Hope in Hurtful Times
1 Peter 1:1-12
It is the first theological question many people ask. Before they wonder about sin or salvation, before they consider the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, before they wrestle with the question of God’s sovereignty and humanity’s freedom, they will ask, “Where is God when it hurts?” and “Why did God let this happen?” The answers they find or don’t find to these questions will often shape or shatter their faith.
This morning we will look for some hope in hurtful times. You may not find all the answers you look for. In fact, I can guarantee that you won’t, but maybe it’s God more than answers we really seek. Let’s search for him now. Let us pray:
Lord, there is hardly anyone who can really answer the question “Why?” When we stand over an open grave, or kneel beside a hospital bed, or collapse after hearing some bad news, we all wonder why? Quick clichés don’t really satisfy. In fact the only thing that helps at all is the comfort that comes from your presence and your people. So, be with us now and with your people we pray. Amen.
The first letter of Peter begins with a greeting to the “exiles of the dispersion”. That phrase itself dates the letter to the time on or around 70 A.D. because that marked the destruction of Jerusalem by a Roman army and the resulting dispersion or scattering to the winds the inhabitants of Israel. It was a time of great trial and trauma. Everyone had lost someone or something. The Temple had been destroyed and their way of life crushed.
Now they were strangers in a strange land trying to make their way the best way that they can. They ended up in far-flung places like Pontus and Galatia, Cappadocia and Bithynia, so the only way for Peter to minister to these congregations is through a letter carried from one church to the next.
Before he addresses their current situation he takes them back to the beginning of their faith – to better days. He wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” For Peter and for believers since, that was the transformational moment. That marked the difference between before and after. Life before Easter Sunday was different from life after. The worries and fears that once prompted him to deny Jesus three times paled against the glory of the resurrection. The hardships he would later endure for his faith seemed small against the backdrop of the cross. When the going got tough, Peter would just close his eyes and remember the empty tomb.
Those who embrace the risen Lord, Peter believed, will rise up themselves and “receive an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” “In this”, he said, “you rejoice”, because that is the natural response of faith.
But, faith is not called faith for nothing, because Peter warned, “for a little while you may have to suffer various trials.” That’s the part most of us don’t understand. Why? Why do we have to suffer these trials? Why doesn’t God just make it all better, or better yet, why doesn’t God just do a little preventative maintenance and irradiate those cancer cells before they begin, or flood the engine of a man too drunk to drive, or bend the tornado around the trailer park? What is the point? Why do we have to suffer these various trials?
The Bible offers five different reasons – some more satisfying than others. First, sin carries consequence. Much that people endure they endure because someone else has hurt them and the wounds inflicted are not accidental. This we understand because we’ve all wanted to lash out at someone at one time or another. When we do we are responsible for our actions.
The second reason scripture cites is Satan. This explained Job’s dilemma and why everything went wrong in his life. The Devil did it, so you know whom to blame. A neat little equation was written so that the Devil could be seen behind every disaster. The Salem Witch Trial followed that formula. Long ago a comedian named Flip Wilson did a whole bit around the phrase, “The devil made me do it.”
A third explanation rejected the notion that Satan had much power to do anything at all because all power and glory belong to God and God alone. Job’s friends held this view so they wrote a different rule. Catastrophe follows judgment. It is how you know that you have displeased God. So, Job’s friends seeing his plight concluded that he must have sinned big time. But, Job ran the numbers and concluded that there was no way his sins added up to these hardships. He demanded justice. God responded, “There’s no way you can understand.”
Jesus came to the same conclusion when he said, “it rains on the just and the unjust – it flat out rains on everyone.” That’s life – messy as it is, confusing as it is, confounding as it is, frustrating and maddening as it is. So, no one can walk through a neo-natal intensive care unit and come out with any reason that makes sense. No one can stand over the grave of a child or a parent and offer any answer that satisfies, because it’s not really reasons or answers we want. What we want is for the disease to go away, the drunk driver to have never started his car, and the tornado to have moved around the trailer park. What we want is the loved one back in our arms, the job that was lost, and the marriage that had failed. What we want are the days that came before to come again.
The last reason for trials that scripture offers, and the one that Peter cites in this passage is that suffering acts as a “refiner’s fire”. He used the example of metallurgy in the process of purification. The fire in the furnace burns off the impurities, the slag, so that the steel becomes strong or the gold pure. This is about the effect – not cause. We’re passed the reasons and now look to the result.
