Sermon & Prayer
This year has been exceptionally difficult for so many people in this country and all over the world. We were caught off-guard and so many of our plans and dreams for 2020 were derailed. This year will go down in history. But life, normal life, has its moments too. We get derailed, caught off-guard, unsettled. We don’t like to be unsettled. It’s not a pleasant feeling to be reminded of the uncertainties of life and how little control we have over things.
Peter was writing to a church undergoing a difficult time. They were facing persecution from the society they lived in because of their faith and how that changed the way that they lived. Peter’s advice to them is to not be surprised that this is happening:
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
(1 Peter 4:12, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
Why shouldn’t they be surprised at their hardship? I’m not disagreeing with Peter, but I want us to reflect on why these people shouldn’t be surprised at their hardship. Because this can change how you view your struggles. And we’re all struggling with something, especially now.
Notice what language Peter uses: “fiery ordeal”. Not “painful ordeal”, nor “upsetting ordeal”, even though enduring persecution must have been both painful and upsetting. Peter says “fiery”. Fire doesn’t just destroy; it’s also used to purify and to refine. Peter is referencing something that he mentioned at the beginning of this letter.
Peter mentions the trials that these Christians are suffering and says:
“These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
(1 Peter 1:7, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
This is a “fiery ordeal” because it is a refining process. They are being transformed. Their faith is being refined in the fires of persecution.
Christians should not be surprised that they are being refined. You cannot have a relationship with Jesus and not be transformed by him. If you view your Christian life as a refining, transforming, purifying process then you will not be surprised or disheartened by hardships.
Transformation involves being stretched, being unsettled, being made uncomfortable. People who go to the gym are not surprised that they must work out. You wouldn’t be surprised to go to school and find that you must concentrate and study hard.
You will be surprised and disheartened by fiery ordeals if you think that everything is already gold. If you think that nothing needs to be unsettled or refined, then you’ll just be upset. You will see it as nothing more than torment. But if we know that we need to be, and are being, transformed by God, refined by God, then we can have hope and even joy.
This battle against COVID-19 has been hard on the church. We can’t currently meet for Sunday services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, youth fellowship, Sunday school, committee meetings, kirk session meetings and much of the normal socialising that is so important for fellowship and friendship. I’m glad that I can still communicate with you through our modern technology including these videos, or the CDs, or by post. But this isn’t church. This is a very poor substitute for meeting together and worshipping together. It’s easy to become disheartened, I know.
Aside from our current situation, the church has other fiery ordeals that are just typical to the experience of being faithful followers of Christ in a world that does not know him. We have brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted, beaten, jailed and killed for their faith. The opposition that believers face in Ireland is not so severe, but still it’s not insignificant. We can do our best to nurture the faith of young believers (either young in age or simply new to the faith) but when they encounter mockery or abuse for their beliefs that can really hurt. It’s not nice to face mockery and accusations from your neighbours or those who once were your friends. It’s heart-breaking.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer for our faith. What should be our response?
“But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
(1 Peter 4:13, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
We can rejoice when we suffer for our faith, because we know that we are not only suffering for Christ but suffering with Christ. We’re walking his way, and if our Lord encountered opposition and hardship in the world then so will we.
In Acts, chapter 5, we can read of the time when Peter and the apostles were flogged by the High Council in Jerusalem for preaching the gospel. After they were released, they rejoiced:
“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
(Acts 5:41–42, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
As Peter says in this passage:
“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”
(1 Peter 4:15–16, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
We have fellowship with Jesus in suffering for our faith, and just as we share in this suffering, we will share in his glory too. As Paul wrote to the Roman church:
“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
(Romans 8:17, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
The path to true glory goes through suffering because we must be transformed if we want to see glory. And transformation, changing to something better, is an unsettling, uncomfortable and sometimes painful process. Jesus didn’t need to be transformed, but he endured suffering for our sake. As we walk this path, we walk it with Jesus and his Spirit will be with us in a special way. As Peter says in verse 14:
“If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
(1 Peter 4:14, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
When our faith takes us through suffering the Spirit of God rests on us. Now the Spirit dwells in all Christians, but those who suffer for their faith can experience the presence of God in a very powerful way as the Spirit blesses them with what they need to endure, to bear witness, and to be transformed. Those who cling tightly to God in these hard times find their faith strengthened. That is a blessing worth rejoicing over.
Judgement is coming. Evil will be dealt with and done away with. But when we think of evil, we must not think of it as something out there. Evil is in me too and it must be cut away by God. Because I belong to him, God is dedicated to cutting that evil away and transforming me. Sometimes it is a painful process. Sometimes God uses unlikely events or experiences to achieve this end, but I trust in him. As painful as it can be to go against the flow in this world and undergo the transformation that God is working in me, it is ultimately a far more painful and terrible thing to simply go the way of this world. That’s what Peter means in verses 17 and 18:
“For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’”
(1 Peter 4:17–18, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
God may discipline me out of love, to correct my ways and transform me so I become more like Jesus. I know that God isn’t just punishing me when I suffer, because my punishment was taken by Jesus on the cross. I have faith in Jesus and his sacrifice in my place and so I am saved. My debt is paid. My sins are forgiven. I hope the same is true of you because this is a debt you could never afford to pay yourself. Thank God you don’t have to if you put your trust in Jesus.
Cling tightly to God when you suffer, knowing that he is faithful and is working in you to bless you and transform you into what you were always meant to be.
“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
(1 Peter 4:19, NIV (Anglicised, 2011))
Don’t be surprised that things are difficult. Commit to God and continue to do what he has called you to do. An athlete doesn’t get discouraged when their muscles ache after training. They know they’re putting in the work, they know that their body is changing and growing, that they are being transformed. Christians who suffer for their faith should have the same response, knowing that they’re being refined and transformed by God who loves them.
Commit yourself to your faithful Creator and continue to do good during these difficult times, and always.
Faithful Lord, help us to trust you in our fiery ordeals. Fill us with the faith and knowledge that you are good and are working all things for the good of us who love you. We pray again for healing and restoration. Heal the sick, comfort the mourning, protect our communities we pray. Help our health service to handle the enormous pressure they are under now. Help those out of work or barely scraping by because of the economic devastation this virus has brought. Help your church to grow in faith and in love for you and each other and to be a powerful and bright witness in a dark world.
We pray for those who are lonely. Help us to remember to reach out to each other, by phone or letter, or other technology, and share friendship.
We pray for the peace, protection, and justice for the people of Nigeria during the ongoing “End SARS” protests.
We pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for their faith. May they be encouraged and strengthened by your presence with them and may they be a powerful witness for the gospel in their countries.
We pray these things in Jesus’ name,