July 15, 2012

Stranger Behavior

So I have to know this morning, did I mess up the standard Hollywood love story for anyone last week?  Did anyone ritually burn their Nicholas Sparks novels during the week?  Just checking.  You know, sometimes it’s hard living the life of a stranger.  In spite of our culture’s loud affirmations of the value of individualism, it doesn’t really want individuals.  You see, some folks think of an individual as a person who does whatever he wants without regard for the opinions of others.  I don’t know about you, but I would tend to simply call that kind of a person a jerk.  Now I know that culturally the “individual” choices held in mind here are things related to fashion or music or lifestyle preference, but usually the truth is that the “individual” is someone struggling with a particular sin or working through their brokenness in an unusual way.  Or perhaps they have taken up with a group of friends who like to project a social image that doesn’t ring consistent with the majority of their immediate cultural context.

Thinking in these terms takes me back to high school.  I have shared before about my not-so-incipient nerdiness.  I wasn’t much better in high school except, I hung out with a group of friends—all of whom were pretty good kids—who did our nerdiness in a way that was cool.  We were the cool nerds.  We didn’t want to be like the “sheeple,” as we rather arrogantly called them, who hung out in the front hall of the school between classes.  They were the popular kids because they looked, dressed, and spoke a certain way.  We were much happier being the alternative cool crowd.  I remember one of the greatest cultural coups this group of friends pulled during my freshman year.  In between classes one day, we all rushed to the front hall and when all the regulars showed up they didn’t know what to do because we were all standing in their spots.  We prided ourselves on being the “anti-cool kids,” the real “individuals,” of the school.  But when I think about, there were some really nice people in the front hall crowd.  I had some really good friends among that group.  The truth was that the anti-cool kids could be just as big jerks as some of them could.  We simply pasted over our brokenness and struggles with sin with the “individual” label.  What we did was okay because it was done in the name of being individuals; of seeking to be ourselves.  This is essentially the message of the TV show Glee.  It doesn’t matter how you live your life as long as you’re true to yourself.

Yet if everyone is living this way—all of us mired in the muck of rebellion against God—then there aren’t any real individuals.  In this way our culture really encourages conformity.  And indeed this has always been the case.  It has played itself out differently at different times in different historical eras, but the basic problem as always been there.  The real individuals in this world are those brave folks who break from the brokenness, the hopelessness, the meaninglessness that grips the citizens of the kingdom of this world in order to live for something, for Someone more.  And thus far in our series, Strangers, we have identified these individuals, these strangers, as followers of Jesus Christ.  A couple of weeks ago I made this observation to you and then last week we took a look at the first and most important thing strangers such as these need to know in order to make it through life in this foreign land.  Namely, our faith is going to become sight.  We are in possession of a living hope.  Our living hope is secure in our promised future.

Merely having knowledge, however, isn’t enough.  Knowing that our living hope is secure is a powerful bit of knowledge and can carry us far in this life.  But, we still must know the direction in which to head.  We have to be sure we are even on the right road.  We need to do something with this knowledge in order for it to do us any good.  I told you last week about one of the consequences of being a stranger in this world.  This consequence is that given that our world isn’t a big fan of strangers it is probably going to treat us badly from time to time.  Perhaps this left some of you—particularly those who are facing a difficult place in life—wanting more.  Well, Peter is going to come back again to the consequences of being a stranger.  Before he gets there, though, he must first make sure the strangers are not living in such a way as to needlessly invite those consequences.  This is exactly what we are going to see this morning as we continue our journey through Peter’s letter to the elect exiles.  Open your Bibles with me to 1 Peter 1:13.  Peter actually gives four commands here in light the living hope we bear as followers of Christ.  These commands establish the baseline of Christian behavior.  Given that we are strangers in this world, how shall we act?  How can we stand out as true individuals, not merely self-deluded jerks who think we are above petty struggles with sin?  Well, if we are taking on the mantle of elect exiles, godly strangers if you will, then it seems we should strive to mimic the character of the God we’ve chosen to recognize as sovereign over and against the order of this world.  Yet simply saying we are going to mimic God isn’t a very concrete picture.  Fortunately, God wasn’t content to leave us in the abstract.  He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to give us a concrete example of what it means to mimic Him.  Thus, if we are going to find any success in our chosen lifestyle of being godly strangers, we need to live like Christ.  Godly strangers live like Christ.  Peter’s four commands help to show us how.

