Sunday, August 6, 2017

Living Hope, Living Priesthood, Living Temple: Sermon on 1 Peter 2:1-12

I remember it almost like it was yesterday. With deep solemnity, on October 24, 2009, we walked into the main hall. And as sheer grandeur washed over my friend, his otherwise-unceasing voice trailed off, his eyes grew wide, his head tilted back... and so did mine. Had we been the only ones there, we would have been too mesmerized to make a sound. High overhead soared a dome, hanging seemingly from midair, where once there gazed down a massive image of Christ the Almighty on his heavenly throne; flanking him, above the four columns supporting the dome, hovered four six-winged seraphim, “living creatures” seen by prophets and seers of old; and all around once sat sainted elders in gold-rich mosaics. Ballooning with half-dome after half-dome, the cavernous space stretched out in all directions, as if beneath an open heaven as Stephen saw. And in my mind's eye, I was transported not only to heaven, but back through time, over 1400 years.

In those days, Constantinople, capital city of the great Roman Empire, was torn by riots surrounding politicized sports teams, which soon united against the emperor. Running rampant, they torched much of the city, not even sparing the great cathedral church dedicated to God's Holy Wisdom. When the revolt was quelled – though at the cost of over thirty thousand lives – the emperor set his heart on rebuilding. In years past, his great rival, the noblewoman Anicia Juliana, had overseen construction of the largest church in the city – and acclaimed herself as greater than emperors of old and even than Solomon. Not one to be outmatched, the Emperor Justinian saw his opportunity. On the ruins of the cathedral church, he hired two great masters of mechanics, Anthemius and Isidore, to design a church larger than had ever been built. Sparing no expense and bringing materials from all over the empire, the work took nearly six years, stone upon stone, brick upon brick, tile next to tile, until in the year 537 it was at last ready. In late December, close to Christmas, the emperor was led into his completed masterpiece, the famed Hagia Sophia – and his reaction to the soaring heights and elegant curves was not so unlike mine. As he surveyed the magnificence from a balcony, rumor has it that he shouted out, “Glory to God who considered me worthy of this task! O Solomon, I have outdone thee!” – not an uncommon sentiment among those who saw it.

What was on his mind was the Bible's story of King Solomon, son of David, overseeing the construction of a temple in the heart of Jerusalem. Hiring a half-Israelite architect from Tyre and bringing timber from the forests of Lebanon, Solomon had a grand temple built. The foundation was made of “great, costly stones,” “dressed stones” (1 Kings 5:17), all quarried by thousands upon thousands of stonecutters out in the hill country (1 Kings 5:15). All the stones were carefully chiseled in the quarry and cut into shape there, so that the site of the temple would be quiet and peaceful (1 Kings 6:7). The temple he built was long and wide and high; had it covered inside and out with pound after pound of fine gold; decorated it with a rich veil and heavenly sculptures and mighty pillars and images of trees and flowers like in the garden of God. It took over seven years to build, with all its great furnishings; and when it was finished, Solomon had the ark of the covenant brought, and the cloud of the glory of the LORD filled the temple, and priests sang and celebrated with trumpets, and by much sacrifice was the house dedicated (1 Kings 8). And Solomon prayed that the temple would mean the presence of God to answer even a foreigner's prayers (1 Kings 8:41-43), so that “all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God, and there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60). And that was what the temple was all about.

Centuries passed. A somewhat wicked and conniving descendant of Solomon named Ahaz lived in the palace built alongside the temple; a young man, he'd freshly been appointed co-regent with his father Jotham. But Ahaz held the real power. Troubled by his boldness and vigor, the Arameans and northern Israelites sought to pressure him to join their rebellion against Assyria; they harassed his armies, took his men prisoner, and now laid siege to Jerusalem itself – leaving Ahaz in quite the tizzy. The prophet Isaiah warned him not to give in to them, but also not to seek an alliance with Assyria, either. What Ahaz needed to do, Isaiah told him, was to ignore the conspiracy and focus on God, who could be “a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel. … And many shall stumble on it; they shall fall and be broken” (Isaiah 8:14-15). The LORD himself was this Foundation Stone, which could save or could break the kingdom.

Ahaz didn't much care to listen to Isaiah. He offered tribute to Assyria, reshaped features of the temple to be more pleasing to them, and made a covenant with them. Isaiah retorted that it was a covenant with death itself (Isaiah 28:15). Did they really think that Assyria would flood into the region and leave them untouched and unchanged? But they thought that Assyria's promises would make a fine shelter; Ahaz and his counselors had no trust in the God who lived among them. And so God said, “Behold, I am laying a foundation stone in Zion, a stone of testing, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation; and whoever believes will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 28:16). Built on the Stone would be the true house of refuge; and this Stone would be the one against which all others are tested. God's sanctuary would stand firm against the flood; those who trusted this Stone's firmness would be safe, and all others would be judged.

