Hanging On In Hope
1 Peter 1:3-12
37 years ago, Fred and Cheryl went to Haiti to pick up a child they had just adopted. Addie was five-years-old. Her parents had been killed in a traffic accident that left her without a family. As she walked across the tarmac to board the plane, the tiny orphan reached up and slipped her hands into the hands of her new parents whom she had just met. Later they told us of this “birth” moment, how the innocent, fearless trust expressed in that physical act of grasping their hands seemed almost as miraculous as the times their two sons slipped out of the birth canal 15 and 13 years earlier.
That evening, back home in Arizona, they sat down to their first supper together with their new daughter. There was a platter of pork chops and a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. After the first serving, the two teenage boys kept refilling their plates. Soon the pork chops had disappeared and the potatoes were gone. Addie had never seen so much food on one table in her whole life. Her eyes were big as she watched her new brothers, Thatcher and Graham, satisfy their ravenous teenage appetites.
Fred and Cheryl noticed that Addie had become very quiet and realized that something was wrong. Was it agitation … was it bewilderment … was it insecurity? Cheryl guessed that it was the disappearing food. She suspected that because Addie had grown up hungry, when food was gone from the table she might be thinking that it would be a day or more before there was more to eat. Cheryl had guessed right. She took Addie’s hand and led her to the bread drawer and pulled it out, showing her a back-up of three loaves. She took her to the refrigerator, opened the door, and showed her the bottles of milk and orange juice, the fresh vegetables, jars of jelly and jam and peanut butter, a carton of eggs, and a package of bacon. She took her to the pantry with its bins of potatoes, onions, and squash, and the shelves of canned goods—tomatoes and peaches and pickles. She opened the freezer and showed Addie three or four chickens, a few packages of fish, and two cartons of ice cream. All the time she was reassuring Addie that there was lots of food in the house, that no matter how much Thatcher and Graham ate and how fast they ate it, there was a lot more where that came from. She would never go hungry again.
Cheryl didn’t just tell her that she would never go hungry again. She showed her what was in those drawers and behind those doors, named the meats and vegetables, placed them in her hands. It was enough. Food was there, whether she could see it or not. Her brothers were no longer rivals at the table. She was home. She would never go hungry again.
In her old reality, her old life, eating too much food at one time meant that there might not be enough food for a few days. But in her new reality, her new life, there would always be enough, no matter how much her ravenous, teenage brothers ate. No matter how much she ate. There would always be enough.
Scripture pictures placing our faith in Christ as the end of our old life, our old reality, and the beginning of our new life, our new reality. In baptism, a new follower of Jesus is laid back in the water, symbolizing the death of their old life, and then is raised back up out of the water, symbolizing resurrection, the birth of their new life. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). When you place your faith in Christ, and acknowledge him as your savior and your lord, your old life dies, and you are reborn, born again, into a new life in Christ. And while that new life is still lived out here in this broken, fallen world, you are living in a new reality – a reality, a life, of hope and joy, not one of hopelessness and despair. Turn with me to 1 Peter 1:3-12.
When you place your faith in Christ, you are born again, there’s that phrase again … I wonder how many times Peter had heard Jesus speak that phrase … you are born again to a living hope. Your repentance and faith are necessary ingredients, but this is something God does, not something we do. We cannot rebirth ourselves into a living hope. We cannot think our way, reason our way, will our way, or work our way into this new life of living hope. This is something God alone can do. God is the one who “causes” us, Peter says, to be born again to this living hope. And he does it through the reality, the fact, the truth of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Now, there’s something we need to understand here. Birth is not an end, is it? It is a beginning. I remember so clearly standing in the hospital room in the maternity unit at Munson holding each of our kids in my hands. All of our kids were born by C-section, so I got to be the first one to hold each of them. It wasn’t for long. But I got to be the first to hold them. When I stood there holding those new little lives in my hands, those helpless, defenseless babies, I didn’t say, “Well kid, I’ve done my part. You are now in this world. You have your new life. My work here is done. Good luck.” No! In fact, I was terrified as I held those precious little ones in the palm of my hands. Why? Because I knew that it was my job not just to make sure they made it INTO the world, into their new life, but also to parent them, to help me grow and mature. It is the prospect of parenting that terrifies new parents, because we all know that the birth isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.
