A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope, and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings that God keeps for his people. He keeps them for you in heaven, where they cannot decay or spoil or fade away. They are for you, who through faith are kept safe by God’s power for the salvation which is ready to be revealed at the end of time.

Be glad about this, even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of the many kinds of trials you suffer. Their purpose is to prove that your faith is genuine. Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure. Then you will receive praise and glory and honor on the Day when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

You love him, although you have not seen him, and you believe in him, although you do not now see him. So you rejoice with a great and glorious joy which words cannot express, because you are receiving the salvation of your souls, which is the purpose of your faith in him. (Good News Translation)

There’s no need for hope if everything’s going just the way you like it. I remember when I was a college undergraduate, I hoped for Christ’s return toward the end of every semester. The prospect of all those final exams and the pressure of grades had me longing for heaven.

But that’s life. Maturity, resilience, perseverance, and just about every virtue you can think of comes as a result of life’s trials and sufferings. The Christian has hope, precisely because things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.

Faith has to be tried and tested. And hard circumstances are the way of purifying it. Like gold being purged of any dross by being exposed to extreme heat, so our faith becomes strong, robust, and genuine by the purgative fires of life’s many large and small sufferings.

The whole point of it all is to make us people worthy of our spiritual calling. Resurrection only happens because there’s been a death. Glory is only realized through suffering.

New life, the Christian life, isn’t a matter of making a new set of resolutions, as if it were nothing more than aspirations at the beginning of a calendar year. Rather, Christian faith is a response to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a story of grace and new life, of a hopeless man given the chance at hope.

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 and cynical man. After his release, Jean Valjean has 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, he steals the bishop’s silver and skedaddles. 

The next day, however, Valjean is caught by the police. When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Jean, 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. Hope springs to life.

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. 

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Throughout Jean Valjean’s new life, there are trials and temptations all along the way. Yet, mercy keeps his faith strong, and hope kindled. Whereas before, Valjean responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – he responds to each case of unjust suffering with gratitude, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

Hope is kept alive because of suffering. Faith is strengthened by means of adversity. And both originate because of mercy and grace.

Christianity is a worldview perspective that enables one to rejoice in difficulty. For the Christian, there is no empty meaningless grief; there is the hope that our suffering means something. Like the athlete who endures all the painful practice in order to realize a future hope, so the believer in Jesus goes into strict training for the development of faith – all in the confident expectation of a fulfilled salvation.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, this seemingly weird alchemy of faith, suffering, hope, joy, and new life. And every generation of Christians needs to experientially discover it. Each believer eventually learns, in the crucible of hard circumstances, that the promises of God are the ballast to persevere in faith and patience throughout life.

Christian hope is a confident expectation that the promises of God will be completely realized.

A Christian’s salvation encompasses past, present, and future.

We were saved back there in the past when Christ died on the cross for us. We were crucified with him.

We are presently being saved from the world, the sinful nature, and the devil, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit in making us holy.

And we will be saved in the future when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, our salvation will be fully realized. Since that hasn’t happened yet, we have hope to sustain us.

It was hope that sustained me in college. I endured all the hours of study, all the exams, all the various courses taken, with the confident expectation that I would someday walk across that stage, receive my diploma, and graduate with my intended degree.

We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:23-25, NIV)

The Christian’s hope for ultimate deliverance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. This means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or a year, or even decades, with spiritual endurance. Our goal shall come in all its fullness. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4, NRSV)

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, 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.

Heavenly Father, you created us and lovingly care for us. We accept all our sufferings willingly, and as truly obedient children we submit 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. We offer you our pains to be used for your honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Real Forgiveness (Hebrews 9:23-28)

By Marc Chagall, 1941

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. 

But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (New International Version)

In truth, I could preach on the Cross every Sunday and never exhaust the immensely rich implications of Jesus Christ’s death for us. 

Perhaps, for many Christians, today’s New Testament lesson seems like a re-hashing of things we already know. Yet, it is important to keep plumbing the depths of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, because, through continual examination of Christ and the Cross:

  • We will know, both intellectually and experientially, that our forgiveness is real. 
  • We will be able, both spiritually and emotionally, to extend real forgiveness to others.

