Sermon 04-23-17: “More Precious Than Gold”

May 5, 2017

Today marks the beginning of a new sermon series in 1 Peter. Its message couldn’t be more relevant for us today: the apostle Peter wants us to know deep and lasting happiness in Jesus Christ, which we can experience no matter what is happening in our lives. Even the suffering we experience and the trials we endure, Peter says, are for our good.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:1-9

This week’s New Yorker magazine features an article on a recent phenomenon known as the hashtag #vanlife and a young couple, Emily King and Corey Smith, who helped to popularize it. A few years ago, this couple bought a 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon, which is now their home. They live out of their van. And they spend their time traveling to different beaches in California and surf to their hearts’ content. Or they go hiking, or camping, or skiing—or whatever else their heart desires. All the while documenting their adventures on Instagram. For income, Emily got a job as a web designer, which didn’t require her to be in an office. All she needed was a good cell signal. She did that for a year or two. Eventually, the couple gained so many Instagram followers that they decided they could support themselves through advertising—by getting sponsors and pitching their sponsors’ products through social media.[1]

#Vanlife advocate Emily King

Emily and Corey’s message is, “Live like us! Enjoy your life to the fullest! Don’t let the stresses of work or career prevent you from realizing your dream. Your dream isn’t found in a big paycheck or high-status career; it’s found in living a #vanlife of total freedom!”

This message is catching on, and I totally get the appeal. They make it seem like their lives are one long vacation—that they don’t really need to work. And they’ve inspired thousands of their Instagram followers to give the #vanlife a try. In fact, a used Volkswagen van dealer in California says business is booming. 

But—and I admit this could be sour grapes on my part—but the article does point out how hard the couple has to work to give the appearance of not working: For instance, it often takes many hours to take and edit even one perfect, idyllic picture of them and their van in Paradise. Plus, they have to constantly worry over whether they’re getting enough “likes” on social media—because that’s what their sponsors care about. And let’s notice how much of “living the #vanlife” depends on external circumstances, many of which are beyond Emily and Corey’s control. What if they get pregnant and have a baby? Or two. Suddenly that Vanagon won’t be quite big enough. Can they afford the additional expenses? What if one of them gets sick or injured—which requires frequent doctors’ visits, or hospital stays, or surgery. Will they be able to travel? And do they even have health insurance? What if one of their parents gets sick and needs to move in with them?  That van won’t do. And part of the couple’s appeal, let’s face it, is that they’re young and good-looking. Youth and beauty fade, in case any of us haven’t noticed. How long can anyone stay in the business of taking pictures of themselves and getting other people to pay for it?

Obviously, only a tiny percentage of Americans—not to mention most other people in the world—could begin to enjoy the #vanlife!

But… suppose the happiness promised by living the #vanlife were available to everyone—not just to the young, the beautiful, the lucky, or the wealthy? Suppose it didn’t require living in a van or being on the road? Suppose everyone in the world could afford it?

Wouldn’t you want that? I would.

In a way, the First Epistle of Peter is about this kind of happiness—but it’s a happiness that all of us can truly experience. The message throughout the letter is that true happiness—a deep and lasting joy—is available right now and for all time to those of us who are in Christ. And best of all, it’s not a happiness or joy that depends on external circumstances—things outside our control. Or at least outside of God’s control. It’s an invincible kind of happiness. It’s bulletproof. It’s built to last… for eternity.

I want that. I need that. Don’t you?

Notice in verse 1 Peter calls the recipients of this letter “exiles” in a foreign land—or “resident aliens.” In a way, they are people not unlike Emily and Corey and all those who’ve embraced the #vanlife. They are no longer at home—they no longer have a home. The difference is, the people to whom Peter is writing are living in the same place they were before their conversion. Now that they’ve found Jesus, they have another home—waiting for them in heaven.

See, Emily and Corey and the #vanlife people are saying, “Your home isn’t here—with your boring 9 to 5 job and your cookie-cutter life; you belong somewhere else. You need to go find your true home.” Their problem is, they think they can find it somewhere in this world.

