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17th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Peter 4:12-19

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, who took up His cross to suffer and die for our salvation, dear friends in Christ,

They hurled stones at Stephen until bloodied and beaten he fell asleep in death. They left the apostle Paul once for dead after stoning him, he was flogged and beaten, placed in stocks, put in prison.   At first Christianity was just considered a weird offshoot from Judaism, but later it was considered an illegal religion in the Roman empire. Under emperor Nero (54-68 AD), the burning of a part of the city of Rome was blamed on Christians, hundreds of Christians were arrested, convicted of antisocial beliefs, covered with the skins of wild animals, torn to death by dogs, crucified, covered with pitch and set on fire to light the night like torches. Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) insisted that his subjects all refer to him as “lord and god” and if they didn’t they could face exile, punishment or death.  Under the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) Polycarp the 86 year old bishop of Smyrna was ordered to curse Christ and offer incense to the emperor. To which Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served him [Jesus], and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) thoroughly disliked Christians and ordered the execution of many, dozens were tortured and killed in France, he then authorized his agents to kill any professing Christian “according to law.” The next emperor made baptism a crime. Emperor Diocletian (284-305) demanded sacrifice to Roman gods, and in February of 303 ordered the destruction of all Christian churches, the dissolution of all congregations, the confiscation of all Christian property, the exclusion of Christians from public office, and death for any Christian caught in public assembly.

That’s just a small sampling of the persecutions that the Christians faced. Christians have been persecuted for their faith throughout history. In fact, some have even surmised that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in the past century than in all the previous centuries combined.  Suffering for your faith doesn’t just happen physically, perhaps that’s the most noticeable, but it can happen mentally and emotionally as well. It can happen when someone is led to be ashamed or afraid about speaking God’s Word – especially when it comes to things like homosexuality or abortion.  It can come when a Christian is afraid to let people know that he or she is a Christian because that might change the way they look at him or her. It can come in the form of words like being considered a “Bible-thumping Christian” by some or facing ridicule for not going along with the crowd. It can come in the work place when you’re passed over for a promotion because of your Christian morals or values.

Well, in this letter written by the apostle Peter, he’s likely writing to believers scattered throughout the area we call Turkey. Peter had apparently heard that they were beginning to face persecution for their faith. So he wrote this letter to encourage them in their suffering. He says, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something stranger were happening to you.” Literally, don’t be surprised at the “fiery ordeal for testing which is happening to you.” The word indicates an “intense degree of some painful occurrence.” Don’t be surprised if you are suffering. Rather, “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” Wow! That sounds strange! “Don’t be surprised,” “Rejoice” in suffering? How do you participate in the sufferings of Christ? It happens when we suffer because of Jesus, when the hatred that struck Him, strikes us because of Him. We rejoice in suffering so that “you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” When is that? That’s the Last Day, when Jesus returns you will be “overjoyed.” Here the word is literally picturing exulting, overflowing with joy, skipping and bubbling over with shouts of delight. So when we fix our eyes on the glory that awaits us when Jesus returns, the momentary suffering that we endure in this life for our faith, can actually be endured with joy!

Here’s another strange statement: “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” No one really likes to be made fun of, mocked, or insulted. But if you are insulted because of your faith in Jesus, God says that you are blessed. How so? First, it shows that you’re a Christian, that you wear Jesus’ name. If people look down on you because of your faith, because of your values, because of your morals, because you don’t blend in with the sinful crowd, because you live differently than the majority of the people in the world, it means you wear Jesus’ name. That’s a great thing! Also, whenever you’re insulted because of your faith in Jesus, you may hear insults here, but this is what God is saying to you, “My child, you’re blessed!”

He goes on, “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.” Not all suffering is bearing a cross for Christ. We can bring a lot of suffering upon ourselves by our own poor choices or decisions. A person who steals or murders someone is going to face a lot of suffering both from his own conscience but also from hard hand of the law. On the other hand, if you suffer because you’re Christian – maybe from coworkers or your boss or the government or worldly friends or acquaintances – be glad, don’t be ashamed, praise God that you ARE a Christian.

