The Fiery Trial – Sermon for June 1st/2nd, 2014

The Fiery Trial

1 Peter 4:7-14

Exaudi Sunday (7th Sunday of Easter)

June 1st/2nd, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 Do not be surprised, beloved, when the fiery trial comes upon you to test you, as though something strange and unexpected were happening to you.  For you know that the genuineness of your faith will be tested by fire to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.[1]  Did not Jesus himself say, “If anyone would follow me, let Christian_Persecution_02_230pxhim deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”?[2]  Did not Jesus himself say, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”?[3]  Did not Jesus himself say, “In the world you will have tribulation”?[4]  Did not Jesus himself say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”?[5]  Yes, beloved, Jesus is clear.  We his children will have crosses to bear in this life.  We will have tribulation.  We will have fiery trials – so don’t be surprised when those trials appear.  Don’t act as if something strange were happening to you.  It is not strange.  It is life under the cross of Christ.  It is life as an enemy of Satan.  It is the life you now lead as a baptized child of God.

Persecution will find you, you don’t have to go looking for it.  Now, some trials that we suffer are the result of our own sinful actions.  As Peter says in the verse that immediately follows today’s reading, if you suffer because you are a murderer or a thief or a gossip or a rabble-rouser, then your suffering is simply the result of your choices and cannot rightly be considered persecution.[6]  Yet if you are insulted for the name of Christ, then you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[7]  We should expect to suffer for the name of Christ.  I think we in the United States are only just beginning to get a sense of this type of suffering.  We haven’t really experienced it before because for the past several generations Christianity in the United States enjoyed privileged status.  Christian holidays were observed on a national level.  Nativities were displayed prominently in the courthouse lawn while Joy to the World and other Christian carols swelled the shopping mall and the church sanctuary equally.  The Christian view of marriage was accepted and unquestioned – at least on a cultural level.  Christianity was in the majority, and Christians led a fairly comfortable existence, one where we were allowed to worship and preach the gospel without fear of interference or retribution.

Those times are gone now.  Our government and our culture have changed.  No longer does Christianity hold privileged status.  We are not the lap dog any longer – we’re back in the pack with the rest of them, fighting for our scraps.  The definition of marriage in our land is not that which we find in our Lord’s Word.  Christian displays are not tolerated on the front lawn of government buildings, and where they are allowed, they are adrift in a sea of religious pluralism.  Music celebrating the birth of Jesus has been banned from many public places in the Christmas season, which has itself been renamed the “holiday” season so as not to offend those who celebrate something other than the birth of our Lord at that time of year.  Federal regulations regarding health care, birth control and abortions force Christian organizations to choose between conscience and compliance.  The leadership of our Synod has already put congregations on alert that the property tax exemption currently granted to religious institutions will likely go by the wayside sometime in the next ten years.  There are other changes that have happened or will happen soon that will change the way the church operates in the U.S.  We Christians in the United States are experiencing a culture shock of sorts as the culture around us evolves and morphs into something new.  I don’t know what the future holds, but I expect that being Christian in America in the years ahead will require a more ardent confession, for the convenience of Christianity will be gone.

chickenlittle2But we ought not turn into Chicken Little.  Yes, our cultural context is changing, but the sky is not falling.  Losing convenience isn’t always bad.  Losing privilege doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world.  What we are just now beginning to experience is nothing compared to what other parts of the world have endured for the past 2000 years.  That is why we often pray for the persecuted church, for those who suffer on account of the gospel, like the Sudanese woman who is to be executed for her conversion to Christianity.  Her story made global headlines due to the fact that she was 8 months pregnant when she was sentenced to death, but her situation is not especially unique.  There are several nations around the world where conversion to Christianity is a capital offense punishable by death.  During the days of the Iron Curtain, stories of Christian martyrdom and persecution were quite common.  The dangers posed to Christians around the world far exceed what we currently face here in the United States, yet it is precisely in hostile environments like Africa where the Christian Church is growing so quickly that it’s hard to get enough pastors and resources for all the new congregations.  Our situation in America may be getting worse, but even we can thank God that our problem is being told not to say Merry Christmas instead of facing execution for confessing Christianity.

We ought to be careful not to equate loss of privilege with genuine persecution.  For just like talk of financial hardship rings hollow when we have high definition cable TV, smart phones with unlimited data, multiple vehicles to gas up and maintain, and are willing to spend thousands of dollars on vacations, so also talk of persecution rings hollow when the extent of the struggle we are facing is whether or not a secular government allows us to set up a nativity on public property.  I don’t think that’s the persecution that Peter is talking about in his epistle.  I do, however, think we in the United States are on a collision course with the exact type of experiences that Peter is addressing.  But we need not lose hope.  Yes, the world around us is growing ever more blatant in its paganism.  Yes, the open acceptance of sinful behavior is considered normal now.  Yes, we live in a culture that has no problem with homosexuality, pornography, or any other sexual actions that are contrary to our Lord’s design.  In fact, sexual pleasure of any kind is glorified as the highest good that this life has to offer.  We live in a world that has no problem with ending life when that life is inconvenient, so long as that life is unborn or aging.  But Ivy League Ethicists have been arguing since the 1970s that even infants should not be given preferential treatment, and if you find yourself in a position where you feel the need to kill your 1 month old, you should have the right to go ahead and do it.[8]  We live in a world that believes the purpose of existence is survival of the fittest, to kill or be killed, to exert your will on the weak so that you may be made strong.  But we need not lose hope.

