Acts 1:6-14, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17: 1 - 11
Today’s Gospel is a plea from Jesus to God himself on our behalf, demonstrating yet again his care for his people. But today I want to focus more on the Epistle. Peter is talking about the sufferings Christians will undergo for the sake of Jesus and, it has to be said, that a lot of what he says could be interpreted for the sufferings people are going though in a different form at present. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you”; “Your brothers and sisters throughout the World are undergoing the same kinds of suffering” and, almost echoing the Government, “Keep – or stay – alert”!
While researching this sermon I came across some words from Malcolm Muggeridge, the journalist and broadcaster who died in 1990. Some of us may remember him and recall that he was a man who changed from being a Communist and agnostic to being an enthusiastic advocate for Christ. In an interview towards the end of his life Muggeridge said: “As an old man, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes me most forcibly – that the only thing that’s taught me anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about is suffering”. He was probably right about that. Do we learn very much about the important things in life from good health, happy days, money in the bank, and good fortune. We enjoy and value those things, but maybe we don’t learn so much from them. It seems that we all have to encounter some form of hardship or misery to learn the lessons God has for us.
This is a theme that runs through 1 Peter. Suffering is inevitable and we have lessons to be learned from it. Peter urges us to respond to suffering in a godly fashion. There are perhaps four things we can learn from this today:
Firstly, hard times develop our character
Discipleship is tough. Suffering is part of the Christian life, even painful suffering. Believers in some other parts of the world understand this better than we do. I have referred before to Release International, which campaigns for persecuted Christians throughout the World. It was founded fifty years or more ago as the Christian Mission to the Communist World, by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Pastor who spent many years in prison because of his faith. As the scope of this organisation widened to support Christians in many different countries, from Pakistan to Iran, India to Nigeria and many others, the name was changed. But the theme was the same – supporting those who were suffering for their faith in Jesus. It would be true to say that living for Christ is the best life you can have, but an integral part of it is suffering in one form or another. However, most of us probably don’t think that way. We are surprised when trials come, how they come, and where they come from. We think we do not deserve them. But when they do happen, we probably emerge from them as stronger, better and more understanding individuals.
Secondly, hard times bring us closer to God.
By suffering for his name’s sake, we participate in Jesus’s own sufferings and become closer to him and are blessed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Many in the World do not love him, in fact some actively hate him, which is why Christians are persecuted and martyred today and have been since the beginnings of our faith. So, when we suffer for him, we find blessing. Our sufferings join us with Jesus in a way that nothing else can. Peter wants us to understand that nothing moves us closer to Christ than when we go through hard times. It’s not that suffering in and of itself brings us to Christ; it’s what suffering does to us and in us. When we are at rock bottom, that is when we cry out to God for help. Many of us can identify with that well-known story about the footprints in the sand. At first there were two sets of footprints—ours and the Lord’s. Then there was only one set. And when we asked God why he left us alone when we needed him most, he replied, “When you saw only one set of footprints was when I carried you.” God intends that our hard times should move us from where we are to where Christ is.
Thirdly, suffering should lead to self-examination
We need to look at ourselves seriously. Are we living our lives as Christ would have us do? Are we proud of being a Christian? There are plenty of people out there who will make fun of us for being Christians and are we a little inclined to hide our faith for fear of mockery or rejection or being thought a little weird? Are we trying to avoid the suffering of being a Christian for fear of the reaction of others? Peter’s answer to that is clear: “Do not be ashamed.” Peter had known shame himself on the night before the crucifixion, when he denied Christ three times. He was ashamed of that and he was keen that other Christians should not go through such shame, but instead that they should be proud and confident in the name of Jesus.
Fourthly, suffering can teach us to trust God in new ways.
Suffering can make you stronger. That perhaps is a different experience for different people, but whatever else, it will certainly make you more experienced and perhaps more understanding of the problems of others. And sometimes it can make us realise that we cannot handle everything on our own. Instead of trying to work out how to solve our own problems, we need to trust in God, to cast all our anxiety on him, because he cares for us. What a wonderful instruction and relief.
So to summarise: We are loved by God; Suffering for Christ brings us closer to him; We must never be ashamed of Jesus; God uses suffering to strengthen us; We must commit our lives to God and continue to serve him. Never be surprised by hard times. Never be ashamed of Jesus and never fail to put your trust in God, who uses suffering to help us grow and make us better Christians.