September 2, 2012

Keeping Things in Focus

So this morning we’re going to pick up from where we left off a couple of weeks ago when we commissioned the Honduras Team for their work.  They are home safely now and from all reports I’ve gotten had a great time.  If you can bear to wait a couple of weeks we’re going to turn the entire service over to Shirley, Joy, Evelyn, and Jim to tell you all about it.  You won’t want to miss that on the 16th.  If you’ll remember back a couple of weeks ago to the sermon that morning, the big idea for the day was drawn from 1 Peter 3:15.  Specifically, when righteousness gets hard, we are to defend it righteously.  A big part of this idea is that we should be ready and willing to lovingly defend what and why we believe and behave as we do.  The name given to this practice of defending what we believe is “apologetics” which comes from the Greek word apologia, which means to give a verbal defense for something.  Well, the discipline of apologetics is vast in its scope.  Folks have constructed good defenses of the faith springing from the disciplines of science, philosophy, ethics and morality, culture, sociology, anthropology, history, and more.

Of all the areas covered by apologetics, though, there is one area which stands heads and shoulders above the others in terms of the difficulty of presenting a rational defense for the existence of God and the kind of behavior which should naturally flow from such a being’s existence.  The difficulty here is not primarily intellectual, but emotional.  The technical word for this difficulty is theodicy.  It is known more commonly as “the problem of evil.”  How do we square our belief in a good God against the presence of the volume and extent of evil easily observable in our world?  This goes both generally and very specifically.  People ask all the time why bad things happen generally.  When something like Hurricane Isaac does the kind of damage it did this past week people naturally want to ask why.  But, this morning I want to get more specific.  Namely, why, if believers are said to have a special status before God, do we seem to receive more than our fair share of hard times?   What do we do with stories like the one I recently heard from Nigeria, where thousands of believers have been murdered in the past few years by radical Muslim groups, about a Christian family who gave a Muslim man walking on the side of the road a ride to his home in a nearby village?  As the family drove with the man in the backseat they were listening to a tape playing Christian music.  The man began to appear obviously unsettled by the music.  Before long he had his phone out and was calling friends in his village and when the car arrive at the edge of town it was met by a mob of at least 300 people who smashed out the windshield and the side windows, threatened the family’s life, and demanded they turn over the tape to be destroyed.

Now, that’s pretty radical, I’ll grant you.  While millions of believers around the world are daily at risk of treatment not so different from this and much worse, it is a concept foreign enough to our culture that it’s hard for American Christians who have not been exposed to the life of believers in the non-Western world to imagine.  How about something a bit more local?  How about the story of Dr. Bob Woodberry?  He deviated from one of the norms established by the academic world by asserting that missionary work in the 19th century (and missionary work generally) was not a force of cultural destruction, but actually had a positive impact on the life of the natives who were the object of the mission work.  For his well-researched efforts and in spite of his sterling academic record he was not only denied tenure by the University of Texas (the equivalent of being fired), but was rejected by 108 other U. S. schools including at least one Christian school.  He was finally able to find a job, though…in Singapore.  Now the persecution here wasn’t physical per se, but it was no less felt by its object.  What do we do with stories like this?  If God lets His own people experience this kind of thing, why would someone risk their life in order to start following Him?  How is that an improvement?  How do we make sense out of things like this?

