1 Peter 1:3-9 – Be Joyful in Suffering

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. This inheritance is 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. In all 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 the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 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 end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (New International Version)

One of my favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a story of grace and new life. The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man. 

By the time he is released, Valjean is hard, angry, and cynical. Since ex-convicts were not treated well in nineteenth-century France, Jean Valjean had nowhere to go. In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit. 

In the middle of the night, Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and leaves. The next day, however, he is caught by the police. When they bring Jean back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.” 

After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.” In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.

Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life. The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a redeemed life. Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done. 

Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life. There are trials and temptations for Valjean all along the way. 

What keeps Jean Valjean pursuing his new life is mercy. Whereas before, he responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

Suffering and joy. They, at first glance, may seem to be opposites. Christianity views suffering as an occasion for joy, and not just empty meaningless grief. 

“A gracious soul may look through the darkest cloud and see God smiling on him.”

Thomas Brooks (1608-1680)

Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior through walking in the way of suffering. These sufferings are trials to our faith and the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened. Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles. 

Walking in the way of the Lord Jesus, adversity is our Teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great deliverance from sin, death, and hell we possess in Jesus.

Adversity has a positive effect of making faith genuine. Every generation of Christians must come to grips with faith. Belief is not only a matter of confession with the lips; faith is also proven primarily through suffering. So, we must walk-the-talk, as well as talk-the-walk. 

Faith is like a new car – it is meant to be occupied, used, and driven – and not to only sit in the garage and be admired. A car is meant to be on the road, and if it does not perform well, we say it’s a lemon and we get another car. 

Cars are the vehicles getting us from point A to point B. And, hopefully, we enjoy the ride without being frustrated and having road rage. It is unrealistic, as drivers, to believe we will never have to drive in adverse road conditions. We know it is silly to believe the weather must always conform to our driving habits. 

Good drivers are good drivers because they drive a lot and have driven in nearly every road condition there is.  Mature Christians are those followers of Jesus who live their faith each and every day and, since they allow their faith to take them places, have seen all kinds of adversity, trials, and suffering along the road of life.

They have learned through all their troubles and trials to enjoy what God is doing in their lives instead of being frustrated and have faith-fury. Such Christians have the confidence they are receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls. They understand their faith grows and develops as they face the challenges of life every day with a firm commitment to their Lord Jesus.

There are times we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances and wonder how to get through them. Yet, no matter what happens, we still love Jesus and believe him, even though we don’t see him. Like Jean Valjean, we keep living our lives with joy knowing that mercy shapes our lives with purpose and meaning.

Peter could praise God because his life was transformed by the grace and mercy of Jesus. Peter went from an impulsive and fearful fisherman who denied the Lord three times, to a confident and courageous witness of Christ because he was regenerated, restored, and renewed by grace. He joyfully endured suffering and opposition because his faith was precious to him. 

There can be a tendency for many Christians to show a flat and staid attitude through the trials of life – trying to keep a stiff upper lip and endure. However, taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long. 

Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” is a more appropriate response to trouble. It is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice – even though the rejoicing is through tears – in the living hope kept for us.

This gracious inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer with spiritual endurance. We can persevere through a worldwide trial of pandemic. We can do more than survive – we can thrive through having our faith muscle stretched and strengthened. We are not alone. We all suffer together.

Our shared value of the risen Christ is the fuel that keeps our car of faith running. It is what transcends the stoic attitude of unfeeling endurance to a joyful flourishing of faith. 

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, let’s not hunker down and stay in the garage of life. Let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith. Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us. 

Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth, in this age, while it is still called Today. And let us allow the trials of this age to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of blessing the world. 

To God be the glory. Even in suffering.

Blessed Lord, you created us and lovingly care for us. We accept all our sufferings willingly, and as truly obedient children we resign ourselves to your holy will. Give us the strength to accept your loving visitation to us through adversity, and never let us grieve your heart by giving-in to impatience and discouragement. We offer you all our pains to be used for your honor and glory.

Brother Jesus, you loved us so much as to suffer and die for our deliverance from sin. Through the love we have for you, we willingly offer all that we have ever suffered in the past, am now suffering, and will suffer in the future. We are grateful that your love enables us to suffer with joy. Because you suffered, we have new life in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray. Amen.

