Sunday, July 08, 2007

Treasured Possession: A sermon preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on 8th July 2007. 1 Peter 2:4-10

Have you ever watched one of those make-over programmes on television? The format is very similar, across the wide range of programmes. You begin by introducing a person, or a room, or a garden in dire need of help. The person’s style isn’t considered fashionable, or the room hasn’t been decorated in thirty years, or the garden is actually a jungle.

Then the experts come on side and over the course of an afternoon or a few days, there is a transformation! The person changes from being unfashionable to being fashionable; the room looks completely different, the garden is now suitable for barbecues on the newly installed patio.

In our reading this morning, Peter tells of something similar that has happened to his readers. Look with me at verse 10. ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ Verse 9 further talks about how they have been called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light. These Christians have been completely changed and transformed – but not by a make-over, where the outside appearance is changed. We’ll see in a minute or two how they have been changed. But for now, I want you to see how radical and shocking these words of Peter were in the first century, especially when written by a Jew to Gentiles.

Most of Peter’s readers would have been Gentile Christians – that is, they were pagans or heathens before they became Christians. They weren’t Jews. Yet here Peter calls them God’s people, and the recipients of mercy. It would have been unthinkable for a Jew to call Gentiles part of God’s people.

After all, everyone knew that Israel was God’s chosen people. God had chosen Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be his chosen people, those in relationship with himself. In Genesis 12 we read of God choosing Abraham, so that all nations will be blessed through him. Israel is to be the light for the nations so that the other peoples can see the blessing of being in relationship with God.

But Israel concentrated so much on being the chosen people that they forgot the other nations, and forgot about being a blessing to other nations. They developed ideas of superiority compared to other nations, and regarded the other nations as unclean, and less important.

Again, look at verse 9, remembering that these descriptions are being used by Peter when he talks about Gentile Christians – ‘you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.’ All of these titles, these descriptions were used of Israel in the Old Testament. In fact, they all link back to Exodus 19, just before the Ten Commandments are given on Mount Sinai to Moses. Here is Exodus 19:5-6: ‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Do you see how shocking this is – that Peter takes the words used to describe the nation of Israel, and uses them to talk about Gentiles? Yet at the same time it is amazingly good news! These Gentiles were separated from God, their position was bleak, and they were without mercy. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, ‘remember that you were … separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (Eph 2:12). Yet now, Peter declares, they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, God’s people, and the receivers of mercy! What a transformation!

So the question must be: how did this happen? Did the ‘Changing Rooms’ or ‘What Not To Wear’ team come along and with a slap of paint, or a new colour scheme achieve the transformation? No!

The transformation has come about because of their response to Jesus Christ. Look at verse 6 and the start of 7: ‘For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honour is for you who believe …’

In the first part of the passage, Peter speaks about stones and building, describing Jesus as ‘a living stone’ and a ‘cornerstone.’ A cornerstone is the main foundation stone, on which all the other stones in a building are built. As such, it is the most important stone, as it determines the firmness of the walls and the strength of the building. Notice that Jesus is described as the ‘living stone’ – reminding us again that Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, and active.

But more than that, the living stone was ‘rejected by men but in the sight of God (is) chosen and precious’. There can be no doubt that Jesus was rejected by men – he was put to death by the religious leaders of the day, and executed by the political authorities. By dying on the cross he was under a curse in the Law, yet he was chosen and precious in the sight of God.

Peter tells his readers that God is building something on the cornerstone, on Jesus Christ. In verse 5 we read that it is ‘a spiritual house’ – a temple as some other versions put it – which has the idea of both the house itself, as well as the family, the household of faith, which will be, in the words of verse 5, ‘a holy priesthood.’

You see, the religion of Israel was so focused on the temple as the dwelling of God, that they cared more about the temple than they did about God. Think for a moment about the temple in Jesus’ day – how the focus had shifted to buying and selling animals and changing money. The temple was seen as a way of making money, rather than as a house of prayer. And then as Jesus died on the cross, the temple of the curtain was torn in two – no longer would we need sacrifices in the temple to access God, because Jesus had died, the true sacrifice had been made.

The Jerusalem temple would soon be destroyed by the Roman armies. But Peter here shows that God is building a new temple, not with polished stones of marble or rock; but of living stones, of people, of Christians. So to the living stone, these Christians are like living stones, coming and being built together.

Are you beginning to see how these Gentiles have been changed and transformed? As Peter has quoted the words of Isaiah 28, he shows that God has laid the chosen and precious cornerstone – that is, Jesus Christ. Those who believe in him will not be put to shame. By believing in Jesus, the Gentile believers have become part of the household of God, part of the new temple (where God dwells by his Spirit in the hearts of believers), and have received God’s mercy.

Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation stone for building on. But not everyone will do so. As we heard earlier, Jesus, the living stone, was rejected by men. Many people still reject Jesus, refusing to come to him, or to believe in him. Our passage this morning also contains a fearful warning for those who reject Jesus.

Earlier, I read the first half of verse 7: ‘So the honour is for you who believe’ … but it goes on to make clear that not everyone believes, and that there are consequences – ‘but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.”’

The image here is of people rejecting a stone as being not suitable for building, yet it turns out to be the most important one for building. And then, those very same people, rather than building on the cornerstone, end up tripping on it, stumbling over it. The next verse (from Isaiah 8) speaks of ‘And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.’ (Isaiah 8:14-15)

[Are you building on the stone, or tripping over it? Not long after I started preaching, I was climbing into the pulpit in Magheralin. Pulpits are great places of stone – yet I tripped and almost didn’t make it into the pulpit!]

So I want to ask you this morning – where are you in relation to Jesus, the living stone? Are you still a stranger to him? You are outside of the people of God, a stranger to his mercy, in danger of tripping over the cornerstone? I urge you today to come to Christ, to come to the living stone. Receive that great promise that ‘whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’

Or maybe you have come to Christ, and trusted in him. You are that treasured possession of God, having known his mercy and the joy of being in the people of God. Look again at verse 9. There’s something for you to do – you haven’t been saved to be stuck; you are saved for a purpose. You are ‘a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light.’

You know the change that Jesus has brought about in your life – hopefully others will see that change too. Your task is to praise the God who has saved you, and to tell others about what God has done for you!

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