Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Living Hope in the Midst of Suffering

1 Peter 3:13-22 When Peter wrote these words, Nero was persecuting Christians to divert blame from himself for causing the fire that destroyed Rome.  Many of these early believers were slaves who faced difficult choices in carrying out their duties for pagan masters.  A number of them had spouses who remained unbelievers. 
From the government to their workplaces to their homes, these early Christians faced hardships and difficulties and outright persecution.
While the difficulties we face as Christians here in the United States are different than those of the early Christians, the differences are really a matter of degree, not kind. 
More and more the culture we live in is antagonistic to Christianity.  Our government shuts down Christian businesses.  We work with people and attend schools with those who want to make sure we adopt their godless values.  There is tension in our families between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. 
And so the Words that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to write to the early Christians also apply to our life 2000 years later.  The Bible says:
Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,
            The sense of these words is that, all things being equal, who is going to trouble you for striving to do good?  If Christians are upright citizens and hardworking employees and loving family members--how can anyone be opposed to that? 
But of course, all things are rarely equal.  That’s the sense of Peter’s words:  “hopefully you won’t have to suffer—but then again you might”.  And if you do have to suffer hardship and persecution—don’t be afraid or troubled about it—but set apart—honor-- Christ the Lord as holy. 
In other words, when you are facing troubles on every side—when it seems like the whole world is allied against you, do not be afraid because Jesus is in charge and there is no power in heaven or authority on the earth or enemy in hell that is greater than his gracious rule. 
So great is his power and authority that even the worst kind of difficulty you face is shaped by him, into a blessing for you, and an opportunity to bear witness to others.  The Bible says that you are to:
Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.
            When you follow the example of Christ by forgiving those who misuse you and facing hardships with joy and living in a dark world with hope, you can well imagine the questions that unbelievers might have about that kind of behavior because it is so different from everything they know from the world. 
These are your opportunities to explain why your life and your attitudes and your values as Christians are so different than the rest of the world.
Of course, the assumption is that they will be different!  That’s what the Bible means when it says that you are to “have a good conscience”.  In other words, you need to make sure that your actions and attitudes really are Christian!
But if you are acting in a Christ-like manner and suffering for it, you can be confident that it is those who oppress and persecute you who will be put to shame—not you—and not your faith in Christ. 
But why is this so?  Why can you be so hopeful in the midst of hard times?  Why is it better to have Christ as Lord than submit to the will of the world—even when there is a cost?  Why can you be certain that there will be a final reckoning when hardship and persecution will be revealed to have been a blessing for the Christian --and the evidence for the eternal punishment in hell of those opposed to Christ?
It is because the Lordship of Jesus Christ encompasses the whole world—from the highest heavens to the deepest parts of hell to every person, place, and thing on earth.  The Bible says that:
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,
            The central person and event of history is Jesus Christ and his saving work.  His death on the cross has atoned for the sins of the whole world—the sinless Savior for every sinner and every sin--to bring you back to your heavenly Father. 
The sense of the word that Peter uses there is not merely bring you back—like a child brought to their father kicking and screaming—but to usher you into the presence of God’s greatness, assured of his gracious approval when you get there.
Let the world say what they will about you—let them slander you and lie about the church—let them persecute you and put you to death—it does not matter-- because God has declared you right in his sight and promised you that death is not the end.
God has done even more for you—the risen, victorious Christ descended to the deepest, darkest parts of hell and proclaimed his victory there in such a powerful way that not even in hell can the devil proclaim himself the master.  The Bible says:
Jesus was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
            Jesus did not descend into hell to suffer.  He suffered hell on the cross as he was forsaken by his heavenly Father so that you would never have to experience that forsakenness.  When he cried out:  it is finished—it was.  Everything that needed to be accomplished for your salvation was finished on the cross as Jesus drank the full cup of God’s wrath over your sins. 
And so when his heavenly Father raised him from the dead, before Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the faithful women, there was a promise from God that had to be proclaimed to the evil one who had caused it all. 
That is what Jesus did!  He descended into hell and proclaimed his victory over Satan.  Just as promised to Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ, crushed the plans and purposes of Satan by dying on the cross and rising again.  That victory was proclaimed by Jesus to the captive spirits and souls in hell.
Peter especially mentioned those who opposed the saving work of God during the days of Noah heard of Jesus’ victory—not necessarily because they were worse than others—but because the flood was a type of the final judgment and the evil people of Noah’s day were representative of all those who reject God’s salvation.
For 120 years Noah preached the judgment of God against sin and proclaimed the opportunity to repent and believe in God and take one’s place in the salvation he offered in the ark.  But his message was almost universally rejected. 
The point for us is this:  no matter how bad you think things are---no matter how desperate the situation—no matter how complete the rejection of God and the persecution of his people—Jesus is in control and he will judge the unbelieving world and he will save his people. 
And just as it was in the days of Noah when water was used the vehicle of both God’s judgment and salvation---so it is today in the church today through the waters of Holy Baptism that your enemies are drowned and you are made a part of the true ark of salvation which is Jesus Christ.  The Bible says that:
Baptism, which corresponds to this (that is the waters of the flood), now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…
            When the devil accuses you---when the world persecutes you—when your frail human flesh fails you—there is one comfort that avails in all of it—one comfort that lifts you up and empowers your witness and it is this:  Christ died and was raised for you. 
That promise was made to you in Holy Baptism:  that you are God’s child no matter what befalls you—that your sins are forgiven-- and that you have eternal life because he rules heaven and earth for this very purpose:  to bring you to himself and cause all things to work for your eternal good.  The Bible says that Jesus:
has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
            We have a living hope in the midst of suffering because the reign of Christ extends to all places and circumstances and people and institutions. 
The depths of hell have no claim upon you because the Good News of Jesus’ victory over Satan echoed even into its darkest depths.  The breadth of the earth and its people and institutions and events must ultimately serve your good because they are ruled by your King.  And the heights of heaven are reserved as your dwelling place because Jesus has gone there to prepare a place for you.

            The height and depth and breadth of Christ’s rule is complete and full and final and his ascension to the Father’s right hand—a position of ultimate authority and power and might—is your assurance that the hardships and difficulties and persecutions you face in this life will ultimately work to your eternal good and that on the Last Day your body will rise from the grave and be raised to heaven just like your King.  Amen.   

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