Let’s read this first command and then I’ll unpack it for you.  Follow along with me starting in v. 13: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  Given that we have a living hope to enable us to walk tall as strangers in this world, Peter’s first command is to set our hope fully on the grace that will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus.  So what does that mean and how do we do it?  Well, culturally speaking, this sometimes plays itself out through clichés like, “I’m just hoping for grace.”  But linguistically speaking, this is little different from someone saying, “I’m just hoping for rain.”  Last Monday morning I was hoping for rain that evening and yet I still got up and watered our garden because while I was hopeful, I didn’t really believe it was coming and wanted a back-up plan in case it didn’t.  (By the way, it began raining literally at the same time I was writing this part of the sermon.)  Folks who speak or think along these lines are often using sinful behavior to enable them to walk through this life with the illusion of enjoyment so at least they get their money’s worth if the atheists were right all along.  That’s not the kind of hope Peter’s talking about here.  That’s a dead hope.  Peter is commanding us to root our living hope in grace.

In this vein there are two real approaches to working our way through this life.  We can rely on law or we can rely on grace.  When we rely on law, regardless of what that law is, we are counting on our effort being enough.  If I want to live successfully as a citizen of this nation, I need simply to obey the law.  Even when the law is incredibly complex as ours is, with enough effort, I can achieve my goal of good citizenship.  There are lots and lots of people who try to live their entire lives like this.  With enough effort they will live as a good person (whatever that means) and receive the reward coming to good people after death (whatever that is).  The problem with this particular approach is that nobody seems to know the rules.  When it comes to being a good citizen of a nation, the laws are generally written down in an accessible form.  This isn’t the case when it comes to life.  Furthermore, even if there were a complete law code written out, laws always have loopholes that enable us to break them in certain circumstances like when we reason that fulfilling our desire is more important than the potential penalties.  This is part of why religion was invented in the first place.  People wanted to know the rules so other people got together, made them up, and handed them down.  In our heart of hearts, however, most of us understand that these efforts never really seem to get us there.

The second option, then, is grace.  Living by grace is hard because it means you have to give up on the delusion that your personal efforts are going to be sufficient.  You have to throw in the towel on the idea that when the end finally arrives and we are all judged, good behavior and a sincere heart are going to be enough to get you by.  The problem is that this thought process is written in the fabric of our psyches as people and it’s hard to let go of.  Even people who have been following Jesus for a long time still struggle with their desire to return to the familiar, if cold, chains of the law.  This is why Peter doesn’t give this command and walk away from it.  He sets out the parameters for success to go along with it.  We are able to set our hope fully on grace—which, by the way, if done successfully doesn’t leave any room for us to hope in anything else—when we have prepared our minds for action and are sober-minded.  That’s Bible-speak for making sure that we are prepared, body, mind, and spirit, for the task ahead of us, and that we are well-practiced in the virtue of self-control.  Relying on grace isn’t something that happens by will alone.  We must also have the mental, theological framework of belief to enable us to understand why it is necessary for us to act in ways that go against our nature in the first place.  We must also be prepared stop our natural drift back into law-reliance.  This is accomplished by telling ourselves no over and over and over again.  As Noah is getting to the point where he is able to make meaningful choices about the kinds of things he wants to do, Lisa and I have to tell him no over and over and over again because the kinds of things that make sense in his little mind we are able by experience to extrapolate out to their logical ends and see that given time and space they will be very harmful to him.  He’s not able to make these observations from his vantage point so it seems to him like we’re needlessly strict fuddy-duddies.  Given our finitude as humans and our inability to see the end from our current vantage point, the law approach (and its attendant loopholes) seems really good to us.  As a result we have to just keep saying no to our attempts to live by law and live by grace each and every day.  And by the way, living by grace means you wake up each morning and say to yourself, “I don’t have what it takes to get there on my own, but because of His death on the cross and resurrection Jesus does, so I’m going to live like He commands not because this new effort is going to get me there, but because there might actually be something to His approach.”  So the first part of living like Christ as godly strangers in this world is that we should rely on His grace to navigate this life.  Godly strangers live like Christ.  But we can’t do it without relying fully on grace.

