trusting in – stand firm and solid on that turf. Don't let the prowling devil catch you on shifting sand where you can't keep your footing, or buried up to your waist in the quicksand of false teaching or loveless legalism. You'll be easy prey if he catches you away from the Solid Rock who is Christ our Lord.

And then there's that word: 'resist.' How might you resist a lion on the loose? And there are really only a few ways to do it. As we hear the accounts by Dr. Livingstone, we find out about those ways. And first, we can try to protect our sustenance and stewardship where the lion can't reach. Remember this line from Livingstone's journal: “ A lion came last night and gave a growl or two on finding he could not get our meat: a man had lent us a hunting net to protect it and us from intruders of this sort”? And so, too, we can weave such a net with our prayers, crossed with God's answering grace. Have you been doing much weaving lately? Or have you been leaving things in your life exposed? Resist the devil!

But I didn't quote the whole story in that account. The lion was frustrated by the hunting net, but could still have done some damage. And yet, Dr. Livingstone writes, “The people kept up shouting for hours afterwards, in order to keep him away by the human voice.” And that's another way to resist a lion: by frightening him off. A lion isn't going to fear a single human voice; that's just one more squawk from something tasty. But the voice of a whole village in unison? Now that can make a lion think twice! And the same is true in things of the spirit. A lone Christian, praying and praising God, is not too likely to scare the devil off. But a whole community, loudly raising the strains of praise and making their voices heard in heaven and earth? Now that can frighten the devil away, if we keep on praising out loud together!

This is why it's so important for us “not to neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some” (cf. Hebrews 10:25). This is why you can't live the Christian life on your own, in your own home, with an evangelist on the TV and a song on the radio. None of that is loud enough to frighten off the predator stalking your soul! It isn't safe! Nor is it safe for you to deprive the rest of us of the volume your voice adds to our village choir. The more you stay away, not only are you putting yourself in greater danger, but you're reducing our safety, too. We need to all stay together, praising with one loud voice – “Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). Be like the disciples on Palm Sunday, when “the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Praise the Lord together – resist the devil!

But sometimes the lion may have you cut off and cornered. Sometimes the lion will catch you on the middle of the week, when you're alone and vulnerable. Sometimes the lion may get your arm in his jaws, and there's not a moment to spare. And Dr. Livingstone shows us the only other way to resist a lion: by outgunning him. The lion that attacked Dr. Livingstone – it was wounded because he'd managed to shoot it, even a glancing blow. And when it grabbed his arm and crunched his bones, the only reason it didn't kill him was that Mebalwe snatched up the shotgun and blasted the lion with both barrels. And even then, that very lion attacked Mebalwe and would have killed him, had it not dropped dead of its own injuries first.

When you have no choice but to square off with the lion, you'd better be armed, and you'd better not hesitate or fumble. And while we have no shotgun against the devil, you are equipped with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). You can see Jesus fending off the prowling devil with that sword in the wilderness. And while our aim not be quite as deft as our Lord's, still he's put the hilt in our hands. And every time we listen to sound preaching, we watch how to handle our blade. And every time we open up the scriptures and study them ourselves, we practice how to thrust and swing that sword. And believe you me, we'll need all the practice we can get so as to handle that sword well when the devil pounces.

Do you still have that sword strapped at your waist, at your back, in your heart? Or have you misfiled it somewhere, left it neglected? Have you been training to use this word-of-God sword responsibly? Or have you been hanging it on the wall, untouched; or perhaps hurting yourself by wielding it irresponsibly? You'll want to have it stored within reach and know how to use it if you're going to wield it to resist a prowling, pouncing devil dead-set on devouring you.

The devil can be resisted. You don't have to be devoured. You can weave a net of prayer, you can scare him off with the praise shouts of the whole church, and you can fight him with the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Still, though, it would be a bit depressing if Peter ended his letter on the mere note of readiness for battle. So Peter has more to tell us. He reminds us that the fight is not ours alone. We have no hope of killing the devil. You can fend him off, but you have no strength to slay him. “Did we in our own strength confide / our striving would be losing.”

And so Peter reminds us of this beautiful little phrase: “the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6). We don't have to merely confide in our own strength! Our striving need not be losing! We may have no strength to slay the lion, but God has a mighty hand, he is a mighty fortress, and the devil is not nearly so mighty as the mighty hand of our God! “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4)! We are not left alone in the fight. The hand of God has reached into our earthly history and our present plight with a name-tag labeled 'Jesus, Messiah, King of Glory.' And “who is this King of Glory? The LORD, strong and mighty; the LORD, mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8)! No wonder the psalmist prayed, “You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand” (Psalm 89:13). And so we join in his prayer: “O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver. … Arise, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies” (Psalm 7:1-2, 6).

