How can we continue with Christian joy in a world of suffering and pain? Peter in this joyful opening of a letter to suffering Christians gives us some pointers.
Sermon am – 1 Peter 1:3-9
Aim: Genuine faith rejoices in our imperishable inheritance despite the sufferings of this life.
Joy – really?
I love this passage, it just oozes joy and enthusiasm. It’s such a great celebration of the great resurrection truths and the difference it should make to our hearts. In fact the first verse of our passage:
“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,” (1 peter 1:3)
was one I often quoted to myself as an encouragement during the Covid pandemic.
But you might be sitting there and thinking, ‘Really?’ How can you be joyful when life faces us with so many struggles?
Certainly, as Christians we should not ignore the difficulties and struggles of life. Some of the Psalms are a great model of how to cry out to God when life seems tough and the whole focus on the crucifixion of Christ faces the reality of suffering head on. Christianity is not simply an, ‘Always look on the bright side of life!’ religion.
1 Peter is a letter written to people who are suffering. We do not know the details, but the letter suggests that the Christians Peter is writing to are struggling with being small groups of isolated Christians who are often ill-treated by others because of their Christian faith. Compared with our lives today, their life was tough. From the perspective of the pagans around them, being a Christian made things worse. They had little from a worldly point of view to rejoice in and Peter knows that. In verse 6 he acknowledges their struggles:
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6)
So how can we rejoice when we are suffering?
The answer lies in what you rejoice in and how that compares to the suffering. Peter’s claim is not that we should ignore the suffering or that it is wrong to experience the emotions of grief and sadness that it may bring, but that even the depths of the suffering in this life cannot compare with the joy we have in Christ.
The Zip-Wire of Joy
For my wife’s 40th birthday, we as a family did ‘Go Ape’ at Leeds Castle. This involved climbing around increasingly ‘High Wires’ and going on a massively long zip-wire, which crossed high over a valley. I don’t like heights, but it was my wife’s birthday, so I gave it ago. At points it was terrifying, but it was also fun – even the zip-wire!
Now there are three things that you want to know about a zip-wire in order to be confident using it. You want to know that it is secured to the ground at the start, that it is secured to the ground at the end and that it is not going to snap in the middle! If any of those things fail, then the zip-wire turns from a thrill to a tragedy.
In the same way if we are to have joy in the Christian life, then we need to have confidence in its start point, its end point and the wire running between them and those are what Peter focusses on in this passage.
Joy in Life – vs. 3
The start point is the resurrection. Peter had himself known Jesus, gone through the tragedy and pain of seeing him crucified, before experiencing the utter joy of meeting the risen Jesus and seeing death defeated. For Peter, the resurrection was a transformational moment, it changed his life utterly.
Now, many years later, he writes with confidence to these struggling Christians to remind them of the new birth they have experienced when they came to believe in the reality of the resurrection.
Many would have previously been pagans, believing in a world controlled by fickle gods, with death being the gateway into a rather bleak view of any afterlife. Life was tough and then you die, was their hopeless outlook.
Today, many in our world have the same outlook. They are distracted by momentary pleasures and short term goals to improve their lives through more money, better relationships or fun activities, but they have nothing to look forward to in the long term except the onset of old age and death itself. Hope is dead.
When you grasp that the resurrection actually happened, that the God of Jesus can and has raised the dead and he did so to create a way to life and salvation for all who trust in him, then hope comes alive and life is transformed.
It is a new birth. The resurrection is not an intellectual fact to debate over, but a reality that should seep into our hearts and change the way we think, feel and love. It brings inexpressible and glorious joy. The resurrection is the secure start point of the Christian life.
Joy in Hope – vs. 4
But start points are not enough. If I went on the zip-wire across the valley with a secure start point, but a broken end-point, then the zip would become a plummet.
Yet, as Peter makes clear, the resurrection shows us that our end point is secure. We have an inheritance, a place in God’s eternal home that will always be there:
untouched by death
unstained by evil
unimpaired by time
These days we insist on guarantees. We want to be confident that if we buy something, that it won’t break straight away or fail us. The Bank of England guarantees, the banking system, so that if the banks fail we can know that our savings – up to a certain amount – won’t disappear.
Security is important, but the recent pandemic and the war in Ukraine have made us feel less secure. Where can we find a confident guarantee?
The answer comes from Jesus. Why? He proved his utter commitment and love for us dying for us and demonstrated his power over death by rising again. In Jesus, our hope is totally and utterly secure. In him, we can find true joy.
Joy with Faith – vs. 7-8
Finally, there comes the wire itself. You can have a secure start point and a fixed end point, but if the wire goes snap, then you go splat!
What is the wire in our illustration? How are we held through time between the fixed points of the resurrection and our eternal home in heaven? How can we be held with confidence above the trials and tribulations of this life? It is with a genuine faith.
Peter says, such a faith is of greater worth than gold. This is obvious. You can’t take gold with you when you die, but genuine faith in Christ is what brings us to the fixed point of that eternal inheritance.
Yet, the illustration has another aspect to it. Gold is refined by fire. When you heat gold up and skim the rubbish off the top, the true gold remains, the rubbish disappears. The same is true of faith, when we are faced with the trials and suffering of life.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus speaks of the seed that falls on shallow ground as illustrating those whose faith is not genuine. When the suffering and persecution come along, their faith wilts. It was not genuine. Similarly, he speaks of the seed that falls amongst the weeds as illustrating a faith that is not genuine. When the worries of this life come along, the faith is choked.
True faith perseveres through these struggles, keeping you fixed to the resurrection and to the hope of our eternal inheritance. When this is the case, suffering creates a deeper confidence that our faith is genuine, that the wire will hold. Our struggles may be tough, but they have a positive purpose in refining and strengthening our faith. When that happens we discover a deeper joy!
When I went on the zip wire across the valley near Leeds Castle, the initial moments were terrifying – the ground was a long way down. But as I whizzed through the air, I became more confident that the start and end points would hold and the wire would not snap. Terror turned to pleasure.
In the same way, as Christians as we zip through life, we need to focus again and again on the great fixed points of the resurrection and our eternal inheritance and rejoice in the genuine faith that God has given us to keep us moving towards the ultimate goal, the salvation of our souls!