United in Praise

CTiDS joint service: St Michael’s, 2nd October 2016

Reading – 1 Peter 1:1-9

It’s always quite hard to know what to preach on in a service like this. Should I go for that favourite text I’ve preached on many times before? Or should I aim to weave in the latest joke I’ve heard on Facebook? Or should I perhaps sharpen my theological axe and make a few telling blows against those heretics over there? It’s really quite a dilemma.

Well, over the past weeks as I’ve been thinking and praying about this service, one text has kept coming to mind again and again – this passage from 1 Peter we heard just now. At the end you can tell me if I really have made the right choice, but to me Peter’s words seem to speak very much of the situation that we face here in Devonport and Stoke, and, I believe, contain the message of encouragement that we need to hear. So without any further ado, and sad to say, without any memorable jokes, let’s take a closer look at the passage and consider what the Lord might be saying to us.

I want to begin by thinking a little more about the people to whom the apostle Peter was writing. How does Peter describe them in this passage? Regulars at St Michael’s will know immediately that I have three points beginning with the same letter.

First of all, verse 1, they were strangers in the world. Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers in the world… Or as some translations put it, sojourners or exiles. Why does Peter describe his hearers in this way? For the simple reason, that when they responded to the grace of God, their daily lives changed for good. No longer did they go down to the temple and engage in worship there. They probably avoided many of the feasts put on by family and friends, if indeed they had been invited in the first place. Becoming a Christian in those days usually meant a real break with family and friends. You were very aware the moment you professed faith and were baptised you were now starting a new way of life at odds with the world around you.

And although it’s very easy to be romantic and misty-eyed about the early church, I am sure many of the church members found it tough living out their faith and yet at the same time wanting to join in with what everyone else around them was doing. Now I realise that in many ways our lives are very different, but isn’t true that we also experience exactly this kind of tension? We want to express our faith at home, at work, in our neighbourhoods, but we also find it hard not fitting in, realising that because of our faith in Jesus Christ we have a different set of values and priorities.

That’s why in our particular church, small groups have become such an important part of our weekly programme. Jesus talks about us being in the world, but not of the world, which sounds simple enough, but what does that mean in practice? Having small groups of fellow believers who support, encourage and teach another, it seems to me, is an essential means of living out our faith on a daily basis, and as I say about almost every passage of New Testament Scripture, we need to realise that here Peter isn’t just writing to individuals, but to groups of people who recognised their need to help one another put their faith into practice.

So, Peter’s audience were strangers in the world. Secondly, they were scattered. Reading the whole of verse 1: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…

Despite all their difficulties, these first believers had stayed remarkably faithful to the gospel. For reasons we shall see in a moment they had stuck with their faith even when times were tough. But this didn’t mean that things had gotten any easier. Each local church was a small, isolated outpost of the kingdom and the total number of believers only a small minority of the whole population in that area.

So there must have been times when Peter’s audience felt from a human perspective they were very much on their own. They must have been aware of their own lack of resources, and perhaps wondered quite what impact they could have on those around them. And I can easily see an analogy here with our own situation. One thing that struck me when I arrived fourteen years ago was that each church in Devonport and Stoke felt small, struggling and isolated. There was a kind of silo mentality where each was aiming to get by without necessarily any reference to what another church was doing.

However Peter writes his letter to a number of churches to remind them they were part of something larger. If you get out an atlas and look at the places he mentions, you will see he is addressing congregations throughout what is now modern day Turkey. The fact he includes them all in one letter was meant to remind them they were part of something larger.

For a start, despite their relative weakness and insignificance, they were part of the one body of Christ, the worldwide church. And even more importantly they were part of the plans and purposes of God. Moving on into verse 2: who 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: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Now I’m not going to explain this verse in any detail, but the message is clear. You may feel you are struggling in your own little church, but you are not on your own, either physically or spiritually. You are part of God’s plan to save and redeem the world, and you have a precious identity in His sight. Isn’t that something we too need to hear as we gather in worship today?

But life was still tough for these first Christians, and it should be clear by now that they were not only strangers in the world and scattered but also suffering. So what exactly were they suffering?

Well, as you read on through the letter, you begin to see there were various different factors at work. Some were suffering unjust treatment at the hands of their masters, as we read in chapter 2, verses 18 and 19: Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.

Some were suffering simply because they bore the name of Christ. Chapter 4, verse 14: If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.

Some were suffering because of the work of the evil one. Chapter 5, verse 8: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Now once again I can see great parallels between the experience of these early Christians and our own. It can be very easy to come to this kind of celebration and pretend that following Jesus gives us an easy life, but the reality Monday to Saturday is of course very different. We all know what it’s like working with people who make things difficult for us because of our faith. Increasingly we find ourselves under attack from those who have some very negative views of what it means to be a Christian. And, yes, we are in a spiritual battle where sometimes it is all too obvious the evil one is at work seeking to disrupt our fellowship with the Lord and with one another.

Which is why it is perhaps surprising that Peter’s first words as he gets into the meat of his letter are: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! After all, when you feel like a stranger in a world, scattered and isolated, and suffering for your faith, praise may well seem like the last thing you want to do.

Yet praise is important. Praise shifts our focuses away from ourselves to God. As we begin praising, we are reminding ourselves exactly who this God is before whom we bow down in worship. He is not a weak or tame God who can do very little and only answer small prayers. He is God the Father, who has appointed Jesus Christ as Lord over the nations, and over our lives. It’s not that our problems are unimportant, but rather as we praise we know we can surrender all things to Him.

And as we continue in praise, not only do we remember who God is, so we also remember what God thinks of us. I think many of us so often struggle with the labels others put on us. We may spend years thinking we are worthless or insignificant because of what someone else has said to us. Well, praise shifts the focus onto what God thinks of us, reminds us that thanks to Jesus Christ we are adopted into His family, as a precious child, and member of His body, the church.