You have a mighty God who is hardly daunted by this prowling lion! You have a Lord strong and mighty, a Lord mighty in battle, a Lord who rescues his people “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 11:2; 26:8)! This mighty hand of God will not let the lion prowl forever. And while we're still called to be watchful and vigilant, this God has got his church's back – “and he must win the battle!” So Peter tells us, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you; casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

The word for 'anxieties' there – maybe you've heard it phrase, “cast all your cares on him” – it means whatever is dividing you, or your attention, in pieces. All your distracting worries, all your dividing fears, all the worries and fears and concerns that pull you this way and that, that churn inside you and make you afraid and ill at ease – cast them on God, because he cares for you, he takes an interest in you. You are not a statistic to him. You are not a nameless casualty. You are his beloved child, “born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3), and your Father wants you home in his presence and his love, not out wasting your inheritance or eating pig slop or falling prey to the lion's clutches.

So all the distracting and dividing things that mask reality from your sight – all the things that keep you from watching out for the lion or looking toward the mighty hand of God – we're asked to cast them on him. The only other use of that verb in the New Testament is when Luke describes Palm Sunday, and the disciples hurl their cloaks over the donkey's back for Jesus to sit comfortably on top of. And when they did that, the cloaks no longer had anything to do with the disciples. They were not touching the disciples. They were not weighing the disciples down. The disciples were not getting tangled up in them. The cloaks' entire weight rested on the donkey's back. And God asks us to do the same with our anxieties and cares – to throw them at him, drape them over his fingers – he's big enough to hold them all. Don't try to lift up a corner of their weight. Cast your anxieties on God. He cares for you.

And then “humble yourselves … under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6). It is not yet the proper time for the lion to be caged in hell. It is not yet the proper time for the lion to be slain in the lake of fire. This is still the day of resistance. It is still the hour for nets and shouts and swords. We still have need to be on the look-out. And so, with assurance that both we and the prowling devil are under God's mighty hand, within God's power and subject to his will, keep being watchful, vigilant, alert – and stay humble, knowing that the lion roars against you.

That's a humbling thing. None of us have room for boasting. None of us can say we've got skin too tough for fangs to pierce. None of us can say we're too fast to be caught. None of us, old or young, can honestly say we have immunity. The shepherds and the flock alike have to be on their guard. And so Peter writes this note to the “elders,” the pastors and church leaders, and to the younger believers – to the shepherds and the lambs – and says many instructive things; but above all, his instruction for shepherds and flock alike is, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:1-5). So indeed, “humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6)! Be humble: none of us is safe alone. We need to watch each other's backs and mount a common defense against this lion on the prowl. Be humble: it's God's business to lift us up to glory; it ain't our job to exalt ourselves and have God's mighty hand work against us.

And God will indeed give grace to the humble and exalt you in the day of his victory. “After you have suffered a little while,” Peter writes, “the God of all grace, who has called you to eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). And the lion's roar can never gainsay it. God will raise you up from bones and meat, if he has to; God will set you firm on the Solid Rock; God will take your broken arms and give them strength and heal your bite marks; and God will establish you in eternal life and glory. Because there's no grace that doesn't scream his name! And his voice, louder than the lion's roar, has said, “Come up, have faith, follow my Son into glory that knows no end! Come up, come up, out of the lion's reach!” Indeed, “this is the true grace of God – stand firm in it” (1 Peter 5:12). “Resist [the devil, resist the lion], firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9).

So these are Peter's last words for those chosen even in the midst of Rome and Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). There's a lion let loose, so keep on your guard. Be on the look-out. Resist him with nets of prayer, songs of praise, and the sword of the Spirit. But this lion, this adversary, this devil, this prince of darkness grim – oh, tremble not for him. “For lo, his doom is sure,” under the mighty hand of God, whose roars of grace are calling us onward to eternal glory in Christ. So band together for the journey. “Greet one another with the kiss of love.” And let there be “peace to all of you who are in Christ” and so live with this hope that never disappoints (1 Peter 5:14). “To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:11).

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Hopeful Living Through Fiery Trials: Sermon on 1 Peter 4:12-19

For the lieutenant colonel, it had started like any other day at work. But it wasn't any other day. It was a day shy of sixteen years ago. And in his boss's office, he had just come from watching live coverage of a strange and tragic event: a second plane had struck those towers in New York. It was no accident, no malfunction. Lt. Col. Birdwell, heavy in heart as he thought about those tragic victims so many miles away, had slipped away and was returning to his own second-floor office. There was no warning – not until it was too late to react. Less than twenty yards away, the walls crumbled in a wave of fire; the force of the explosion hurled him to the ground. And a fireball consumed him. Disoriented and in agony, the lieutenant colonel tried to escape, but saw no way from the blaze. Thinking he was in his last moments, he thought of his wife and son, and then cried out, “Jesus... I'm coming to see you.” And he collapsed on the floor of the Pentagon.

Thanks to the fire sprinkler system and dozens of subsequent surgeries, September 11th wasn't the day the lieutenant colonel came face-to-face with Jesus. Those were not his last moments. But they were certainly moments, in the most literal sense, of a fiery trial. In a less literal way, they were for the entire nation. Attorney General Ashcroft used those exact words – “fiery trial” – for the whole season America endured in the wake of that horrid act of terror. But he was only quoting Abraham Lincoln, who'd said just such a thing in the early years of the Civil War. In a message to Congress in December 1862, President Lincoln urged that “we cannot escape history. … The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.” And so, quoting some of those words, John Ashcroft called 9/11 a “fiery trial.” He said about our present 'war on terror,' “May the fiery trial through which we now pass be of short endurance, and may our passage light us down in honor for generations of Americans to see.”

