Sunday, July 30, 2017

Living Out a Living Hope: Sermon on 1 Peter 1:6-25

The boy had a thousand miles yet to go. His whole world had been turned upside-down... when the guns came, and the bombs came. Like Fr. Balakian whom we met last week, the boy had to escape what sounded like sure death – though in the journey ahead, the boy was less sure of finding Fr. Balakian's “indestructible hope of salvation.” The boy missed his father. He missed his mother. He missed his little brother and his sisters. He and the others did their best to move only by night. During the day, the sun overhead was just too hot to be safe. And the soldiers might see them. Without shoes or supplies, they trudged through the bush, the grasslands, the desert, the swamps and rivers; braved crocodiles and lions and serpents; wandered through the territories of tribes who survived only by kidnapping the unwary; and the survivors withstood disease and deprivation as thousands fell before and behind them. But though the journey was filled with predators and soldiers and enemies, and though they could travel only by night, and though they seldom could settle anywhere for long, still the boy and thousands of other men, women, and especially children marched on. And he said:

We roamed the desert for forty days from Sudan to Ethiopia with no food to eat and no water to drink. We still experienced God's grace and blessings as he sustained us through very dire circumstances. Despite our strenuous circumstances, we did experience God's marvelous grace in ways that were beyond measure. He protected us from several tribal groups that were all out to steal what little resources we had, and he protected us from others who were determined to kill us all. Though many of us were killed and we were constantly facing attack, God provided the rest of us with shelter, sometimes in a refugee camp or in the bush, and he graciously provided us with songs in the midst of our sorrows.

Those are the words of my friend Jacob – who was that little boy walking the wilderness by night. You can learn a bit more about his story, and his ministry of Africa Sunrise Communities, in the upcoming month's church newsletter. Looking back on those first months after he fled the powers of death that came to his village, Jacob sees the link between his experiences and those of another group of men, women, and children who wandered through the desert and braved serpents and hostile tribes as they fled the powers of death in Egypt. The Israelites of the exodus generation, at least, had had plenty of time to prepare! And they prepared through a ritual called the Passover, a meal with an unblemished lamb sacrificed to save them by its blood (Exodus 12:5), whose meat they were to eat with their loins girded to go (Exodus 12:11). And when their deliverance came and they escaped the powers of death that were descending upon them, they praised their God for having redeemed them and led them (Exodus 15:13). In return, out in the desert, this God led them, established a covenant between him and them, and insisted on their holiness for the long journey to their destination: their inheritance, the land of promise.

Sound familiar? It should – and not only from the pages of Exodus and Leviticus. It should sound familiar also because the Apostle Peter, whose letter we started reading together last week, sees his hearers – and us today – as on a similar journey. The journey begins, he says, with an unblemished Passover Lamb whose blood saves us. Only Peter says that the real deal is no mere livestock one might barter or trade for currency or favor: no, our ransom, our redemption, came “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Our journey begins with nothing less than the death of Jesus, whose perfection takes the place of the lamb. And like the lamb's blood protected the Israelites from the Angel of Death, so Jesus' precious blood – more valuable and imperishable than silver or gold or cattle or any costly thing – is what redeems us. That word means 'bought back' or 'set free,' loosed from the chains of slavery and returned to original ownership. And that is exactly how our journey starts. Like the exodus people, we have been redeemed! (How we love to proclaim it!) And it's all thanks to the “precious blood of Christ.”

But unlike the many Passover lambs sacrificed for each household in those days, the one perfect Passover Lamb for us all didn't stay dead. Peter tells us: “God … raised him from the dead and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21) – and because of this resurrection, our faith is made possible. Through Jesus, who was made manifest in our last days for our sake, Peter says, we are made able to believe in God in a new way. We have experienced his power, his goodness, for ourselves. Everything the old Passover and old Exodus foreshadowed, is precisely our journey.