Peter unpacks the next part of living like Christ in the next command here.  Return to the text with me and we’ll pick back up where we left off at v. 14: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’  And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear through the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.  He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory; so that your faith and hope are in God.”

Now this little section begins with the negative command that we are to not be conformed to the passions of our former ignorance.  This basically means: stop living like you used to because while you didn’t know better then, you do now.  The command that’s really in force here comes in v. 15: we are to be holy because God is.  Now, holiness is a huge word, but it basically boils down to two simple ideas: moral perfection and distinction.  Typically, when people think about holiness the first thing to come to mind is some form of moral perfection.  But Biblically speaking, while the moral tones are never absent from view, the idea of distinction is more often in view.  Well, guess who stands out as distinct from the world around them?  Strangers.  In a sense, then, Peter is telling us to be strangers like God.  God is clearly different from the world.  Even atheists understand this.  Many atheists are very angry at the God they don’t believe in for the moral failures they associate with Him.  The reason they do this is because although they may not wish to admit it, their belief framework includes a God who is different from this world in the best ways possible.  In the same way, Jesus was morally perfect and radically distinct from the world around Him.  If we are going to be like Him, we must take on His characteristic holiness.  And this will only happen when we rely fully on grace.  Godly strangers live like Christ.

Speaking of Jesus’ attendant holiness, it was His distinctiveness that caused and in fact still causes people to react to Him so strongly.  People can have nice conversations about the differences in their understanding of God and walk away friends.  But when you start talking about Jesus, things get dicey.  Bringing Jesus into the conversation always means that things are going to the next level for good or for ill.  Jesus’ holiness is what drove many people to violently reject Him, but it is also what has drawn many more to fully embrace Him and change their life in light of Him.  We simply cannot have a real encounter with Jesus and come away unchanged.  No one in the Gospels did.  In this sense, Jesus’ holiness was contagious.  He was constantly rubbing the life of God off on the people around Him.   And one of the ways He did this was through His love.  In fact, Jesus told His disciples that the number one way people will recognize them as His followers is by their love for one another.  Appropriately, then, Peter’s third command aimed at helping we godly strangers to take on the life of Christ in light of the living hope we have embraced focuses our attention on this characteristic love of Christ.

Look with me at the text again starting in v. 22: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.  The grass withers, and the flowers falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’  And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

This third command should be a no-brainer for followers of Jesus and yet it is necessary to hear given that most of our definitions of love today are woefully inadequate to capture the full essence of the kind of love which identifies us to the world as Jesus followers.  If we have taken up the burden of a living hope, if we have chosen to live in light of the truth of the Gospel, there is something we have to realize: the truth of the Gospel is summed in the command to love one another.  When we assent to the truth of the Gospel we embrace an entirely new manner of relating to the people around us.  When the first Christians started working their way through the Roman Empire, no one had even conceived of treating people like they did.  Their practice of Christ’s loving holiness is what garnered them converts by the thousands, but also the persecution of an Empire which was cognizant enough to recognize that the kind of behavior practiced by these Jesus followers threatened to undermine the entire authority structure of the Empire.  This was in an age when the Roman Empire was very good at policing its borders and demanding cultural conformity from its inhabitants.  They understood very well which parts of a culture or religious movement to suppress and which parts to tolerate.  They didn’t commit the resources of the Empire to try to stamp out whole movements without due cause.  They saw these godly strangers living and loving like Christ and it terrified them.