The truth is that there are a lot of trials in these days. And even more things we're prone to worry about here and there. There's natural disaster, of course. Over the past couple weeks, we've all had our eyes and ears fixed on Texas – watched footage from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey. Maybe you've sent funds or supplies. And now our attention has shifted to Hurricane Irma, which – after passing closely by a friend of mine in Haiti and running roughshod over Cuba in a weakened state – is now strong again and beginning to maul the southern tip of Florida as we speak. And then there are the wildfires out west – a friend of mine lives beneath its smoky haze. Until this past week, she said she hadn't seen a drop of rain since May.

All of us, I think, have some measure of concern for the people touched by those natural disasters. But those aren't the only trials on our minds. Over the past month, we've also been worried about violent strife, about divisions within our country, about the clashing protests that have, at times, seemed as though they might herald a new civil war on the horizon – I've heard more than one person express a concern over just that. But that seems to have quieted down – for the moment.

But what else? As we draw so near to the anniversary of the most lethal terrorist attack on American soil, we remember that, throughout these sixteen years, a great deal of American life, whether we admit it or not, has been lived in a state of nervous anticipation – all the more so in recent years, as news of terrorist incidents both here and in Europe, to say nothing of the Middle East or Africa, have become almost weekly or even daily news. And in a world like that, it's easy for us to think, “What will be next? Will it be someone I know? Will it be close? Will it be here in my backyard?”

But all that almost pales next to the latest big concern: a “fiery trial” of the nuclear variety, unleashed by the stubby finger of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It's actually very unlikely to happen, but... after so many threats with nuclear missiles, and after successfully testing a thermonuclear warhead a week ago... well, in this past week, I've had numerous people tell me directly that they're upset. They're dismayed. They're concerned. They're worried. They're out-and-out scared. I've overheard even more people saying the same things to each other. That's the pulse of our country – that's the pulse of our neighborhood. Maybe you feel the same way. Maybe, with everything that we remember this weekend and everything that's going on right now, and everything that doesn't seem as ludicrous as it used to – well, maybe you're upset, dismayed, concerned, worried, scared, just as much as the rest. After sixteen or more years of utter madness, it certainly feels like we're constantly at the edge of one fiery trial or another. Do you feel that way?

And so we wonder, in days like this: If a prophet or apostle of God were to step into our midst and counsel us; if he were to bring his words, as the very word of the Lord, to bear on our contemporary situation, and our very real hopes and very real fears – what would he say? If St. Peter came and took charge of this pulpit, how would he reassure us? How would he comfort us? How would he advise us to think, to feel, to act, to respond, in a world that seems like it's filled with one big fiery trial?

I don't think we have to wonder. Because in the passage before us today, Peter uses exactly that phrase: “fiery trial” (1 Peter 4:12). And I would like to suggest that he offers a seven-point plan of response that is perfectly relevant to the situation we are facing right now, or to the situation we worry we might be facing tomorrow or next week or somewhere down the road.

First, Peter might tell us, when a fiery trial bears down upon us, we should scrutinize the reason. We should engage in heavy reflection on what brought the fiery trial about. I say that because there are several general reasons that such sufferings enter into our lives. Peter himself says that it's possible that our suffering is as a consequence – proportionate or not – of our own actions and attitudes. That's not easy to hear, but it's what he says. He advises, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15).

That was the case, in a sense, in the Civil War. At least, President Lincoln thought so. Three months before that message to Congress, in a private note he jotted to himself, he meditated that God had purposes not grasped by either side of the conflict – that “God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” And a month before General Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln remarked in his Second Inaugural Address: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so must it still be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” President Lincoln did believe that, in that instance, the country suffered for having been evildoers.

Of course, it's also possible for suffering to enter our lives simply because we happen to be there. Suffering by simple proximity – what we might call, “Wrong place, wrong time.” That might well be the lieutenant colonel's story: he was just walking down the hall, on his way to do a job. But then he found himself in a plane's path: “Wrong place, wrong time.” He'd done nothing in particular, whether evil or good, to provoke it; he was just there.  That happens to us sometimes.

But it is possible for suffering to enter our lives for doing good. Think of the firefighters who charged into the World Trade Center as survivors rushed down the stairwells. They suffered, and indeed died, as a consequence of doing good. Or think of the Houston police officer, Sgt. Perez, who died while braving the floods to go aid the hurricane's victims. He suffered and died as a consequence of doing good.  (Two weeks from now, we'll be holding a special service to honor our local first responders.  If you know any of them personally, please do invite them.)