So why do we treat someone’s new birth in Christ as the end goal? The weeks, months, maybe even years of prayer and sharing your faith and living Christ’s life in front of someone finally culminate in their placing their faith in Christ and beginning to follow Jesus, and we treat it like it’s the end. But it isn’t. It’s the beginning of a new life and a new reality. Just as pregnancy and birth are a part of the process of new life, but not the end goal, so bringing someone to the place of placing their trust in Christ is not the end goal. It is just the beginning.
And one of the characteristics of that new life is hope. Not wishful thinking. That’s dead hope. When we were driving down to Ohio last weekend to see Sterling in a play, we saw several billboards downstate that featured a picture of former Lion’s quarterback Matthew Stafford. It was the picture of him with half a Lion’s jersey and half a Ram’s jersey on, holding the Lombardi trophy, with words like “It really does matter who you work for,” and “It matters who you surround yourself with.” The point of those billboards is clear – the people who paid for them firmly believe that under its current ownership and management, there is no hope for the Lions becoming a winning team. It’s wishful thinking to believe that the Lions will get better if they keep doing what they’re doing. And the hope Lions fans feel every August as they anticipate a new football season? According to those billboards, that’s not living hope. It’s wishful thinking. Dead hope. It isn’t real.
Living hope is hope based on a certain future. Seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Certain future. If there’s one thing we learn well in life, it’s that we cannot predict the future. The future is uncertain. But a certain future is exactly what every follower of Christ has. And Peter wants his readers to understand that, because from the perspective of this world, their future was anything but certain. Life was exerting pressure on them. They were facing struggle. Struggle because they were poor people living in backwater towns on the edges of the empire, and struggle because their friends and neighbors didn’t appreciate their new lives in Christ.
You see, the new birth that we experience in Christ leads to a new life that goes against the flow of the culture in which we live, and to be honest, that is true whether our culture is “Christian” or not. How many of you have seen an episode of “The Chosen?” It’s a TV show that does an incredible job of telling the story of the life of Christ. But what I want to point out isn’t the show itself. It’s the beginning, the intro to every show. It pictures fish swimming across the screen, all in one direction, except one, which represents Jesus. He’s a different color, and swimming the other direction. And slowly, as Jesus touches other fish, they change color and turn around and start swimming the other way. It’s a great representation of the new life we have in Christ that goes against the flow, so to speak.
When we place our faith in Christ and begin to follow Jesus, our new life, our new reality, causes us to swim against the flow of the rest of the people around us. And that isn’t always, or even usually, a comfortable thing for people. They don’t appreciate it. Christ really does change lives, and those changed lives run counter to our culture.
Our new lives in Christ are marked by hope, even in the midst of trouble. We’ll all experience trouble, suffering, in life. Some of that suffering comes because we live in a fallen, broken, sin-filled world where things don’t always go the way we think they should go. People do things that hurt other people. Sometimes it’s an accident, and sometimes it’s very intentional. If I’m not paying attention while I’m driving, I can cause an accident that hurts or even kills someone else. On the other hand, ruthless and calculating leaders like Vladimir Putin wreak havoc and destroy lives seeking to gain power and control and influence in global affairs. Either way, people suffer. When the economy struggles, people suffer. When natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes and blizzards and tornados strike, people suffer.
Other forms of suffering happen only to people who follow Jesus, explicitly BECAUSE they are following Jesus. Now, to be fair, compared to what people in other parts of the world experience, we don’t experience a ton of persecution here in the United States. People might disagree with us and call us names on Facebook, but that’s about it. In America, people aren’t losing their lives and their homes and their families and their businesses because they follow Jesus. But there are, and always have been places in the world where that happens.
