18 January 2015

Sermon – "Discipleship is a process" (1 Peter 5:1-11)


Last year, as many of you know, I passed the fortieth anniversary of my ordination. The occasion provided an opportunity to leaf through old photographs and reignite many memories, particularly of the people among whom I have been privileged to serve over the decades. This morning in our Epistle and Gospel readings we are given two brief glimpses of the life of the apostle Peter, one towards the end of many years of discipleship, the other back at the very beginning. Peter did not have the convenience of photographs but as he composed the first of his two letters that we find in the New Testament with the help of his friend and coworker Silvanus, I can only imagine that a torrent of memories, going all the way back to the events of this morning’s Gospel reading, must have been flooding through his mind.

Peter first became aware of Jesus through the witness of his brother Andrew. Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist. He had been present when Jesus had come to the banks of the Jordan River and John had proclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God!” Andrew had been so entranced by what he heard and saw that he followed Jesus to where he was staying and spent the rest of the day with him. His excitement was such that he wasted no time in going straight to his brother and telling him, “We have found the Messiah.” This in turn aroused Simon’s interest enough that he followed his brother back to where Jesus was. There Jesus met him with the words, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas”. Now kepha is Aramaic for “rock” or “stone”, which in Greek is petros—hence the name Peter. And it seems to me that the rest of the story of Andrew’s brother Simon, or Peter, in the New Testament is how he became a rock.

So now as we read the Epistle, Peter is writing from the perspective of a long life of discipleship. He describes himself as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”. It is a unique designation. Nowhere else in the New Testament do we find a disciple described in this way. The apostles were to have been witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. But Peter describes himself as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”. I wonder if Peter did not have in mind that fateful night as Jesus stood in the Garden of Gethsemane and pleaded with his heavenly Father, “If it be your will, take this cup from me.” Luke’s gospel tells us that his agony was such that he sweat drops of blood. Or later on as Peter warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s residence as Jesus awaited trial. Three times he denied even knowing Jesus. Surely he must have seen the pain in Jesus’ eyes as Jesus looked at him—and I have no doubt that that pain pierced his own soul as he ran out only to break down and weep inconsolably.

At the same time Peter describes himself not only as a witness of Jesus’ suffering but also as one who shares in the glory to be revealed. Here too I wonder if there were not reminiscences in his mind—of the day when he and James and John had stood at the top of a mountain to see Jesus revealed in all his eternal glory before their very eyes. As Peter now prepares to close this brief letter, written to followers scattered over the great swath of land more than a thousand miles long and five hundred miles across that is now modern Turkey, what does he have to say to them? Three things stand out in my mind: be humble, be prayerful, and be watchful.

Be humble

Twice in the eleven verses that we have before us Peter speaks about the need to be humble: in verse 5, “Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another,” and again in verse 6, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God.” There had been a time in Peter’s life when he had been anything but humble. I think that, like many of us, genuine humility, the grace, as Paul describes it, of honoring others before ourselves, did not come easily to Peter. He was impetuous. He had spent his life working long hours, hauling in nets with heavy loads of fish flipping and flapping in every direction, occasionally battling storms at sea. Life had demanded that he be tough.

No doubt Peter’s pride had been punctured somewhat early in his acquaintance with Jesus. It was on that occasion when he and his companions had been out fishing all night with nothing to show for it. The sun was getting high into the sky and the fish would certainly have retreated to the cooler waters deeper down, when Jesus said to them, “Go back out into the middle of the lake and let down your nets for a catch.” The gospels don’t psychologize, but I can only imagine Peter thinking to himself, “What does that @#$%& carpenter think he knows about fishing anyway?” His words to Jesus were more polite: “Master, we have toiled all night and haven’t caught a thing…” Then something in him caused him to relent. “Well, if that’s what you want, we’ll let down the nets…” And we all know the rest of what happened. In no time nets were so full that they threatened to tear apart. All that Peter could do at that moment was to fall at Jesus’ feet, and here I like the way the New Living Translation puts his words: “Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.”

In spite of this incident early in his life with Jesus when it came to the point where everything seemed to be unraveling, it was Peter who stood up and boldly declared, “Even though all become deserters, I will not” (Mark 14:29). A few moments later, as the soldiers closed in to arrest Jesus, it was Peter again who boldly strode forward, drew a sword and sliced off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Yet in the end all this bravado proved to be nothing as Jesus was led away, put on trial and finally crucified.