For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; 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?’” Judgment begins with us. We are judged by the world to be connected with Jesus, to be Christian. That’s not always easy, that may include a lot of difficulty. But that doesn’t mean give up! What’s the outcome for the unbeliever? What’s the outcome for those who don’t believe the gospel? It’s hell, real, literal, and eternal suffering and death in hell.

So what should we do? “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Entrust or deposit yourself with God for safekeeping. He’ll keep you, watch you, defend you, and bring you safely home to heaven. Don’t give in. Don’t sin, keep doing good. When we’re opposed for our faith, when we suffer for our faith, those are optimal times for giving a reason for the hope that we have in Jesus.

Look at who God is: He is the faithful Creator. What is God like? He created all, He can do absolutely anything, He has all power, all might, all control. God owns all things! God knows everything, no one can pull one over on God, there’s never been a time when God wasn’t, God is absolutely supreme, no one has been or ever will be smarter than God. So, we look at that and wonder, wouldn’t it make sense that God’s children, His people, would be kings and queens in this world, that everything they do would work out, that everything turn out well for them, that they enjoy all the wonderful things that this world has to offer, right? Makes sense right?

But what do we see? Joseph spends two years in prison for refusing to sin with Potiphar’s wife, Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den because he prays to the true God, John the Baptist is beheaded for confronting sin, the apostle Paul suffers all kinds of things because he wants to share the good news of Jesus.  Jeremiah the prophet ends up sinking in the mud of a cistern; left to die because he shared God’s Word. The people to whom Peter wrote faced untold suffering.

It’s so easy for us to think that if we belong to God, that if we rest securely in the arms of the King of the universe, that we should be shielded and protected from every sorrowful thing, every pain and trouble, every affliction, and instead, enjoy only wonderful things, joys and pleasures in this life, right? But, instead, what happens? Believers suffer. “Why Lord? Why this? Why now? Why me? Why this person or that person?” God has never promised us an easy earthly life, rather, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to come after me MUST deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

This we know about all our suffering: our loving, kind Father permits it all for a reason. In fact, He even wills it. Nothing can happen in this world without first going through God. No, God does not want or will the evil that happens in this world, nor is He responsible for it. Evil and wicked things happen in this world because of sin, because of Satan, because of sinful wicked people. But, God who has the ability to intervene, to thwart, to stop the wicked in this world, often from what we see, He does not. Why? Because our all powerful God is so powerful that He can actually use the wicked actions of people for the good of His people.

So, commit yourself to your faithful Creator! First, because He’s in control. God never loses control of events in this world. Things never get out of hand for Him. God sets definite limits to wickedness. God never asks us to bear more than we are able. God promises to give us strength to carry every carefully measured load that He gives us! We don’t carry burdens one moment longer than God wills it. God is in control!

Commit yourself to your faithful Creator! Second, because God is deeply concerned about His Word. When we suffer because we are Christian, God is fulfilling His Word. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” In a way Suffering shows us that God keeps His Word. God’s Word is absolutely dependable and that means we can rejoice in the midst of suffering because when God says we’re forgiven, we are, when God says He’s with us, he is, when God says He’s leading us home to heaven, He is. His Word is absolutely dependable!

Finally, commit yourself to your faithful Creator! Lastly, because He always has a purpose in view. Things don’t just happen by chance. There is NO such thing as blind fate. So why does God permit crosses to fall on His people? It’s not punishment! God’s people are NEVER punished; they are only corrected or disciplined. Jesus suffered all our punishment and God will NOT punish the same sins twice. So whenever we face difficulty it is sent by God without even a trace of punishment in it, but only love to drive us closer to Him. Crosses come into our lives to strip us away from our love affair with this world and lead us to cling only to our Lord.

And that’s what’s so important. Suffering leads us to depend only on Jesus. With Jesus we have everything that we need. With Jesus we have forgiveness. With Jesus we have eternal life. So with Jesus we can face… anything. How did those believers do it? How were they willing to die rather than deny their faith? Because in Jesus they had everything. In Jesus you too have everything and that means with Jesus you can face absolutely anything in this life with joy, with confidence and continue to do good. Commit yourself to Him. Amen.

Musical introduction: Holy Spirit, Light Divine by Kari Ekhoff