Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
† sdg †
I Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11
You’ll have to excuse the disciples for being a little confused. They had just witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven, which happened forty days after He rose from the dead. There they were on that Mount of Olives, staring upward as the Teacher and Friend who said He would be with them always, even to the end of the age… then He suddenly disappeared out of sight. That would be the opposite that someone would expect, right? He had also told them, “Go and make disciples of all nations… Preach the Gospel to the whole creation.” And yet, the Lord also commanded, “Stay right where you are in Jerusalem.” Don’t you think that would make it hard to understand what it was He had in mind? And then we hear from St. Peter in the epistle he wrote, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Wouldn’t you think that would be strange? We are now beginning our seventh week of the Easter season, and Pentecost is knocking on our doorstep. God has been proclaiming His great power right and left. Jesus died on the cross, then rose from the dead on the third day. Sin and death have been undone; the debt to God that we could never have paid—Jesus paid it! Nothing more needs to be accomplished for our salvation. Fiery trials, we figure, come as a result of sin, so it perplexes our minds that sin continually makes this great comeback against us, everywhere we turn, especially when we have the promise that Jesus is our Lord and our Savior forever. So why isn’t He using His power to hold it back?
And then you have the Apostle Peter’s words about the devil: “Be sober-minded, be vigilant, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” Well, who let him loose? Why is Satan seemingly so free to assault and trouble us? I thought that on the cross, Jesus defeated the devil too! He descended into hell in His exalted human flesh to proclaim His victory over Satan. Why do we now have to watch out, always looking back over our shoulders, lest the evil foe’s lion-like attacks pounce upon us unawares? You can understand now why the disciples were very confused in the moments right up to our Lord’s ascension into heaven. They looked at each other in confused disbelief over this apparent contradiction. It had seemed like His grand triumph did not make a single difference as we find ourselves still in the difficulties and problems of this world. Wouldn’t we still suffer, Jesus or no Jesus? That’s what it feels like. So for us to rejoice simply because we are suffering these problems, there has to be something more that leads us beyond the simple facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those events happened long ago in the past. What good are they for us today? What message is still there in those ancient Bible books for real people in the 21st Century?
The first message we need is the message of judgment, since Peter himself told us: It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God. We must repent, because we wrap ourselves up in everything that concerns us today. Our
schedules are crazy, the demands for us to get stuff done, it is outrageous. If we can put off anything that we don’t need to treat right now as an emergency, we feel we can get away with setting it out of sight, and hopefully it will become out of mind. Guess what usually is set aside because it never seems like an immediate emergency? It’s this: You have sinned against the Lord. He has given you commandments, and you keep breaking them. You are a sinner. All of those don’t have any alarms or reminders or past due notices clamoring for your attention. So you ignore them, as do I.
This message of judgment gets a little tricky for us, though, because it is possible to hear condemning words not only from God, but from the devil, too. I’ll explain. God says in His total, perfect justice: You deserve to die; turn away from your sin and believe in Jesus, and you will live. I, however, will bear you up as you suffer, and I promise you full deliverance, just repent and believe that forgiveness is yours, no matter what your feelings tell you.
The devil then steps up to say his piece, and tries with all his might to scramble that message: Did you just hear God tear you down? I heard it myself! You have no chance with Him! No matter what you do, you’re just going to keep suffering because you are a sinner. Your sin must be too big for Jesus, if we’re going to face facts. Simply put, you have sinned too much, and you haven’t demonstrated that you’re ready to change your life to sufficiently please God. You know I’m right, he says, because you are still hurting more than others around you.
Lies. All lies, through and through. But as you hear them, and feel the way you do sometimes, you can’t help but fall for those lies. You get confused, and the message of judgment that we all need to hear, starts sounding like the blessings of life with Christ are faraway, unattainable dreams. For a little while, your ears start to itch for more law, for more ways to make yourself feel better, for a less condemning and more inspirational, do-it-yourself message, but eventually you realize that the devil’s discouraging voice in your conscience has won out and you get convinced that judgment is the last word.
But it is not. There is an all-important second message. The Apostle says rejoice, even in suffering, and that too is God’s Word. Peter doesn’t say try to rejoice, not, reach deep inside yourself and make a believable effort at faking happiness. No, he says, rejoice—you really are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. This is not a mental exercise or trick—Jesus, the risen and ascended Jesus, He really is suffering, the same way He was when He once told Paul: Why are you persecuting Me? He is to this very day identifying with us in all that we are going through. He’s linked you together with Him because you are baptized into His Name. And when Christ is suffering, you can know for absolutely certain, that you are being saved, delivered from evil just like you pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. All Divine judgment landed on Him on the cross. Do you suffer insults? Then you are being blessed because all those insults fall on Jesus, and He turns them into blessings. Have you been shamed, that is, someone has forced you to accept their sin because they claim that
would be the “loving thing” to do, but you wouldn’t? Then be ashamed no longer. Glorify God because He rejoices with the truth. Without Jesus on the cross it would have been impossible for you to hate the sin and love the sinner.
This is going to be tough—most of you already know that it is. The righteous is “scarcely saved,” Peter says. That means it looks like it would all go the way of judgment against us, as if the devil’s lies would turn out to be reality. You and I need God’s help every day—there is absolutely no way we could simply read our Bible and Catechism once through and then think, All right; I’m done. I’ve graduated from learning the faith. There’s nothing more I need to know. I believe in Jesus and I know I’m forgiven. That’s not humbling yourself, waiting for the Lord to exalt you. That’s exalting yourself! That’s when you become ripe for the lion to pounce on you and pin you to the ground. Do not let a complacent, vague, forget-about-it style of forgiveness keep you from taking God’s Word of judgment seriously. But also, at the same time, do not fall for the devil’s scheme that makes the precious Gospel seem like it’s too far out of your reach. Both the word of judgment and the word of rejoicing are necessary, and they are yours for your eternal good.
How did Jesus make sure that both those words would be yours for certain? He promised you the Holy Spirit. The gift that we will celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost was actually the answer to Jesus’ prayer to the Father, as recorded in our Gospel today. By the Holy Spirit and not by any other way, believers know that Jesus is the Son of God, and that they belong to the Father thanks to Him and what He has done. By the Holy Spirit you have the glory of Jesus that He always had as God, but as man that glory was given to Him upon completion of His salvation mission. Now that Jesus has been glorified—He suffered, died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven—now that He has this glory, He lavishes forgiveness upon you and grants you the only reason you need to rejoice in the midst of suffering, hardship, and the conflict of this world, even the conflict you face from time to time with fellow believers. The Son and the Father are perfectly one with the Holy Spirit in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, so that unity is bequeathed to you. Now you are one with God and with one another in Christ.
Jesus prayed for you! And His prayer was certainly answered in your case when you were baptized, and the Holy Spirit made His home with you. This is not a fairy tale or make-believe catch-phrase. This is really happening because you are not just hearing my mouth speak; you are receiving the blessed words of judgment and rejoicing sent to you straight from God Himself.
Your Lord continually prays to His Father even now, that you may be one with one another, but most importantly, one with God. And as you are joined together with Him, you are made bold to confess the truth, even to the point of death as the confirmation vows require, for in fact you have already died to yourself that you may live to God. He will bring you to Himself whenever He serves you with His Holy Word and the Blessed Body and Blood of
Christ, and give you the hope of eternal life in perfect bliss and happiness.
In the mean time, rather than be puzzled at the apparent contradictions that you see, trying to make human sense of what our Lord is teaching you, may you continually pray that when you are attacked by any evils of body or soul—pray that the Lord would yet accomplish His Will among us His Church on earth until He comes again. And God who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.