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.

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