The original recipients of Hebrews were experiencing spiritual fatigue due to their difficult circumstances. The believers were so worn down from swimming upstream of their problems, that they considered throwing in the towel and giving up on Christianity (or at least the Church). 

The author of Hebrews truly believed that the way to combat this tiredness was through a robust understanding of Christ and the Cross. So, he sought to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to the old sacrificial system and has superseded it. 

There are three main distinctions between the old sacrificial system and the new way of Christ so that we will be encouraged to know that our forgiveness is real.

Reality vs. Simulation

The Old Testament sacrificial system, and its worship rituals in dealing with the sin issue, were only a copy and a shadow of the real sacrifice, which is Christ. The Temple sacrifices, in other words, were merely a facsimile of the real thing.

The difference between the old temple sacrifices and the sacrifice of Christ, is like the difference between riding a mechanical horse and an actual horse. Mechanical horses are merely a simulation of real riding.

Since Christ has come as the real sacrifice for sin, we need no longer be content with simulations and copies of the real deal. The Christian’s forgiveness is neither a simulation nor a copy because Christ is the real thing. 

By Marc Chagall, 1952

Jesus did not just mechanically mouth words of forgiveness to us; Christ secured real forgiveness through his death on a cross. This is no cheap imitation of forgiveness. Christ died an actual violent death.

The emphasis in Scripture on blood and sacrifice can be upsetting for many people. Yet, we need to understand that the brokenness of this world is so bad that it requires drastic action. Christ’s death reflects the horrible sin of humanity. Since Jesus has secured forgiveness for us at such a steep price, we are to receive it with great humility and joy, knowing that God loves us that much.

Permanent vs. Temporary

Jesus Christ dealt with the sin issue once and for all through his blood. He came to do away with sin, not just veneer over it. The old sacrificial system was like whitewashing a barn – it took care of the issue for a while, but it would need to be done over and over again.

We are familiar with temporary arrangements. For example, annual fees need to be paid and renewal stickers have to be put on a car’s license plate every year. Christ’s atonement, however, is no temporary arrangement. The forgiveness Jesus offers is permanent.

There is no need to keep offering sacrifices over and over because Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The forgiveness we possess is not like paying an annual fee and getting a forgiveness sticker for the year. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! And this forgiveness was purchased with Christ’s own blood.

The cross that held Christ’s naked and marred body, exposed the violence and injustice of this world. The Cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, and a God of sacrificial love. Because Jesus was willing to do this on our behalf, we have a permanent forgiveness, settled once and for all, through his blood.

This old world needs real forgiveness that lasts forever – not a cheap sentimental forgiving that is merely a flash in the pan. 

Salvation vs. Judgment

A lot of religious energy can be spent trying to figure out how to make ourselves acceptable to God.

Part of the good news is that, in Christ, we do not need to fear the future. We have been made right with God through the death of Jesus. Through Christ’s sacrifice, the doors to heaven and earth get flung wide open. The way has been secured, the trail has been blazed, and the road has been made smooth to come to God.

Jesus, unlike any Levitical priest, has entered God’s presence, providing access to the living God. Christ did not need to offer sacrifice for his own sins but offered himself solely on our behalf. Jesus did more than offer the sacrifice; he himself became the sacrifice. It was a sacrifice to bring deliverance to humanity, not judgment.

Either to justify or to judge is God’s business, not ours. Our concern is to believe in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus that brings a permanent forgiveness; and, to share that life-giving message with others so that they, too, can experience deliverance from sin, death, and hell.

We can have such a hard time forgiving others because we struggle with experiencing our own forgiveness. The path to extending grace to others is in deepening our knowledge, understanding, and awareness of God’s grace in Christ.

Conclusion

The author of Hebrews meant for the Christian life to be an exciting and abundant adventure of following Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation.

And yet, many Christians do not know anything about this kind of life. They only see the Christian life as a duty and a chore, a kind of cross to bear. We must recognize that it is the Savior, Jesus Christ, the object of our faith, who has delivered us so that we can live a new life of freedom, enjoying our forgiveness and inviting others on the journey.

