New Life, New Life
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
Hippocrates noticed it years before Jesus Christ. Søren Kierkegaard noticed it in the nineteenth century, Freud noticed it in1926 and wrote about it in an essay. What they noticed was a very serious human condition: Anxiety. When people experience anxiety, it can be life-altering, it can be life-changing. It is a condition, like any other, that needs to be dealt with. In a Daily Telegraph article written by Rachel Dove, she says that in our era it is not so much anxiety that is the real problem besetting our culture, but what she calls “an epidemic of disappointment.”
This epidemic of disappointment can actually affect everyone, especially those who have anxiety, because the problem is twofold. We have very high expectations of what life should give us, and that there should be a quick fix for the problems that beset us. If we’re not healthy, there should be a drug for it. If there is a social problem, it should be eradicated. If we desire things, we should receive them. We should have a natural progression to our life: a steady increase in terms of its success rate.
In other words, we live in a world where we expect so much, and are devastated when we don’t get it. Love is unrequited, progression is not always guaranteed, owning things does not always give you pleasure. Switching off from the problems of the world does not make them go away. There is no quick fix. Very often when we have these high expectations that are not met, we have, as Dove says, “an epidemic of disappointment” that aggravates the condition of anxiety. It’s as if somehow you get to a point where you're at peace in your own life, but the expectations all around you are just too much and they wear you down. The epidemic of disappointment.
Today’s passage is a wonderful example of the exact opposite of an epidemic of disappointment. It is about the wonder, the glory, and the power of God in our lives, irrespective of the conditions that we find ourselves in. It speaks about the power of God breaking into our lives with “an inexpressible joy”, which is greater than any disappointment or any challenge that we might face. When you look at the context, you realise it all the more. It was written by the Apostle Peter or someone who was writing on his behalf, around AD 67, during what was known as the Nero persecution, which lasted a few years. Christians were targeted in the Roman Empire for persecution. It was believed that they were the reason for so much misery and anxiety and that they were responsible for tragedies that had come the way of the Romans.
Christians were taken as scapegoats. Many of them were persecuted by being removed as citizens, some of them were imprisoned, as we found out both Peter and Paul were, and some were actually killed. In the midst of all of this now – and this is what makes it so powerful – Peter talks about this inexpressible joy, and he says these incredible words, “We are born again unto a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that this is incorruptible, this is unfading, this is kept in heaven for you.” Not only that, there is the shielding power of God, and furthermore even though you don’t see God, you believe in God and you believe that God is with you.
These are radical words in the midst of persecution and of suffering. When everything is going wrong, he talks about having a new life through the resurrection. He says that there is something unfailing, that won’t let you down, that there is an inheritance that is eternal and powerful; that you will have a protector and guide, a shield, to look after you. And even though you don’t see God, you believe in God. “This” he says, “is the source of our inexpressible joy.” It seems to me that in a world where there is a lot of disillusionment, (an epidemic of disappointment) and where there is a great deal of anxiety whether it is of a psychological or a social nature, this is a powerful message. It sends to us the clear example that contentment, that peace in our lives is not something that is normal, it is a gift given to us.
I have always loved the great author GK Chesterton, who says that joy – joy is the gigantic surprise of the Christian faith. What Chesterton observed that a lot of Christians go around looking miserable all the time, and he was tired of that puritanism, that impression that there is no joy in the faith, that it is hard work, and heavy, requiring a lot of learning, and that it is a stone on your shoulder, that you've got to be serious about the Christian faith. But he says and I paraphrase, no, this is wrong, the Christian faith is fundamentally a faith of joy, not of oppression. It is not a faith that means you have to have everything all nicely lined up in your life in order that you can have joy. Joy is predicated on our faith in God.
He wrote an incredible poem, and I commend it to you when you go home. It’s called The Happy Man, two great stanzas stand out. The first is:
To teach the grey earth like a child,
to bid the heavens repent,
I ask from Fate the gift,
one man well content.
