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Sunday April 11,
1999 ~ Second Sunday of Easter
I Peter 1:3-9
In The Toughest Of Times... There's Still Hope, Joy and Love!
Focus Text: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead..." [I Peter 1:3]
The phone rang at just about 2:30a.m. You know how those "middle of the night" calls are -- you come to out of a sound sleep, look at the clock and your blood pressure jumps a few points. No one calls to say, "Hi, how are you doing?" at 2:30 in the morning. (At least not anyone who wishes to remain on good terms with you!)
This call was from a Sheriff's deputy from our church who wanted me to go with him to visit a family to tell them their two daughters (their only children) -- and the fiancÚ of the eldest daughter had all been killed in a horrible accident. They were hit head on by a drunk driver who crossed the center line.
There are not words available to describe the dreadful feeling that comes over your heart when you have to bring news like this to a family. News that will send their lives into a time of horrendous pain. These are the times that push most pastors to their knees asking God for mercy -- for the family and for themselves!
What can you possibly say at a time like this?
[As a brief aside -- Here's a bit of pastoral advice for times when you personally have friends or loved ones who experience devastation and you want to say something to them. It is the advice of Hippocrates to young physicians. "First -- do no harm." Please don't say things like, "It's God's will," or "God never gives us more than we can handle." If you aren't the one who is doing the handling, don't comment on the burden the other person has been given to handle.]
Where To Go In The Tough Times
When times get really tough, you want someone who's been there -- right? If you have lost a spouse, there is no one who understands what you are going through like someone who's been there. Years ago when my son was going through difficulties with drugs, there were all kinds of people who offered advice and knew just what to do. Especially difficult was one of my good friends whose two children were "straight arrow", honor students who had hardly broken curfew. "You've got to lay down the law," he said with his hand on my shoulder, "Let him know that taking drugs is unacceptable in your home." (What a stroke of genius -- as though I had signs all over the place proclaiming, "Smoking dope is just fine at our house -- enjoy!")
The person who was really helpful was a colleague whose daughter had struggled with drugs and had been hospitalized. He knew what it was like to feel a sense of guilt and shame while standing in the pulpit on Father's Day. When he offered to pray with me, I knew he understood what it was like to have your heart broken by a wayward child. You will find that people who have been there are not quite as glib with their advice or quick with their admonitions.
The point is, when it came time to go with my deputy to tell a family a horrible tragedy had just taken place in their lives, I found myself going to Peter's letter. Isn't that amazing? Even though his ministry took place almost 2000 years ago -- he knew what it was like to bring the comfort of God to people who were in the midst of excruciating trial. Not only that, but Peter was talking to people whose suffering was terribly unjust. How wrong it is that a family should be shattered by the reckless deed of a drunk driver. And how unjust it is that people should be persecuted and even murdered because of the fact that they were Christians.
On July 19, A.D. 64 the great fire of Rome began and lasted for three days. The Roman historian Tacitus clearly placed the blame for the fire on the Emperor Nero and indicated that Nero scapegoated Christians as responsible for the fire.╣ The subsequent persecution was so horrendous that the despised sect of Christians actually gained some sympathy from the larger population of Rome. William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible recounts from Tacitus what took place:
"A huge multitude of Christians perished in the most sadistic ways. Nero rolled the Christians in pitch, and then set light to them, while they were still alive and used them as living torches of flame to light his gardens. He sewed them up in the skins of wild animals, and then set his hunting dogs upon them..." ▓
What does Peter, this first century pastor have to say to people who are enduring such torment? Families were torn apart and persecutors took delight in separating children from parents and husbands from their wives so that one could witness the suffering of the other. How could mere words even begin to mitigate such evil?
Look with me once again at our focus text: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead..."
When tragedy comes, you may very well feel dead inside. Peter comes to us in the midst of this feeling of "deadness" and says, "God has made us alive again and given us a new kind of hope through the resurrection of Christ!" In order to fully understand what Peter is saying, we will have to have our spirits "lock on" to the truth of Easter. You may have seen reports on television which show U.S. warplanes delivering missiles to their targets. The missiles have the ability to "lock on" to a target. When tragedy comes to our lives, we need to "lock on" to spiritual truth. The fact is that the world can not offer authentic healing for deadly wounds. God can!
Last Sunday we celebrated Easter. Today we celebrate what Easter means when life has delivered its worst possible blow. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is just another religious proposition until it is tested in our lives.