Peter explains that even the angels of God in heaven are curious about the mysteries that have been unfolding in and around us, and the prophets of old tried their very best to puzzle out the things we've experienced firsthand – but what they predicted from afar through the Spirit has been announced to us in the gospel by the same Spirit from heaven, because the ancient prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, and all the rest – they were only serving us (1 Peter 1:10-12). Jesus Christ, foreknown before the foundation of the world, was finally made manifest for us, for our sake (1 Peter 1:20). It was for us that it finally happened – for you, these things over which prophets puzzled and angels yearned.

That's what set off our new exodus journey. Things are different now. Before our redemption, we were in a bad place. Peter tells us that. We may have thought things were fine, but we see it now. Peter describes our past as a state of slavery to “the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). At one time, we were ignorant – we didn't know God, didn't know the truth, had not yet tasted and seen for ourselves. We were wrapped up in our desires for things that just weren't good for us.

Peter talks also about “the futile ways inherited from your fathers” (1 Peter 1:18). That's a bold way to talk in a world where tradition was everything! But it's the truth. My friend Jacob tells in his memoir about how, when the people of his tribe become believers, they are “set free from the tribal rituals and the powers of their evil spirits through Jesus Christ, who cleanses us from all our sins and makes us holy in God's sight,” giving them “fellowship with God rather than with our ancestral spirits and customs.” But the same is true for us. We, too, have plenty of customs – especially those of us who are Pennsylvania Dutch! And some of those customs are fine things! But when they become an encompassing way of life, they can weigh us down when the journey requires us to pack light.

And not every custom or tradition is good. Especially those that entangle us with the spirits of the past. We may not have rituals geared around reverencing the literal spirits of our ancestors, but we do tend to cling to tradition – to the way things used to be, the music that once was, the influences that went before us. Again, not always and universally bad, but when it weighs us down for the journey or detracts from the sole glory of God in Christ, that's a problem. And whether we've inherited them or forged them on our own, some of our pre-Christian or extra-Christian or anti-Christian habits are indeed “futile ways” – they're pointless, they're fruitless, they're empty, they achieve nothing of value for us. Rely on them, cling to them, and you'll stumble and fall and be devoured.

Now, Peter says, we've been “born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). We aren't the people we used to be – so it's silly to live like we are, to say the least! We have been re-begotten, born all over again, built from new stuff. Peter calls it being “born again, not of perishable seed but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God,” which unlike all fleshly and mortal things “remains forever. And this, moreover, is the word that was evangelized to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25). The very gospel we heard, the good news about our redemption through the precious blood of Christ – that's the stuff we're made of now. If we're made out of gospel stuff now, how could we ever live the same? How could we ever go back to pointless paths handed down or to the passions of former ignorance? We're on a journey – not to refuge in Ethiopia or Kenya or America, not to the earthly land of Canaan, but to the greater promised land of the new creation, “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” (1 Peter 1:4-5).

There's no sense in trying to turn back the clock – not to go back to Egypt, or the war zone, or the futile ways we inherited. Only death lies that way. We must keep marching on toward our inheritance. We must stay sure and confident of the salvation that will be revealed. It's already ready, hidden behind the veil with Christ; all that remains is the unveiling. In the meantime, when it comes to living out our “living hope,” we can't afford to go without supplies – not outward clothes and tools and provisions, but the six spiritual supplies Peter sketches for our journey.

First, as should come to no one's surprise, is hope itself. The entire Christian life is summed up in hope! But it's also our first supply. For Peter, what it means to be a believer, what it means to have an active relationship with God, means that “your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:21). Our hope is not in ourselves. Our hope is not in our inner strength. Our hope is not in our works. Our hope is not in what we earn. Our hope is not in the changing winds of political fortunes or in the economy getting a pick-me-up. Our hope is not in our family, or our hobbies, or in keeping busy, or in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, or in retirement or vacation or the lottery or anything else. Our hope is in God – period, full stop, end of sentence, no more need be said. To whatever extent your hope is anchored elsewhere, to that extent you're holding back from being a full believer.

