July 8, 2012

A Living Hope

Well, if you missed last week allow me to express my condolences.  Hopefully everyone has power once again.  That’s the first land hurricane I’ve lived through.  I’d be okay to skip the next one.  But, by the grace of God, we did have power here and we had a great time week experiencing some of what the kids got to experience the previous week at VBS.  We got some exposure, even if only briefly, to some styles of worship which some of us have never encountered before.  The choir had a great special to remind us of the gift God has given us in living in the freest and most prosperous nation that has ever existed in the history of the world.  We also began our brand new series, Strangers, in which we are going to journey through the New Testament letter of 1 Peter.  The idea for the title came from the fact that 1 Peter was written to a group of believers who found themselves living as strangers in a once familiar land—their home—and dealing with the fallout of no longer being like everyone else around them.  In order to help us understand this situation I read to you from an article about the nature of conversion to the Christian faith in this kind of an environment.  The article pointed out that new believers in the first century Roman Empire were maligned by their friends and family as unpatriotic, unprofessional, disloyal, family-haters over their refusal to participate in the cultural customs they once enjoyed with relish.  In a similar vein, if you are a follower of Christ today, you are a stranger in this world.  Now, given the nature of our particular culture, shaped as it is by the Christian faith, it may not often seem like we are so different from the people around us who are still dead in their sins, but a bit of thoughtful analysis will reveal the truth: we are strangers in this world.

Let me give you a quick illustration to prove my point.  This occurred to me the other day after seeing an advertisement for the movie, The Notebook, and was ironically then reaffirmed the very next day in a radio broadcast I listen to regularly.  Who has either seen The Notebook or read the book by Nicholas Sparks?  For how many of you is that on your list of top ten love stories?  I’ll admit, I’ve seen it several times (always with my wife) and it’s a moving story.  The picture of faithful love between a husband and wife it shows is something I hope and pray exists between Lisa and me when we are at the end of our life.  But, and this might get me in trouble, when you start examining the details of the story and how Noah and Allie journeyed to this place of faithful love, it becomes necessary for followers of Jesus to subdivide our praise.  The faithful love between Noah and Allie at the end of the film is certainly praiseworthy, but the road they took to get there is certainly not.  The young couple, born out of a summer romance acted recklessly, deliberately disobeyed her parents (and girls, if a guy is willing to show disrespect to your parents in order to gain your affection, you need to toss him out the window because he won’t respect you either when push comes to shove), broke commitments, and were involved sexually before they were married which for Allie came at the expense of her faithfully committed fiancé, and for Noah came at the expense of another woman who he treated as little better than a piece of trash used to take his mind of his “true love.”

In the context of the story—and our culture—we are expected to let these mere indiscretions slide as necessary evils in order to allow for the flourishing of their deep feelings of love for one another.  I mean, how could we let anything get in the way of “true love” like they had?  Hogwash!  Put in the context of reality, the likelihood that behavior such as Noah and Allie demonstrated will result in the kind of faithful love on beautiful display at the end of the movie is, apart from an effusion of the grace of God, a good deal of genuine repentance, and lots of hours together in a counselor’s office, slim to nil.  And if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are trying to convince someone, including yourself, that you are the exception: you aren’t.  Now, if this were a story of repentance and how turning to the example of Christ can rescue a relationship on a tragic course and set it once again on the path to real life that would be one thing.  But it wasn’t.  So while our culture celebrates every part of this story with glee, we must offer a reserved praise—the end result is good, but the presented pathway is farcical at best and a shallow picture of the true depths of being intentionally dedicated to seeing someone else become fully who God designed them to be, that is, of loving them.  And yet, to make such an argument as this in our culture is likely to not be received as a winsome apologetic for the only faith that provides the necessary framework to achieve such an ending as this on a repeatable basis, but rather it would probably be received as further confirmation that those Christians are too stuffy, old fashioned, and just downright strange to appreciate a good love story.

So you see, then, even with something as seemingly innocuous as a supposedly beautiful love story, we are strangers in this world.  The question I left us asking at the end of our time together last week, then, was this: What do we say to strangers such as these; such as ourselves?  As we continue taking some baby steps into the weight of Peter’s words in 1 Peter this morning, we are going to begin sketching the outline of an answer to this question.  Open your Bibles with me to 1 Peter 1:3 and we’ll get started.