Ahaz didn't listen. The Assyrians came and went. But worship in the temple continued, on the very site where Solomon had built. Even today, we can hear their songs of deliverance – like the last Hallel psalm, where a worshipper approaches the temple, having been saved by God from affliction; he bids the priests open the gates of righteousness to him (Psalm 118:19-20). And once inside, standing firm on the temple's foundation near the altar, he cries out, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone! This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23). The suffering saint, once rejected, is now honored like the stone undergirding the temple. Israel itself, rejected by the empire-building powers like Assyria, is chosen by God for his kingdom. And those who gather in this temple bask in God's light (Psalm 118:27). That's what the temple was for.

Hundreds of years later, a chain of Christian communities lived under great pressure and rejection, far from the temple that still stood in Jerusalem. And far from them and Jerusalem alike, the Apostle Peter was living out his closing years in Rome. Faced with their predicament, he mulled over the Psalms and Prophets and his Master's own words, where Jesus identified himself with that very Stone. And so Peter wrote to the Christians then – and to us today – words of encouragement and exhortation.

Peter stressed to them – to us – that we have been born again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3). We aren't who we once were. We're made out of new stuff now – we're built of gospel-stuff, the very word of God that lives and persists and abides (1 Peter 1:23-25). So we can't live the way we used to; we can't be tangled up in malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, or slander (1 Peter 2:1), or in any of the passions of our flesh that wage war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11). If we're born again, it means that what we need is what Martin Luther called “sweet, fat grace” – and what Peter calls “pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). The basic, simple nutrition of the gospel. We know from firsthand experience how that tastes, if indeed you've tasted that the Lord really is good (1 Peter 2:3).

And so in our times of distress and weariness, Peter urges us to turn again to that “sweet, fat grace” – to go back to Jesus, who so tenderly feeds us. And this Lord, Peter says, is a “Living Stone” – the very stone from the psalm and from Isaiah's prophecies. Jesus is the Lord GOD who offered himself to Ahaz instead of the Assyrian Empire, to be a sanctuary or a breaking-point depending on whether they trusted him. Jesus is the Stone whom his Father placed in Zion as a foundation, a standard against which all else would be measured, and the basis for the only refuge there is in this world or any other. And Jesus is the Stone whom the builders overlooked – the One who, like the believers Peter writes to, was judged unfit and unworthy by the authorities of this age. Peter quotes all those prophecies, applying them to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:6-8).

But whereas the human builders rejected Jesus, much to their discredit, he is nevertheless chosen by God – “a Living Stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,” now a foundation and capstone and cornerstone in God's Zion (1 Peter 2:4). That's who Jesus is. Don't be surprised when people reject Jesus. That is just what people tend to do. They overlook him. When they meet him in the quarry, they judge him by unjust standards and decide he isn't worth the trouble; that he isn't fit for building on; that he has no place in the work they've set out to do; that he stretches their vision of God and of themselves in all the wrong ways, and so he has to go. They don't esteem him. They may profess some measure of mild respect for him, maybe, but when push comes to shove, they overlook him and discount him. He is a rejected stone to them, unfit for building. So say most humans, even today. And as a result, they don't find sanctuary in him; instead, they take offense at what he really teaches and stumble over him. “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do,” Peter writes (1 Peter 2:8).

When all is said and done, their stumbling over Jesus will be their undoing. Because there's simply no other way to God. We can't get around that. We can't deny that. We can't afford to compromise on that truth. There is no other foundation worth building on. Nothing else can survive the flood. There is no other refuge – and we so desperately need a house of refuge. Countless religions and ideologies stumble over Jesus – they have to try to domesticate him somehow to fit him into their scheme, but it just doesn't work. And the end result of this kind of offense-taking and stumbling and falling and being broken is that it ends up in permanent shame when the story gets wrapped up on Judgment Day.

On the other hand, Peter says, Jesus is “chosen and precious” in God's sight. Human ways of thinking may not respect Jesus, they may not honor Jesus, they may not be willing to reorganize themselves around Jesus and build on Jesus – but to God, Jesus is what it's all about! In God's sight, Jesus has infinite value – because Jesus is what God sees when he looks in the mirror. Jesus is his perfect eternal reflection; and, after the Word became flesh, also the perfect worshipper and the perfect human life. Humanity – Jews and Gentiles alike – rejected Jesus to the point of crucifying the Lord of glory. But their act of rejection paved the way for God's act of choosing and honoring. God raised Jesus from the bonds of death and exalted him to glory, displaying his real preciousness forever.

And the words spoken by Isaiah and now quoted by Peter are true: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6). It may be the case, as Peter's audience knew firsthand, that some of our neighbors, our family members, our workmates and associates, our fellow citizens, and others will mock us. They'll think it weird that we follow Jesus. I mean, don't we know that it's 2017, which I guess is supposed to mean something? Don't we know that religion is toxic and outdated and bad for you and bad for society? If we believe in Jesus, if we trust and follow him, then we don't quite fit in. Oh, sure, American society, Lancaster County society, is still ready to tolerate the general forms of piety. But if you actually take him seriously, if you actually treat him as your entire foundation, if you wrap your life up in his preciousness and make him the standard for all your deeds and all your words? Well, in the eyes of many, that's pretty freaky.

