Monday, June 02, 2014

Sermon on 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11, for the 7th Sunday of Easter, "The Christian on Trial"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Last week we heard in 1 Peter 3 about the Christian living their life with good conscience, despite persecution and opposition for their faith. The theme continues in today’s reading. We’ve talked before this year about how we don’t experience persecution anywhere on the order of how millions of Christians in foreign countries do today, or early Christians. Yet Peter almost took it for granted that persecution was a basic reality of Christian life. Our reading opens with, “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.” This challenges us to consider why we don’t experience more persecution. Is it because we enjoy a period of relative peace in our country? Or do we see warning signs that the “goodwill” toward Christianity is fading in society? Or does it tell us we aren’t speaking up or witnessing boldly enough, about Jesus Christ? In other words, if we were witnessing as boldly as the early Christians, would we face more persecution?
However you answer those questions, one thing is for certain, that the Christian is always on trial. Of course “trial” can mean both sufferings and temptations that challenge our faith, and it can also make us think of judgment and courtrooms. And the Christian is always on trial in both of these ways—and the great comfort we have, as Peter tells us, is that we’re not on trial alone. Jesus is on trial with us. What do I mean? We can “rejoice insofar as [we] share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” Jesus said that the world would treat us the same way it treated Him—which is why Peter can tell us it’s no surprise to experience hardship or trial for the faith. 
But we’re also “on trial” in that people will always scrutinize the life, behavior, and words of Christians—whether they perceive we are genuine, sincere, hypocritical, intolerant, loving or unloving, or whatever other judgments they might make. While it’s not on the level of persecution experienced elsewhere in the world, there is at the very least, an increasing amount of scorn, ridicule, or antagonism toward Christianity. The temptation for Christians is to become “wallflowers”—to blend in with the culture, or be the neatly trimmed blades of grass that don’t stick out among the rest.  A temptation to quiet our witness or avoid challenges to our faith.
But this is no solution for the Christian. However much we don’t want to be visible in the “court of public opinion”— we cannot forget that ultimately it is only God’s court that matters. Whatever judgments—true or false, deserved or undeserved—are made by men, God’s ruling is the only final verdict. Our reading from 1 Peter today helps us as Christians to put aside fear of suffering for our faith and the fear of whatever man can do to us. He reminds us that suffering as a Christian is not the same as suffering for our own evildoing. And finally Peter reminds us in all circumstances to entrust ourselves to God’s mercy and care, knowing that He will carry us through suffering to His glory. “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6). So then we must stand up and give a good witness to Jesus Christ, even if we’re falsely slandered, and we must be unafraid to face the difficult questions of our day with the Word of God and the compassion of Christ.
It’s one thing to be insulted for the name of Jesus, or to suffer for His sake, and another thing altogether for us to be insulted or suffer for our own sins. Peter says, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler” It’s obvious why Christians must not engage in criminal offenses like murder or theft—but Peter expands it out to all evildoing. Don’t think that you are suffering for being a Christian, if you are bearing the consequences of your bad choices or sinful actions. If that’s the case, we must shoulder the responsibility and confess our sins to God, and if possible, do what we can to make things right. Zaccheus the tax collector did this when he repaid the people he cheated, after becoming a disciple of Jesus. People in the book of Acts who had practiced sorcery did this when they burned their books to put aside their former sinful way of life. We likewise may have consequences to deal with in our life, and facing them is not suffering for being a Christian—but it does involve a duty to do what’s right.
The last one Peter mentions, is being a meddler. The Greek word gives the idea of busying yourself or interfering with someone else’s affairs or responsibilities—as though we are supervising or overseeing something that’s not ours. To avoid the sin of “meddling” then, should require us to know where our own responsibility (or “kuleana” in Hawaiian) lies, and what is somebody else’s. In St. Paul’s letters, he addresses this issue several times, once urging the brothers “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11-12), and in other places warning about idleness that leads to gossip. Jesus Himself once refused to involve Himself in settling an inheritance dispute, but instead warned about the danger of a love for money and material things (Luke 12:13-21).
But this cannot be used as an excuse for inaction or neglecting to do good when we ought to, by always saying, “it’s not my business.” This happened in the story of the Good Samaritan, where a priest and a Levite walked by the injured man on the roadside, and did nothing to help. The Good Samaritan did not excuse himself from helping, on the grounds that it wasn’t his responsibility, but saw that help was needed and gave it. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did something similar, when they bravely stepped forward to request the body of Jesus, so they could give Him and honorable burial, after His death on the cross. Avoiding meddling means we should not interfere where responsibility belongs to someone else, or our help isn’t wanted—but it doesn’t mean we can become passive and not step up when help is needed, or no one is taking responsibility. Or when the helpless, voiceless, or defenseless need our love and aid.
Peter goes on to say that “it is time for judgment to begin with 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?” Then he quotes, in some variation, Proverbs 11:31, “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So the Christian is on trial, and it’s God’s judgment that ultimately matters—and judgment begins with us! That sounds like a frightening prospect. What is Peter getting at? Taken together with other passages in the Bible (i.e. Hebrews 12), we can understand our present sufferings, trials, and even persecutions as God’s discipline or judgment on us now. It trains us for righteousness, it exercises and strengthens our faith, it turns us away from self-dependence to dependence on God. But whoever hears Jesus’ words and believes in the Father, do not come into judgment, but passes from death to life (John 5:24).
Christians will face hardship and suffering, and this present trial is preparing us for the future glory—but we can’t say the same “for those who do not obey the gospel of God”. When Peter quotes, “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinner?”, are we to picture the Christian is constantly teetering on the brink of destruction or of losing their faith? On the one hand, we should take seriously the warning, “If anyone thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12)—so we don’t become proud or complacent, and ignore the dangers to our faith. On the other hand, Scripture resoundingly bears witness that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. So if the righteous are “scarcely saved”—we should think of that “scarcely” not in terms of God being stingy—but in terms of the “narrow gate” through which we are saved, and the contrasting broad path to destruction (Luke 13:24). Or we can remember that there is scarcely a difference between us and those who are not saved—it’s not as though we are more deserving than them—Scripture is clear that our universal guilt is measured the same. But rather it is only by the mercy of  God that any of us are saved.
So the following words are all the more vivid—“therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” We should never mistake God’s faithfulness and His love for us—and we can have absolute confidence to entrust our souls to Him. And if we do so, we face our trials and hardships with the confident trust that we are doing so with Christ Jesus, and that just as God brought Him faithfully through the cross and resurrection, so also He will exalt us in due time, if we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand. We can be like Job, accepting the sufferings we now experience, trusting that God will ultimately work good from all things.
This gives the Christian the great freedom to cast all our anxieties on Him because He cares for us. Stop doubting that God is big enough to handle your worries and troubles! He’s got the biggest shoulders and the mightiest hand—so our cares and worries that terrify and frighten us are nothing to Him. Since God is in control—what are you worrying for? Peter doesn’t let this turn into a sleepy, unguarded security, however, when he warns us to watch out for that devil, the prowling lion, seeking whom he can devour. As an adversary, the devil will do everything to sling accusations and slander against Christians, to discourage and demoralize us, or to get us to shrink back from speaking God’s life-giving word. But His powers are limited, and he’s a chained lion, as Revelation tells us, so we don’t need to fear him if we stay out of his circle of influence. Should it surprise us then, that Peter tells us to “resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world?” Does it surprise you to know that we can resist him? We resist Him because God fights on our side—or rather, we are on God’s side when we are in the faith.
Fight against the devil and his accusations with the Word of God that speaks good news to your heart. When the devil turns your sins against you to drive you to despair, confess those sins to God, repenting, and clinging to the Word of forgiveness that Jesus speaks to sinners. Our confidence through the trials of the Christian life is that we suffer together with Jesus who suffered for us. And while we sometimes need to be disciplined or corrected because of our sins, He lived a sinless, spotless life for us. While we are often not deserving of a good judgment in our trials, Jesus fully deserved the verdict of innocence, of righteousness. And He shares that verdict with you by faith! After you have suffered these trials, “the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”  The confidence of the Christian is that the outcome of our trial will not be as we deserved for our sin—but it will be as Jesus deserved for His righteousness. The outcome of the Christian’s life is to be delivered from our judgment into eternal glory, just as Jesus was delivered from death to His resurrection and then to His eternal glory.
God will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. The trials of this life take a toll on the Christian. We are not invulnerable, we are not superhuman. We feel the pain and weakness of our mortality and our sinful natures. We hurt from the slander and the scorn of men. We suffer under the crosses that God in His wisdom allows us to bear. But ours is a faithful Creator; ours is a loving God. “13 As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust”  (Psalm 103:13–14). And so God will restore us for whatever we have endured; He will confirm and strengthen our faith so that we stand firmly established on Him. Jesus Christ endured the real suffering on the cross, the righteous for the unrighteous. And He did so to deliver us into His eternal glory. In the last analysis, the Christian doesn’t fear  that they are on trial, because whatever we endure in this life, we know God’s final verdict in advance, that God makes us innocent by faith in Jesus Christ. And with the same verdict as Him, we can sing praise, “to Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen!”

