May 1, 2011

Our Past is Ashes, Our Future Open - May 1, 2011

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Some believe the resurrection of Jesus was a lie made up by His disciples to get something for themselves. But the ministry of the apostles shows this to be nonsense. Did they gain riches and popularity from the world because of the message of Christ? Not at all. They were ostracized by their own countrymen, chased from city to city, and eventually all of the apostles but one were tortured and executed because of their faith. One does not willingly suffer and die for a lie. The apostles were witnesses of the resurrection of our Savior. They knew that resurrection guaranteed that their sins were forgiven before God. They were willing to face anything to share that freedom, and the sure hope of heaven with others. They were His witnesses. He IS risen.


If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you know what a phoenix is. Even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, I bet you’re familiar with this mythological creature. The phoenix is a bird reported to live anywhere from 500 to 1000 years. The end of its life is the interesting part. The phoenix makes a nest out of twigs, nestles down in that nest and then – bursts into flame. Both the nest and the bird burn fiercely until there’s nothing left but a heap of ashes. But then, from out of the ashes a baby phoenix arises.

Our meditation today is about rebirth. And the Phoenix paints a perfect picture of what rebirth means: the past is ashes, the future is open.

We read from the apostle Peter’s first letter…

1 Peter 1:3-5 (NIV)

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

You know, all you have to do is look in the daily newspaper to discover the fate of every human being. I’m not talking about the horoscope section. I’m talking about the obituaries. Each one of us is going to die, some of us sooner than others.

As students of the Bible we know why. God didn’t create us to die. But when Adam and Eve sinned against God, evil and death flooded into our world. Ever since that day, every child born has been a clock ticking down, and only God knows how much time is left.

Some people believe that this world is just a staging area. A place where we experience things and learn about ourselves before we move on to the next place. They imagine that death eventually brings us all to the same clearing at the end of the path, to the same country across the sea. In other words, they imagine that we’ll all end up in heaven eventually.

A nice thought, but it’s not what the Bible says. The Bible says sinners cannot exist in the presence of the Holy God.

Since we’re all born sinful, we’re all in the same boat. Destined to live a life that ends in death, followed by an eternity of hell, apart from God. Not a bright future, but that’s the family that we were born into, the family of death.

Now, you might think, I’m being a bit melodramatic. But go ahead, pick up the newspaper and scan through the obituaries. Or take a walk through the cemetery nearest to your home. See all those names that used to be people, and tell me that we aren’t born into a family of death.

Or visit a place where people are dying of starvation, poverty, cancer or war, and tell me that this is the way God intended His world to be.

When we read the first part of Peter’s letter a moment ago, we didn’t hear even a hint of defeat or despair or desperation. Peter says Praise God! Because God the Father has given us new birth through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

We were born into this world destined to die, but through Jesus we are reborn, destined to live forever.

Don’t get lost in the metaphor, being reborn doesn’t mean you have to go through a special ceremony or take a class. It doesn’t mean rays of light are going to shoot out of your fingers or that you’ll all the sudden forget who you are.

When we became convinced that Jesus IS the Son of God, and that He really DID die so that our sins are forgiven, we were reborn. Those who trust in Jesus for salvation HAVE BEEN born again. As 2 Corinthians 5, verse 17 says…
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV).

Peter says we’re reborn into a “living hope” because: Jesus is alive. He was crucified for our sins, died and was buried. But after three days, He rose from the dead. I love how Luke says it in Acts 2:24
“…it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24 NIV).
And for those who are joined to Jesus through faith, death’s power over US has also come to an end. Our sins are forgiven because Jesus suffered the punishment for them. Satan cannot accuse those in Christ, and death cannot claim them for hell.

Now, Peter also says that through Christ we receive a new inheritance. That’s because we’re reborn into a new family – God’s family. Our new inheritance is not some house, or property or pile of money and coins. Our new inheritance is indestructible because it’s waiting at God’s side. In fact, you could say, that God Himself is our inheritance. That’s what David wrote in Psalm 16, verse 5
“ 5 O LORD, You are the portion of my inheritance and my cup; You maintain my lot. 6 The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Yes, I have a good inheritance” (Psalm 16:5-6 NKJV).
Because of Jesus, we’ll get to see the eternal and Holy God face to face. We’ll get to know Him more intimately than we ever have before. Just as hell is separation FROM God, heaven will be union WITH Him. That’s why God pictures the first day in heaven as a wedding feast! The gathering of all believers is His bride and they are together at last.

Now, Peter tells us that until we reach heaven, we are shielded by God’s power through our faith. This is another benefit of rebirth. The way Peter says this is important though. Peter specifically says that we are shielded BY God, THROUGH faith.