And it's also possible for suffering to enter our lives, not merely because we do good, but because we do good in Christ's name – because we are Christians. Peter explicitly holds out the possibility that someone would “suffer as a Christian” (1 Peter 4:16), or would at least be “insulted for the name of Christ” (1 Peter 4:14). Peter may have written this letter not long before the Emperor Nero, looking for a scapegoat for a fire in Rome, settled on Christians – and held mass executions. Decades later, a Roman historian wrote: “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired” – all in the emperor's own gardens, like a show at the circus. They suffered simply for bearing the name of Christ. So might we. When fiery trials come our way, Peter would call us: Be careful over why we suffer, because that matters.

Second, Peter might tell us, we shouldn't be surprised when fiery trials come our way. We shouldn't think of it as unusual. Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). We have this tendency, especially in this country, to imagine suffering to be some foreign intrusion into our lives – something that cries out for a special explanation. We look at the world around us, of terrorists and H-bombs and floods and earthquakes and fires, a world of wars and rumors of wars, and Peter asks us, “Why are you confused? Don't you see that this is what you should have been expecting all along? This isn't strange. This isn't inexplicable. This isn't foreign to your Christian experience. You were called to nothing less than such a time as this.” In the fiery trials, whether personal, regional, national, or global, don't be surprised. If you don't treat it as a surprise, you're less likely to fly into panic mode and get all worked up about it.

Third, Peter might tell us, we should view fiery trials, whatever the earthly motive, as having a divine purpose. He said it himself: “the fiery trial … comes upon you to test you (1 Peter 4:12). He's probably reflecting back on the prophecies of Zechariah, where God said: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land, declares the LORD, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, 'They are my people,' and they will say, 'The LORD is my God'” (Zechariah 13:7-9).

Did you catch that? That's where Peter finds the fiery trial. But what is the fiery trial for? To refine and to test. When fiery trials come our way, they serve two functions. On the one hand, they refine us. They're meant to burn away our impurities – all the excess baggage we've built up in life. And you've seen how it happens: when disaster strikes, all the petty feuds and nonsensical cares get exposed as irrelevant. That's what happened after 9/11. That's what happened in Texas in the floodwaters. Suddenly the divisions of politics and class and race were, for a while at least, burned away. The fiery trial refines. But the fiery trial also tests. It evaluates. You put gold in the fire to see how much heat it can stand, to know what grade of quality it is. When the fiery trial comes, you find out what kind of quality you really have. How much of the heat can you stand? But if you look at the fiery trial as having these purposes, it takes away the senselessness and gives you back a sense of purpose in the midst of it. Like Peter said earlier in his letter: “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” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Fourth, Peter might tell us, if fiery trials can come from our evil or our good, and if fiery trials are here to purify and test us, then the most central action called for is repentance. When people mentioned some tragic disasters to Jesus, he denied that those killed were worse sinners than their neighbors; but Jesus followed that up with the message, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). And Peter says, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if the righteous are scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18). The truth is that, when the hurricane's at your door, there's no time left to fool around. When the planes or the nukes are already falling, it's too late. We talked last Sunday about how to live when the end might be at hand – as it is for any one of us every day. But in a world of fiery trials, it's all the more imperative. If you are really concerned about the prospects of civil war, rampant terrorism, nuclear crisis, natural disaster, you won't waste time. You'll expend every effort to cultivate a healthy relationship with the Jesus you might be soon on your way to go see. He died and rose to take your guilt and shame away. Judgment still begins with the household of God – but the fire will be a lot hotter beyond it. In the wake of his own fiery trial, Lt. Col. Birdwell – now a state senator in Texas – said, “I did not enjoy... the day of having the finality of my life in front of me, in darkness, burning. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have God Almighty tell you, 'Depart from me, I never knew you.'” If you really take seriously the things you hear in the news and shake your head at, don't make excuses for delaying your growth in grace by attending to prayer and fellowship.

Fifth, Peter might tell us, we can celebrate in the face of the fiery trial. The fiery trial is not a reason to lose hope; it's a reason to have more hope! I know that sounds weird. Why would a hurricane make you even more optimistic? How could the prospect of nuclear war or terrorism or persecution ever be an encouragement? But let's hear the apostle out. He writes, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13-14). This is mostly focused on persecution – suffering explicitly for following Jesus. But I'd suggest that any suffering can be Christian suffering if borne with Christ's mindset, for Christ's sake, and with an eye on Christ's cross. After all, we're his body; he shares in what we suffer, and our suffering is transformed into sharing his suffering. If your suffering is fellowship with Jesus, as ours will be, then it is a cause for rejoicing; it brings us closer to him and to his glory. When it purifies us, it makes us more like him. When it tests us, it reveals the presence of his Spirit resting upon us. So in that way, suffering can become a blessing for us. That's not to say we should seek it out or provoke it; we shouldn't. It's also not to say we shouldn't relieve suffering when we see others passing through it; we should. But it is to say that, if we view the fiery trial the right way, it can be viewed as something that blesses us and therefore is cause for joy and hope. If terrorists strike at us, we share in Christ's sufferings and reveal his Spirit, and that yields hope. If Kim Jong-un fires missiles our way, we share in Christ's sufferings and reveal his Spirit – so rejoice in the fiery trial. And in what you rejoice over, you're more likely to obey Christ's constant command, “Fear not.”

