Hope in suffering

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 6th May 2012

Reading – 1 Peter 1:1-12

Yesterday Plymouth Argyle played their last game of a long and difficult season. It’s an old footballing cliché – but the past nine months really have been a rollercoaster with so many ups and downs along the way. We started the season not knowing if there would even be a football club to support next year. It looked like a buyer had been found, and then there were delays and legal disputes, until at the eleventh hour another buyer came forward. By then we were bottom of the league. We then began to wonder if we would go down another division. Gradually results improved. It looked like we were making progress. But then came a few defeats, and we began to wonder again. Only a couple of weeks ago did we finally become safe. Unlike the proverbial rollercoaster, we have ended with an up, and our thoughts are beginning to turn to next season. Will we be heading for promotion? Or will we still be battling for survival? We just don’t know.

I wanted to talk about Plymouth Argyle not just because I am a paid-up member of the Argyle Fans’ Trust, but because it helps us to think about our theme this morning – which is hope. Hope is something very important in our lives. We can’t see it. We can’t touch it. We can’t weigh it on the scales. But it’s something we all need. The trouble is, as any member of the Green Army can tell you, hope can sometimes disappoint us. I guess that if you are here today as a young person facing exams or someone looking for a job you don’t need to be told this. There’s nothing worse than hearing you haven’t got the grades you were aiming for, or to find yet another application has been turned down.

So what can a letter written two thousand years ago to a bunch of people in far away places tell us about the theme of hope?

Well, first of all these people were real people and they were facing many of the same pressures that we face today.

First of all, they were people who were scattered. Peter describes them in verse 1 as scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. The modern-day equivalents might be Plymouth, Glasgow, Cardiff, Aberdeen and Birmingham. Now we will look in a moment the reason why they were scattered. The main point is, these people didn’t choose where they were living. They had been cut off from families, were far away from home, had maybe even lost their jobs. I reckon there must be quite a few people this morning who are in this kind of situation. You don’t live where you do by choice, and you wish you were closer to your loved ones. But something has happened which means you have to be here, and you know how hard that is.

Secondly, these people were suffering. If you go through the letter of 1 Peter you will find the word “suffer” comes up 18 times. You can either count it yourself or you can trust me! Because when you are scattered, you find people tend to take advantage of you. You have little power to change things. You have to put up with whatever comes your way. Again, I think there are plenty of people here today who can identify with that sort of suffering. Being at the mercy of others is not a comfortable place to be in.

But there’s another reason why these people were scattered and suffering. Peter also describes them in verse 1 as strangers in the world. What does he mean by that? Very simply, because they had made a stand for what they believed in. These people were followers of Jesus in an age where most people – certainly most of the rich and powerful ones – followed other gods. Now if they had simply kept their head down and lived like everybody else they wouldn’t have had any problems. But they had to make a stand. They couldn’t stomach being asked to do things they knew were wrong, or being made fun of because they wouldn’t join in with what everyone else was doing. I wonder, have you ever been in a position where you have had to make a stand because of your belief? If you have, you will know how isolated you are made to feel, as if you are the only one causing trouble.

So Peter is writing to his hearers to encourage them, to help them stick with it, and to carry on living out their faith. In the world’s eyes they might be a bunch of oddballs who refuse to conform but in God’s eyes they are as he puts it in verse 2: 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. Now I haven’t got time to explain this verse which would take a whole sermon in itself. But the overall point Peter is making is that God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is on their side. They may be going through a rough time, but God has chosen them. God has given them His Holy Spirit. And they have been saved once and for all by Jesus’ death on the cross for them. So, yes, things are tough. But they belong to God, and nothing or no-one can shake that bond.

And that’s why Peter moves on to talk about the hope which they can enjoy as believers in Jesus Christ. Now I know it can be hard sometimes to get our head round the things we hear in the New Testament, so I thought I’d bring in three visual aids to help us understand what Peter is saying – a family heirloom, a thermometer, and a set of plans.

First up, the family heirloom. This is a Minton china doll, one of a number of bits and pieces that my mother left me. Unfortunately as you can see, it happens to be broken. That’s because one night one of our cats decided to explore the fireplace in our bedroom, and we were woken by the most enormous crash, with the cat fleeing in terror downstairs. But then, it reminds me that so many of the things we hope for in life can be uncertain. That pot of money we put away for a rainy day gets spent. The pension we relied on turns out to worth far less than we planned. Our football team gets relegated instead of promoted.