And we’re probably not so different from them: We say, “If only I got that job… If only I had that home… If only I had that car… If only I married that person… If only I had that body… If only I made that team… If only I won that award… If only I got into that college… If only I was born into that family.” If only, if only, if only… I have a friend who’s a professional writer—a journalist. He wrote a successful book years ago and intended to write a second one but never got around to it. Recently, in the throes of a midlife crisis, he said, “If only I had written that second book.” I said, “If it’s any consolation, even if you had written that second book, no one would remember it after you die.” That didn’t make him feel better.

My point is, at the root of all of our “if only’s” is the sense that we haven’t arrived yet; we’re missing something; we are is not where we want to be; we are not as happy as we want to be; we are not as happy as we think we should be—even though, by any objective measure we middle-class Americans have so much! Yet we’re unsatisfied with life. We feel resentment.

But do we ever stop and say, “Maybe I’m looking for my happiness in the wrong place”?

If so, then 1 Peter is just the letter for us. Even though the recipients of the letter couldn’t be more unlike us.

Peter is writing to a group of mostly Gentile churches in Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—who are suffering. Many of them are facing persecution—violent persecution in some cases, even death, because of their Christian faith. Many of them are slaves. Most of them are poor—many destitute. To say the least, their lives are generally much, much more difficult than ours are today. Yet in the midst of their suffering Peter reminds them of all the reasons that they have for rejoicing—because of what God has done for them through Christ. As he says in verses 6 and 7,

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

He goes on to say in verse 8 that they “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”

United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton wrote a book recently called Half Truths, which takes aim at some of those clichés that well-meaning Christians often say—as if they come from the Bible. One of these is this: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” You’ve heard that before. Maybe you’ve said it. Other Christian bloggers have attacked this saying.

But with all due respect to them and to Adam Hamilton, it’s hard for me to see how this saying is not only “half true,” but completely true—at least for those of us who trust in the Lord. My concern with this saying is not that it isn’t true, but saying it to someone who’s in the midst of a crisis may not be pastorally helpful. But still… God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, in the sense that through faith his grace is sufficient for whatever we’re facing. See 2 Corinthians 12:9, which concerns Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Paul prayed three times for this “thorn in the flesh”—likely some painful physical ailment—to be taken away, and Jesus said no: “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And isn’t this true for anything we face in life? Even if we face the worst case scenario—martyrdom and death—won’t God give us the strength, the courage, the grace, to handle even that? Obviously, “handling” it doesn’t always, or usually, mean coming out of every crisis unscathed, though we can trust, as Paul says in Romans 8:28, that God is using even bad stuff for our good.

Besides, let’s notice what Peter says here: “for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that…”—in other words, Peter says, there’s a reason you’ve been grieved by these trials. And that reason is in order that “the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

What is Peter saying? He’s comparing the trials that we face to gold that’s been put in a furnace for refining. What happens to the gold? The chaff—all the combustible impurities that are mixed in with the gold—is burned away. The gold is purified as a result. Similarly, Peter says that all the trials, all the suffering, all the persecution, that these Christians are facing is serving a valuable purpose: God is using them to purify their faith, to strengthen their faith. Like it or not, Peter says, this is how God does it: through suffering, through trials, through pain. If there was a better way, God would do it. But God is doing what is necessary. Notice verse 6: “If necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.”

The 18th century Anglican pastor and author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, put it like this: He said, “Everything is needful that [God] sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” Peter is making the same point in verses 6 and 7.

Notice what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that God necessarily causes pain and suffering. He might cause it; he does that in the Bible often enough; but not necessarily. And he certainly doesn’t cause evil. We have a spiritual enemy, Satan and his minions, who often do cause pain, suffering, and evil—and often do so with the help of us human beings.

I’m also not saying that these words about God using trials for our good apply to anyone who isn’t already a Christian. Apart from faith in Christ, we don’t have access to God’s all-sufficient grace that transforms bad stuff into good stuff. This promise is for Christians only.