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Last week we read in 1 Peter 3 about keeping a good conscience as you suffer as a Christian and bear witness to Christ. In 1 Peter 4, what does Peter identify as the legitimate grounds for suffering as a Christian? What does not qualify as suffering as a Christian?
2.      In 1 Peter 4:15, Peter coins a word, translated “meddler.” The word gives the image of overseeing or supervising someone else’s affairs, not your own. What does the Scripture have to say against “meddling” in someone else’s business, or interfering with someone else’s responsibility? Luke 12:13-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12; 2 Thessalonians 3:11; 1 Timothy 5:13. By contrast, what about these examples keeps us from being passive under the guise of “minding our own business?” Luke 10:29-37; 23:50-53; Prov. 31:8-9.  How do we recognize when we are “meddling” or “interfering” and when we ought to take action or responsibility out of love and concern?
3.      Why does “judgment begin at the household of God?” See Amos 3:1-2; (Psalm 147:19-20); Jeremiah 25:29. 1 Peter 4:18 quotes Proverbs 11:31, though Peter quotes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Both translations, however, come to the same conclusion, that if the righteous even suffer, how much more fearful the fate of the ungodly and sinner. What does Peter remind us about when he says the righteous are scarcely saved? Cf. Luke 13:24; 2 Timothy 1:9. How are we elsewhere reassured of the abundance of God’s mercy? Romans 5:17
4.      Why is humility an indispensable characteristic for Christians? How does a Christian set aside worry? 1 Peter 5:7; Matthew 6:25-34. What is remarkable about the fact that Christians are told they can resist the devil? By whose strength and power do we do so? Last week we sang this hymn verse in defiance to the devil: Satan here this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ! Drop your ugly accusation, I am not so soon enticed. Now that to the font I’ve traveled, all your might has come unraveled. And against your tyranny, God, my Lord unites with me! (LSB 594:3). How does Christ restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us, after and through trials?

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