As you’re doing that let me quickly set the stage for us.  We have established pretty well that we are strangers and as such we want to hear a word explaining how we are supposed to handle this state of affairs.  Well, what would be the most important first word for someone who has realized their stranger status to hear?  Culturally speaking, the argument would go like this: We need to encourage her that she isn’t so stranger as it seems.  Eventually he’ll fit in and find his place in this world.  She just has to embrace her inner self.  Yet this would offer little more than false hope serving to either ultimately discourage or else water down the conviction of the stranger to the point that it no longer resembles what it once was.  And while some folks might find this to be the right way to go—who wants to enable a religious extremist anyway?—I would disagree heartily.  When someone has intentionally chosen the life of a stranger in the midst of a hostile culture, they have done so for a reason.  This is not a decision made flippantly.  Only a masochist seeks out a place in life likely to bring persecution.  No, the person who has chosen this life—really chosen it, mind you, not simply walked an aisle or prayed a prayer to appease someone else—has done so because they have been drawn by a powerful vision of the results of such a life as this.  The most important first words a self-made stranger needs to hear, then, is an affirmation that this vision will become a reality; that their faith will become sight.  They need to be given a hope that works.  There is no use for a dead hope in this situation—a hope for some future they don’t really believe or even fear is coming.  What’s needed is a living hope.  A living hope is one that is constantly growing and changing in light of present circumstances, always becoming more focused, and which is capable of bearing up under enormous pressure to abandon hope and live only for the moment.  This kind of hope is planted deeply in the life of a true follower of Christ.  The only soil fitting for a living hope to flourish, however, is the rich loam of guaranteed future blessing.  In other words, when we have confidence that the sacrifices we make now will pay off in the end, we feel a good bit better about making them in the first place.  What I want you to understand and what Peter is going to make clear for us as we go forward is that our living hope is secure in our promised future.

Look with me at the text starting in v. 3, we’ll see how Peter puts all of this, and we’ll check out a couple of really neat aspects of this living hope.  Peter writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope [there it is] through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Those are some incredible words.  Yet at a simple glance they might seem like little more than a random declaration and a spouting off of spontaneous praise to God for sending Jesus.  But, when placed in the context of the whole letter there is something behind all of this which renders it most important drawing our attention to the fact of our secure future in which we can have a living hope.  Peter starts out with this hope we’ve been talking about, this living hope.  Now, when I read people like Peter talking about things like this, the cynic in me sometimes comes out.  How can Peter talk about hope like this in the same way I think about hope?  I mean, Peter lived during and immediately after the life of Christ.  He literally walked around with Jesus for three years.  Yes, he was devastated by the crucifixion, but he was buoyed by the resurrection and was among the first people in the world to be permanently empowered by the Holy Spirit.  He was living during a day when people still expected Jesus to return within a generation or so.  This was still a full generation before John’s visions cast the events leading to the final fulfillment of our hope into a much more distant future than was commonly assumed in Peter’s day.  Of course, Peter could talk about a living hope.  Hope for him was still as fresh as the vegetables coming out of our gardens right now.  Can we, should we still have a hope like this?  We can and we should.  We can because our hope isn’t rooted in something transitory like an idea or cultural movement.  Our hope is rooted in a well-documented historical event.  It is rooted, in fact, in one of the most well-documented historical events from its particular era of history.  Because our hope is sunk deep in the well of historical fact we can have confidence that the grounds of reality are not going to shift underneath us and leave us without a foundation on which to rest in looking forward to a reward for our taking on the burden of being a stranger.

We should for two reasons.  First, our hope is borne on the back of the One who is not simply true, but who is identified as the Truth.  The embodiment of Truth itself guaranteed the future inheritance set aside for those who embrace this hope.  Second, this living hope points to a future actually worth anticipating.  Culturally speaking, many if not most of the images of the future cast about for popular consumption are set after the apocalypse and are distinctly dystopian in nature.  They picture a future that is in every way worse than the present.  They imagine a situation in which people are still looking forward to something better but which has drifted further out of view than it once was.  This is not a future to anticipate, but a future to fear.  Meanwhile, the living hope possessed by followers of Jesus is in every way better than what we have now.  We may experience this future in bits and pieces now—foretastes intended to encourage and inspire us to keep stretching forward for it—but we anticipate the day when our salvation is made complete; when we finally receive the inheritance promised us by the Son of God Himself which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the meantime, the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ guards us through our faith until that day comes.  The image here is of a group of people encamped within a secure wall which prevents the success of the myriad of attacks coming against them from beyond the walls’ protective limits.  We are strangers in this world, but we are not alone.  We are guarded safely by the God who has promised to faithfully carry us to the kingdom’s shores as we place our faith in Him; a placement demonstrated by our presisting in our strangeness in spite of the pressures we constantly face on all sides to conform to our world.  It is this living hope in the destination of our journey that enables us to so endure.  A living hope is secure in our promised future.

This is an important thing because in spite of our rejoicing in what’s to come, we still have to get up and deal with the attacks of a culture which values conformity over real individualism every day of the week.  Let’s not forget we become strangers in this world when we commit ourselves to the path that Christ walked.  We become strangers in every respect.  And the fact remains that in most places in the world, strangers are not well-received.  In fact, as nations used to understand, a general cultural conformity is necessary in order to preserve the sovereignty of the nation.  If someone wanted to become an Israelite, they had to fully submit to Israel’s law and customs.  In order to become an official citizen of this nation, two of the requirements are that the person must “be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U. S. history and government (civics), [and] be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during all relevant periods under the law.”[1] If a person isn’t willing to accede to these things, we as a people don’t want to give them the right to participate in the shaping of public policy because they won’t have our best interests at heart.  And this isn’t a bad thing.  Foolish is the nation which gives a voice and vote to people actively working for a different set of interests than that nation’s best.  Nations which cease to celebrate their national identity run the risk of losing it to a people bent on remaking it in their own image, that is, on conquest.  In fact, strangers, aliens, foreigners who refuse to comply with the laws and customs and best interests of the land are rightly removed from the land.