Sixth, Peter might tell us, leave things in God's hands. Trust that he knows what he's doing. Trust that he hasn't turned against you to tear you down. Trust that, even when the worst-case scenario is on the horizon, if he lets it fall your way, it cannot kill a soul that's in his safekeeping: you “by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Peter tells us, at the end of the chapter here: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19). And that's the honest-to-God truth. No matter what madmen seem to run the scene, you have a faithful Creator. No matter what crumbles or burns or falls, you have a faithful Creator. No matter whether the earth quakes or the winds rage or the fires blaze, you have a faithful Creator! And you can trust him to either deliver you from the fiery trial or to keep you through the fiery trial.

It's like what Daniel's three friends said when threatened with a Babylonian furnace: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18). They knew that, no matter whether God rescued them out or held them through, he would prove himself to be their faithful Creator – the God whom they served. The same God whom we're here to worship this morning. In days of fiery trial, entrust your souls, your whole selves, to the God who made you – and know that, no matter what he permits to come your way, he is faithful and good – so put your faith in, and be faithful to, this Faithful One.

Finally, Peter might tell us, respond to the fiery trial not with fear but with virtue. He finishes the passage by telling us: “Entrust your souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (1 Peter 4:19). When your neighbor is in a fiery trial, lend every helping hand you've got. When you're in a fiery trial, fight fire with love. When you wonder what fiery trial is next, when you feel paralyzed by the possibilities, when you're feeling discouraged and frightened, don't slow down. Having placed your faith securely in a faithful Creator, pour out everything you've got in works of love. Martin Luther once remarked that, as Christians, “We have no other reason for living on earth than to be of help to others. … Since we are still living here, we should do for our neighbor as God has done for us, and give ourselves to him as God has given himself to us.” Entrust yourself to God, and then be free to give yourself away in love... even when the trial burns hottest.

Reflect. Don't be surprised. Count it as a refinement and a test. Repent. Rejoice. Trust God. Do good. That's Peter's seven-point plan for facing fiery trials. Some of the ones we're worried about may never come to pass. Others might – and God will be with us in the flood or the fire. When everything shakes, we stand on a Solid Rock that cannot be drowned and live by amazing grace. Don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed. These days have their challenges, but so has every age. Fiery trials may well come – and may God preserve us from any we don't need. But may he sustain us through ones that do come, and give us his perfect love to cast out all our fears, all our grumbling, all our worries. As we reverently remember what's past, let's also look beyond what's to come, toward the salvation that's ready and waiting to be revealed in full. Thanks be to God, who through his Son gives us a victory of faith that overcomes the world and all its fiery trials – so that we can maintain our living hope. Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Hopeful Living Toward the End: Sermon on 1 Peter 4:1-11

He was the oldest Christian in the room. And it wasn't a room he especially wanted to be in. He, and not a few of his neighbors and friends, had been summoned there quite against their will. The still-new provincial governor, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, appointed by the Emperor Trajan himself, had arrived in town a few weeks ago; he'd been making his rounds to inspect all the province's cities, first in Bithynia and now in Pontus. And here in Amisos, a “free and confederate” commercial port town on the southern coast of the Black Sea, he'd granted an exception to his general edict against all clubs and associations. But there remained the question, then, of a more troubling kind of association, in his eyes – a foreign cult called “the Christians.”

The old man, standing to face trial, wasn't wholly sure about the sequence of events that led up to this. He'd heard that the local butchers had been making plenty of noise about how Christians were so bad for business – the more people converted, the fewer animals were being sold for sacrifices, and the less demand there was for their services. The butchers told all sorts of stories, unseemly rumors about what Christians must really do at their secret gatherings in the dark early hours of morning and the dim hours of evening. The local magistrates pressed the issue on Governor Plinius. One band of believers had already been dispatched. And now, more recently, someone – no one knew who – had started passing around a pamphlet accusing a bunch of other people of being members of this nefarious cult. The old man had seen the pamphlet. Halfway down, he'd read his own name, plain as day.

So here he was. And here the rest of the named folks were. The elderly believer listened as Governor Plinius interrogated them all, one by one. A few of those in the crowd insisted they were there by mere accident: they'd never been adherents of this “absurd and extravagant superstition” at all. They denied all charges. The writer of the list had simply been mistaken. There were others in the crowd – some of them the old man recognized – who admitted they had flirted with the cult long before. They'd joined it once, thinking it might be of some use in their lives to try out this Christian thing, to get up before dawn to sing hymns to this newfangled god called 'Christ' and make sacred pledges of virtue, and then join again at night for a harmless meal together. But they'd found it too dull, too demanding, and so dissatisfaction led them to drop out – some as many as 25 years ago!

The governor looked skeptical. He ordered his guards to bring near some statues of Caesar and the gods of Rome, and a bowl of incense. He told them all that anyone who denied the charge of being a Christian would have to demonstrate it by doing the things he'd heard a Christian couldn't do: offer a pinch of incense in sacrifice to the gods, and then curse the name of Christ, and they'd be free to go. Governor Pliny explained, as patiently as he could, that he didn't want to risk the reorganization of this superstitious cult after he left town. And for those who insisted over and over again that they were Christians and refused to obey his command to worship – well, the governor said he'd give them three chances to repent of their Christianity. And those who wouldn't repent – and there were quite a few of those in the crowd – had one clear fate: The Roman citizens would be shipped to the capital for trial, but the rest would be promptly put to death for sheer stubbornness.