These kinds of questions come up very naturally at this point in the book of 1 Peter, a book notable in its beloved standing among the persecuted church around the world.  As we have seen thus far in our own journey through the book, as followers of Christ we are strangers in this world.  We simply don’t look like everyone else around us.  We think differently.  We act differently.  We value different things.  There is little about us that’s the same.  This differentiation, however, is to be neither an excuse nor a mark of pride.  We’re simply different.  The question is: how we should handle it?  Well, how about we embrace it?  This is Peter’s advice: live up to the lifestyle of your calling in Christ.  Be godly strangers.  Practice humble submission to the people around you.  Become well known for doing good.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  That’s all well and good to say, but what about when the rubber meets the road?  What about when we have to face reality?  It’s not that simple.  Peter’s response?  You’re right.  It’s not.  But, neither are we left to face it alone.  In fact, we’re not even the first ones to face it.  Jesus paved the way for us in this regard.  He walked the path of the cross.  We do well not to forget that.  When righteous living gets hard and we’re tempted to complain about the kind of life to which God has called us, we need only think back to the cross and the ordeal Jesus went through to even make such a life possible and things will be put in perspective.  But even if this doesn’t work, Peter has one more suggestion: Look forward.  You see, knowing that Jesus walked through the fire in order for us to be able to live as He calls us sometimes isn’t enough.  In the moment of persecution we are still tempted to ask the hard question: what’s the point of this?  How does this make the kind of life for which I’m striving worth it?  In these times we need a clear vision of where we’re going in order to really see the things standing in the way in their proper place.  Perhaps a quick illustration will help.  I want everyone in the room to look at the thermostat on the other side of the room.  Got it?  Now, hold your thumb up between your eyes and the thermostat.  Close one eye.  If you move your thumb just right it covers up the thermostat nearly completely.  But, when you open both eyes again so that you can see clearly, things are put back in the proper perspective.  When you have a clear vision of the object of your focus, obstacles in the foreground are able to be seen as they really are rather than something much more than that.  If you have your Bibles with you this morning, open them to 1 Peter 4 and we’ll take a look at his recommendation of what should fill out our vision in order to keep the things we suffer now in their proper perspective.

Follow along with me as I read starting at 4:1: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.  For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.  With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.  For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”

Now there is a lot going on in these verses, but what Peter really does here is to affirm once again our strangeness as far as the world goes.  Have you noticed how he just keeps coming back to this theme?  Let’s work into this for just a minute.  Peter starts out by pointing once again to Jesus’ ordeal on the cross, but then he says something really wild.  When we suffer for what we believe, we stop sinning.  Great!  I just need to go find someone to punch me in the face for being a Christian and I can finally be rid of all the sin that keeps getting in the way of my Christian walk.  Well, maybe not so fast.  Instead, Peter’s point here is that when we actively and faithfully endure—not seek out—suffering on account of our faith, the root of sin is cut off in us.  The whole idea behind sin is that we have put ourselves and our desires above God’s commands.  But to suffer for our faith, we are necessarily putting the things of God over and against our own interests.  You can’t sin when you do that.  We’ll deal with the temptation to sin for the balance of our lives on earth, but when we can put ourselves in a place in which we reject our own interests at the expense of God’s—Jesus called it dying to self—we’ll be in the best place imaginable to stand against temptation.

Such a move, however, goes completely against the mores of the world.  It only serves to highlight our strangeness.  As Peter points out: they aren’t going to get it.  The world says: If you have a desire, fulfill it.  Meanwhile we’re saying: If you have a desire, subjugate it to God’s desire even at the risk of it not getting fulfilled because it might not be for something good.  At first they don’t understand our rejection of the world’s way of life, but this lack of understanding quickly gives way to active hatred for our refusal to participate.  “What?  Do you think you’re too good for us now, Mr. Holier-than-thou?  We don’t want you around anymore anyway!”  When we lovingly reject the approach this world and its citizens (some of whom we count among our friends and family) take to life, this maligning, this hatred, this persecution is going to come.  Peter guarantees it.  They won’t understand why you won’t keep family traditions any longer which were sinful in their structure.  They won’t understand why you won’t let little ethical slips slide any longer.  They won’t understand why you keep setting your priorities such that your church family gets first nod over other activities even at the risk of missing out on something good.  They won’t understand why you’ve eased up your involvement in events and activities which were sucking up so much of your attention that you didn’t have enough left to give things the Bible proclaims you should value more.  They won’t understand and they’re going to pressure you to come back.  And if you refuse, if you stick with the path of life, the pressure’s going to increase.  The persecution’s going to worsen.  It may not get physical, but there are a lot of ways to persecute someone without ever touching them.  Indeed, there are few persecutions more difficult than ones that come from family and friends.