James 5:13-20 – Pray In Times of Trouble

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (New International Version)

This entire letter of the Apostle James to a suffering church is grounded in two important theological truths:  God is good; and God acts powerfully in the world for good. 

The foundation of Christian prayer is the conviction that God cares – that the Lord hears us and responds. Prayers can be lifted at any time. Yet, the God-focused and God-honoring prayer has a price. It will cost us time, effort, vulnerability, and follow-through with appropriate action. Biblical prayer is more than private requests; it requires something of us as a community of believers in Jesus.

When To Pray?

We are to pray whenever there is trouble in our lives which causes us to suffer. Whether physical trouble, emotional suffering, or relational difficulty, we are to pray about it all. We are to pray even when we do not feel like it. In short, we are to be pray continually because there is always a need for prayer.

The Apostle James practiced what he taught. The Roman historian, Eusebius, wrote concerning James that “his knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.” James was in constant intercession to God for people. 

“His knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.”

The fourth-century historian Eusebius, describing the Apostle James

Like James, we all need prayer is to be our default response in trouble and suffering. When in trying circumstances, a temptation is to lash out at the person who enabled the adversity. We may even become mad at God for allowing trouble in our lives.

Yet, when afflicted, suffering, or in trouble, we need to pray. Sometimes God will always take away our afflictions, suffering, or troubles. Sometimes not. However, by bringing our circumstances before the Lord and acknowledging our need for divine help, we can see God intervene in the situation we are presently facing. What’s more, prayer can give us the grace we need to endure and come closer to God.

So, when the bottom drops out; when you feel you are hanging by a thread; when circumstances are overwhelming or grow worse by the minute, we should pray. We should pray, whether afflicted, sick, or overcome by guilt and shame.

The cost of prayer is time. For many people, time is as precious as money. So, we try to fit prayer into our lives without ever altering our schedules. That will not do. Prayer takes time because it is a conversation with God, and it requires extended focused attention.

Who Should Pray?

Everyone is to pray – including everyone in the church who are happy, suffering, healthy, or ill. Specifically, James tells us the elders of the church are to pray for those who are sick – including physical suffering, mental illness, emotional hurt, and spiritual sickness. Prayer is for all those who are weak, weary, and worn down by life circumstances.

Notice the chain of responsibility here in today’s New Testament lesson. The onus is on the sick person to contact the elders of the church. Scripture clearly puts the need for communicating an adverse situation on the person who is undergoing the trouble. For many people, this is humbling and difficult, so they simply don’t do it. Prayer has a price: openness and vulnerability.

When the needy person communicates the trouble, then the elders are to anoint the person in the name of the Lord and offer a prayer of faith for the afflicted person. It is the leadership’s job to pray. In the ancient biblical world, anointing with oil was a deeply symbolic act of encouragement. It was a tangible way of lifting the person out of trouble.

And all kinds of sickness are in view: physical ailments of bodily sickness; heart problems of anger or bitterness; spiritual struggles of doubt; emotional challenges of depression or anxiety; along with anything and everything that causes ill health. It all should be prayed over, with people being anointed and encouraged.

Prayer is not a strictly private affair; it is a communal activity. Consider the thought that if you are not experiencing healing, wholeness, and health – whether physical, relational, or spiritual – then perhaps God is calling you and I to more than private prayer but to corporate prayer offered by the elders of the church. 

It is not just the prayer offered by one solitary individual that makes the sick person well – it is the collective faith prayer of the church’s leadership on the troubled person.

How To Pray?

Pray in faith. Pray earnestly. Trust God for healing and wholeness with prayers that are persistent, passionate, and prolonged. Again, this will cost the troubled person a profound willingness to be vulnerable, real, and honest. No vulnerability, no healing. No gut-level honesty with the true condition, no power to raise the person up. No willingness to stop fighting and let go of the pride and perceived ability to handle it ourselves, no end to the trouble.

Today, many people throughout the world are trying to independently get out of their trouble and do not want others to help them through the ministry of prayer. The cost of letting others see their terrible situation is too high for them. So, they suffer in silence, failing to confess and receive healing prayer.

Why Pray?

The goal of prayer is total and complete healing from physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual ills. In addition, it is through prayer that prodigals return from their wandering in the muck of the world.

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. The Old Testament prophet Elijah simply believed God’s Word and prayed accordingly. Elijah knew from reading the book of Deuteronomy that God said whenever God’s people wander from the truth, there will be drought, no rain. 