Now, years later, Peter finds himself telling his fellow believers, “Clothe yourselves with humility.” The word refers to the tying on of a servant’s apron. So perhaps Peter had in mind that evening in the upper room when Jesus had gotten up from supper, stripped off his outer garment and fastened around himself the towel of a slave. After washing their feet he had said to them, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

I believe that the person to whom humility comes naturally is rare. Rather, humility is something that most of us have to learn, as Peter did, both through the school of hard knocks and through the example of others. The Bible tells us that even Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). And Jesus comes to you and me as he did to Peter with the invitation, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Be prayerful

Thus Peter says to us, “Be humble.” And secondly he says, “Be prayerful.” “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you.” Again it was a lesson that Peter had begun to learn during his time with Jesus. He had been there when Jesus had taught,

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33)

Jesus’ words about trusting God had been put to the test one night when one of those sudden, violent storms, which I understand are wont to arise on the Sea of Galilee, threatened to capsize their little fishing boat and drown them all. I suspect that Peter was one of those who in a panic found Jesus asleep in the stern of the boat and shook him awake. “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re all going to die?” And with just two words from Jesus the storm was over more quickly than it had begun.

“Teacher, don’t you care?” “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you.” It’s the same word in the Bible. Worries and anxieties will come. There will be crises and disappointments. Yet what a privilege is ours that we have a God who is not only big enough to handle them, but who also cares—to whom we may bring all our concerns, who knows our needs before we ask, whose desire is only for our good!

Be watchful

Thirdly, Peter calls us to be watchful. “Discipline yourselves. Keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” In spite of God’s fatherly care, Peter is under no illusions that Christian discipleship is a cakewalk. Once again he could look back on his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, as Jesus had poured out his soul in prayer, he and James and John had all succumbed to their fatigue. “Simon,” Jesus had said to him after the first time, “are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:37,38).

At numerous points the Bible warns us that when we sign up to follow Jesus we are, whether we like it or not, engaging in a spiritual battle. As we read in Ephesians, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12). Satan desires nothing more than to bring us down, to fall into the traps he sets around us, to make us believe the lies that call into doubt God’s good purposes for us. So it is that the life of discipleship is one of vigilance: of having our ears attuned to the voice of God, our minds infused with the word of God, our hearts inflamed by the Spirit of God, our eyes focused on the Son of God.

“Simon, Simon,” Jesus had warned Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31,32). May we take Peter’s words, learned through the crucible of long Christian experience, to heart today. As we walk the path of discipleship, may we be humble, prayerful and watchful—and (in Peter’s words) may the God of all grace himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.

05 January 2015

Sermon – “Arise, Shine” (Isaiah 60:1-9)

I don’t consider myself a film buff, but I do enjoy a good movie once in a while. One movie I didn’t bother to go and see in 2014, however, was Left Behind. Apparently my choice was a wise one. In addition to the theology that it represented, which has no warrant in Scripture, I understand that the film did not have a single redeeming feature. Here is what I read in some of the moviegoers’ reviews:
I simply don’t know where to start. This is—without doubt—the worst pile of steaming garbage I’ve sat through…
This movie was simply AWFUL. Really, really bad. And to those who are going to argue that the reason why this movie is rated so low is because people are becoming “anti-Christian”, NO. The acting was terrible, the script was horrendous, seriously. A group of high school kids in drama club could do better. It was deathly boring, I thought I was in there for more than three hours.
Shockingly horrible movie. I can’t imagine anybody being able to sit through it except for morbid curiosity… Save yourself an hour and 40 minutes of pain and cringing (or however long you can tolerate this train wreck of a production). Buy this movie and save it as a punishment for your grounded kids…
If anything, this movie can bring atheists and Christians together holding hands to stand firm against piles of schlock like this.
Ladies and gentlemen, this … may be the worst movie, not just this year… I mean the worst movie of all time.
I didn’t come here this morning to dis a movie. But its title, Left Behind, does provide me with something of a hook on which to hang my sermon. I believe that Isaiah’s words from which we read a few moments ago were addressed to a people who had been left behind.

A scene of destruction

After years of surviving as a puppet kingdom, in the summer of 587 BC the walls of Jerusalem finally fell to King Nebuchadnezzar and the invading armies of the Babylonians. But that fall occurred only after Jerusalem had been under siege for eighteen months. During that time unimaginable atrocities occurred among a people driven beyond the point of desperation. Here is Jeremiah’s description of what conditions were like:
The chastisement of my people has been greater
than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
though no hand was laid on it…
Happier were those pierced by the sword
than those pierced by hunger,
whose life drains away, deprived of the produce of the field.
The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
in the destruction of my people.
The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
he poured out his hot anger,
and kindled a fire in Zion
that consumed its foundations. (Lamentations 4:6,9-11)
It seemed impossible that things could become worse. But they did. When the walls were breached, the people of Jerusalem, already reduced to animal behavior, were met with the full brutality of the armies of Babylon. Here again is how Jeremiah describes it:
Women are raped in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind,
and boys stagger under loads of wood. (Lamentations 5:11-13)
In the end, most of those who survived the onslaught were led away in captivity to Babylon. Jerusalem had been reduced to a heap of charred stones, its empty streets inhabited by jackals. Only a tiny remnant of the people remained to tend the farmlands. Poor beyond imagining, desolate and forsaken, it was to these people that Isaiah’s words were addressed:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 