That’s why we come together in worship as churches – not to escape from the realities of the coming week, but to make a bold declaration that Jesus is Lord. It is to assert with confidence and faith that whatever may befall us, nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that our relationship with Him stands strong and secure for all eternity. We may not feel like praising, indeed our praise may be a form of sacrifice, but properly understood our praise is a witness to the powers around us of God’s greatness and majesty.

So what exactly should we praise God for?

Three more points come out from the following few verses…

First of all, we should praise God because we have a living hope

Verses 3-5: 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, 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.

If there is one thing that should mark us out as believers here in Stoke and Devonport it should be the simple fact that we are communities of hope. I don’t mean the sort of vague hope that one day Plymouth Argyle might win promotion, or we might win the lottery. I mean the real, solid hope that has been given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which should permeate and transform our lives.

After all, as we all know, hope in these parts can often seem in short supply. We all know family, friends, neighbours who seem to struggle along without much sense of hope. We all know what the statistics tell us about this area – although they hardly convey what wonderful people we are privileged to serve here in these parts.

But let’s be clear – having a living hope doesn’t imply that we simply ignore the problems and issues around us. Rather we use the hope which the Lord Jesus has given us to bring about change in the here and now, through practical acts of service. That’s why we each have our various ministries to the refugee, to those suffering memory loss, to the depressed, to children and their carers, to the unemployed, to name but a few examples. So that when we are asked why we are doing what we doing, ideally we are – in the words of 1 Peter 3:15 – prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have … with gentleness and respect. Because, you see, our thankfulness and praise for all that the Lord has done for us shouldn’t just be expressed in our public acts of worship or our private devotions. It should also be expressed in the way that we serve, which shows the presence of the risen Lord Jesus living in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course we will still experience hard times, times when the burdens we face seem too heavy or our circumstances overwhelming. It is precisely in times such as these, however, that I find myself coming to these verses from 1 Peter. Our living hope, you see, does not depend on our degree of faith, or how close we feel to God. Our living hope comes from the finished work of Jesus Christ which means that no matter what happens to us, this hope stands secure for all eternity. This inheritance Peter talks about doesn’t have a “use by” or “best before” date. It can never perish, spoil and fade, and it always ours to claim. If that doesn’t lead us into praise, then I don’t know what will.

Following on closely from this, then, our second reason to praise is that we have a precious faith.

Now if I were to ask you what was your most precious possession, I wonder how you would reply. Maybe a ring, maybe a home, maybe a family heirloom. Well, all these things may be valuable but what we so often tend to forget is that our faith is in fact the most valuable thing in our life. Everything else we own will perish, spoil or fade. We cannot hold on to the things of this life forever. But, thanks to Jesus, our relationship with the Lord is permanent and secure. And it is through Him we can have the confidence in the words of Psalm 23 that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

No wonder Peter talks about our faith being of greater worth than gold. Yet how often do we seem to lose sight of how much our faith is worth! Especially, it seems in the ordinary times of life, when we are just coasting along, and nothing major or dramatic is happening in our lives. Because, if we are really honest with ourselves, aren’t those the times when our relationship with the Lord most seems to drift, when we forget just how much we need Him day by day? Certainly in my own experience the reason why most people leave church is not because something traumatic happens, or they wake up one day no longer believing. It’s simply that in the business of their everyday lives they get distracted onto other things, come to church less and less regularly, fall away from the rotas, until one Sunday we suddenly realise they are no longer with us.

And maybe here we have a bit of a clue why sometimes our Heavenly Father allows us to go through tough times. Listen again to these words from 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 here isn’t trying to explain the root cause of all suffering. It would be wrong and dangerous to use these verses to explain away the real pain someone may be experiencing. But he is telling us that when we are bewildered and confused by what we are going through we can be sure that our Heavenly Father has not abandoned us. Ultimately there is no circumstance in life that he cannot use to build and strengthen our relationship with Him. And again, I know from my own experience it so often when I realise I am at the end of my resources that I go back to the cross, and realise just how wonderful and precious is the good news of Jesus that saved and rescued me.

And this leads on to the third and very special reason why we should praise the Lord, namely, that we have an inexpressible and glorious joy.

I realise, however, that joy is often a word which is misunderstand. Joy is not the same as happiness, as if we go round with a fixed grin no matter what may be happening to us. Having Christian joy does not mean we go round with those yellow stickers that say, “Smile, Jesus loves you” or that we are always humming the latest worship song.

Joy is far more deep-rooted than that. Joy is a conviction in our heart that whatever may befall, each one of us is a child of a loving Heavenly Father, and that nothing can separate us from His love. As Peter goes on to say in verses 8 and 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.

Or, to put it another way, joy is an expression of a relationship that is real and that is everlasting. Sometimes it may overwhelm us as an emotion that causes us to burst out in praise. Sometimes it will just be a quiet confidence in the midst of a difficult situation that the Lord is with us. But however we experience joy, it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit within us that tells us we are adopted into the family of God and that one day we will receive the goal of faith, the salvation of our souls.

That is why when we feel like we are strangers in the world, when we feel scattered and isolated, when we are suffering in all kinds of trials, we still have reasons to praise. Indeed we must offer ourselves in praise because it is through our praise that we shift our focus back onto who God is and who we are in God’s sight. And it is praise that tells us we have a living hope, a precious faith, and an inexpressible and glorious joy.

So let’s go out from here with a new determination to praise God in every season of life, to use our praise to be agents of hope to those we are called to serve, and let us pray that as we offer ourselves in the service of our Lord, many others too will come to praise God as their loving Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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