Yet the hope that God promises in Jesus Christ isn’t like that. Listen carefully to what Peter says in verses 3-4: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 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. Where is our inheritance kept if we believe in Jesus? That’s right, it’s kept in heaven. Not in a bank which might go bust, or under the bed, where it might get stolen. But in heaven. And that’s a pretty safe place to keep something.

You see, Jesus died on the cross and was raised again three days later. That’s a fact. And if you believe and trust Jesus did this for you, then you have a living hope which will never disappoint you. That also is a fact. You won’t wake up one morning and discover that your place in heaven has suddenly gone, or find that Jesus has left you to fend for yourself. This is a hope that will never perish, spoil or fade. It’s little wonder that Peter finds himself praising God. Are you, I wonder, thankful for the hope you have in Christ?

Secondly, there’s the thermometer. Now I understand a thermometer can be useful for making all kinds of things. If you want to make jam, you have to have the mixture at the right temperature before it can set. If you want to get gold from a lump of ore, you have to get the furnace at the right amount of heat before you can extract the metal.

Heat is necessary for refining. Without it fruit and sugar stay as fruit and sugar. Without it rocks stay as lumps of rock. And Peter uses the image of refining to explain something of the purpose of the sufferings that his hearers are going through. Look at verses 6 and 7: 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.

Now Peter isn’t claiming to explain away the purpose behind all suffering, or trying to make his hearers forget what they’re going through. But he is saying that when we suffer because we believe in Christ, it isn’t because God has abandoned us, but because He is testing and deepening our faith.

After all, look at it from God’s point of view. God doesn’t want lukewarm Christians who melt away when the heat is on, or part-time Christians who declare their faith on Sundays but live completely different lives Monday to Saturday. He wants Christians who genuinely love Jesus, who want to put Jesus first in all that they do. And so it might just be that next time you find yourself made fun of, or isolated, because you say you are Christian, God is wanting to refine you, to make you ask yourself just how much you love Jesus and what you are prepared to give up to follow Him.

Peter says of his hearers in verses 8-9: 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. Is that true of you? Is that true of me?

I trust you are starting to see just how directly relevant Peter’s teaching to us today. But before I wrap up today’s sermon, I better explain why I brought along a set of plans.

Once every five years the diocese inspects the vicarage and decides what work needs doing. A few months ago they looked at our property and agreed with us that we needed a new kitchen. But they didn’t just order a set of units and leave us to work out how to fit them. The surveyor drew up some plans to show what would go where, and to present a couple of options.

The best things in life need planning. And Peter wants to remind his hearers that the hope they have in Jesus Christ wasn’t some kind of afterthought, as if one day God suddenly decided He better do something to save a broken and suffering world. No, right from the beginning of the world God planned for Jesus to die on a cross and be raised to life again. Why we will never fully know this side of heaven. But for whatever reason God planned it this way, so you, so I could have eternal life. So if you like, the part of the Bible before Jesus came, the part called the Old Testament, are God’s plans. Instead of surveyors, there were prophets who glimpsed something of the wonderful future that lay ahead and sketched it out.

But of course there’s a world of difference between the plan on a page and the finished article. When we have our shiny new kitchen, it will be far more real and far more useful than the set of plans inked out on a page. And yes, it is important for us to read and to know about the Old Testament, but it’s even more important that we know the good news of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Peter writes of these Old Testament prophets in verse 12: It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. I’ll leave the angels to another time. The important thing Peter is talking about is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. For it is in the gospel of Jesus Christ that the hope we’ve been talking about has been gloriously and wonderfully revealed. Not just two thousand years ago, or to certain special people. But to each and every one of us. And if we are to gain this hope we’ve been talking about this morning, then we need to know, read and respond to this gospel.

Some people think this letter of Peter was first written for a baptism. We have no way of knowing for sure. But it would be very appropriate if it had been. Because Peter is asking people who have been scattered, who are suffering, and who feel like strangers in the world, do you know the hope that is yours in Jesus Christ? That’s a very similar kind of question to the one we find in the baptism service.

So let me ask you: Do you know you have a hope in heaven that will never perish, spoil or fade? Do you love Jesus with an inexpressible and glorious joy even in the midst of suffering? And above all, have you heard and responded to the good news of Jesus with the faith that He has died and risen again for you?

Relevant, practical questions that all of us need to answer for ourselves.

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