In the whole world, he looks for someone who is well-content. He knows that contentment, as he goes on to say a little further on, is found in faith. It is found in the knowledge that even if there is disappointment, unmet expectations, or in the case of the first century Christians, persecution, there is still this incredible sense that God is there, that there is something that is immovable, something that cannot be changed, that is there, a power in your life.
Peter was writing, I think, from deep personal experience. When you think about it, Peter was the one who had lived with Jesus. He himself had fallen short, he had seen the problems that Jesus faced, and was at the crucifixion. But he was also there at the resurrection, and most especially, he was there at Pentecost when the Spirit of Christ descended upon the disciples. He wrote to these Christians in Rome after that experience at Pentecost. He knew that there was this imperishable, unfading power in his life and in the lives of believers.
The problem is that we think that contentment should just be ours. That life should run along swimmingly. We seem to think that we’re owed something, that we have the right to something, and that contentment should come from a natural advancement in our lives, where we have our instant health, and our instant success, and our instant gifts. I think one of the problems facing young people in particular is that this keeps being reinforced and it becomes a source of anxiety and pressure.
I was talking to a teenager not long ago about what the most important thing in their life is. I thought it would be something that they owned, you know, their phone or their guitar or – I don’t know, whatever teenagers own. Or, I thought they might talk about some accomplishment: winning a sports game at school. Or perhaps their family. I don’t know what I expected, to be honest with you. But the response that I got kind of shook me. They said, “I think I value most when I put a picture on Instagram that I think is unique, I'm excited by the number of likes I get.” That this is the most important thing, being recognised for having been somewhere, not owning anything, not achieving anything, just simply being popular. I can't imagine how in that world, the pressure that these young people in the world must feel. It must be an incredible sense of pressure to live up to that and to have that as kind of the yardstick. It’s almost frightening for some, it’s certainly depressing and anxiety-producing in others. We know that, the psychologists are telling us this.
It seems to me that GK Chesterton’s Happy Man and the words that we have here from the book of Peter, are another way of looking at the world altogether. It is the joy that comes from faith. It is the joy in knowing that there is an inheritance for you, an eternal power, a life, and that you're valuable, never mind how many likes you have on Instagram. In the kingdom of God, you're loved, and that to me, would be far more valuable in the long run than all the likes imaginable.
For these children we’ve baptised today, my hope and my prayer is that they will grow up remembering the vows their parents made this day, because this is the inexpressible joy. This is the thing that really deals with discontentment. This is what gives peace in the heart.
Peter also talks prophetically and says that we believe in what is seen, but also what is unseen. Though we have not seen Christ like he had seen Christ yet, these Romans believed in Christ. Think about this for a moment, put yourself in their shoes. You're being persecuted for your faith in a person you've never seen. You're placing your trust and your very existence into the hands of a Lord who was raised from the dead. Now, that is faith. That is powerful. That is prophetic.
Recently I went to a meeting with some people from an organisation called Open Doors, which tracks very carefully what happens to Christians throughout the world. A staggering statistic was shared with me, and I wrote it down in my little book, because I couldn’t believe the numbers. They were saying that in an average year, 341 Christians are executed or killed throughout the world because of their confession of Christ. That 120 churches are destroyed every month somewhere in the world, and somewhere in the region of 208 people are tortured or imprisoned every month because of their faith. This is happening all over the world, it is not just one cultural area or environment, it is many places. I thought to myself, “Lord Jesus Christ, your people suffer for a God they do not see and a Lord that with their own eyes cannot perceive, but even to this day are willing to suffer of their confession of you.”
Peter’s words must clearly resonate with them. They now have a new life, it’s like they’ve been born a new one to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead unto an inheritance which is unperishable, unfading, kept in heaven for you. They really believe this and they really live it. And does that not put into perspective the shallowness of our culture at the moment, where the issue of disappointment is the big thing, when for many, it is a matter of life and death. It puts into perspective, does it not, the power of the Spirit to strengthen, to help, and to guide those who face difficulties?