A vision of hope

The words seem impossibly optimistic. But before we write Isaiah off, let us take a moment to examine them more closely. What we see in this passage is a complete reversal of circumstances for the people of Jerusalem. Isaiah is writing to a people whose backs have been bowed low by the yoke of humiliation and subservience. When people have been beaten down in that kind of way, when they have been robbed of all hope and any sense of self-worth, their eyes tend to bend downward. Indeed they dare not look upwards for fear that some further catastrophe may befall them. But Isaiah calls upon them to do exactly that—and what do they see?
Instead of darkness, their eyes are met with light. To be sure, there is darkness. But it is not the darkness of the toppled walls of Jerusalem or the sooty ruins of its Temple. No, now the darkness hovers over all the earth, with Jerusalem being the one exception. And instead of people fleeing to get away or being led off into captivity, we find that whole nations, their rulers included, are being drawn into its light.
Apparently those opening words are not enough to draw Isaiah’s listeners out of their gloom. And so he calls upon them once again: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you.” Leading this vast procession are the people of Jerusalem itself. No longer a ragtag collection of defeated captives, their shoulders hunched over in despair, their bodies wasted through starvation, now they are robust, their eyes gleaming with joy, their stride confident and sure. As they look on, their mouths gaping in amazement, the dullness disappears from their eyes and is replaced with vigor once again. The cobwebs of gloom that had enshrouded their hearts are swept away as a new warmth begins to glow from them. The word Isaiah uses here is found in only one other place in the Old Testament, in Psalm 34:5, where David bids us “look to [the Lord], and be radiant”. The idea is that of witnessing the first rays of the sun as they peer over the horizon at early dawn, bringing with them all the promise of a new day.
But look: It is not only the people of Jerusalem who are coming, but people from all nations far and wide, from Midian and Ephah across the Gulf of Aqaba, from Sheba at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, from Kedar and Nebaioth to the east, and all the way from Tarshish in southern Spain. It was not only people who would stream into the holy city, but they would bring all their wealth with them, to offer in homage and praise to the Lord.
Those with a keen ear will have noticed that among the tribute that pours in are gold and frankincense, two of the three gifts brought to the infant Jesus by those strange visitors who had seen his star in the east. And that may just be enough of a hint to help us realize that what Isaiah was speaking about was not a political promise or a military victory, but something infinitely greater: the breaking of God’s final rule into creation. As we read in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

A word for today

Well, what does all of this have to say to us today?
I suspect that there are some of us who look back on the old year, or even the whole of their past lives, in much the same way that the people of Isaiah’s time looked on their beloved city of Jerusalem, and all we see is a heap of ruins. Our lives are littered with unfulfilled dreams, lost opportunities, damaged relationships. Yet even in the midst of the wreckage, God graciously invites us to look up.
As we look up, what do we see? First of all and most importantly, that God has not forgotten us, indeed that we are the objects of his love. In spite of our failures, in spite of our outright sin, he loves us with a burning, undying love—a love from which nothing in creation, no tragedy, no failure, can separate us, a love that brought his only Son to the cross. It was there, mysteriously and miraculously, that the Son of God absorbed all the pain and darkness, all the sin and evil of the world into himself. Such is the love that God has for you and for me.
The second thing to realize is that it is in our moments of pain that God’s light very often most clearly shines. As the apostle Paul was about to close his second letter to the Christian congregation in Corinth, he shared with them some of his own personal pain. Through it the Lord had told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “So,” wrote Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9,10). I am not suggesting that we seek out suffering. Yet I do believe that God is able to use our pain and even our wrongdoing, indeed to redeem it, in such a way that his glory is revealed.
A case in point is another movie that came out this past year, but this time it is one that I fully intend to go and see. It is showing in theaters now and it is entitled Unbroken. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, who competed in the 5000 meter run in the 1936 Olympics and may easily have become the first man to break the four-minute mile had World War 2 not intervened. In 1943 his bomber plane was shot down over the Pacific. In spite of the blistering heat of the sun and very little water or rations as well as being strafed by a Japanese bomber, he and another crew member were able to survive a grueling forty-seven days afloat in their leaky life raft.
That alone would have made an epic tale of suffering. However they were “rescued” (if that is the correct word) by a Japanese naval ship and transferred to a series of prisoner-of-war camps, where for two years they were subjected to some of the most cruel and brutal treatment imaginable. Receiving a hero’s welcome on his return home, Zamperini found himself haunted by nightmares of his war experience and his desire for revenge and began drinking heavily. As his life whirled into a downward spiral, it was through his wife’s encouragement that he attended a Billy Graham crusade and there committed his life to Christ. Immediately he found that his dependence on alcohol ceased, his nightmares vanished, and eventually he was even able to forgive his captors for the unspeakable cruelty to which they had subjected him. In all it is a remarkable story of God’s power to bring light out of darkness, glory out of suffering.
As we emerge into this new year of 2015, amid all the ups and downs may we find in it the opportunity to discover more deeply the love that God has for us in Christ and his power to redeem and restore. And may we take Isaiah’s words to heart and find them fulfilled in our own lives.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.