So, Elijah prayed the words of God. He prayed that it would not rain, and it didn’t. Then, when there was a great revival of the people back to God, Elijah prayed it would rain with passionate, sincere, believing, and persevering prayer. And it rained a gulley-washer.

So, let’s pray…

Good and gracious God, we believe you are compassionate, willing, and able to heal people in the name of Christ. Today we pray for those requiring surgery; needing confidence and courage; trying to understand their suffering; having a sense of guilt or failure; experiencing great anxiety; lacking patience; feeling disappointed; tiring of limitations; wearying of old age; lacking sleep; and wandering from the truth. For all these people and their situations of trouble, we pray to you, Lord, for healing, health, and wholeness. 

Eternal God, send your Holy Spirit upon each person we are praying for right now. Drive away all sickness of body and spirit. Make whole that which is broken. Give deliverance from the power of evil. Provide strengthening of faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who suffered on our behalf, yet also rose from death so that we, too, could live a new life.

Most gracious God, you are the source of healing. We give you thanks for all your gifts to us, but most of all, for the gift of your Son, the Lord Jesus, through whom you gave and still give strength and deliverance to all who believe. As we wait in eager expectation for the coming of that day when suffering and pain shall be no more, help us by your Holy Spirit to be assured of your power in our lives and to trust in your eternal love, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Matthew 5:13-20 – Live as Salt and Light

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore, anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (New International Version)

There is a world of people in our sphere of influence, who need to see that Christianity is real and that it works.

Jesus used a few metaphors to help his followers understand their role in society and their effect on the world.

Salt

Obviously, in the ancient world, there was no refrigeration. So, salt was used to preserve food, with the added result that it brought some flavor when the food was eaten. Christians are meant to be a preservative in the culture, helping to stave off worldly decay and rot.

Sometimes, believers in Jesus feel a compulsion to complain about eroding cultural mores, the sad state of public affairs, or the declining value of religion. However, Christians can play a positive role, rather than a negative stance, by being salt in the world.

Christianity is meant to be therapeutic and helpful, adding value to culture and society – and not an added burden to an already bad situation.

Jesus said if Christians lose their saltiness, and are no longer impacting society, they are useless to the culture. Nobody would miss them if they were thrown out into the garbage dump of the street to be trampled on and forgotten.

Christians were never meant to simply exist for themselves. They are on this earth to be the continuing presence of Christ in the world by means of God’s Spirit.

This is not an exhortation from Jesus to be salt, because he says we are salt. It is rather a matter of allowing the world to taste Christianity and find it compelling and flavorful. 

For example, instead of being worried or upset that a low income housing project is being built next to church property, leading to discussions of erecting a fence, a salty Christian response would be to imagine creating a sidewalk so that the neighborhood kids will wander over to the church’s grounds.

Saltiness is a fundamental way of thinking and acting which orients itself around the common good of everyone and the community needs surrounding where Christians live, work, and play.

To drive his point home even deeper, Jesus used a second metaphor to describe what Christianity’s relation to the world is to be like….

Light

In the ancient world, there were no artificial lights. At night, it was pitch black. In the dark, any light, even a small candle, makes a real difference.

An individual person may mistakenly believe their life does not make much of a difference. Yet, it does! One person exhibiting the characteristics of humility, gentleness, grace, and peacemaking is able to have significant penetration into the darkness.

Here are some ways the church has always brought light into the darkest times of history:

  • Taking-in and adopting unwanted children who would otherwise be victims of infanticide.
  • Ministering to the sick and dying during periods of plague and disease, while others fled.
  • Caring for prisoners who had no family to provide them with necessary food and clothing.
  • Giving benevolence and kindness to the poor – especially to immigrants, widows, and orphans.

Christianity is designed to take a proactive approach – and not just a passive policy of waiting for needy people to show up – by searching, identifying, and meeting the needs of people.

The reason religious people wondered about Jesus and his teaching is because Christ offered a different perspective than what they typically heard. 

Jesus was concerned to uphold basic Old Testament ethics by offering a distinct interpretation that the Law is fulfilled in himself. For example, the entire book of Leviticus (which reads something like a B-grade slasher film) is a detailed account of regulations concerning the sacrificial system – with the actual intent of all these laws to expose sinfulness, and the need for a once-for-all sacrifice that would take care of the sin issue altogether. The ceremonial law was not intended to be permanent, but to be fulfilled by the Messiah, Jesus.

