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Ready Set Hope

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay P. Rowland on the sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017 at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.  Scripture text: 1 Peter 1:13-22

1 Peter 13-22 (The Message Bible)

If with heart and soul you’re doing good, do you think you can be stopped? Even if you suffer for it, you’re still better off. Don’t give the opposition a second thought. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in [the] adoration [of] Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick. They’ll end up realizing that they’re the ones who need a bath. It’s better to suffer for doing good, if that’s what [happens] than to be punished for doing bad. That’s what Christ did definitively: suffered because of others’ sins, the Righteous One for the unrighteous ones. He went through it all—was put to death and then made alive—to bring us to God.

He went and proclaimed God’s salvation to earlier generations who ended up in the prison of judgment because they wouldn’t listen. You know, even though God waited patiently all the days that Noah built his ship, only a few were saved then, eight to be exact—saved from the water by the water. The waters of baptism do that for you, not by washing away dirt from your skin but by presenting you through Jesus’ resurrection before God with a clear conscience. Jesus has the last word on everything and everyone, from angels to armies. He’s standing right alongside God, and what he says goes.

Ready, Set, Hope

Most of us know the importance of being prepared—being ready.  We learn it early on in school: every quiz, test, exam, essay, speech compels us to be. If we learn nothing else from all our years of school, we certainly learn the compulsory task of preparation.

The vital link between preparation and success takes on even more relevance as we enter the workforce.  So by the time we turn twenty, if not before then, we know what it means to be ready.  School, jobs, daily life train us to be ready to do our part.

We are creatures of habit, repeating routines and rituals of readiness for daily situations that demand our attention.  Until something happens that we could not prepare for let alone predict: illness, accident, death, divorce, job loss … etc.  Just like that, our long-running routines of readiness are thrown into chaos.

Most adults can think of at least one devastating experience, if not more, which disrupted our “normal”.  What’s unusual is not so much that these things do happen, what’s unusual is how any of us can go from being devastated to … functional; able to re-enter the flow of everyday life again. Doing so, by the way does NOT mean forgetting about it or ignoring it.  Re-entry, at least for me, is a long process of emerging from that devastation, intact but deeply changed.

That people can and do emerge from devastating life events is nothing short of miraculous to me. Some even attest to a deepened sense of the sacredness of life. It is possible sometimes that devastation breaks our hearts open to presence of God like never before.

At the same time in our society now there remains just enough familiarity with the Christian faith—with the stories, the rituals, the imagery, the terms of Christian faith—familiarity but not intimacy.  And so in our surrounding culture and even within the church for The Church stands in the very center of culture, people run hot and cold, vacillating between considering Christ relevant on the one hand and ignoring Him altogether on the other.  And so when questions are asked, like, “why are you a Christian anyway” or “why bother with hope anymore?” we may not feel ready or prepared to properly respond.  We can feel inadequate and tongue-tied.

In the passage from the first letter of Peter which I shared just a moment ago Peter urges his readers to be ready for such questions.

But that’s easier said than done.

Which is probably why Peter wrote what he did.

When Peter wrote this letter, many of his readers were experiencing state sanctioned persecution-some of it lethal. But according to New Testament scholar Scott Hoezee most Christians were experiencing verbal persecution which we do not hear about but which was just as worrisome to Peter (according to Hoezee). Hoezee writes that “not everyone was in danger of being fed to the lions. Some of Peter’s readers were faced with  snickering laughter” and criticism.  To worship as Lord some obscure, dead carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire was considered downright laughable by mainstream Roman citizens.[1]

Compared to the more severe persecution we know was happening, what harm could verbal needling really do? Peter saw the toll it was taking on believers over time.  The community tended to rally and feel empowered when someone was put to death for refusing to denounce Jesus.  But facing a steady diet of ridicule from friends, family, neighbors and peers proved to be more vexing than anyone had anticipated (they were unprepared for it) .  Peter is concerned about the Christian community becoming combative, or worse cynical.

Peter’s words still find purchase here in our generation where the dialogue in political campaigns, public debate and engagement in government and elsewhere at times turn into verbal scuffles with insults and disinformation. Peter instructed his readers: do not take the bait. In Peter’s generation, as in ours, many people see Christians as hypocrites.  And so Peter might just admit to the fact that, well, some Christians are hypocrites.  All the more reason, Peter admonishes his readers to never meet disrespect with disrespect.  His reasoning was primarily practical in nature: you can’t properly testify about Christian hope if you’re also spewing venom at people who don’t understand you.

Peter has another good reason.  The other reason is because such engagement diverts everyone’s attention away from the cross.  Hoezee puts it this way: We have a cross-shaped hope. That is, our hope arises from the awful day when God was rejected, betrayed, tortured and brutally killed.  And so hear me when I say that the devastation of that Good Friday connects with every devastation any of us will ever face. On that day pure hell on earth took center stage with the apparent triumph of violence and human cruelty, the very public and historical murder of God with the intended result to murder all future hope in anyone foolish enough to believe in God.

It was all on public display for all the world to see, and there it remains still.  For whenever something happens that is devastating to us, God an immediate casualty – along with any hope we may have once felt.  Our hope-praise God!-does not depend upon our ability to cope with hopelessness. No the source of our hope is God who did not remain dead or silent, but rather, God emerged wounded but intact from the worst event that ever happened on earth.  And if God did that then there really is hope for every last one of us.  The source of our hope is not what we can do but what God has done and will do through Jesus Christ!

In a book some years ago Roger Van Harn shared a story that goes something like this:

One December afternoon in the lobby of a preschool just before Christmas break, a group of parents stood in the lobby of a preschool, waiting for their children. When the bell rang, the youngsters ran from the classroom, each child carrying a special “surprise”–a brightly wrapped package containing a project that each child had diligently been working on for weeks to give Mom and Dad for Christmas. One particular little boy was trying to run, put on his coat, and wave all at the same time.  He slipped and fell, the “surprise” flying out of his hands and landing on the tile floor, the sound of breaking ceramics echoing off the walls.

There was a moment of stunned silence broken by the little boy’s inconsolable sobbing.  The boy’s father immediately tried to comfort him, saying, “Don’t cry, it’s OK, son. It really doesn’t matter. It’s OK.”  The boy’s mother swept her little boy into her arms and said, “I’m so sorry.  What you made for us broke before we could see it.  That shouldn’t have happened. How awful.” And she wept with her son.[2]

This is not a story about different parenting styles.  This story underscores that there’s always two immediate human responses to a personal experience of devastation.  One response is the knee-jerk reaction that “it doesn’t matter” and/or “it doesn’t hurt” and quickly move on.  The only problem with that is when IT DOES MATTER and IT DOES HURT, because you cannot “move on” if you don’t acknowledge the pain and disruption in a place deep within.  That’s one response.

The other response is to embrace it.  Embrace it somehow.  Which sounds impossible or foolish but God shows us that it is neither.  For God refused to brush aside human suffering.  Instead, God chose to experience and endure suffering as the way to reach a lost creation!  This is how the hope of the gospel reaches the lost and suffering persons all around us, here among us, and how gospel hope can even reach the person looking back at you in the mirror.

For behold, as Paul proclaims (Acts 17:24ff), he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. …   search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’

 

In this life, things happen that we are not prepared to face. Devastation happens.  Death happens.  But the great Good News is that the hope that is in us is God-with-us who promises to meet us and deliver us from devastation to Life.

 

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost;

as it was in the beginning, is now and forever shall be,

World without end.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Scott Hoezee, Calvin Seminary, Center for Excellence in Preaching  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-6a/
[2] in Hozee (op cit), slightly adapted