One by one, the accused were interrogated. Tears trickled down the old man's cheeks as he watched – he heard some in the room – even a few who'd been by his side just this past Sunday to celebrate Christ – blaspheme the name God set above every other name, the only name that brings salvation. And his heart was warmed – and pounding fast – as he listened to others continue to confess the faith, though faced with deadly threats. And the old man knew, as the governor's attention crept slowly in his direction, that the end had drawn near – the end of his good conscience in Christ, if he gave in, or the end of his earthly sojourn, if he held fast to the faith.

The older Christian closed his eyes, tuning out the voices around him, the back-and-forth of the governor with the rest of the defendants. He turned his attention instead to one of his most cherished memories, almost fifty years before. He'd been in his mid-twenties then, newly married to his now-late bride (whom he missed dearly) and with a bundle of joy just weeks old. The three of them had gathered one Sunday evening into her father's home, alongside the few other Christians in their neighborhood in Amisos, and been surprised to find a guest was welcomed there. The man had traveled with a letter penned in Rome. It had been written to them – written to him, the then-young man had felt – by Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ himself! Oh, what it was like to hear the words of that letter for the very first time, fresh of the boat, while the ink was practically still wet! To know that the apostle had been thinking of him, praying for him and his bride and his little one!

Reminiscing, he meditated on hearing the messenger read the letter aloud to the little church gathered around the table. He recalled how the messenger intoned phrases like “born again to a living hope” – beautiful words! He'd heard freshly about “the precious blood of Christ” – how dear! He'd heard he was a living stone in God's own spiritual house – he was a building block in a holy temple, and he was a member of the priesthood! Wow! He'd heard the messenger explain the apostles advice on being subject to the governors whom the emperor sent out “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14) – was that why Pliny was here now, in the present autumn of 112 AD? Certainly, he'd unknowingly praised a few Christians when he'd read inscriptions about their benefactions to the city.

The older man opened his eyes – the interrogation was drawing closer. He shut them again and retreated back to that memory. He remembered vividly how he felt, hearing the messenger read the apostle's words to wives and then to husbands – remembered the apostle's directions for him to show honor and respect to his wife as a fellow heir of the grace of life, a spiritual equal. That had made him blush, remembering his first marital spat; he glanced at his bride and mouthed an apology across the room. They listened together to the apostle's counsel to set apart Christ as holy in their hearts, and to give no thought to fear amidst their sufferings.

And then came those next words, floating before his mind in memory – the same words we're here to hear this morning: “Since, therefore, Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same mindset, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1-2). Those words were every bit as true for the older man in the year 112 as they were when Peter wrote them; and they're equally true in the year of our Lord 2017. And the truth is this: Jesus Christ suffered in the flesh for us. He suffered in the flesh for you. He suffered first of all on every day of his earthly life, no doubt – from hunger, from thirst, from stress, from sickness and pain. He didn't have to be here, didn't have to come down. But he came into a painful world to be with us.

And then he went further – to the cross. And there, the Lord Jesus Christ suffered in the flesh for you, in ways we can't even imagine – not just the pain, not just the bleeding and the strain and the piercing and the suffocating, but the dreadful shame and weakness. What kind of mindset did Jesus have to deploy to face it? What kind of mindset did he confirm himself in when praying in Gethsemane in full knowledge of what the next twenty-four hours would bring? “Not my will, but your will be done,” he prayed (Luke 22:42). And Peter says, “Arm yourselves with the same mindset” (1 Peter 4:1). This life includes plenty of suffering. I know, for my part, I don't much care for those bits. But there they are. And Peter tells us that, when we're suffering, at least we're not out there sinning and committing crimes! So we should focus on the perks of our suffering: they grant us an opportunity to confront our desires, our “human passions,” and to pray like Jesus prayed, adopting God's will in preference to our own: “to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2). Friends, when you face a difficult situation – when you're pained, when you're tempted, when you're stressed out and at the end of your rope, look at it this way: as you push through, if you arm yourselves with Jesus' mindset, then you're living not for your own desires but for God's will. Do that.

Peter went on to say, in that letter of his: “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this, they are surprised” – they think it unusual, even a foreign intrusion in your life – “when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they blaspheme you” (1 Peter 4:3-4). That's Peter trying his hand at cultural commentary. It's also the word of God to us. See, Peter is criticizing what, for the rest of society, had become just normal life. Sensuality and desire – normal life. Bubbling over with wine at parties – normal life. Offering a pinch of incense to the spirits in your home, or to Caesar's statue at a civic festival – that was normal life in those days. Those who were baptized into the body of Christ, though, considered “normal life” to be a thing of the past. They withdrew from their involvement in it, stood back from what seemed a matter of course to their neighbors. As a result, they'd have to start turning down their neighbors' and friends' invitations to go to these parties, celebrate these festivals, participate in what Peter calls this “flood of debauchery.” Consequently, people were offended. People were offended because this whole “Jesus thing” exposed their 'normal' as a lesser way. And in their offense, they'd blaspheme their former friend who'd begun living a Christian life. The older man on trial before Governor Pliny knew that all too well.