Finally, the last and most important trial that any of us will face is our own death. All of us will die some day, unless the Second Coming happens first. But for us believers in Christ, death is hardly the worst thing that can happen to us; in fact, for us believers, it’s a transition to an unimaginably better kind of life. Notice in verses 4 and 5 how Peter describes what’s waiting for us there: “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” God is doing two things: protecting our treasure in heaven and protecting us, to make sure that we’ll get there someday. Which is why Peter says we have this “living hope.” Just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, we who are made a part of Christ through faith and baptism will also some day be resurrected with him.

Now, for those of us who are left behind when a loved one dies, it is right and fitting to grieve for them. It’s painful to lose someone we love. God knows it is. But for the believer who dies in Christ, it is the opposite of painful. A pastor said this after that horrible school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, many years ago, and it’s certainly true: “The first five seconds in heaven will more than compensate for all the suffering that preceded it.” That’s true for those children and teachers who suffered, it’s true for these Christians in Asia Minor to whom Peter is writing, and it’s true for us.

The bottom line is this: if we are children of God, we have good news: we know that when pain and suffering and evil come our way—and they will—God will use them for our good.

I haven’t suffered much in life. But I’ve experienced enough of it to know that God has used it to make me into a better, more faithful child of God than I would otherwise be. Praise God!

So what if, the next time we’re in the midst of suffering, instead of asking, “Why is this happening to me?” we learn instead to ask, “God, why are you letting this happen to me now? What are you trying to show me? How are you using this experience for my good? I’m going to trust that you have a reason for allowing it, and it’s good.”

I said earlier that Peter promises us an invincible, indestructible, bulletproof kind of happiness and joy—which, unlike what the world promises, doesn’t depend on external circumstances. Do you see how that’s true here? Peter is saying that his people—the ones who are suffering and dying for their faith, the ones who are slaves, the ones who are destitute, the ones who are badly mistreated—these same people can and will experience joy even in the midst of suffering and pain. Do you see that? Verse 6: “in this you rejoice.” Verse 8: “you rejoice with joy that is inexpressible.” This lasting kind of happiness, this joy, does not depend on what’s happening in your life—whether you’re living a carefree hashtag “vanlife,” whether you’re stuck behind a desk in a boring office job, whether you’re in a hospital or nursing home, whether you’re sick and homebound, or even whether you’re on your deathbed: there’s a joy that God wants you to have in any circumstance. And he’s testing you now—he’s putting your through fiery trials—not because he’s mean and wants you to suffer, but because he wants you to possess this indestructible kind of joy—and this is the way that it happens.

Maybe as I speak these words, you think, “It’s not working! When I consider my own life, I just keep failing the tests that the Lord sends my way. I’m such a failure.”

If you feel that way, please remember this remarkable fact: The same man who wrote today’s scripture—the same man who’s talking about how God puts our faith to a fiery test—is the same man who, when he faced the greatest test of his faith, failed it in the most spectacular way. Right? Even though, when Jesus predicted that he would fail it, he said, “Oh, no… Not me. Even if it means my death, I will never deny you.” And then he ends up denying Jesus not once, not twice, but three times.

So maybe you feel like a failure because you’ve failed some tests that came your way. You probably haven’t failed as badly as Peter. And look what Jesus did with him! He didn’t give up on him. He made him into an apostle!

Brothers and sisters, if you’ve failed miserably as a Christian, welcome to the club! Don’t give up. Don’t be discouraged. Part of the reason for testing is to see where your problems are—so that, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, you can be transformed. My point is, if you keep on trusting in Jesus, he can and will redeem even your failures in life, even your sins. Just as he did for person who wrote this letter!

1. Rachel Monroe, “#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement,” The New Yorker, 24 April 2017.

2 Responses to “Sermon 04-23-17: “More Precious Than Gold””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good sermon. I would suggest only one possible caveat about God not giving us more than we can handle. It is true that God is “there” with us no matter what, but I don’t think we can necessarily “handle” everything in the sense of coming out “uncrushed.” I think of those who are Christians who, like me, are bipolar, or have other mental elements, which can get them in circumstances where they even commit suicide as a result. God “has his reasons” for allowing even that, but the person himself has “given up.”

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