Human Standing Beside Crucifix Statue on Mountain

Victim or victor

Sermon given on February 18, 2024, First Sunday in Lent, at Central Presbyterian Church – Vancouver. Based on 1Peter 3:18-22 and Mark 1:9-15.

I often think that the world has changed so much during my lifetime. I often think that the world is still rapidly changing before my very eyes.

When I was a child growing up in the Philippines, telephones were treasures. It took years before the phone company came to install a line, and that was usually called “Party line” not because you partied but because you shared the same phone line with someone else in the neighbourhood.
Today, cell phones have made landlines almost obsolete.

When I was in university, we used slide rules to do multiplication and division. In those days, the 4-function calculator (add, subtract, multiply, divide) was an item only the rich could afford.
Today, you get them at the dollar store.

There was a time not too long ago when in North America, it was considered perfectly normal to be identified as a Christian. Most people went to church because that was the normal thing to do every Sunday. Major newspapers would publish Sunday sermons preached at the local church.
Today, many churches are empty or nearly so. For the majority of Canada, Sunday has become just like any other day of the week.

There was a time, and there still is in many parts of the world, where life is considered as a gift and death remains a mystery only known to God.
Today, with medical assistance in dying, or MAID and its continued march to broader and more permissive criteria, we have claimed the power over life and death, one that we used to believe belonged only to God.

Fundamentally, our weakness is that we desire to be in control of everything. It is the story of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden all over again. Fundamentally, this is why history repeats itself albeit under different forms, taking on different appearances.

Yes, technology has taken off in giant steps. The first airplanes just over a hundred years ago flew at just 80 km/hr top speed.
Today we speed along in our cars much faster than that.

Remove modern technology and you will expose the human being just as he was when it all began in Eden. People still do bad things to each other. People still disobey the natural order. People still reject God. Some things never really change.

The Teacher, in Ecclesiastes chapter 1 wrote:
“What has been — it is what will be; what has been done — it is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. There is a thing of which it is said, ‘Look at this! This is new!’ But it already existed in ages past before us.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

The Apostle Peter wrote his pastoral letters to the Christians scattered all over the Roman Empire for reasons that remain true today. Some things never really change.

It was the era of the Roman emperor Nero. People suspected that Nero started the great fire that destroyed Rome in 64AD. Defending himself, Nero blamed the Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote:


“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.”

Tacitus: Annals, Book 15 Chapter 44


Tacitus was far from sympathetic to the Christians, but nevertheless he was horrified at how Nero made sport of them in order to shift blame and appease the people in Rome. Tacitus wrote:


“An immense multitude was convicted… Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed.”

Ibid


It was during this period of extreme distress that Peter wrote his pastoral letter to the followers of Christ, to Christians who at the time were the despised, the hated, the outcasts. They were the marginalized, the persecuted, the martyred. Nothing is new.
Today, people driven by evil and hate, still kill Christians for being Christians.
Today, some will shut you out of their circles or make sport of you or make fun of you or talk behind your back when they learn you believe and follow Christ.
Today, people driven by an overblown estimate of their own intelligence dismiss Christianity, often with scorn, as old fashioned, outdated and useless.
Today, people become suspicious of their politicians, their Members of Parliament, if there is any hint that their ethics are somehow tied to their Christian lives.

Some things never change. There is nothing new under the sun.
As it was in the days when Peter wrote his pastoral letter of encouragement to the suffering persecuted Christians of his time, so it is today that we read this same pastoral letter through the eyes of a persecuted church.

In this letter Peter reminds us Christ-followers that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own, who, having been rescued from damnation, are compelled to and gladly proclaim the excellence of God.

In this letter Peter reminds us that we are born again not to hopelessness and despair but to a sure and living hope, sealed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that all this rejection and suffering are but temporary. That as sure as Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, we have an inheritance in the kingdom of God that is already there, that can never be taken away from us, that will never fade, will never be destroyed. Jesus promised: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you and I will come again and I will take you to myself.”
In this letter, Peter reminds us that the prophets of old pointed to a time when the plan of God would be accomplished through the suffering and the glory of his Christ, a plan that even the angels longed to understand but which is now revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. The letter to the Ephesians declares: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
With a knowledge of our standing before God as God’s people, how then should we live, according to Peter, in days of trouble, of persecution, of rejection?