For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.

Colossians 1:13-14, NLT

Jesus didn’t die on a cruel cross, then rise from death so that we could live ho-hum Christian lives.

Christ has granted us forgiveness so that we will enjoy the Christian life, appreciate the Word of God; relish in laboring together for the Gospel; and look forward with anticipation to how the Spirit will transform lives through Christ’s forgiveness. 

Real forgiveness opens our minds, hearts, and energies to live for Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. Clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Think of the Needs of the Group (1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1)

Looking at it one way, you could say, “Anything goes. Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.” But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well.

With that as a base to work from, common sense can take you the rest of the way. Eat anything sold at the butcher shop, for instance; you don’t have to run an “idolatry test” on every item. “The earth,” after all, “is God’s, and everything in it.” That “everything” certainly includes the leg of lamb in the butcher shop. If a nonbeliever invites you to dinner and you feel like going, go ahead and enjoy yourself; eat everything placed before you. It would be both bad manners and bad spirituality to cross-examine your host on the ethical purity of each course as it is served. On the other hand, if he goes out of his way to tell you that this or that was sacrificed to god or goddess so-and-so, you should pass. Even though you may be indifferent as to where it came from, he isn’t, and you don’t want to send mixed messages to him about who you are worshiping.

But, except for these special cases, I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it, and he blessed it!

So eat your meals heartily, not worrying about what others say about you—you’re eating to God’s glory, after all, not to please them. As a matter of fact, do everything that way, heartily and freely to God’s glory. At the same time, don’t be callous in your exercise of freedom, thoughtlessly stepping on the toes of those who aren’t as free as you are. I try my best to be considerate of everyone’s feelings in all these matters; I hope you will be, too.

It pleases me that you continue to remember and honor me by keeping up the traditions of the faith I taught you. (The Message)

“To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

Andre Gide

Extreme individualism wants what it wants and doesn’t give a thought about anyone else – which is why we always have such a peck of trouble in the world all the time.

We need to get a phrase into our language which will become a continual mantra we say and observe:

Think of the needs of the group.

Christianity is a religion of community, of being attentive to and meeting one another’s needs, and of caring about the common good of all persons throughout the world. Christians dishonor their Lord and buck their spiritual tradition whenever they go rogue and base everything they say and do on what sort of advantage it is for them without considering others.

Yes, believers in Jesus have freedom in Christ. The cross has released the shackles that kept us in sin’s bondage. But, no, that doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want, whenever we want. That’s the way individualism looks at it. That’s not how a communal people, the church, are to look at it.

Freedom hinges on two very important and seemingly small grammar prepositions: from and to.

Freedom always involves two elements:

  1. Freedom from what hinders or oppresses us.
  2. Freedom to become who we are meant to be.

In Christianity, believers are saved from sin, death, and hell – released from guilt and shame. There is redemption from the pit of despair. The bonds that hindered are now broken through the cross of Christ. The power of the world, the sinful nature, and the devil are taken away.

Yet, in no way does that now mean that we now get to do whatever we want, as if we’ve finally outgrown childhood and parental authority.

The extreme individualist Christian looks at freedom solely from this vantage. As a result, such a person considers the church as nonobligatory, involvement in issues of justice as optional, the use of personal funds and resources as discretionary, and accountability to others as arbitrary.

Such individualism sees Christianity as a fire insurance policy from hell, and a ticket punched for heaven. Until Christ returns, the reasoning goes, I can do whatever the heck I want. It’s my life, not yours.

Christians, however, are still servants. Whereas we were once enslaved to the dark forces of this world, now we are slaves to Christ. We exchanged masters. Satan is no longer the deceitful and lying task master over us. We are now under new management and have a new Master, the Lord Jesus. We’ve changed allegiances.

And now, submitted to Christ, we embrace our mandate of freedom to become whom we were always meant to be: At peace with our Creator and in harmony with all creation. We are now free to enjoy right relationships with God and others, to walk in faith, hope, and love, and to bless both the church and the world.