And yet, Peter says, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” – not when the story gets wrapped up, and the veil is torn away, and the flood comes in full, and everything else is washed away, and nothing matters except how things are in God's sight on Judgment Day. And when that day comes, then the only place to stand unashamed is on a foundation God deems “chosen and precious.” That's the only place left to stand. Peter adds, “So the honor is for you who believe” (1 Peter 2:7). Not only will you stand unashamed, but if you're standing on the only chosen and precious foundation, which is Jesus Christ, you will be honored. If people don't respect you now, you'll sure see God's respect for you then – and if you could only see it, you're already honored in his sight. It's behind the veil; all that waits is the unveiling, and the final rescue operation, and the coming together of us and our imperishable and undefiled and unfading inheritance (1 Peter 1:4-5).

What's more, Peter says that, as we approach Jesus as the Living Stone that's foundational, we too are “living stones” – we're conformed to his image. We are hardy building-blocks, and we're connected to his invincible life. But what's God building? Peter tells us: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). And in light of all the verses he's quoting, it doesn't take a genius to realize: when Peter says 'spiritual house,' he's talking about a temple! That temple, that house of refuge, built on the foundation – we are that! You are a stone being installed in a temple that's undergoing an expansion. Like Jesus, the powers-that-be in this world may look at you and think you're unfit. You may have internalized that perspective, maybe – you might wonder if you're good for anything, if you're useful, if you matter. And God's answer is, “Yes!” It is as plain as that: you matter, because you are one of the gilded, beautiful stones being cut for God's temple. You belong to God's grand construction project.

More on that shortly. Peter adds that, unlike those who stumble over Jesus, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9) – these are all phrases referencing Israel's mission in the Old Testament, which in the end took the one Faithful Israelite named Jesus to really carry out. God said to Israel at Mount Sinai, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Peter is casting us in that role! We are God's holy nation. We are God's treasured possession among all peoples – and, in these days of the new covenant, drawn from all peoples.

Peter adds that, just like Israel at Sinai had been delivered from Egypt “on eagles' wings” to be brought to God, so we – like the afflicted worshipper running to the temple for safety in Psalm 118 – have received mercy and have been called “out of darkness into [God's] marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Now that's redemption! You once were in darkness; you once were afflicted; you once were far-off. Now you live near to God, seeing his marvelous doings; and the LORD's light shines on you. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).

And so, as God's mercy-receiving, light-basking people, he asks a few things of us. First, to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Those things – things like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander, and other vices – have to be put away, because they weigh us down for our journey, and they clutter up the temple with dirty nonsense. Avoid them, abstain from them, because they are the real enemy – not a politician, not a pundit, not a professor, not a persecutor, but perilous passions.

Second, “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Peter's a realist: he knows that people are going to speak against us as evildoers. Think of today's trendy words: 'Intolerant,' 'deluded,' 'wicked,' 'hateful,' 'bigoted.' Follow Jesus, and people will speak against you as evildoers. But don't give them any unnecessary ammo! Do good deeds, and behave honorably, so that they've got no excuse for their accusations. Be a living witness to your living hope.

Third, “proclaim the excellencies of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). That is, after all, why you, just like Jesus, were chosen in him. You were chosen to proclaim how very excellent God is! And that's not something you can do by keeping quiet. Proclaim it, not just when singing between the stained glass, but in daily conversation in daily life. The psalmist said, “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you” (Psalm 118:28). Be that!

And fourth, offer yourselves to God. He calls you his “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We're to present ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). Each and every one of you, if you believe, belongs to a holy priesthood. As the guy behind the pulpit, I don't have a monopoly on that word, 'priest.' You are a priesthood. You are a holy priesthood. And your purpose is to offer spiritual sacrifices through Jesus, the kind that God will accept, of lips and lives.

That's what we're built up as a living temple for. You may seem like a worldly misfit sometimes, but all the more reason you belong here. Like Solomon's Temple, even 'foreigners' – strangers to country and strangers to God – should be able to come and meet God in our midst, and have their prayers heard when they face us. We are built as a house of refuge, a sanctuary, firmly fixed to our Foundation. We should be filled with God's light. But are we? Are we firmly built on this one foundation? Are we living as an organic outgrowth of Christ the Living Stone? Do we offer refuge to all who might wander into our midst – not just on a Sunday morning, but all week long? And can 'foreigners' encounter God and his “sweet, fat grace” among us? Are we offering those spiritual sacrifices and proclaiming the excellencies of the Light-Bringer and Temple-Builder? Because, make no mistake: however small in number the stones here may be, we here at Pequea are part of God's construction project. May we be what can make our Temple-Builder, the God of Holy Wisdom, honestly look down at us and say: “O Solomon, O Justinian, I have outdone you!” Amen.

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