The people Peter was writing to were experiencing both kinds of suffering. They were poor and powerless, without resources to fall back on if things didn’t go exactly rights. And now things were really not going right. Family members were disowning them. Friends were avoiding them. So they were losing their financial and emotional support networks. People were refusing to do business with them, so they were losing whatever resources they did have. And because they refused to bow and pray to Caesar, they were now standing out like sore thumbs and people were threatening physical harm, jail, even death if they didn’t come back into line with everyone else.
Peter wants us to remember that regardless of what we face in this life, up to and including death, we are a people of joyful hope because we are a people with a certain and guaranteed future. Peter calls our sure and certain future an inheritance. But it is an inheritance that cannot be revoked or changed. It is an inheritance securely kept in heaven for those who follow Christ. It is the inheritance of life. Life in Christ, both in this life in this world, and after death. We are a people who truly understand that death itself is not an end. Winston Churchill understood this truth. He actually arranged his own funeral. There were stately hymns in St. Paul’s Cathedral and an impressive liturgy. But at the end of the service, Churchill had an unusual event planned. When they said the benediction, a bugler high in the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral on one side played Taps, the universal signal that the day is over. There was a long pause. Then a bugler on the other side played Reveille, the military wake-up call.
It was his way of communicating that, while we say “Good night” here, it’s “Good morning” up there. Now why could he do that? Because he believed in Jesus Christ, who said “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Look at the words Peter uses to describe this inheritance. It is imperishable. It will not rot or decay. Death cannot touch it. In a world of impermanence, this inheritance is permanent.
It is undefiled. It is pure, and we can maintain possession of it without moral compromise. One huge stumbling block for families these days is splitting up the inheritance. Even when there’s a will, people fuss and fight and argue over the inheritance. It’s been known to split families. The inheritance we have in Christ can be held without splitting the family. It is sure and secure and there is enough for all.
And it is unfading. Unlike financial inheritances today, it will not lose its value. It is just as precious and just as valuable today as it was on the day it was given to you, and its value will only grow. Its value will not fade at the whim of the stock market or a downturn in real estate values. The value of the inheritance we have in Christ will not fade.
So, given our inheritance, our imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance, how do we as followers of Jesus face suffering in this life? We face it with joyous hope. Not a dead hope, but a living hope based on the irrefutable fact of our inheritance of life in Christ.
Now, look at Vv. 10-12. Peter closes these words of hope by reminding us that in the days of Old, even for him, the prophets of the Old Testament, prophets like Isaiah, spoke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of the grace of God that was to come, but they never saw it. In time, as they looked into the words God spoke through them, they began to realize that they were speaking words of hope to future generations. When Isaiah wrote these words …
“He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.”
… he came to realize that he was speaking of God’s grace in the future. A grace that we, from our place in history, know was revealed in the life and death of Jesus. Isaiah was speaking of Jesus. 700 years passed between the time Isaiah spoke these words of promise and their fulfillment in Christ. 2,000 have passed since Christ ascended into heaven, promising to return. 700 years. 2,000 years. It’s all the same to God, and God’s promises stand, our inheritance is sure, and it is secure, regardless of the amount of time that passes in this world between the words of promise and the fulfillment of that promise.
So how do we face suffering? How do we face trouble? By holding on in joyful hope. The most-sacred symbol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is a tree: a sprawling, shade-bearing, 80-year-old American Elm. Tourists drive from miles around to see her. People pose for pictures beneath her. Arborists carefully protect her. She adorns posters and letterhead. Other trees grow larger, fuller—even greener. But not one is equally cherished. The city treasures the tree not because of her appearance, but her endurance.
She endured the Oklahoma City bombing.
Timothy McVeigh parked his death-laden truck only yards from her. His malice killed 168 people, wounded 850, destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and buried the tree in rubble. No one expected it to survive. No one, in fact, gave any thought to the dusty, branch-stripped tree.
But then she began to bud.
Sprouts pressed through damaged bark; green leaves pushed away gray soot. Life resurrected from an acre of death. People noticed. The tree modeled the resilience the victims desired. So they gave the elm a name: the Survivor Tree.
As followers of Christ, that is exactly who and what we are. We are, each one of us, survivor trees. Let us pray.