Sunday, May 06, 2007

Living with hope - 1 Peter 1:1-25 for Kilhorne Parish (Annalong) YF and Young Adults on 6th May 2007

I had a very enjoyable evening down in Annalong tonight. First off was the 18-30s informal Bible study in the afternoon, where 10 of us together looked at 1 Peter 1. Then it was the evening service where Bill the rector preached. Then it was Youth Fellowship back in the hall - about 20 or so at it. A big thank you to Bill for his invite to come down, and hopefully I'll be back at some point in the future to the parish!

Don't be scared by the length of this - don't worry, I didn't do it all. This was just my preparatory material and an extended talk for the whole chapter. In practical terms, though, it was a bit long, so we covered verses 1 - 9 in each meeting. Much shorter and easier to manage! But having done the study, then the next time I preach on either section, or even the whole letter, it will be easier to start off!


What do you do when you get an email into your inbox, or a letter through the post? I don’t know about you, but I like to see who it’s from. Sometimes you can know from the envelope – normally a brown envelope is bad news, and a handwritten envelope is probably good news – maybe a birthday card. Because I live in Dublin, I only get home to Dromore for the weekends – and there’s always a mountain of mail. Depending on who the letters are from, I open the good ones first!

So as we look at the opening of this letter, the first thing we see is who it’s from. Rather than putting the name at the end of the letter, the way we do, writers at this time put their own name first. And who is it? Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.

Instantly we know who the letter is from. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest companions, spending time with him; and was one of the leading apostles as the church began to tell others about Jesus. I think you’ll agree that Peter is quite important. So who is he writing to?

‘To God’s elect, strangers in the world’ – Peter is writing to Christians, and even in these first few words says a lot about who they were, and also who we are. Peter reminds these Christians that they are ‘God’s elect’ – chosen by God to be his people. It is because of this that they are also known as ‘strangers in the world.’ Other versions use the word ‘exiles’ bringing to mind the previous experience of Israel, being taken off from the promised land, and scattered across the world.

But even though they are strangers in the world, they are not forgotten or unknown. Peter has already described them as ‘God’s elect’ – his chosen people. Later in verse 2, he spells out what he means in more detail. They have been ‘chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.

The first thing he wishes for them is – grace and peace be yours in abundance. Grace – God’s undeserved good favour towards them, and peace – God’s gift to them.

So Peter the apostle, is writing to this group of strangers. What will he say to them? Bang! Out of the blue, Peter launches into a shout of praise to God. It’s almost as if he isn’t writing a letter for a moment – rather, it’s as if he has been struck with the greatness of God and what God has done.

‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!’ Why does Peter praise? Let’s look at it together. ‘In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.’

Did everyone get that? Simple, right? Well, because Peter has packed so much into that one sentence, we’ll have a closer look. So why is Peter praising God?

First – Peter praises God for his mercy (his great mercy). Mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we deserve. And because God hasn’t given us what we deserve (which was the punishment our sins deserved), instead he has given us something else. He has given us ‘new birth’ into two things – which are really one thing as we’ll see. First, we have been born anew into a living hope.

What is hope? Hope is the sure and certain waiting for things that are promised. This isn’t like the wishful thinking that you might hear or even say – ‘I hope it will be sunny tomorrow’. Rather, it is trusting in the sure promises of God, waiting for things that we don’t now have.

The hope that we have as Christians is that Jesus will return, and that we will be with him. How is it a living hope? Notice the play on words – because Jesus is alive, having been raised from the dead – we also have a living hope. Jesus lives, so our hope lives. Jesus cannot die again, having defeated death – so our hope lives too.