How do we handle this?  By keeping things in perspective.  We remind ourselves that we’re not accountable to them.  They don’t have any real power over us.  We’ll practice humble submission toward them, but we don’t owe them anything.  In fact, they are the ones who will have to give an account to a higher authority one day.  Now, again, this is not to be an excuse or a point of pride.  It’s to serve as a reminder to us that we must keep walking forward in the path of Christ with humility knowing that we’ll have to give the same account and we don’t want to fall short.  In doing all of this we keep things in perspective by looking forward with both eyes open to the reality of what’s before us.

Peter makes this point even clearer at the end of the chapter.  Jump down with me to v. 12 which I’m going to read from the Message because Peterson puts this particularly well, I think: “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God’s isn’t on the job.”  Have you ever done that?  Have you ever experienced a really hard place in life—job loss, death, devastating illness, broken relationship—at a time when you felt like you were doing everything right and thought: “Where’s God in this?”  Come on, we’ve all done that.  Keeping reading: “Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced.  This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.”  Here Peter once again points back to what Jesus faced to reassure us that we aren’t encountering anything new.  Now he makes sure that we are experiencing what Jesus did for the same reason Jesus did: righteousness.

“If you’re abused because of Christ, count yourself fortunate.  It’s the Spirit of God and his glory in you that brought you to the notice of others.”  In other words, as he said before: you are being abused because of Christ.  More specifically, it may be you being abused, but you’re not the target.  Jesus is.  He’s just experiencing it through your body.  The Spirit of Jesus is actively present in your body, accomplishing His work, receiving the same kind of treatment He did when He was here Himself.  Continuing: “If they’re on you because you broke the law or disturbed the peace, that’s a different matter.  But if it’s because you’re a Christian, don’t give it a second thought.  Be proud of the distinguished status reflected in that name!”  Here’s perspective: if you are facing hard times as a result of your commitment to Christ there is no greater indicator you could have that you are squarely in the path of Christ and further that He is present in your life, actively working through you.  Do you know how I know the second part of that is true?  Because you and I aren’t important enough for someone to react to us like that.  Jesus is.

Now the final piece here and then we’ll draw all of this into a single idea.  Stay with me in the text at v. 17: “It’s judgment time for Christians.  We’re first in line.”  That’s not intended to be an encouraging thought, by the way.  “If it starts with us, think what it’s going to be like for those who refuse God’s Message!  ‘If good people barely make it, what’s in store for the bad?’  So if you find life difficult because you’re doing what God said [that’s an important caveat, by the way], take it in stride.  Trust him.  He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll keep on doing it.”  So I’ve said several times now that Peter’s advice on how to handle tough times in life as believers is to look forward.  Look forward to what, though?  Here we get the answer.  We are to look forward to the end.  Focusing our attention on the judgment and subsequent glory coming at the end of the world helps to keep the things we face here and now in perspective.  This happens because having a realistic view of the end both keeps us from getting complacently comfortable in our current state and encourages us to keep moving forward.  It keeps us from getting complacently comfortable by reminding us that God’s judgment will be just, not partial to people who simply claim the name of Christ.  Unless we are actively living out our faith commitment, there is no reason to accept our verbal claim as legitimate.  It encourages us, on the other hand, because we know that the hard times we face now because of our faith give legitimacy to our claim and they will one day be swallowed up by the glorious joy of the kingdom.  Let’s put some words to this: keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.

