Sunday, July 12, 2009

24-Karat Faith

Texts: 1 Peter 1:3-16; Mark 6:6b-7, 12-29 5:21-43

WHEN I WAS IN FIFTH GRADE I decided when I was grown up I’d go to Africa and be a missionary. I imagined myself suffering hardship in the jungle, facing down a fearsome witch doctor, maybe being taken captive by cannibals (I’d been watching too many cartoons) and being in danger for my life, all in defense of the faith. Oh, yes, it seemed really romantic and exciting, the idea of suffering and maybe even dying for the cause of Jesus Christ.

But one evening I was up in my bedroom contemplating this. And I got into one of those silly poses kids do, and slipped and knocked my nose with my knee. Hard. Good golly, that hurt! It hurt so bad I could hardly stand it.

And that was the end of my missionary ambitions. I figured, if I could hardly deal with the pain of my own knee hitting my nose, how could I remain faithful if those cannibals started poking me with their spears?

Now that I’m grown I can laugh at my childish ideas about foreign missions. But today’s Scriptures bring out my real error, and it wasn’t just my ignorance about Africa and its people. My real mistake was focussing on my potential sufferings and my potential glory, instead of on the suffering and glory of my Lord Jesus Christ. I was thinking how I would win the victory over evil forces in this world, instead of rejoicing over the great salvation my Savior and God had already won for me.

I doubt that I’m alone. That’s how a lot of us picture of facing persecution for the faith. We imagine how we’re going to successfully stand up against it-- or maybe we dread how we might fail. We see ourselves as heros in the war against the world and the devil-- or we hope Jesus will let us stay behind the lines and not get into the fighting at all. But as Mark and Peter both remind us, in the war of God vs. Satan and good vs. evil, the true focus isn’t on us and what we will do, it’s on Jesus Christ and what He has done for us. Yes, we will benefit from what He has done. We will receive praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. But our victory will be ours only because first it is His.

But perhaps you think this has nothing to do with you. Maybe you’re sure you’ll never face persecution for the sake of Jesus Christ at all. I suppose, compared to what our brothers and sisters in Muslim and Communist countries are going through, we have nothing to complain of. But Christian persecution isn’t only having somebody put a knife to your throat and yelling, "Deny Jesus Christ or I kill you!" The spiritual battle against us is much more subtle than that, and if we don’t recognize our little skirmishes and cling to Christ and His benefits in them, we’ll certainly fail when more severe tests come our way. If you belong to Jesus Christ you face persecution for His sake every day, and the battle isn’t merely against the world and the devil, it’s against our own fears and desires as well.

The Apostle Peter notes in verse 6 of our reading that now on this earth we may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. The implication is that if we haven’t already, we soon will. This word "all kinds" in the Greek literally means "many colored." Some griefs and troubles are screaming red like fire, some are pale gray like ash. They are all part of our warfare against this world, the Devil, and our own indwelling sin. We don’t like them, we aren’t called to go after them, but God in His sovereign will allows them as the means to test and purify our faith in Him, so it will come through like pure, 24-karat gold.

Persecution for Christ’s sake is inevitable, since we’ve been born again, we’re new creatures, and what we are will always be at war with what we used to be. Don’t imagine that your part in the battle will always be clear cut and dramatic. For then you won’t recognise a trial of faith when it comes.

We see how trivial, how pedestrian the battle can be in our reading from Mark’s gospel, where he tells us about the martyrdom of John the Baptist. This is the man Jesus Himself called the greatest of those born of woman, and the culmination of the Law and the prophets. If anybody, you’d think John would go to his death in some glorious spiritual last stand.

But no. John is beheaded and his head served up like some exotic dish because of the everyday earthly lust and spite of one woman, Herodias, an amateur dance performance by her daughter Salome, and the lust, pride, and political fear of Herodias’ brother-in-law and unlawful husband, King Herod. Herod had put John away in prison so he couldn’t go around the countryside reminding the people of how he, Herod, was violating God’s law in running off with his brother’s wife. But he had no desire to torture or execute John for his message. Mark tells us Herod feared John, he was puzzled at him, but he liked to listen to him. We have no reason to believe that John in prison did not keep on proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, that the Messiah had arrived, and that people should repent and obey the law of God. Being in prison was a form of persecution, of course. But from Herod’s point of view, he wasn’t standing against the Jewish faith when he imprisoned John; no, it was simply the best thing he could do politically. And when it came time for John to die, there was no crisis, John did nothing specific to make Herod behead him, it was just one more of those everyday situations when human selfishness wanted its way and nothing was going to stop it.

It’s the same with us, disciples of Jesus Christ who bear His name. Your struggles and trials as a Christian will most likely not be spectacular. Those who oppose you may not have any idea they’re causing you to suffer for Christ’s sake at all. But you should be aware of it. Think of those times when you feel pressure to compromise what is right because your boss thinks it’s good for business. Think of situations where a little voice inside tells you to give God the glory for something good that had happened to you, but you hear your own voice taking credit for it yourself, because you don’t want to seem "too religious." Call to mind those times when popular opinion on certain political and moral issues goes against the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures, and you’re ridiculed or called a bigot when you stand up for what you know to be the truth. These are the trials of your faith in Christ, allowed so it will come out more pure than 24-karat gold.

