Rejoice in Difficulties

1st-Peter-Design-2-600x600To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below. The sermon is available in PDF format under the link Pastor’s Sermon as well.

Sermon based on 1st Peter 1:3-9

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, and a key founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and the book; The Cost of Discipleship has become a modern classic. On April 5th, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned for his political activities against the German Nazi regime. While imprisoned he shared in writings that he had become involved in some situations that he perhaps should have avoided. Eventually for his actions against the political establishment, he was sentenced to death. On the day when the death sentence was to be carried out, a Sunday, he led a worship service in the prison that housed men of various nationalities. One prisoner, an English army officer who was also facing the death sentence but was later set free, wrote these words describing the last day of Bonheoffer’s life.

He wrote:

Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. He was one of the very few persons I have ever met for whom God was real and always near. On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to us in a way that went to the heart of all of us. He found just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment, the thoughts and the resolutions it had brought us. He had hardly ended his last prayer when the door opened and two civilians entered. They said, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.” That had only one meaning for all prisoners–the gallows. We said goodbye to him. He took me aside: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” The next day he was hanged in Flossenburg.

Bonheoffer’s words to this prisoner, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life” are so powerful. Perhaps we might ask the question, “What was it that so possessed a person that at the very moment of impending death a person could say that? As we look at our passage in 1st Peter this morning we will discover that the hope for a Christian is indeed a “living hope,” placed in our hearts by a living Savior, Jesus Christ. As Christians, it is often difficult to maintain this “living hope” in the midst of suffering, whether it is political suffering, social suffering, or personal suffering. Next month we will be looking even more closely at 1st Peter in a sermon series. Within this chapter and several chapters of 1st Peter we will learn what holds us together in our suffering. As Christians, we are not immune to suffering. Bad things do happen to good people. But in light of these circumstances, Christians have promises that give meaning to our trials. We can find purpose in the trials we face and grow from them personally and spiritually. We see in these verses that we are to “rejoice in difficulties.” Christians can maintain a living hope in the midst of suffering.  Peter shares with us the secret of maintaining hope and it is also our watchword for this week. This secret is that we are to realize the power in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is written:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1st Peter 1:3)

The power of the resurrection makes Christian hope a living reality. Too often we forget the power and meaning of the resurrection following Holy Week. We think to ourselves that everything is behind us now. The darkness of Good Friday, which became the triumphant shout of Easter, has passed. Yet before the scent of Easter lilies or the echoes of “Sing Hallelujah Praise the Lord” from last Sunday’s Easter Liturgy, drift too far into oblivion, let us ponder this question: What real difference has the cross and resurrection made in our life?

For Peter these events made all the difference in the world. After beginning his letter with words of affirmation and encouragement, Peter proceeds with loving counsel for those who are facing trials and sufferings. Although Peter discusses the issue of suffering more thoroughly in other chapters in this letter, he does not hesitate to face the subject here. Peter knows what it means to face temptations and trials. He remembers well the pain of falling to temptation when he denied Jesus three times. We can assume like other followers of Christ that Peter continued to face trials, but during these trials he discovered that in addition to the grief that trials bring, there are also benefits. Peter shared with the suffering church some results of the trials he faced.

First according to verse six of this passage we recognize that Christians will suffer various trials and the unhappiness or grief these trials will bring. Grieving is an important human emotion. God created us with the capacity to grieve. Jesus demonstrated the depths of despair and grief when he stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, who had been dead for three days and wept. When pain or death comes into our lives, we are expected to grieve. When these times come in our life, we have the assurance that our God is one who will encourage and comfort us, for this is the role of the Holy Spirit in our life. Secondly, each trial we face in life has a purpose. In the midst of our suffering, we have the assurance that there is a purpose whether or not we understand. God is not the cause of suffering and pain, but God does not allow it to be wasted either. According to Romans 8:28:

 God uses every trial for our good if we commit ourselves to Him.

Peter shared two benefits we can experience from every trial if we are maturing in our Christian faith through prayer, study and service. Peter writes:

So that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1st Peter 1:7)

We suffer trials so that our faith may be proved genuine. In verse seven the key word is “faith.” for those who are trusting in God with a strong faith, the trials of life will strengthen us. Peter used the analogy of gold that is tested or refined with fire. That process removes all the impurities and makes gold more precious and pure. That is how God will often use trials in our life. God allows the trials to come so that the impurities of sin may be removed from us so that our faith may become more precious. We can grow to be more and more dependent upon God and less on others simply by reading Scripture, praying and serving others.

Peter tells us a second benefit of trials was that it helps us to find praise, honor and glory in the resurrection of Christ. Peter is the one writer of Scripture who I have always discovered is able to put life into perspective. He was telling us in the passage that the sufferings we experience in life are only temporary. As humans, it is very easy for us to dwell upon the negative in life. We often view life as hopeless rather than hope filled. According to Peter in a hope filled life we are to look forward to the future reign of Jesus Christ when he returns in all his glory.

Finally, Peter writes for us:

Without having seen him, (meaning Christ) you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. (1st Peter 1:8)

 Peter now turned his focus to the subject of joy. In the midst of trials we can experience joy. Joy in our life will come when we begin to trust in the work and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. To experience this kind of joy, we must be in a growing relationship with God.

I have a friend who serves the Presbyterian Church who went on a mission trip to Uganda over a decade ago and he still talks of his experience as if it were yesterday. This pastor spent a great deal of time with other Christians who had been suffering a lot. Many of them had several loved ones who were murdered or killed in various political uprisings. Many more Christians in that country have been martyred for their faith. Most of the people he came in contact with had lost loved ones and most of their possessions. They were struggling for food, employment for their very survival. In the midst of these trials and hardships, the people of this country were incredibly joyful my friend recalled. My friend serves a church that is very affluent where people possess nearly everything that money can buy. Yet his congregation does not display the joy that he observed in the lives of those suffering in Uganda over a decade ago.

What a valuable lesson for us this morning to learn! Joy does not come from the abundance of the things we own. Our true Christian character sometimes is hidden within us and simply needs to be discovered. It has been said that our character is sometimes unseen, like soup being carried high over a waiter’s head. No one knows what’s inside the bowl of soup unless they ordered the soup or the waiter bumped or trips!

In a similar way sometimes people don’t know what’s inside them until they have been bumped in life through trials and sufferings. The late Edmond Clowney, a pastor and theologian once said the following: Trials should not surprise us, or cause us to doubt God’s faithfulness. Rather, we should actually be glad for them. God sends trials to strengthen our trust in him so that our faith will not fail. Our trials keep us trusting; they burn away our self-confidence and drive us to our Savior.

Let us remember that our joy is made complete when we draw closer to our God and believe in the power of Christ’s resurrection.

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

April 23, 2017