We’re also given new birth into ‘an inheritance that is … kept in heaven.’ Normally for someone to receive an inheritance, it takes the death of the person involved. Then the will is read and the property is divided. But here, the inheritance is ours through our new birth, and through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Do you see that our inheritance is in the safest place ever? It is kept in heaven. Remember the words of Jesus when he said ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matt 6:19-21)

But Peter goes even further again, using three words to describe just how great our inheritance is. It can never ‘perish, spoil or fade.’ There’s no best before date on it – the inheritance will keep the same; it won’t get dirty or damaged; and it won’t reduce in quality.

Peter says that our inheritance is being kept in heaven for them. But it’s also true to say that they are being kept for it. Through their faith (and through God’s faithfulness), they are being shielded by God’s power. So just as the devil can’t get at their inheritance, also he can’t fully get at the Christians either – they are shielded, guarded by God’s power.

The good news is also that their (and our) waiting won’t go on forever. They are being shielded ‘until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.’ The end is in sight – the salvation will arrive when Jesus returns. But the good news is that it is ready. Jesus has accomplished it all – there’s nothing they can do to add to the salvation. The salvation is ready. It’s a bit like the wait for the latest games machine. The consoles might be sitting in the warehouse for a month before the launch date, but they are complete, they’re ready to be revealed at the right time.

The salvation is complete and ready to be revealed because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Remember one of his last words on the cross? John 19:30 says: ‘When he had received the drink, Jesus said “It is finished.”’ Jesus had paid the cost of our salvation through his death on the cross. Nothing we can do can add to it, or make God love us more. It’s up to us to accept it.

Why does Peter praise God? Well, because of all that God has done for us – his mercy which brings about the new birth to the living hope and to the inheritance which is safe and secure, just as we are safe and secure by God’s power until our salvation is finally revealed.

If we can’t find a reason or two to praise God in that sentence then we are in trouble! As Peter says himself ‘in this you greatly rejoice’. Surely here is the reason to praise God for all that he has done for us. Yes, it’s inspiring, but it’s only part of what Peter is writing about. You see, even though the Christians in these places were rejoicing, they were also in the middle of big trouble.

At the time Peter was writing, Christians were facing persecutions in this part of the Roman Empire. Christians were being arrested, put in prison, shunned from society, and even being put to death. These persecutions have never really stopped – even today our brothers and sisters are being persecuted in over 60 countries (source: Open Doors website).

Peter writes to encourage them in their suffering, to call them to keep going in their faith by remembering who they are (and whose they are), and what God has done for them.

So he goes on from what God has done to their immediate situation. ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’

The trials have come, bringing them grief. But Peter tells them to not lose heart or faith – there is a purpose to their hard times. Their faith is being tested, or proved. No one likes tests. One of the big problems about going back to student life again was the need for exams. They’re now just two weeks away, and I’m not looking forward to them.

But they’re needed. They can show that I’ve listened (most of the time) in lectures, and that I’m ready to move on to the next part of the course. Even with that goal of next year at the back of my mind, they’re still tough, but it can help keep me going.

Peter is encouraging the Christians to stick at it – the trials are, in the light of eternity and the grand scheme of things, ‘now for a little while.’ They will soon end, when Jesus is revealed, and will result in ‘praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ This will mainly be praise for Jesus, because of what he has done, but there could also be the element of praise for the individual as well for having kept going.

But there’s one wee bit that Peter is amazed at. Remember that this is Peter, the friend of Jesus who travelled about with him for three years, who ate with him and talked with him. It’s this – that these Christians, scattered across the Empire had never seen Jesus personally, yet they love him and believe in him. ‘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, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’

Peter the apostle marvels over these strangers who heard the good news about Jesus and love him just as much as Peter does. Together, because they believe in him, they share in joy – inexpressible (just too good to put into words) and glorious – as they receive the goal of faith, the salvation of their souls (which they are guaranteed by the living hope they have).

Sometimes we get things mixed up. Our thinking is a bit strange. While we might get the God bit right, we then get confused in our own experience. That’s why we need to be focused on God and what he has done for us. Otherwise we get downhearted when the trials come. We think, yes, God loves us, but if that’s the case, then why do family members get sick and die? Or why do relationships break down? Or what about being the outsider in school or uni or work because you’re a Christian?