The love of Christ on display today still has the power to topple the edifices of this world.  The problem is that the Enemy has taken a new tack in the West: don’t worry about violent persecution, simply dilute the idea of Christ-like love with so many competing definitions that people no longer really understand what it means to experience the love of Christ when told about it.  In this sense we have to establish our definition of love in order to make sense out of this command.  The love Peter has in mind here is not the milquetoast love often expressed in our culture today which is little more than an amorous feeling for someone else that comes and goes with the passing of time.  It is instead an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be.  We come to this definition when we cast off our cultural blinders and immerse ourselves deeply in the worldview of the word of God which stands for all time.  When we do this we understand that this kind of Biblical love has the power to withstand the pressure and scrutiny of the world.  When we live according to the law of the kingdom—which is love—that has been expressed clearly in the word of God, we come to understand that the trappings of this life, while not unimportant, are temporal and designed to prepare us for the life which will last.  Indeed, all flesh is as grass.  Our grass was dead Monday morning.  After the rain it was magically green Tuesday morning.  If the rain holds off for very long, it will be dead again soon.  The circumstances, the pressures, the persecutions we face in this life are a passing scene.  What will last is the love Peter commands and commends to us here.  If as godly strangers we are going to live like Christ, this love is the law of our interactions.  Godly strangers live like Christ.

In order to sustain this life, however, we need the final command.  Let’s finish out the passage, starting at the beginning of chapter 2.   “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.  Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  Have you noticed there is a logical ordering to these commands?  We must first root ourselves, place our hope, in the grace of Christ.  This will enable us to practice Jesus’ holiness as we move through our daily routines.  The way this holiness plays itself out is through loving the people around us just as our Lord did.  In this final command, Peter gives us the direction we need to move forward with this.  We can place our hope in grace and make commitments to strive for holiness and love, yet I don’t know about you, but sometimes those fade over time for me.  Sometimes not very much time.  Perhaps you’ve been in a place where God touched your heart in a powerful way and you made a decision: I’ll never do ______ again.  And yet you found yourself in the same place barely a week later.  Here Peter gives, not the final answer on this—that’s the subject of another sermon—but some advice to help along the way.  If as godly strangers we are going to live like Christ, we need to make sure we are putting in the kind of fuel we need to go on.  We need this pure spiritual milk.  We don’t simply need it, though, we need to desire it.  We need to desire it like an infant desires his mother’s milk.  Do you know what sound an infant makes when she wants milk?  “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”  That should be the sound of our souls when we are under-nourished with spiritual milk.  What is spiritual milk?  Time spent in communion with our heavenly Father.  There are a lot of different methods of doing that, but unless we do it, we don’t eat.  And unless we eat, we starve.  Starving people can’t live any kind of life let alone the life of Christ.  Being a godly stranger in a foreign culture is hard enough on its own.  Let’s not complicate things by needlessly starving ourselves of the only kind of food that will give us the nourishment we most need.

In the end, then, what Peter has made clear for us is that being a stranger in this world isn’t enough.  There’s no prize in this life simply for being different.  Simply believing that our sacrifices to be strangers are worth the effort because of the reward waiting for us at the end of the journey isn’t enough.  Many of the Jews in the first century accomplished all those things with relished and still missed the boat by an ocean.  There’s one more piece necessary to take this somewhere.  We need to live in such a way here and now that we are winsome strangers pointing people to the advantages of our way of life, not merely oddball curmudgeons.  More specifically we need to live like Christ.  Godly strangers live like Christ.  We do this by relying fully on grace to pursue the holiness of Christ through love the people around us which can all happen when we are well-nourished on the presence of our great God.  Friends, delight in your stranger-status.  But don’t settle for merely that.  Reach and stretch to be fully who God designed you to be.  This will come when you pattern your life after that of Jesus.  Then your strangeness will be for the purpose of drawing others to experience the truth themselves.  Godly strangers live like Christ.  I pray you will.