If we try to imagine God SHIELDING us, we probably gravitate toward the image of Him protecting us from cancer or a car accident or something like that. But that’s NOT the point here. Peter is talking about How God protects what really matters - our inner most self, our soul. Peter says that this shielding is provided by the faith that God gives us in the Savior. You remember this Bible passage right…
“16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16 NIV).
Now, it’s true, God shields us in many ways. He does limit the physical damage Satan can inflict on us to a level which we can bear. If it gets to much, He provides a way of escape. 1 Corinthians 10, verse 13…
“ 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13 NIV).
God also promises to bend and twist all of Satan’s hurtful plans to benefit God’s followers in the end. Romans 8, verse 28
“ 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).
And Jesus reassures us…
“ 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30 NIV).
One day God will set His shields down. When His Son has gathered all His children in and the gates are shut. Then we will have no need of protection any longer, and the celebration will begin.

Let’s read the second part of our text…

1 Peter 1:6-9 (NIV)

6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 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 honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Now, in these end times, it’s not fashionable in some church circles to speak of hell as a real place. I’ve heard one professing Christian claim that Jesus isn’t all about heaven and hell, it’s about a relationship now. And that’s true to a certain extent. But look at this whole text, so much of it is looking to the future. And that last verse nails it right on the head – the end result of faith in JESUS is the salvation of our souls. Let’s be compassionate. Let’s be NOW Christians. But let’s also keep our eye on the prize, the salvation of our souls that will be fully realized when Jesus reappears to put in the final piece of our saving – when He takes us right into His arms.

Now, concerning the section of 1 Peter that we just read, I don’t have say much, do I? Peter says it so plainly. He’s writing to Christians scattered all over the Roman Empire. He knows that they have been experiencing hard times lately. He uses the phrase, “grief in all kinds of trials”. If you read through all of Peter’s first letter you’ll see this theme pop up over and over.

But this wasn’t because God was angry with them. Peter wants to be sure they understand this. It was a common thought then, and now, that when something bad happens it means that God is punishing you for some specific sin. Peter says, That’s not the case here. These hard times were going to show the world that the faith of these Christians was true. It was not merely words spoken on church day. 1 John 3, verse 18 says…
“18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18 NIV).
Would these Christians cling to Christ in hard times? Would they continue to assault the throne of God with their prayers? These tests would reveal the genuineness of their precious faith.

You and I have something in common with the people Peter wrote to. It’s shown in the last two verses of our reading. Peter says,
“8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9 NIV).
Just like us, these people had never sees Jesus. Peter had, but they hadn’t. They had never met Him, and Jesus didn’t appear to them in visions. But they believed in Him because they heard what He had done for them. And because the Spirit of God is alive and active in the Good News of sins forgiven through Jesus, they had been reborn. Like it says in 1 Peter 1, verse 23
“…you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23 NIV).
Their past sins were now ashes. Their future was now the open gates of heaven. They were reborn like the phoenix, but they never had to feel the fire – Jesus did that for them when He suffered Hell on the cross.

The other day I was in a local shop, when I overheard a snippet of conversation. Two guys in the back room were apparently having a discussion about Christianity. One of them was not impressed. He said, “I don’t need to have my own personal imaginary friend”.

That’s what he thought Jesus was for Christians. Someone we can have those inner conversations with. A friend when we don’t have any friends perhaps, but in the end, just an imaginary friend.

I can understand this kind of thinking. If you look back over our sermon reading, you’ll see that all this stuff about being born again – it’s invisible right now. The new birth, can’t see it like you can see a newborn baby. The living Jesus, can’t see Him. The inheritance in heaven, that’s out of sight (no pun intended). The shield of God that protects us, can’t see that either. But that’s the definition of faith, trusting in what you can’t see.

But don’t think for a minute that our faith is a blind faith. Our faith is not based on something never seen, like the mythological phoenix. Our faith is based on a resurrection that was very deliberately displayed to the world.

When Jesus rose on the third day, an angel descended and ripped open the tomb. The women who came to embalm his body found it missing and then they found Him alive. And to prove beyond a doubt that it was Him who had been dead, our Savior showed His followers the wounds in His hands and feet, and the gaping spear wound which miraculously remained in His side.

The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is not something that happened in secret. It was done in the open, and anyone at the time could play reporter and verify what had happened. Some have said that with all the witnesses and written testimony that we have, Christ’s resurrection is probably the most testified to even in the history of the world.

Dear Christian, our greatest Friend is not imaginary, He’s just isn’t visible right now. But make no mistake, He is alive. We serve a risen Savior, in whom we have been reborn to a living hope. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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