Peter insists: “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13) – a grace we've nibbled on here and now and found it amazingly satisfying, but which we'll find so much fuller on that day. That is where our hope must lie completely – we need to be all-in. To that end, Peter tells us, “gird up the loins of your mind and be sober-minded” – that's a description of what has to happen for us to set our hope fully on God's grace in Christ. Gird up your loins – that's what the Israelites had to do when they ate the Passover meal (Exodus 12:11). It means having the hem of your robe tucked into your belt so you're ready to run, ready to work. Today, we might just as well talk about rolling up the sleeves of your brain. Be equipped to think clearly; don't be distracted or weighed down when everything's on the line – because it is. Only by thinking clearly, only with conscious effort and reason, can we strip away our encumbrances and set our hope fully on the God who unveils himself as grace. And that hope is the first supply you need for this trip.

The second supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is purity. He talks about “having purified your souls,” and about the importance of a “pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). In today's culture, 'purity' can almost be a bad word at times. And we've played our part in giving purity a bad name. But to be pure is simply to be clean; purity is cleanliness – not necessarily in the modern hygienic sense, but in a deeper sense. A pure heart is what it takes to see God (Matthew 5:8; cf. Psalm 24:4). “Truly God is good to … those who are pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1), to anyone “who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:4). That's what purity of heart and soul begins with – avoiding idolatry, even the subtle kind, and not entangling ourselves with deceit or falsehood of any sort – including the idolatrous untruthfulness that stems from ingratitude (Romans 1:21).

But Proverbs asks us, “Who can say, 'I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin'?” (Proverbs 20:9). Perfect purity is not within our unaided reach – it's a gift of God's grace, but one we need to cultivate and maintain for our journey to a pure inheritance. As we go, we need to keep our hearts clean from compromise with untruth. That doesn't mean being a zealot or bigot or dogmatist; it means being loyal to God, avoiding the attitudes and actions in us that might be a stain in his sight.

Speaking of which, the third supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is holiness. “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as the One who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Peter 1:14-16; cf. Leviticus 11:44-45). What does it mean to be holy? Literally, it means to be 'other'; it means to be abnormal; it means to be special and set apart and above what most things are. It means separation from ordinariness, but the emphasis is that what's holy is separated unto total devotion to God.

God is holy because his transcendent power and goodness are totally distinct, separate, from this world we're used to. And we're holy when we're totally reserved for his purposes. “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). In Leviticus, that kind of language mainly revolved around the food laws (Leviticus 11) and occasionally social order, sacrifice, and spiritual devotion (Leviticus 19:1-8). For us, it relates to “all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). Living out our living hope for the journey means that, in everything we do, we should be totally reserved for God's purposes – not letting our own agendas get in the way. They run the risk of weighing us down when we're to be on the move.

The fourth supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is – and this one may surprise you – fear. But when he says that, he doesn't mean fear of the danger on the journey – fear of crocodiles and pythons and lions, fear of blazing sun and hostile tribes. What Peter means is fear of God, as in, a healthy awe and reverence for a God who deserves our respect. Peter observes that God “judges impartially according to each one's deeds” – that's an intimidating thought – and urges us to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your temporary residence” (1 Peter 1:17). As in, during our journey, the way we behave should be one that reverences God, one that goes to pains to carefully behave in a way that pleases our Judge.

Similarly, the fifth supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is obedience. And here we relate, not as subjects to a Judge, but as children to a Father. And that is exactly who God offers himself to us as: “Our Father, who art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Peter urges us to be “obedient children” (1 Peter 1:14). He notes that we “call on him” – our God and Judge – also “as Father” (1 Peter 1:17). God is the One who has re-begotten us (1 Peter 1:23). And the only way our souls will be purified is by “obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22), which in this case is the true word of the gospel that is announced in our day (1 Peter 1:25). When we know the truth, it demands action in accordance with it. And fulfilling that action is obedience.

Literally, obedience is submitting beneath what is heard, submitting to what God our Father says by complying with it. Obedience is not just an Old Testament thing. It's essential to our journey. If God is the one leading the way, then if we disobey, we run the risk of venturing off the path, slowing everybody around us down, and getting tangled up in danger – and if we desert the way altogether, we might lose faith and fall in the desert and fail to reach our destined inheritance. What God tells us – about money, about relationships, about hospitality, about honesty – all calls out for our obedience, for our own good in our journey.