For me, this has always been the great mystery of faith. My pastoral scrapbook is filled with pictures of people who have endured more than I could ever imagine; who have experienced pain far beyond the pinpricks I’ve suffered, who have lost more than I could count, yet responded not with despair but with determination. They would not be defeated because they held onto “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” They count on “the inheritance, which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” They have ministered to me far more than I did to them. They found hope in hurtful times.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, is a well-known Christian professor of philosophy at Yale Divinity School. He has written numerous scholarly books, which would be difficult for most of us to understand, but he contributed one work that anyone who has ever faced a loss can comprehend. Lament of a Son records his thoughts and feelings about the death of his twenty-five year old son in a mountain climbing accident. As he tries to sort this out and come up with answers, he begins to understand, “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed. But there also character is made. The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making.”
But, there have also been those whose faith seemed burned away by the fires of their pain, whose souls are not made, but lost. Where once there appeared a house built on a strong foundation – now only cinders remain. Their pain becomes the lens through which they look at all of life. It colors everything they see.
Maybe that’s the difference. Maybe it’s the way we look at it. Maybe our response is determined by the lenses we wear, whether we look at the world through the lens created by what we suffer or through the faith that is forged by God.
Long ago the Property Manager of the church I served at the time limped into the office leaning on a cane. He had knee surgery and needed a cane. So, I asked him if it hurt. He said, “Yes” and Doctor told him it was “supposed to hurt.”
I asked Henry what he thought of that answer, “It’s supposed to hurt?” He said it was all right with him. And I said, “Really, you didn’t just want him to make the pain go away!” Henry said, “Well, yeah, but I trust him. He knows what he’s doing and he has my best welfare at heart. He wants me to walk again.”
Those who are able to respond in faith when a wall falls on them are those who trust the Lord, who believe God knows what he’s doing, and has their best welfare at heart and wants them to walk by faith again. But, no one does that all the time, and sometimes we stumble or need a cane. We need support from somewhere.
That’s why the community of faith is so important. Remember this letter from Peter is not written to an individual or even to a single congregation. It is written to a number of churches that are joined together not only by a common faith in Jesus Christ, but also by a common experience. They are all exiles of the dispersion. They are strangers in a strange land. They had all lost someone or something.
They would never return home or get back what they lost, but they offered each other support and encouragement and comfort because they had walked through the valley of the shadow together.
The cross of Jesus Christ bears testimony to the reality that God has also walked with us through the valley of the shadow. God does not just watch us from a distance, but through the birth of the babe in Bethlehem came to us up close and personal. If you mourn the passing of someone who was taken all too soon, know that God mourns with you. If your body is wracked with pain, know that Christ experienced the breathless burning of lungs that could not catch a breath. If you have felt alone and that no one cares or even knows you’re alive, know the Jesus felt just like that when he cried, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It was because he shared in the community of those who suffer that he shared his body and blood through the bread and the cup. That’s why we sometimes call it “Holy Communion”. As we participate in this sacred moment we share in his suffering as he has shared in ours. It is why we say, “The body of Christ was broken for you.” It is why we say, “The blood of Christ was shed for you.”
It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it can take the edge off when it helps us to “remember the living hope through the resurrection and our inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”
Near the end of his journal of grief, our Yale professor concluded, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up until you’re forced to walk out onto it. And when I read the New Testament, I am convinced that the man Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. In that, I see the sign that he was more than a prophet. He was (and is) the Son of God.” He is the bridge we cross to God and over the chasm of despair.
As each of us face these various trials the only question that really matters is this, “Do I want to face it alone, or do I want to face it with God who has promised to bring us through the valley of the shadows?”
There’s second question, “Do I want to face this alone with someone who understands and is willing to listen? That is one of the the roles of the Stephen Ministry. A Stephen minister is trained to listen and to try to understand as best they are able the challenges and concerns, the aches and the pains, and the feeling of being alone.
Many of you a familiar with the comedian Stephen Colbert. He hosts the Late Show on CBS. GQ magazine’s he explored how he found gratitude in the midst of suffering. He said, “When he was 10 years old, his father and two of his brothers, were killed in a plane crash.” Young Stephen was the only child still at home with his mother in the years immediately following. When asked how he could experience such losses and not become angry or bitter, the GQ interview explored Colbert’s faith:
[Colbert said], “I was raised in a Catholic tradition … That’s my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”
“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died. … And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example I am not bitter … She was … broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Colbert said that even in his mother’s days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.
Colbert described a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Colbert’s eyes filled with tears as he said, “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.” He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”
Let us pray:
Lord, lead us across that footbridge, trusting that you always have our welfare at heart and will help us to walk again, in this life and the next. Amen.
 1 Peter 1:3
 1 Peter 1:4
 1 Peter 1:6
 Job 40
 Matthew 5:45
 Wolterstorff, Nicholas: Lament for a Son. Eerdman’s Publishing. Grand Rapids Michigan 1987. pp 97.
 Wolterhoff: pp 76.