Here we see that these trials, can be to test our faith, and to help us to grow as Christians. And no matter how difficult they seem to be, there is a way through – by remembering what God has done. Peter lifts our focus from what is happening to us, to what has happened for us.

Peter is revealing a pattern – trials before glory. Just as Jesus had to pass through the suffering of the cross before he could enter his glory again, so Peter calls the Christians to endure the trials (with their hope) and look to the glory and praise and honour at the other end. You can see that in verse 11, as Peter talks about the Old Testament prophets who predicted Christ’s sufferings and glory beforehand – the cross wasn’t a tragic mistake, but was what the Spirit of Christ had foretold through them. So the pattern revealed by the prophets, lived by Christ is now at work in the Christians lives – the cross then the crown. (Sometimes referred to in the negative – ‘no cross, no crown’).

Up to verse 12, we see what God has done for us. Verses 13 on show us what we have to do – how we should respond to God’s grace and mercy. See the ‘therefore’ at the start of verse 13? That shows that there’s a link between what has gone before and what is coming now. Because of that, then this follows.

Verse 13 shows us that we need to be ready for the battle that is coming – and the battle starts in our minds. ‘Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.’

Peter is saying that if you know what you know about God, then you can be prepared for what is coming. So how should we live out our hope?

I’m sure you have never been told – ‘as long as you’re in this house, you’ll live by our rules’ – or ‘this is how our family behaves (or doesn’t behave).’ But in a sense, this is how Peter goes on to encourage his readers to respond to God’s grace.

Because we have been given new birth (into God’s family) – we are called to live up to the family likeness. Verse 14: ‘as obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”’

We aren’t called to be holy to win our salvation. We can’t get on the right side of God by doing good things. We are only made right with God through what Jesus has done for us on the cross. But when we are saved, then we have to live up to what we are.

No longer will we so easily give in to evil desires that arise within us – instead we seek to grow more like Jesus. The choice is, in one respect, very simple – are we going to live our own way, or are we going to live God’s way?

Up to now, Peter hasn’t specifically mentioned the cross, even though it has been the background of all he has said. Now, Peter speaks of it directly, as he reminds us of judgement – also as he seeks to encourage us to live a holy life.

First, he says that we call on a Father who is the judge. One day at the end of time, God will indeed judge each of us for what we have done. It’s because of this judgement that we’re called to live in fear – looking forward to that day. Not a fear because of the final result – Jesus has died for us, if you have accepted him as Lord and Saviour – but precisely because Jesus has died for us.

We’re back to the precious theme again – we haven’t been redeemed by perishable things like gold or silver – but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Slaves could be ‘redeemed’ in the market place – bought with money. But it was something much more precious and important than money that it took to redeem and save us – Christ’s blood shed on the cross.

We’ve been saved because God gave that which cost so very much – so we should live in response to that fact. Peter then goes on to show how precious Jesus is – ‘a lamb without blemish or defect’ – he is our Passover Lamb, the substitute who died in our place, taking our sins upon himself. This is why living a holy life is so important.

There’s one final bit of instruction in chapter one that Peter has for the Christians he’s writing to. That is to love one another deeply. The reason we have to love one another deeply is because we have been born again. By ourselves, we’re self-centred, and only interested in other people for what they can give us or how we can use them.

Having been born again, we are part of the new family of God. As well as loving God, we also have to love our brothers and sisters. Peter links this to us being redeemed through the living and enduring word of God – which stands for ever. Our new birth isn’t just for a week or two, but will last forever, into eternity, and so God calls us in his word to love others.

So what have we seen tonight from our reading? First, we see what a great God we have – in doing all he has done for us. He has blessed us with the new birth and saved us and redeemed us. As a result, we must live up to our calling – living holy lives, and loving those around us.

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