Surprising Words To A Suffering Church
When the lives of Peter's "flock" had been subjected to the most unthinkable horror, he writes to them with a surprising burst of enthusiasm. (Keep in mind that the word "enthusiasm" literally means "to put God in" or "God within") In plain English, the sense of Peter's words would come out something like this:
"No matter what they do to us friends, I tell you, I am thanking and praising God because it is as though we have been born once again to a life no one can take from us! Now we have a hope that can never be snatched away from us. Jesus himself was killed by these people -- but -- God raised Jesus from the dead! So you see, they no longer have any power over us. Indeed... their threats of death are empty because God has given us a life that even death can not touch."
In his sermon to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, Peter had said of the fact that Jesus had been crucified, "...but God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power." [Acts 2:34]
The power of the faith that embraced the resurrection of Jesus was amazing. It give rise to a conviction that grew deep within the suffering community's heart. The same God who raised Jesus from the grip of death could do the same for them. Nero's persecution was but a temporary trial that would give way to life -- abundant, full and everlasting life! Rather a person of faith and a martyr to Nero's madness than an beneficiary of his abundance. They have a hope, Peter says, that is imperishable.
A Whole New Way Of Living
The most amazing thing about the people who endured Nero's wrath was their reaction. Think about it. If most people you know (and -- ouch! -- you yourself) were in their shoes... what would the reaction be?
* "How can God let something like this happen?"
* "How can there be a God in a world like this?"
* "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
* "If this is the way it is -- I don't think you'll be seeing me in church any more!"
And it's not like these questions are out of line or sinful. They are quite normal actually. In the toughest moments of my life, I have to confess that my reaction has not always been so positive as that of the people Peter wrote to -- so long ago and so far away. Yet... not so far away when it comes to some of the more painful experiences that have inevitably come my way.
So what is the reaction of the people Peter was reaching out to?
Hang on to your pew. This may seem a bit unreal to you.
When your family, friends and even your life partner is going through the horror of Nero's insane persecution can you imagine someone saying to you....
"In this you rejoice..."
Can you imagine?
And... there is more. "In this you rejoice... even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials."
Peter is pointing to a whole new way of living here. The faith of the people he is writing to has lifted them to a whole new plane. It is not that the pain of life does not touch them, but rather that the pain of life does not defeat them. They endure the horror, but they do not relinquish the hope. Faith does not close the door to pain, but it does open the door to promise.
When you and I embrace the hope we have in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is not simply an article of faith. It is not just a proposition we find in the Creed. It is a present reality in our living. It is, in deed, a whole new way of living. It is an affirmation that, "What you see is not what you get." It is a declaration that what you see is just the surface. There is more to life and living than what you see. Christian faith offers something more. It offers hope, joy and love when everything in our outward world seems to be falling apart.
A Wish For Hope, Joy And Love
I wish I could report that when the deputy and I visited with the family I told you about, there was a sense of peace with the horrible tragedy that came to their lives. What a wonderful thing it would be to say that they were able to take a bit of hope from their faith in spite of the devastation.
But it didn't happen that way.
They were quite bitter. The deputy asked them if they would like for me to speak with them and perhaps offer a prayer. Their response was, "We have no use for God, or his representatives right now!"
I hope you can understand that. It was their pain talking.
When the deputy first called me, I thought God had perhaps providentially arranged for my ministry to the family. It turned out that the ministry was to my deputy parishioner.
It was his life that was crushed for the hundredth time by senseless tragedies like this. He was a man of faith and his faith was sorely tested on this night. He was the one who needed the intervention of the Lord at the end of that horrible night. We sat in a coffee shop at five O'clock in the morning -- discussing how and why it is that people have to endure such incredible heartbreak.
Then... we talked about faith. "I sure wouldn't want to go through something like this without my faith," he said. No matter what should ever happen to my deputy friend, or to me, or to you -- it is the inner core of our spirit, namely our faith that will come to the fore -- if we have placed our hope in the victory of Jesus Christ over the great enemy... death!
Notes On The Text
* The First Epistle of Peter has a striking relevancy for the church of every age, especially in tough times. The pastor's heart comes through with tremendous warmth and the role of the shepherd serving under the Chief Shepherd in caring for the "flock of God" is perpetually pertinent to the pastor's task. Although this is our only full text sermon from First Peter, we will frequently visit the letter in this quarter and suggest alternate sermon themes and meditations based on its motifs.