And then the sixth supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is love. That love is first and foremost for the One who made our journey possible: our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, slain as our Passover Lamb but raised again to be given glory. “Though you have not seen him,” Peter says, “you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him” (1 Peter 1:8). We don't presently see Jesus – though, Peter hints, one day we will, which is a mind-blowing thought, or at least it is to me. And yet we love him. We love him because, though we don't yet see him, we belong to him; we've experienced his grace; we know his love is shepherding us along our way, and we couldn't make it on our journey without him. So we love him.

But our love is also, scarcely beneath our love for Jesus, also love for each other. Peter tells us that obedience to the truth aids us in purifying our souls, but the purpose is “for a sincere brotherly love.” What we're to do with a pure heart is to “love one another earnestly” (1 Peter 1:22). Maybe you could render that, “Give each other a love that's fully extended, a love that's stretched all the way out.” Brothers and sisters, we need to love each other – it's a command, and also a delight.

Yes, I know – sometimes our brothers and sisters in Christ do less-than-lovable things, or have less-than-lovable habits and quirks. Sometimes, we and our fellow sojourners can be pretty prickly and not all that inspiring. Sometimes it's easier not to love one another – to just drop into each other's worlds temporarily with minimal investment. I know a woman who once told me that the reason she started attending a megachurch was so that she wouldn't have to be involved with anybody; nobody would know who she was, and nobody would love her enough to keep her accountable if she went missing. But that is not the life God commands of us. We're to give each other a love that's stretched all the way out – stretched out far enough to cover every sin, stretched out far enough to forgive every fault, stretched out far enough to lend any hand... stretched out with the outstretched arms of a crucified Savior. For this journey, you've got to love one another.

Hope, purity, holiness, fear, obedience, love – six supplies for the journey. That may sound like a lot to bring – but considering the baggage we walk around with every day, it's actually packing quite efficiently! Don't pack all that other junk, handed down or acquired along the way – you're redeemed from that former ignorance and those futile ways. Instead, pack these six things. That's how we'll live out our living hope along the way. And I won't tell you that this journey is easy. Neither will Peter. The specific local Christian communities he was writing to had been enduring prejudice and marginalization for their faith. Peter acknowledges that they've been “grieved by various trials.” And so have we. There are few families affiliated with this congregation who haven't undergone one of various trials in the past couple years – and been, in many cases, quite grieved by it. That's natural. That's normal. That's our journey.

But Peter reminds us, it's only “now for a little while.” And besides, they serve a needful purpose: to test and verify the “genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7). The image is of a quality-test: gold being evaluated in its purity by how much heat it can stand. And if that goes for perishable gold, how much more for the imperishable life that's brought to life in us by faith? So our faith's quality is tested, evaluated, by fire in our various trials. But hard as that may be when you're the one passing through the fire, it's a good thing! It's good because, Peter says, “the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7).

Our trial-tested faith brings glory to Jesus – woohoo! – and it will be an honor to us – yeehaw! And so that brings us to one last supply for the journey: joy. In light of the final salvation that's ready to be revealed, Peter tells us that the faithful will “rejoice” in spite of their present temporary trials (1 Peter 1:6). And although our faith hasn't yet been made sight, we “believe in [Christ] and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). The word for 'rejoice' here – literally, it means a lot of jumping around and celebrating! In spite of our trials, in spite of the hiddenness of Jesus' glory from our view, yet by faith we anchor our hope in him and leap for joy!

And that joy is our seventh supply to round out the bunch. It's a supply that lightens the whole load when you add it. And you can have it because, in Jesus, you “obtain the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). Though the journey is long and challenging, we go with joy, because like my friend Jacob said, God has “graciously provided us with songs in the midst of our sorrows.” And so, like Fr. Balakian, we may “remain excited by the indestructible hope of salvation.” Thanks be to God! May we all be supplied sevenfold for the journey of the redeemed, as we live out our living hope. Amen.

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