Christ made it clear that all of Scripture is important; not the slightest detail is unimportant. True righteousness shows itself when Christians do the right things for the right reasons.

Christians are people of the Word. They are to learn Scripture, know it, and live it. One opportunity of doing this is based on an ancient way of reading the Bible called Lectio Divina (Latin for “spiritual reading”):

  1. Lectio (reading with a listening spirit)
  2. Meditatio (reflecting or meditating on what are hearing from God)
  3. Oratio (praying in response to what I hear from God)
  4. Contemplatio (contemplating what I will do to live out the text)

Through listening, reflecting, praying, and obeying, Christians allow Holy Scripture to spiritually shape and form them into the people of God – thus becoming salt and light in the world.

May you discover the light of God’s grace through being a person of the Word.

May you be salty, flavorful and preserving the world in which you live.

May you know and connect with Jesus.

May Christianity be seen, felt, and known as the contribution to this old world it was always meant to be. Amen.

Acts 12:20-25 – Don’t Be Worm Food

Herod had been furious with the people of Tyre and Sidon for some time. They made a pact to approach him together, since their region depended on the king’s realm for its food supply. They persuaded Blastus, the king’s personal attendant, to join their cause, then appealed for an end to hostilities. On the scheduled day Herod dressed himself in royal attire, seated himself on the throne, and gave a speech to the people. Those assembled kept shouting, over and over, “This is a god’s voice, not the voice of a mere human!” Immediately an angel from the Lord struck Herod down, because he didn’t give the honor to God. He was eaten by worms and died.

God’s word continued to grow and increase. Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch from Jerusalem after completing their mission, bringing with them John, who was also known as Mark. (Common English Bible)

Accountability is important. People need to be held to a clear, right, and just standard of attitude and behavior – especially when they mess with the food supply.

Herod Agrippa Is Worm Food

The King Herod in our New Testament story today, known as Herod Agrippa, was a grandson to Herod the Great. Simply put, King Herod Agrippa was a self-absorbed jerk. Although he only reigned four years, he was something like a modern day evangelical huckster. Herod knew how to turn a phrase and play on the emotions of people to get what he wanted while keeping up appearances with both the Empire and the Jewish people.

Yet, despite or because of his eloquence and power, Herod was vain and ruled for self – and neither for God nor country. So, he was stricken by God and died an unpleasant death. The connection is clear: Herod used the food people depended upon as a means of controlling the politics of the region, so God hit him directly in his intestines with a complete lack of control over his own body.

Just as Herod was an unwanted agent manipulating the food supply for his own ends, so the king received some unwanted guests in the form of worms. In the ancient world, when any ruler used food to control the people, there were individuals and families who ended up starving to death. For Herod, the worm turned, it was he who died.

Jesus Is Gospel Food

The swift judgment from God was both a rebuke to Herod’s personal kingdom building, as well as a means of protecting the fledgling church from severe persecution. With Herod Agrippa off the scene, the Apostles could freely move with regularity (pun intended) and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Paul, Barnabas, and Mark were able to go on a missionary journey. Nothing can thwart God’s good news and sovereign intentions for humanity – especially not an upstart demigod king who, as a Jew, knew better than to go rogue and mess with people’s food.

The church is to give literal and spiritual food – following the footsteps of their Lord Jesus who said:

“The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…. I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:33-58, CEB)

God’s purpose and intent is to provide sustenance. Divine retribution is likely to happen when puny humans try and play their power games, putting entire people groups at risk for starvation. Jesus came to this earth for the provision of food that will nourish to eternal life.

The Lord will provide. God shall ultimately topple all systems of repression which deny people basic life needs. Almighty God seeks to eat away, like an intestinal worm, at contemporary political regimes and oppressive governments which put people in impossible situations of trying to fend for themselves.

Jesus is both Bread and Judge. Christ came in his first advent bringing food for the hungry. There is a time coming when he shall return in his second advent to bring the worm – good news to the suffering, and bad news for the ones who create the suffering.

Be encouraged with the spiritual reality that Christ brings spiritual sustenance and eternal life. And be assured that he knows the condition of all people and will extend grace or judgment with sage wisdom.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, especially the hearts of political authorities, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace so that everyone’s need for food is met, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.