* The authorship of First Peter as coming from the person of the Apostle Peter was not seriously questioned until recently. (Recent in terms of the whole Christian era) F.W. Beare in 1947 published a commentary which stated unequivocally that "Peter" was a pseudonym. Counter to this, however, is the wide acceptance and authority First Peter had in the second century church. Polycarp (Martyred in AD 155) makes use of the letter in a way that suggest wide acceptance and knowledge of First Peter. One of the key issues in the discussion has been the fact that virtually every commentator notes that First Peter is written with an excellence in the Greek language which stands out in the New Testament. The observation is that a Galilean fisherman would in no way be able to produce such literature. It is not without strong possibility, however, that the heart is Peter's while the pen is "by Silvanus". [ 1 Pe. 5:12] If you plan to do more with First Peter in the next few weeks, there is a fuller discussion of this issue in William Barclay's Daily Study Bible which might be helpful. [DSB, Westminster, The Letters of James and Peter, Philadelphia, 2nd Ed. 1960]
╣ Tacitus: Annals 15:44
▓ DSB, I Peter, p. 177
v. 3 "given us a new birth" [NRSV] (PÝßŃňÝÝ▄¨ , anagennao˘) "Has caused us to be born again into a ..." [NASB] "Hath begotten us again..." [KJV] In this case the KJV is closest. It is the one word, anagennao˘ which is translated here. (Aorist participle) The NRSV adds extra words not actually in the text. Simply translated, it is "had begotten us again or anew..." On new birth see: Jn 3:3, ( here there are two words: "gennao - born" and "anothen - from above"); Rom 6:3-11; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 4:19; Titus 3:5; 1 Jn 3:9).
v.5 "who are being protected..." protected means "being guarded or watched over by sentinels; figuratively is is the sense of being protected." Here, it is not from physical or worldly harm, but from eternal harm that they are being protected against. Their "inheritance" can not be taken from them. It is "through faith" that they have this protection from God. Faith is the thing that accesses God's gracious protection -- the salvation God grants is an inheritance that can not be diminished or devalued.
v.8 "indescribable and glorious joy..." Christians do not rejoice in trial or suffering but rather rejoice that their destiny is absolutely intertwined with that of Jesus Christ. His resurrection is the authentication of their faith and trust.
Alternate Sermon Ideas
John 20: 19-31~ "Picking Up The Pieces"
A full text sermon from the same Johanine gospel text used last year. Look under scripture archives.
Difficult to Believe -- Essential to Receive (Selected Lectionary Texts)
It would be interesting to weave a meditation around the notion of how difficult it was for those first century Jewish people -- including the followers of Jesus -- to believe that Jesus had actually been raised from the dead. In fact, Luke contributes the fact that the eleven disciples thought the women's report about an empty tomb and risen Christ were "an idle tale, and they did not believe them."
In the reading from John's gospel, it is Thomas who has difficulty with the concept of resurrection and needed "proof" before he would believe -- in spite of the fact that the others told him they had seen Jesus.
Peter's sermon to the crowds in Acts 2 have him trying to convince his fellows that the idea of resurrection had a foundation in scripture. Peter quotes our Psalm of the day. (Ps. 16:10)
The resurrection is taught as an article of faith in our churches and in our children's classes. It is a "given" for Christian folk. It is a part of "the creed" we affirm. However -- is some of this a "take it for granted" situation? Do we actually "have faith in" or "place our trust in" the resurrection as the basis for hope in our lives?
Bring in here the suffering church of I Peter. The resurrection was absolutely central to their ability to withstand the cruel persecution of Nero and company. It was essential for their continuing life of faith. How would it be for you and me -- having to rely on our faith in the resurrection of Christ to withstand the evil of violent persecution. Resurrection would have to be much more than a concept in our minds.
If we re-think the meaning of the resurrection for our lives -- these two observations will surface. The resurrection may still be difficult to believe for people today -- yet when everything is said and done in our lives, the resurrection is essential to receive.
A Call To Worship (Adapted from Psalm 16)
Leader: Watch over
us, O God, for in you we take refuge.
People: We will say to the LORD, "We have no life apart from you."
Leader: We give thanks to the Lord who gives us guidance.
People: Our hearts are glad and our spirits rejoice.
Leader: The Lord our God shows us the way to fullness of life.
People: In the presence of God there is fullness of joy,
Leader: For ever and ever,
People: From everlasting to everlasting! Amen!
A Prayer Of Dedication
The amazing gifts you have to offer, O Lord,
are ours as we
reach out to you in simple faith and trust. You have blessed us
beyond the riches this world has to give. You have placed the
hope of everlasting life deep within our spirits. O receive our
gifts today O Lord, and make us grateful servants of your love.