Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sermon on 1 Peter 1:6-9, for Lent 5, "I can't believe in a God who would..."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we talked about how we are called to be a caring community in Christ, and not isolated from one another. This week I invite you to reflect on how as a community in Christ we face the difficulties and tragedies in life that would tempt us to despair, rather than to hope. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The word ‘abyss’ describes a bottomless pit—a hole of enveloping darkness. A fitting word to describe the yawning darkness that swallowed Jesus on the day of His crucifixion and death. He hung on the cross, like a slender strand of rope suspending the great weight of humanity’s sins, a rope hanging down from heaven. He was our slender strand of hope, the last connection from earth to heaven, and our sins were an impossibly heavy burden, straining, pulling, dragging Him down into the abyss. Shrill cries of mockery dared Him to come off the cross to prove He could save Himself; the sky turned to darkness around Him. At this black hour, the light would not shine on those who “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19b). The fierce cup of God’s wrath against sin was poured out on Him, as He suffered, giving rise to His desperate cry into the abyss: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry echoed in the gloom—unanswered. How could God leave Him like this? How could He trust in a God who would abandon Him in this greatest hour of need?

Jump forward to January 12, 2010, the island of Haiti. Odinel, a mother of six, was cooking dinner while five of her children studied and played on the apartment floor. In one moment, an ordinary day turned into chaos, as great convulsions of the earth collapsed the building. Stunned but alive, Odinel scrambled to find her children and saw with horror that a pile of concrete and rubble lay where her children had been working. She screamed for her children, helpless to dig through the mountain of rubble, and certain they were dead. The silence of the abyss echoed back her cries, unanswered.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti and left some 230,000 dead—and was followed soon after by the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that killed over 700 in Chile. The darkness of these disasters have left the world staring into the abyss. For a brief time, entertaining ourselves to distraction was cut short by the brutality and darkness of the world, pressing in on all sides. While events like these and 9/11 have a way of freezing us in our tracks on a national scale, smaller daily events would seem to press hopelessness on us individually. From unemployment to family tragedies, from car accidents to illness, we cry for help! We cry to God in prayer. When frustrations and sorrow climb, and rescue doesn’t seem near, often we’ve gotten the same answer that Jesus did—silence. Does God ignore our prayer? Do we hear laughing voices like Jesus did, “He trusted in God; let God deliver Him!” (Matt. 27:43a).

As time wore on, Jesus waited in the darkness—when will the suffering end? How long will God remain silent? Everyone around Jesus had reason to abandon faith because the pressure to despair was immense. What good was it for him to patiently wait any longer? What had faith in God led Him to? Now was the time to give up! No one could fault him for it! But stubbornly, defiantly, Jesus pressed onward. He did the unthinkable—he resolved to patiently wait on his Father in heaven. Foolishly, some mocker would say, Jesus threw himself into the hands of his God. Foolishly, a scoffer would ridicule, Jesus continued to bless and love those who stood against him. Following the way of love, he persisted till the end and refused to back down. He wouldn’t be deterred; he threw himself headlong into the destructive path of death itself. And to the despair of those who stayed and watched, death didn’t yield—it pushed forward unwaveringly, crushing this Jesus under its feet.

Back to Haiti, buried under six stories of broken building, three of Odinel’s five children were still alive, trapped in a pocket beneath the rubble. They amazingly escaped the crushing collapse of the building, but were trapped with no food or water. For days they cried out into the blackness with no sight or sound of outside life or rescue. Kiki and Sabrina, brother and sister, waited helplessly with their younger brother, who cried out for water for three despairing days, before succumbing to dehydration. Kiki and Sabrina clung to each other in the darkness, waiting…hoping against hope that there would be rescue. They struggled not to give into despair as they found solace in each other—strengthened by the fact that they did not wait alone.

We too watch and wait in a world where death, disease, warfare, and suffering are all clamoring to take away our hope. Give up, give in, lose heart, lose hope. Will you continue to look to God in hope or will you walk away in despair? Alone, you’ll eventually fall into despair, but with others there’s a chance for hope. Like Kiki and Sabrina, it’s important that we face the harshness of reality in the company of one another. If you and I try to go it alone, then we won’t make it—we’re simply not strong enough. Peter’s first letter was written to Christians facing persecution, people tempted to give up on God. 1 Peter 1:6-9 says, “Now for a little time you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine.” He wrote about facing despair as part of a community in Christ. Without community gathered around the cross the task ahead would be too much. When we stare death and despair in the face, refusing to buckle, we need each other. The hymn writer put it this way. “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer” (LSB 915, v. 4).

As the Savior of the world hung on the cross, that slender strand of hope hanging over the abyss, death finally lunged forward and swallowed Him whole—the rope snapping and Jesus plummeting into the dark depths. All seemed to end in failure. No answers to His cries, no deliverance. It seemed the mockers were right. In a world where the strong conquer, he had been weak. In a world where wisdom ruled, he had been a fool. In a world where death had the final say, he was dead. This dark and unforgiving world once again asserted its strength. But as it pressed down relentlessly on this weak and seemingly foolish Jesus, its iron grip began to slip. As He fell in death to the bottomless depths of His grave—three ticks on the calendar and He went off like a depth charge, exploding the power of sin, death and the devil. Suddenly life came rocketing up from the bottomless pit, and Jesus sprang victorious from the grave! His foolishness in succumbing to death proved to be true wisdom, and His weakness proved true strength! With the resurrected life of Jesus we now have a firm anchor lodged in heaven, and He’s lowered that lifeline to earth, and is pulling us up arm over arm. Life by life, as Christians die in faith, He pulls them up that lifeline He created through His cross and resurrection.

One week after the Haiti earthquake, Kiki and Sabrina’s aunt happened to be searching for belongings in the family apartment. Startled by muffled cries that emerged from the rubble, she excitedly began to pry at the rubble with a crowbar. A unit of 20 American rescue workers from New York and Virginia, some experienced from the disaster on 9/11, moved in to help. After four hours of digging and cutting, they miraculously broke through to Kiki and Sabrina. Life-giving arms reached down from above, into their black abyss, and pulled the two surviving children to safety. After 8 days in grueling conditions with no food or water, they were given a joyfully tear-filled reunion with their mother Odinel.

In countless stories like Kiki and Sabrina’s, we’re reminded that our natural understanding of wisdom and foolishness, despair and hope, strength and weakness, is turned upside down in Jesus the Crucified. The insignificant and humble ways of faith, hope, and love are shown in Him to be God’s way. The dark world around us continues to mock our foolish hope but our assurance is that faith in Jesus is nothing short of the lifeline carrying us up to heaven from our grave. It’s nothing less than having Jesus’ life-giving arms reaching down and pulling us out of our abyss. As Peter wrote: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). Though you do not see God, you can be certain that your God, the Father of Jesus, acts on the other side of death, on the other side of the abyss. The eyes of faith, given by the Spirit of Jesus, reveal that the true God of this world is found in the midst of the fearful abyss—our God resides in the crucified Jesus. You would be a fool to believe in a God like that—a God you cannot see, a God on the other side of death! Yeah, you would be a fool, just like Jesus. “You believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). Amen.

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