The Christian’s freedom came at a price: the very blood of Christ Jesus. Therefore, we are not to abuse that freedom by focusing solely on our freedoms from all that once bound us. We are also responsible and accountable for using that freedom in going to the world and proclaiming the gospel in word and sacrament, as well as loving God and neighbor.

Freedom is only freedom when it has the well-being of everyone in mind.

Think of the needs of the group.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father: Help us to live into the freedom you have brought to us. May we exercise our freedom, with the heart of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, to serve your purposes. Unite us, protect our sacred liberties and rights, and defend us from every evil. Strengthen your people as a foundation of moral clarity, justice, love, and gospel proclamation. Grant all this by the power of your Holy Spirit and in the Name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

Grace Changes Everything (Isaiah 12:1-6)

In that day [to come] you will say:

“I will praise you, Lord.
    Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
    and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (New International Version)

The Bad News

The reason prophecies are made about better times ahead is because the times now are not so good. That was true of Isaiah’s day, and still remains true today.

It’s easy to identify what’s wrong in this world, especially during a political election cycle! It’s not so easy to recognize the ways we keep ourselves as Christians in bad times. A big reason why, and I unabashedly state it, even though I say it much to my chagrin:

Christianity in our day has mostly failed at spiritual transformation because we have not identified and named the real evils we face, thus leaving us largely irrelevant to a world desperately in need of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, speaking to religious folk who should have known better, said:

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV)

The tragedy of our age, which was the same tragedy of Isaiah’s age, is that there are so many godless followers of God. They fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters. Many Christians’ faith is not much more than conforming to cultural Christian norms while mostly ignoring the realities in front of their faces.

We say we need God but then turn to Google for answers and solutions.

We bemoan the lack of righteousness in the nation, then obnoxiously argue with others and create unnecessary relational wedges.

We decry the injustice of our cities and our world, then do nothing to address the problems and change it.

We talk about the need for others to change rather than first looking in the mirror. Yet, even when we do that, we walk away and forget what we look like.

“For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

The Good News

However, judgment is not the last word. Even though the prophecy of Isaiah is thick with it, and I started out with less than uplifting words, there is one word that transcends every word: grace.

The grace of God is remarkable! The Lord made promises to Israel in Isaiah’s day not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radical and scandalous grace. It wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal, with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.

I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace.

Because God is Love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we can live up to being the sort of people our dogs think we are already.

If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives. 

If grace isn’t the answer, we aren’t asking the right question. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is wildly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives. 

Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. 

That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.

The Bible is an extended drama of redemption; and Isaiah’s prophecy is an adventure of God’s steadfast love toward unlovable people – which is why Isaiah is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. 

Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected. 

Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort of justifying and validating ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of grace, we are forever undone by God’s mercy.

Grace leads us to praise God

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us… In love he predestined us… to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, NIV)

Grace causes us to trust God

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31, NIV)

Grace results in our comfort and satisfaction in God

Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17, NIV)

Grace creates in us thanksgiving to God

“We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15, NIV)

The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you. And if that isn’t something that gets you expressing gratitude to God, then you have failed to see God in your dog. We make known among the nations what God has done because God has really done something in our lives worth babbling our thanksgiving over to everyone. And grace helps us to do it.

Grace causes us to sing together to God

When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! We need times of both silence and contemplative worship and times of becoming unhinged with some noisy worship to the God who has saved us and given us something to sing about. 

Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. (Psalm 98:1, NKJV)

Conclusion

The world mostly ignores God. Some Christians take God’s grace for granted. The greatest sin of all is the sheer absence of grace – because where there is no grace, there is no God. God is the expert in transforming apathetic people into caring, compassionate, and concerned citizens of the kingdom who raise their voices and declare the works of the Lord.

Isaiah’s entire prophecy is about returning to the Lord. And the upcoming season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.

Let us, then, return to the Lord… be captivated by grace… renew our love for Jesus… lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.

Let us worship Christ the King and proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything and everyone.

Gracious God, we come with nothing but ourselves and our baggage of sin. Forgive, cleanse, renew, revive, refresh, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted through us, to your glory and honor. Amen.