We aren’t the first generation of believers to face opposition from the world.  Our world has always been at odds with our Lord, ever since the Fall, so if you are going to try to live according to our Lord’s Word, take Peter’s words to heart.  Don’t be surprised when you find yourself increasingly at odds with the culture in which you live.  Don’t be surprised when the voice of Christians is portrayed as unloving, uncaring, overbearing, and AB-IN-It-Not-Of-Itdownright evil.  Do not be surprised when the world cannot understand the Scriptures’ teaching on marriage and brands you as unloving for holding to it.  Do not be surprised when the world does not understand the value our Lord places on life and how such value is incompatible with abortion or euthanasia.  Do not be surprised as the situation gets a whole lot more serious than not being to put a nativity in the lawn at the capitol building.  Do not be surprised when you are insulted for the name of Christ, for if you are insulted in the name of Christ, you are blessed, because you have held to the confession of His Word, and through that Word the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[9]

Don’t be surprised when that America arrives.  It’s coming.  In many ways it’s already here and has been for some time now.  Don’t be surprised, but don’t lose hope either, for keep-calm-remember-matthew-16-18Jesus said the gates of hell itself cannot overpower our Lord’s church.  Even the threat of death cannot silence the Gospel in Africa.  Neither will the gospel be silenced here, not as long as our Lord is active among us to kindle in our hearts a passion for the truth that sets us free.  Take heart, the church will survive.  We may lose privileged status, but we will not lose our Lord, for he will remain faithful.  We will not lose his Word, for while the flower withers and the grass fades, the Word of our God stands forever.[10]  So cling to that Word.  Don’t let the voice of the culture, of the music on the radio or the messages in the movies or the images on TV, don’t let the voice of the culture be the only voice that enters your ears and your eyes.  Hear the voice of our Lord in his Word, but do so knowing that as his word begins to give you a perspective on life that conflicts with the culture around us, the culture will not simply sit by and let you have your way.  It’s exhausting to swim upstream; you will get pelted with sand and dirt when you walk into the wind.  Do not be surprised when being counter cultural is difficult.  Do not be surprised when that fiery trial arrives, but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.[11]  Be faithful unto death, and you will receive a crown of life.[12]

Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials, but don’t lose hope either.  Receive life’s challenges as a call to repentance and a reminder of our own sin and desperate need of salvation.  Rather than feeling victimized when someone scolds you for saying Merry Christmas or lamenting the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t accept the Christian worldview, repent of the sins of this culture of which we are each a part.  We have each contributed in our own ways to the world in which we live – and we are each called to repentance for it.  Rather than making excuses or finding loopholes to justify sinful actions and desires, repent of your sinful flesh and look to our Lord for deliverance.  While we will each of us suffer something in this life, we are like the thief on the cross, for we indeed suffer justly.  We get what we deserve for our sin.  It is Jesus who suffered unjustly.  It is Jesus who did nothing wrong but was left to face the consequences of our sin.  And he did so willingly, allowing himself to be captured rather than calling down legions of angles to defend him, giving up his spirit on the cross, laying down his life so that you could be his precious child.  He suffered great persecution so that we might have life beyond the grave.  He is the reason we cling to hope in the face of persecution, for who are we that we should be counted worthy to receive the same treatment our Lord received?  And even more, when this world has done its worst, when we have suffered the most, when death itself snatches our last breath away, even that is but the birth into the new heavens and the new earth.

Take heart in your suffering – for your salvation is secure.  Do not lose hope in your suffering – you are a child of God.  You are a child of life in a world of death.  Keep an eye on eternity during your time here, knowing full well that Satan does not want you to arrive safely in God’s eternal mansion.  Do not be surprised when fiery trials come upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  You have been baptized.  You now have a bull’s eye on your back as a new creation and an enemy of the devil.  But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad SquarePeg-RoundHole-01when his glory is revealed, for when his glory is revealed we too will be seen for what we are, not simply people who don’t fit in quite right with our culture, but the saints of God who will spend eternity with him in the new and perfect creation.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

 

[1] 1 Peter 1:7

[2] Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23

[3] Matthew 5:11

[4] John 16:33

[5] Matthew 10:34

[6] 1 Peter 4:15

[7] 1 Peter 4:14

[8] http://www.equip.org/articles/peter-singers-bold-defense-of-infanticide/#christian-books-2

[9] 1 Peter 4:14

[10] Isaiah 40:6-8

[11] 1 Peter 4:13

[12] Revelation 2:10

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