Chesterton in the last stanza of The Happy Man wrote this:
I only find him at the last,
on one old hill where nod
Golgotha’s ghastly trinity—
three persons and one God.
That’s where you find the happy man, that’s where you find contentment. That is the very power of Christ on the cross.
For those of us who live at times with our struggles and challenges, and for those who want to live a life of joy, freedom, and hope, and to expect great things from God, the happy person, it seems to me, the contented person, is one who knows that no matter what, they are safe and they are secure. And what a tremendous gift that is. A wonderful legacy.
I was thinking back not long ago, to a story that I read by Gerda Weissmann, who was in the concentration camps in World War II. She was talking about the fact that the women inmates were separated from the men, but many of them had to live most of the day outdoors. They were forced to walk around the periphery of the camps. They would just hour-by-hour be forced to keep walking. And one day one of the women noticed that there was this dandelion coming up through the cracks of the concrete. They would have to go by this dandelion all the time, but they all agreed that they would never trample on this dandelion, because this dandelion was the one flower that they could see in life – the one flower. For them it was the most precious sign of joy.
She commented after the war that everyone in the village destroyed the dandelions on the lawn. She said, “It’s as if no one can see the beauty anymore, that we’re so wrapped up with our desire for perfection that a dandelion is an anomaly. But when you're in a concentration camp, the dandelion was the one sign of beauty and of what God can give.”
In our age of disappointment, we lose sight of the dandelions. We lose sight of the true beauty of what we have been given and take these things for granted, never acknowledging the power of the Maker who gave it. The inheritance that we have is not only an eternal inheritance, not only when we get to heaven; joy is also right here right now if we treasure the right things and if we see God’s divine hand at work all around us. The new life of Christ helps us see those things when others simply walk by them or do not see them as important.
My friends, there are many challenges in this world and in this life. There are many things facing us that we need to address and change. It’s not all joy and it’s not all – to use an English expression – beer and skittles. There are things that need fixing, there are things that need fixing within the indigenous community. There are things that need to be fixed in the world and in our environment. There are things that need to be fixed in our sense of just for the poor. There are things that need to be fixed in our sense of holiness and what is morally right. There are things that need to be fixed. But when we lose sight of the joy of our faith, when we lose sight of its incredible power in the unseen God at work and the risen Christ, we cease then to be a word of solution and we get caught up in the disappointment of our age.
I’ll never forget a lesson that my parents taught me at a young age and I have never forgotten the moment. My parents had invited – because my father was a clergyman – another minister and her husband over for dinner. She was newly ordained and my father was really wanting to impress her – he did. They dressed me up beautifully. I had my white shirt, my little red bow tie (I still have the photo at home). Oh, wow, were they proud of me. I was supposed to be a good host to this new minister.
After a lot of chitchat that I didn’t understand, my parents brought out the meal and all my mother had on a plate was a piece of lettuce and a little bit of salmon. I looked at my mother and with great conviction said, “Is this all there is?”
My mother was mortified. The guests looked down at the table. My father grabbed me by the shirt and took me upstairs and said to me, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say anything like that, young man. Never. There are people who go without food in this world. Don’t ever say anything like that. You can stay up here for a while and think about what I’ve just said.”
So I sat upstairs thinking, well, I haven't missed much, you know, to be honest. It didn’t seem like a whole lot of punishment. I mean, a bit of lettuce.
After a little while, my parents brought me back down, and asked, “Have you learnt your lesson?”
I said, “Yes.” Of course I hadn't.
And there, sitting in the middle of the table was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, potatoes, and an ice cream cake. They said, “You see, you made your decision about what we were going to eat, and you judged it too soon. There was still much more to come, but you were ungrateful for the little you had at the beginning.”
When those people sat in their prisons in Rome in the first century, it seemed like all they were getting was lettuce, but there was more to come, infinitely more to come; an inheritance which is imperishable, unfading, kept in heaven for you. A new life and a new joy and a contentment that would last. Amen.