“Is it worth it?” When we make sacrifices and endure hardship that’s the question that we sometimes ask, isn’t it? Or other questions like “What am I even doing this for? “or “What’s the point anyway?”.
Athletes, train with the finish line in mind. The medal. The congratulations. The parade in their hometown. That confirmation that all the early mornings, the sweat and tears, the strict diet were all worth it in the end because they pushed themselves to give their best and achieved their dreams.
Peter writes to Christians under pressure. They are enduring persecution from their neighbours and the internal pressure that they feel: that pressure to conform. Sometimes it’s tiring being the odd one out isn’t it? Their neighbours continue with their worldly pleasures and their idolatry and they enjoy the pleasure of fitting in and being normal. Whereas the Christians abstain and repent and discipline themselves and that does get hard. So, like an athlete we need to keep the finish line in sight. Whether it’s suffering the same hardships as everyone else (like these current COVID-related restrictions we all must endure), or suffering alienation and mockery and persecution because of our faith, or suffering those temptations to conform you have a fight on your hands if you are to be a Christian in this world.
In this passage Peter instructs Christians to have the same attitude regarding suffering as Jesus had. Peter talks about suffering a lot in this letter because the people he was writing to were suffering. We are suffering too. The people of Ireland are suffering. These are hard times. Lonely times. We find ourselves isolated from family and isolated from community. The simple things of a normal, quiet life are now infected with fear. I see it in my own family. My four-year-old son has started talking about death. If we go out in public together, he clings to me. Maybe you’ve noticed similar things in your own family. That’s just suffering these restrictions that have been put in place to protect us. And let me say that it is our duty to protect one another. It is our Christian duty to love our neighbours and these days that means keeping our distance and taking the precautions we need to take. The restrictions we abide by out of love for one another are good, but they can result in loneliness and hardship too. Aside from the restrictions some of us have fallen sick, so there is that suffering too. Numbers are increasing. We are suffering in Ireland and Ireland is not alone in this. People all over the world are suffering.
The church is affected in its own way. Our services are restricted. Numbers are restricted and the elements of our worship are restricted out of a need to protect one another. Many have made the decision to stay home, and I support them in that. Nobody should feel forced to come and I will help those who wish to worship at home. We have our website. We have our CD ministry. I can send the text of sermons to people.
Even in pre-pandemic times the church has its struggles, and we’ll have the same troubles in post-pandemic times when they come, and they will come. Peter describes those kinds of struggles here in this passage. Worldly people have a great time engaging in worldly pleasures and are surprised at these oddballs, these Christians, who won’t join in. Society is increasingly intolerant of genuine Christian faith. You’re seen as a delusional person if you believe the gospel and strive to live in obedience to Christ. The only kind of faith that society appears to accept these days is a kind of box-ticking religious observance for about an hour on Sundays, and then after that you’re supposed to go back to being “normal”. Anything beyond that is mocked and even met with abuse.
So, whether it is COVID or even just “normal” life, in this word the church will suffer. If we know that we have a struggle, a fight on our hands, what should we do?
Here’s what Peter says we should do:
1 Peter 4:1 (NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body has finished with sin.
Arm yourselves. That’s the only imperative in this passage, it’s the only point here in today’s text where we’re told to do something. Let me faithfully pass on that message to you today, with your struggles. Here is what God’s word says to do: arm yourself! What are we to arm ourselves with? Hope! We must arm ourselves with hope!
I want to be clear: I’m not talking about optimism. I’m not talking about putting on rose-tinted glasses. I’m not talking about “ah it’ll be grand”. What was writing about and what I’m talking about, is the attitude of Christ.
Jesus never denied the reality of his suffering. Jesus never tried to pretend that it wasn’t really that bad. Jesus was betrayed, abandoned, abused, tortured, and killed in a way that was deliberately designed by the Romans to make a death slow, painful, and humiliating. On top of that Jesus bore the weight of God’s wrath taking the full punishment that was due to us, his people, for our sins. This was not an easy thing. This was not “grand”. If ever there was suffering this was it.
But Jesus had hope. Jesus was able to endure this agony because he trusted in the Father. Jesus trusted that out of this darkness God would bring a great and glorious light – the salvation of sinners like you and me.
Jesus was able to endure, and not only endure, but continue to be loving and gracious, because he had armed himself with hope. Because he trusted in the Father.
The more we trust in God the less we will seek comfort in the things of this world. The more we trust in God the less we will despair when those things fail us or turn against us. We can trust God to see us through darkness because God Himself has gone down into deepest darkness. God knows suffering. God knows mourning. God knows. God has been there, and he will be there with us.
Worldly people, people who don’t have the hope and the life that only God can give, will seek the comforts of this world, or “what pagans choose to do,” as Peter refers to them in verse 3.
Christians have a greater treasure, a greater hope: living for the will of God, knowing that God is in control, that they belong to him. What can the world do? What do we have to fear in this life if we have been made right with God, if we know that God loves us and is taking care of us?
What do those who belong to God have to fear? We know that Jesus is alive. We know that he died to save us and so all our sins have been atoned for in him. We know that God is not waiting to condemn us, but to embrace us. Even death has been defeated. How could we put our trust in anything but Jesus? Now that our trust is in Jesus, we have nothing to fear.
I’ll never ask you to pretend that things aren’t so bad. I’ll never ask you to put on a fake smile and pretend like your heart isn’t breaking. Things are bad. What we’re going through, it’s bad. But never forget to arm yourself with the attitude of Christ, with the hope that comes from knowing that you belong to God and he is in control.
It is worth it. We know the finish line is glorious and we know that Christ has already won the prize for us. Your faith making you the odd one out: it’s worth it. The precautions that we must take to protect one another: it’s worth it. We’ll rejoice together. Soon enough. We’ll have a proper celebration.
Now, in these dark times, and even when things get a bit more normal again, let us arm ourselves with hope.
Lord, we pray that you would keep us in this day of trouble. Help us to put our hope in you our loving Father. Help us to take care of each other. Help us to be imaginative in how we show love and kindness as we minister to one another during this time of restrictions.
We pray for our government. Bless them with wisdom and help them to govern this country with justice. We pray for all our frontline workers. Protect them and help them in their work.
We pray for those who feel lonely and isolated. Comfort them, Lord, with the knowledge of your love. Give them hope.
We pray for those who grieve the loss of loved ones. We pray for those who are sick, and their family. Lord, bring your healing, comfort and peace into these awful situations.
We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.