Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sermon on 1 Peter 2:13-25, for Ash Wednesday, "Life's Better in my hands!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In our western, American culture, we have a great admiration for the icons of “rugged individualism.” There’s something that appeals to us about the pioneer spirit of those who forged their way westward across our country, and were tough, self-reliant individuals. They took their destiny into their own hands. In the wild West some of them even took the law in their own hands. But whatever the merits of self-determination may be, individualism pushed to its extreme can lead us into isolating ourselves from others in our community. It can lead us to pursue things harmful to us, against God’s guiding. The mindset of many today is that “life is better in my hands.” When I’m at the control seat, things will be better. As we contemplate our reading from 1 Peter tonight, I want us to see why those words: “Life is better in my hands” are better heard coming from God than us. It’s better for us to hear God’s calling, and to trust Jesus when He says to us, “No, Life’s better in my hands.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Peter wrote to the “elect exiles” scattered through Asia (1 Peter 1:1). Christians facing persecution for their faith. Some of that persecution would’ve come through their fellow citizens, employers, and neighbors. Some of it would’ve come through the government. So you can imagine that when they heard the words of tonight’s reading, it would have been a difficult pill to swallow. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” (1 Pet. 2:13, 18) Now it should be no problem to submit to a good ruler, or a gentle master. Work is pleasant when you have a fair and honest boss. Being a citizen is pleasant when the government is just and effective.

But what about when the government is corrupt? What about when your master or boss is crooked and unfair? Even so, God urges us to respect the office and to be subject to them. Now, this doesn’t extend so far as to mean blind obedience to authority, even when it commands you to do reckless, immoral, or God-forbidden things. Peter faced this when he and the disciples chose to “obey God rather than men” when he was told they couldn’t preach in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:19). But we show respect and honor to the office which is held, not necessarily to the character of the man or woman who occupies that office, honorably or dishonorably. It would be so easy for us to say in such a situation, that “Life’s better in my hands.” It would be easy for a servant in the household of a unjust master to high-tail it out of there. It would be easier for an employee who feels they’re suffering unjustly to quit. Peter goes on to clarify that he doesn’t mean suffering because of some sin we’ve committed. So if we have acted wrongly or unethically, there’s no credit in suffering for the consequences we deserved. But he means when we suffer for doing good, this is a gracious thing.

Can we wrap our heads around that? Enduring hardship or suffering for what is good and right, is actually a grace from God? The only way that we can understand this is to have the mind and example of Christ who suffered for us. Interesting that it says to be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake. It’s actually for God that we do this, that we put our life in God’s hands by enduring hardship and difficulty under earthly rule. Why? It’s God’s will that by our good behavior the accusations of those who mistreat us would fall silent. But of course as we just mentioned, this only works if we actually do good, and not evil.

This Ash Wednesday we should let God’s Word of law drive us to realize that contrary to the way things might seem, life is not better in our sinful and fallible hands. It’s at the foot of the cross of Jesus that we learn that our life isn’t better in our own hands, even when mistreated for doing good. There we hear Jesus say at His death, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” Jesus who prayed, “Not my will, but Your will, O Father, be done.” Jesus truly entrusted His life into His Father’s hands, even when it meant the greatest injustice of suffering for doing what is good. His innocent life earned no part of the punishment He received. He could easily have left the suffering behind, in a way that none of us sinful humans could. But He willingly stayed, because He entrusted Himself to His Father’s hands, even to the point of death.

So as we reflect on our sin and our mortality today; when we reflect on the shortness of our life and the short-sightedness of our wisdom and perception of life, we confess that we don’t know what’s best in the big picture. We can’t see beyond the short 70-100 years we live on this planet. We don’t see eternal consequences. But we can entrust our life to someone who does. We can put ourselves into the hands of Almighty God and His gracious Son Jesus Christ, who will guide and lead us. The benefit of this, as it says, is that we “die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” We die to our old sinful nature and rise as new children of God, able to live for righteousness. We live in the freedom of Christ, not using that freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as servants of God to do good.

Our freedom is not exercised in selfish pursuits, it’s not exercised in pursuing our own good at the expense of others. It’s not exercised in isolation and extreme individualism, where we cut ourselves off from Christian community. Rather our freedom is to be used in service to one another. First to the household of faith, or fellow believers, and then also to every person in need. We don’t remove ourselves from the world of unbelievers. We don’t avoid working with or suffering under injustice when we’re doing good. Rather we bear witness in our callings and act honorably and truthfully and with gentleness and humility, so that those who
falsely accuse may have no grounds against us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who died at the hands of the Nazis, wrote this about community and isolation: “Beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. If you scorn the fellowship of brothers and sisters, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” When we take the words, “Life is better in my hands” onto our own lips, then we are headed down a path to loneliness and isolation. If we cut ourselves off from brothers and sisters in Christ, we lose that benefit of sharing one another’s sufferings. And ultimately, we pull ourselves away from Christ and His plan for our lives. On the contrary, if we believe in God, that His call tells us “Life is better in my hands”—we’ll find ourselves in fellowship with God who has a better plan. We’ll find ourselves loved by the merciful Savior who set us an example by entrusting His life to God. We’ll find ourselves in fellowship with other Christians who can share our burdens and build us up in Christ. Come and see that life really is better in our Father’s hands. Amen!

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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