Think, too, of those times when pressure from other people isn’t involved at all, when the grief is in your own situation. Some of you may be struggling with financial hardship at this time, even unemployment or impending bankruptcy. You may have learned that you or someone you love is facing a deadly or painful chronic disease. How is your faith in Jesus Christ? Does this trial make you rely on Him and His faithfulness all the more? Does it make you search out the depths of His love for you and move you to love and trust Him for all you are and all you will have? Or does your trouble cause you to doubt Christ and His benefits-- or even, sometimes, to forget Him altogether?

These kinds of grief seem so ordinary and earthbound, hardly anything to do with being a Christian at all! But these everyday trials are the beginning of the refinement process for your faith, and if your faith turns out to be only 2-karat gold or no gold at all, where will you be when the ultimate trials come?

And they will come. Already our Congress is contemplating legislation that would make it hate speech for Christians to stand up for Biblical moral principles. Already in countries like Great Britain and Canada Muslim sharia law is allowed to hold sway in some areas, and Muslim leaders declare it’s their goal that sharia be in force throughout the world.

What shall we do about it? Expect the government to rescue us? Certainly, whatever we can do as citizens we should do, just as St. Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship whenever the time was right. But we must never expect the United States government or any other human institution to stand between us and the persecutions that will come because we bear the name of Jesus Christ. They will come, they must 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 honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."

It is Christ who brings us through the fire and Christ alone. His heavenly Father and ours has given us new birth into a living hope in Him, through Christ’s resurrection from the dead. This hope is not like the earthly wishing that says, "I hope it rains before my flowers die" or "I hope I get a new job before I start missing mortgage payments." This hope is in the person and work of the deathless Son of God. It teaches us to look beyond our earthly troubles to the sure and solid inheritance He has won and preserves in heaven for us.

Our brother Peter reminds us that no matter what happens, in this life we are shielded through God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. Individually we have already been saved and justified through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and when our Lord comes in glory and takes us to Himself, His work of salvation will be perfected in us and in all creation and the total victory will be His.

Even now we see the evidence of that coming victory. We see it when the Spirit of Christ in us enables us to do things we thought we never could and certainly never could without His aid. We see it when we find ourselves coming to the assistance of someone we have feared, not through compulsion but out of Christian love. Maybe you’ve taken a stand for Christ and you were nervous about it, but then you found it wasn’t so hard after all, and you found yourself caring about the person you were speaking to and wanting them to know Jesus and receive His heavenly inheritance, too. Maybe you said No to that business compromise or refused to be depressed by the current economic situation, because the Holy Spirit had filled you with the inexpressible joy He gives in Jesus Christ. This is the power of Jesus Christ working in you.

Jesus’ apostles witnessed the first fruits of Christ’s victory over sin and Satan when Jesus sent them out in His name to preach repentance, to heal, and to drive out demons. His power in them was so great that King Herod thought John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Herod thought that when John’s headless body was buried, the Baptist and the power that was in him were dead and gone. But the power of God manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord can never die. Our hope in Him is living and sure, and our inheritance in Him can never perish, spoil, or fade.

24-karat faith trusts totally in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us. God our loving heavenly Father permits griefs and trials and persecutions in our lives , to prove to us and the world that our faith is not in ourselves or our own boldness, not in human systems or governments, but in Christ alone. 24-karat faith maintains us in an attitude of obedience to God, focussed on Him and His will, confiding only in Him.

To this goal, Peter admonishes us to prepare our minds for action. Be sure that grief and trials will come to you, some because you belong to Jesus, some simply because of your human condition. Meet them as one who belongs to your faithful God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Study God’s word; know what He has done for your ancestors in the faith, so you also may be ready to meet trouble honorably and courageously in the strength Jesus gives. Set your hope on the grace He gives you even now, grace that will be fulfilled when He is revealed in glory. Through Him you can renounce the ways of Herod, Herodias, and Salome-- through Him you can stop being impelled and hemmed in by your fears and desires and instead live free in the holiness of Almighty God.

It was easy for me to give up my grade-school dream of being a Christian missionary because it really wasn’t about Christ at all. The truth was that I’d recently started at a new school, some of the kids were picking on me, and I figured that if I was going to suffer persecution, I may as well do it in a good cause. But now I understand that my mission field back then wasn’t someday in Africa, it was right there, right then, on that school playground.

And now my mission field and yours is wherever we are and in whatever situation we might be. Our field of battle is wherever the world, the devil, and our own sin set themselves up against the Kingdom of God. Our faith will come through the fire like 24-karat gold, because Jesus who died and rose again empowers us, protects us, and keeps our heavenly inheritance secure for us. Trust in Him like Peter, believe in Him like John, for He is your risen Lord and your gracious, living Hope.

To Him be all glory, honor, and praise, with God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, amen.

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