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).

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