Do we strike back? Do we plot revenge? Will we go down in hopelessness, in despair as victims? Do we hide who we are?
No, we are not victims; rather, we are the victorious in Christ.
We are holy, distinct and distinguishable from the rest of the fallen world.

We are not controlled by the world; we are not dragged down by the ways of the world; we are not cowed by the world; rather, we are Christ’s ambassadors of holy living to those who do not yet recognize the Triune God, and even to those who are deliberately antagonistic against Christ.

We subject ourselves to human institutions: our governments, kings and queens, even dictators. We do not repay evil with evil; rather, we bless those who curse us, we bless those who dislike, even hate us because the love of Christ compels us to be so.

A faithful witness to Christ can be costly, whether one is in the so-called “enlightened” Western world, or whether we find ourselves in those places where Christians are physically harmed, even killed just for being Christians
.
Peter reminds us in his letter that faithful witness to Christ is exactly what we are called to do, even if we suffer for it. After all, Christ himself suffered at the hands of ungodly and evil men. He suffered, but he did not threaten to strike back. He trusted God and took our sins and nailed them to the cross. By his wounds we are healed. He died so that we may be forgiven, be released from our sins, be reconciled to God and truly live. He rose from the dead and proclaimed his victory over death to all those forces of evil that seek to keep us separated from God. Christ triumphed over them, making a public spectacle of their defeat, as Paul declared in his letter to the Colossians.

The suffering and triumph of Christ Jesus is the pattern for all Christians. We see this in Jesus’ wilderness experience as described by Mark. Mark, in his rapid style, gave four very short statements concerning Jesus in the wilderness, all in verse 12:
• The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.
• Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.
• Jesus was with the wild animals while in the wilderness.
• The angels were ministering to him.
In contrast to the accounts of Matthew and Luke, Mark placed emphasis on the wilderness experience rather than the temptations. When we make a public declaration that we are Christ followers, we are brought to the wilderness just as Christ was. We become fair game to the Enemy of man.

Yet, despite the suffering, we emerge victorious in this life and ultimately in eternity with God. Jesus, even though he was with the animals emerged unharmed. As the Psalmist declared: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” Job wrote during his extreme suffering:

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”

Job 19:25-26

As Jesus received care from the angels while in the wilderness, so too are we surrounded by ministering angels always, even when faced with trouble around us. The Psalmist declares: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”


Christians are the true non-conformists. Paul indeed instructed us in his letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world.” When we do not conform to the world, we are going to be spotted right away by the world as “strange” people. There will be those who will want to know why we still believe in this age of unbelief, why we look to the future in hope, why we continue to trust God through Christ. People will want to know why it is that even if we may be surrounded by trouble we are not dismayed nor demoralized; that even when we are literally and figuratively struck down, we are not destroyed nor broken; that even when we do not understand the terror that surrounds us we do not despair. Instead, we are always ready to explain the hope we carry within us.

In contrast to the message of Peter’s letter, today, perhaps born from good intentions, many from among our own warn us to be careful not to offend others with our Christianity. They would want our faith to be practiced only in private, encouraging us to do good deeds in public yes, but counselling us not to mention that it is the love of Christ and the salvation through Christ alone that compels us to reach out to our neighbours. Because Western society has become indifferent, and sometimes hostile to the Christian faith, some from among us have reacted in fear of man and bought into this idea of privatization of faith: keep the Christian message of the Triune God to within your places of worship, only within the privacy of your homes, and away from the public sphere.

We say “No,” we will refuse to be silent. For if God be for us, who can be against us?

Horatio Spafford who was a prominent lawyer in Chicago lost everything in the great fire that ravaged that city in 1871. Two years later he would send his wife and 4 daughters ahead to England for a vacation just in time to see Dwight L. Moody who was also going to be there to preach. The Ville du Havre, the ship his family was on was struck by another vessel mid-Atlantic. All four of Spafford’s daughters died along with 222 other passengers. Mrs. Anna Spafford survived and upon arrival in England sent a telegram to Horatio with just these two words: “Saved alone.” Spafford then sailed to England and on the very spot his daughters died wrote these words:


Though Satan should buffet, tho’ trials should come.
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Horatio Spafford


The lesson of 1Peter is this: no matter what befalls us, no matter what suffering, no matter what persecution, because we are in Christ, it is well with my soul, it is well with your soul fellow Christ-follower. We are not victims. We do not trade in victimhood. Rather, we are the victorious in Christ. We are always victorious in Christ.


Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


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