But we might know it, too. See, in our own time, plenty of these same things have become 're-normalized,' and then some. Spend a day watching the latest sitcoms and dramas, and take some notes on what behaviors are accepted there as 'normal life' – sensuality, passions, drunkenness... it all starts to sound familiar. Or take a look at our culture's taboos: the things it's suddenly socially unacceptable to say, and indeed the other things it's now becoming mandatory to say – about free sexual ethics, or the irrelevance of biology to 'gender identity,' and plenty more. For much of the Western world, that's now the new 'normal,' the new way of the Gentiles.

But that's not all. What else is normal? Working forty, fifty hours a week, draining ourselves of life for the sake of dollars? That's pretty normal. Putting ourselves first – whether us as individuals, our families, or our nation? That's pretty normal. Returning put-down for put-down? That's pretty normal. Worrying about how to make ends meet, running to and fro after food, clothing, bills, vacations? Pretty normal. Priding ourselves on not getting too intellectually deep? In American culture, that's pretty normal. Certain attitudes of extreme reverence, almost religious devotion, toward the banners and emblems of our national religion? In some sections, those are pretty normal. Elevating “common sense” to the fifth Gospel? That's pretty normal around here, too. And individualism – stressing our rights ahead of our obligations – and plenty of other elements of the standard American credo? Again, pretty normal. Maybe a lot of that is normal even for us.

Peter tells us to put 'normal' behind us – to get in on a life that seems absurd, seems abnormal, but is in reality a comprehensive new lifestyle in Christ. But when we don't join in on 'normal,' we stand out. We get called out. We may find ourselves excluded, scoffed at, even insulted, maligned, blasphemed. But Peter points out that it's when people get caught up in the normal, in the here-and-now, in the latest trends and cultural commonplaces, so much so they're unsettled by our intrusions of abnormality – well, the people caught up in the normal are missing out on how they'll be held to account on a day that ain't so far off. Normal isn't normal forever. What seems common sense will fall by the wayside with the changing currents of culture, the upheavals of history – or its conclusion. What people are missing is this: “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7).

What exactly Peter means by that has been a long-debated controversy. I'm not really going to get into that in the cosmic sense this morning. But he says it on the heels of making a reference to how Christ is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Peter doesn't say that Christ will eventually judge the living and the dead, once he reaches it on his to-do list, once he figures out where he filed those records, once he psyches himself up for it, once he gets around to it. No, Peter says that Christ, who already died and already rose, is ready to judge. The end of all things – their completion, their final turn – is close at hand already. It was then, and it still is. And we just don't know. We don't know when normal will be decisively unmasked.

But here's the thing. Whether “the end” in general is tomorrow or next year or next century, it's still plenty near for us – and you might face it sooner than you think. Some of us here are, statistically speaking, into the latter third of your earthly pilgrimage. And as you deal with the way fleshly bodies react when they've been in continuous use for a while, that provokes a realization: the end may be drawing too near for comfort. Some of our number are in nursing homes – the end is near. Others aren't – the end is still near. Even for a relatively young person like me – the end is still near. Not a one of us here has any guarantees that we'll still be sticking around by next Sunday.

Later this month, we'll mark a year since a young man from one of our church families abruptly found that the end of his earthly pilgrimage had come. He didn't get up that morning and think that it would be his last race in this old creation – but it was. And, as I mentioned, two weeks ago my twenty-year-old niece died on a hike in Colorado. When she and her friends set out that preceding morning, surely none of them realized that the end of her earthly journey had arrived – but it had. Our ignorance of the time of the end, be it the end in general or our personal encounter with the end, is no defense against it, nor does it delay it even one hour.

And that's significant. Peter explains to believers that what their critics, detractors, and accusers – those living in slavery to what's normal – don't realize is that “they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that, although judged according to men in the flesh, they might live according to God in the Spirit” (1 Peter 4:5-6). When we hear of a tragic death, when someone we know passes away, when we confront our own mortality, we might wonder if there's any point to this life, especially if this life happens to be so short. We might wonder if the gospel offers any hope, if those who hear and believe it just go the way of all flesh. Peter wants us to know that the gospel was preached to those who have since then died, and not without fruit: even though they received the same fate common to all Adam's children, they are bound in yet closer unity to God's Spirit, and that's life. But whatever awaits us, it's coming. And when the end comes for any given one of us, we'll stand before a Judge to render an account. So with that in mind, Peter warns us that there's a definite shape that Christian hope takes when it turns toward the end, which all of us should and many of us must keep in mind.