There’s just one more thing we have to remember.  Peter reminds us of this right in the middle of the chapter.  Look back at the text with me in v. 7: “The end of all things is at hand…”  Indeed, keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.   What Peter is about to tell us is how we should live in light of the nearness of the end.  He’s already covered this, though, which is why I called it a reminder.  So, then, how should we be living in light of the end?  How do our lives demonstrate that we have things in perspective?  Keep with me in v. 7: “…therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.  Above all [in other words, this is most important], keep loving one another earnestly…”  Love is most important.  Working to see the people around us become fully who God designed them to be, chiefly through the method of humble submission, is the most important way our lives demonstrate a readiness for the end.  It is the clearest way we show that we have things in the proper perspective.  Keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.  But why should we love like this?  “…since love covers a multitude of sins.”  This is a pretty powerful observation, but whose sins does Peter have in mind?  Ours?  Perhaps, but let me suggest that Peter’s focus here is not personal, but communal.  Peter’s not reminding us here simply how we should live, but how we should live with respect to the community of faith.

You see, dealing with hardships resulting from our faith wears on us.  It brings us down emotionally.  Well, when we are emotionally and spiritually exhausted from resisting the powers of this world in the name of the next one, we’re not as likely to bear with each other with the same degree of patience and humility and love we do when we are fresh.   When we’re tired from dealing with big things, sometimes little ones can get out of focus.  We need to keep the small slights between our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in perspective just like we do the big things we deal with from the world.  Keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.  Sometimes the devil’s goal is not to wash us away with a torrent of persecutions, but rather to wear us down emotionally, spiritually, relationally so that in our exhaustion we let disunity enter our ranks over small, frankly, stupid things and we pick ourselves apart, essentially doing his job for him.  This is why the rest of Peter’s words here are so important.  Not only should we love earnestly, but we should “show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”  Ever gripe about how much you’re doing for the church or for a fellow follower?  That’s so easy to do, isn’t it?  We’ve been so busy keeping our lives with respect to the world in perspective that we let the sacrifice we’ve made to show hospitality in some way to a member of the body get out of perspective and have a little pride-driven pity party.  “I do all this and that and what do I get out of it?”  Well, if you’re doing it for the right reasons, how about heaven?  Keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.

This isn’t all, though.  What does Biblical hospitality look like?  Is it doing a few nice things every now and then for the church or the people in it?  Or is it something entirely more challenging?  The idea behind being hospitable is that we seek to make the people around us feel more comfortable in their environment.  Stay with me here.  If we are followers of Christ, then we are strangers in this world. We never really feel comfortable in this world because we aren’t any longer citizens of this world.  The only world in which we’ll really feel comfortable is the kingdom of God.  Well, the kingdom of God isn’t fully here yet.  But, it is here in the partial.  And the places where it is breaking into this world with the greatest force and the fullest presence are individual bodies of Christ throughout the world, in other words, churches just like this one.  So how do churches come to resemble the kingdom of God more completely such that members of the kingdom can feel more at home there?  This happens when the members of the body actively use the gifts God has given them for the building up of the body in love in the places for which God designed them.  Biblical hospitality is shown when we take the gifts God has given us—and if we are following Him He has given us some gifts intended for this purpose—and use them to serve the body.  Keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective and this kind of service is exactly what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.

With this in mind, hear the final words from Peter on this: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace; whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.  To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”  Do you see how this works?  Keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.  When we face the trials that will come as a result of our faithfully living out our commitment to Jesus Christ, it is vitally important that we keep our life in perspective lest the obstacles and challenges flood our vision and we lose sight of what’s most important.  But when we come in from the storm and are fellowshipping with our fellow happy warriors, it is still vitally important that we keep our life in perspective lest the daily annoyances of family life flood our vision and we lose sight of what’s most important.  We must constantly refocus our eyes on what matters most in order that we don’t lose sight of the reason for our self-appointed strangeness whether by the clouds of persecution or by the fog of familial strain.  Keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.  Don’t grow weary, friends.  There is an end coming.  Live ready.  Don’t lose perspective.  Keep your eyes open.