Here’s the catch: as citizens of the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of this world, we fit the bill of one of these latter strangers.  Our goal is the complete transformation of this world.  We are an invading people bent on conquering this world in the name of Christ.  We are inside agents working to make the transitioning out of the rulers of this world in favor of the coming Ruler as smooth as possible.  The kingdom of this world and its people, then, naturally takes steps to discourage and otherwise prevent us from achieving our goal.  The difference between this and what happens among the various nations of the world is that we know our view of the world is right over and against every other set of ideas and we know further that in the end, our view of the world is going to dominate.  This is a living hope.  And our living hope rests securely in our promised future.  The behavior of the world toward us in its attempts to safeguard its borders should not surprise us in the least.  Instead of getting angry or discouraged about these efforts, we should instead view them as tests which serve to demonstrate how sincerely committed we are to this living hope which rests securely in our promised future.

Look back at the text with me starting in v.6 to see how Peter puts all of this.  “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Though you have not seen him, you love him.  Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

So you see, when we have this living hope which is secure in our promised future as the first and most important thing we know as strangers in this world, the trials of this life in whatever form they happen to come are little more than fires of purification.  They are opportunities for us to demonstrate our fidelity to the Gospel of Christ.  They are chances for us to show the world the surpassing greatness of the strange life we have chosen over and against the pseudo-life of this world.  They are occasions for us to live by faith.  And not just any faith, but proved-genuine faith in Jesus Christ which Peter proclaims is more valuable than the purest of gold (which in today’s market is really saying something).  When we live according to the commands of a person we’ve never seen in the face of pressures of various sorts to do otherwise we demonstrate our strangeness to the world—they don’t get it.  Why suffer all of this for a person we’ve never seen?  Why face hardships for a future you’ve only read about in a book?  And yet at the same time, because of the identity of this person and our living hope, secure as it is in our promised future, we gain the ability to “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” because we know that our salvation is secure.

The trials are hard.  They aren’t any fun.  Often times they are downright miserable and tempt us mightily to simply give up on the whole enterprise as not worth the trouble.  But then we come across words like this and are reminded that faith doesn’t grow on its own.  Faith is a spiritual muscle.  Absent opportunities to put it to use it atrophies.  And because human inertia keeps us from jumping into faith-demanding, faith-growing situations on our own, our loving heavenly Father presents us with such opportunities from time to time in order to grow our faith and make it more and more valuable as a kingdom commodity.  Writing on this several years ago one pastor made this observation: “A simple bar of iron ore, pulled from the earth, might be worth $5.00.  However, that same bar, when made into horseshoes, would be worth $10.50.  If the owner decided to make the bar into needles for sewing, it could be worth as much as $3,285.  And if he turned it into springs for watches, its value could jump as high as $250,000.  What made the difference?  Simply the amount of heat by which the iron bar was tempered and honed.”[2]  With our living hope securely resting in our promised future, we see that the heat from a world that doesn’t like strangers is merely providing the occasion for us to be fashioned into a creature of glory such as this world has never imagined.

This transformation, by the way, is something which those servants of God who came before us have been very much interested in seeing happen.  Look with me at vv. 10-12 and then we’ll get out of here.  “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully.  Inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.  It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”

The prophets of the Old Testament whom the Spirit of Christ, as Peter identifies Him, led to foretell the coming of the Messiah who would save His people from their sins had a strong hope and faith.  They had to because they never experienced the things they proclaimed.  They were proclaiming the means by which people could be freed from the brokenness of this life through the salvation of God—an idea which would have seemed utterly fanciful to most of their contemporaries.  We are the heirs to their legacy.  We have a hope that has been made alive by the power of Christ.  Do you know who else has trouble believing that we can experience this salvation, that we can root ourselves in this living hope and by the Spirit’s enabling power climb out of the brokenness of the world around us?  Angels.  Yep.  Angels.  Those special servants of God whom we often hold up as higher beings who are closer to God than we are, who get to be face to face with God on a regular basis, look at our grounding ourselves in this living hope and walking through this life as elect strangers in spite of the persecutions to capitulate all the while never actually seeing the object of our hope, and marvel with awe.

Friends, we are strangers in a world that doesn’t like strangers.  In order to do this with anything resembling success, we have to make sure we are properly rooted in this living hope.  In order to walk tall as a stranger without giving in—at first in small ways and then in bigger ones—to the world around us, losing our distinction as citizens of the kingdom, we have to keep this living hope at the center of our being.  This is the first and most important word for strangers such as ourselves to hear.  This living hope gives us the vision we need to remain different in the face of great pressures to conform to the world around us.  And when we cling to this living hope which rests securely in our promised future, we will cease to be mere strangers, but will transform into kingdom citizens who proclaim to the whole world the dawning of a better life, a truer life, a hopeful life.  We will bring glory to God and experience in a way more powerful than we have yet the salvation of our God.  Let us, then, be hopeful strangers for our promised future awaits.

[1]Taken from the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website on July 2, 2012.

[2]David Helm, 1 & 2 Peter and Jude (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 42.