So how exactly are we supposed to prepare for the end? Do we walk around with sandwich boards, ringing our bells, shouting out, “Repent, the end is nigh”? That's not what Peter says. Here's his advice on how to be ready for the One who's ready for you. First, pray. Spend a lot of time in prayer. It's some of the least wasteful time you'll spend. True, praying a lot, praying in all circumstances, praying for everybody – that's not normal. Well, good. Normal doesn't pan out so well in the end anyway. So pray. And to pray well, Peter says, you'll need to be “self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). “Self-controlled” – that's the opposite of impulsive, the opposite of shooting from the hip, the opposite of indulging in our desires and overly treating ourselves. “Sober-minded” – that's the opposite of the world's parties. It's just not normal. Good. If you want to be well-equipped to live a hopeful life toward the approaching end, that's the first thing you have to do: Put away those things of the past; don't live in the past, in memories of excitement gone by; but instead, live in the present and unto the future by prayer. As the end approaches, make prayer one of your chief activities.

Second, there's hospitality. “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). Again, that's really not normal. Ours is an individualistic age: you have your space, I have mine, and while we might from time to time have to interact a bit on the edges – or, heaven forbid, intrude into one another's bubbles – it's a temporary imposition to be resented and ended as soon as possible. Hospitality has no place in the new normal. And yet there it is. Hospitality – the word Peter uses for it means loving foreigners, loving strangers, loving guests, loving those abnormal intrusions into our lives – is the abnormal second nature to abnormal people. Can we really learn to love intrusions, love disruptions, love impositions, and not even mutter or grumble or complain about it? Peter says we can – and it's all the more important as we near the end. Many of you have plenty of space and time, and not quite as many people to fill it. Peter might advise you to take initiative, to extend invitations, to offer that extra space and extra time to guests.

Third, there's love. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since 'love covers a multitude of sins'” (1 Peter 4:8). Again, not normal. In our culture, sure, we talk a lot about love. You've seen the trite sloganeering: “Love trumps hate.” You've heard the songs: “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.” All well and good, but love is a radical thing. It's not just a kind and warm feeling of acceptance. It's a firm disposition to seek the good welfare of others, even at a high cost – as Jesus illustrated, even at the highest cost. Love like that – love that's fervent, earnest, stretched out – is not people's default setting. It's not normal. But it can win people back from a life of sin. And if the end draws near and your time is short, wouldn't it be all the more precious, all the more pressing, to love like that and gain one or two final victories? Who slows down as they approach the finish line? Don't runners often try to expend all their energy to gain those last added seconds? Why don't we approach life like that? Peter advises that we approach love like that: when the finish line's in sight, pull out all the stops.

Fourth, there's stewardship. That's a funny word: It usually referred to household management, what we used to study in school in that class called “Home Economics.” Peter tells us to give it a whirl when it comes to being skillful administrators of the gifts God has given us. “As each has received a gift,” he says. He doesn't say, “As some have received a gift.” If you're a Christian, you have a spiritual gift. There's no such thing as an ungifted Christian. No matter your personality type, no matter your age, no matter your quality of health or level of mobility, you were given a gift. And it came with instructions that said, “Use this to build up my people.” That's why it's so important to stay plugged in to the Christian community, to the church. Intentionally holding back is bad stewardship. But, it's true, a few of our number are legitimately shut-in – maybe not quite as many as think they are – and that's when hospitality becomes even more important, so you can better exercise your gift. But no matter if you're fit and able-bodied, or if you're a shut-in, or if you're in a nursing home; no matter if you're an extrovert or an introvert; no matter all that – you have a gift.

And Peter says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Hey, didn't I tell you it came with instructions? Use it to serve one another. Use it to build up God's people. Peter says nothing about using it for profit, or using it for self-improvement, or using it to help around the house. Peter does say, “Use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace” – his motley grace for a motley crew. No matter how old or young you are, you can do that. Don't embezzle the blessings that were meant to flow through you to other people! You'll be more blessed if you steward your gift wisely. If your gift involves speaking, Peter says, whether that means preaching or offering words of counsel and encouragement, then do it as somebody speaking the very words of God – speak with all the care and panache as if you were dictating a sixty-seventh book of the Bible. And if your gift involves more labor with your hands, then render it as an act of service, “as one who serves by the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11).

And finally, Peter tells us, we're to “live the rest of the time in the flesh … for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2), “in order that, in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ: to him belong glory and dominion forever and ever” (1 Peter 4:11). None of us knows how much time he or she's got left before the end catches up to us. It could be years, even decades. It could be months, weeks, hours. Be prepared for the end, and what comes after the end, by living the rest of the time you've got left for God's will, to glorify God through Jesus in all the things you say and do, in all the circumstances of your life. That goes for whether you race motorcycles, hike in the mountains, sit in a nursing home, dine with family, run a business, or stand trial for your faith.

Whatever you do in that time: Is it just normal? Or is it the will of God? Is it mundane? Or does it glorify God through Jesus Christ? Is it routine? Or is it prepping you to face the One who died and rose and is ready to return to judge the living and the dead? Are you ready? Are you living the remainder of your time in a way that will make you ready? The old man who stood before Governor Pliny – men and women like that lived so as to be ready for the end. Don't let the end catch you unprepared. Don't let it catch you caught up in what's normal. Glorify God in Jesus. “To him belong glory and dominion, forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).