In today’s scripture, the apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass…” We Christians are often distracted by things in our lives that don’t last. Yet Peter is calling us to build our lives on a foundation that which lasts for eternity: the gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s Word. How do we do this? That’s what this sermon is about.
Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:22-2:3
One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Parks & Recreation, which features a character named Ron Swanson. In one episode, Ron gets taken to court. A couple of his friends who are called to testify on his behalf lie under oath—in order to protect their friend. Ron says, “Tom and April were excellent witnesses in my defense. Unfortunately every single word out of their mouths was a lie. There is only one thing I hate more than lying—skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.”
When did we all switch to skim milk? For my family, it was back in the early-’80s, when I was a kid. And I distinctly remember how, when I poured it over my Rice Krispies, it looked blue. Do you know what I’m talking about. I did not want to drink blue milk. Well, eventually I got used to it; and I bet many of you did, too. We got used to it because skim milk was supposed to be good for us.
Well, I read an article not long ago that said that we were sold a bill of goods. That long-term studies show that whole milk—milk that stays white when you pour it over cereal—might actually be better for you than skim milk, and help you lose weight more effectively than skim milk. For one thing, the article said, it helps you feel full, so you eat less.
I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m not recommending that you make the switch without consulting with your doctor, but that was just the excuse that I needed. So I switched back to whole milk. And I’m much happier. And my cat, too. He’s always at my feet at the breakfast table when I eat cereal. Because he loves whole milk and expects me to put the bowl on the floor when I finish up.
So, accept no substitutes: I don’t want water that’s lying about being milk; I won’t settle for watered-down milk; I want milk. Pure whole milk.
And in today’s scripture, Peter makes a similar point: Accept no substitutes, he says. “Long for,” or crave, “pure spiritual milk.” Don’t settle for anything less than that.
What is he talking about? Why would we need to crave “pure spiritual milk”? Because, he says in verse 23, we have been “born again.” There’s a sense in which we are like babies. And what do babies crave—pure milk.
Back in the 1970s, an advisor to President Nixon who ended up serving time in prison, Chuck Colson, wrote a best-selling book called Born Again. And it became popular to speak of being a “born again” Christian. We don’t hear that language as much these days, and I’m not sure why. But I hope it’s because we understand that to say, “Born again Christian” is redundant. If we are a Christian at all, we are all born again. It’s not a certain class or party or denomination of Christians; being born again is not optional. There’s no other kind of Christian.
To be born again means that God has worked a miracle in your heart. You are not the same person, spiritually speaking, that you were before you became a Christian. By virtue of this new birth, Peter says in verse 22, you are now able to love in a new kind of way—with “sincere brotherly love.” If we are Christians, we have a new power, a new capacity, to love, which we didn’t possess before. [In last Wednesday night’s Bible study in Galatians…]
And this power comes from God when we’re born again. And this new birth happens, Peter says, through “the living and abiding word of God,” by which Peter means the word of the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ that we proclaim.
Then Peter quotes from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass/ and all its glory like the flower of grass./ The grass withers, and the flower falls,/ but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
When Isaiah first wrote these words in the sixth century B.C., he was writing to Jews who were living in exile in Babylon—far from their homeland of Israel. The culture was hostile to their faith; it was difficult and dangerous to be one of God’s people during that time; they faced persecution, even death, for their faith: you can read the Book of Daniel or the Book of Esther to get a sense of this. It was tempting, I’m sure, for God’s people to assimilate, to become just like everyone else in the surrounding culture. It was tempting to give up on God. Where was God in the midst of their pend and suffering?
And if you recall what I said during the first couple of weeks of this series, you can see how the Christians to whom Peter is writing are facing a similar situation. Like the Jews living in Babylon, Peter calls these Christians, in verse 1, exiles. The world in which they lived was not their ultimate home. So they shouldn’t feel quite at home. Like the Jews in Babylon, these Christians were facing persecution for their faith. And like the Jews living in exile, these Christians were surrounded by the greatest civilization the world had seen up to that point—in terms of art and culture; and the most powerful military might the world had ever seen. The Roman empire must have seemed invincible to these Christians. But Peter is reminding them that, no, the most powerful people in the world are nothing but grass. Yes, they possess great worldly glory, but it won’t last.
The only thing that does last, Peter says, is the word of the Lord—the very word that gave them new birth, the very word that made them part of God’s people, the very word that is currently saving them, the very word that is preparing them for their eternal home in heaven.
How does this speak to our situation today? Thanks to our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, the rule of law by which we’re governed, we have religious freedom; we are not, for the most part, being persecuted. It’s still socially acceptable to be Christian. In fact, it’s advantageous for politicians of all parties to profess to be Christian—whether they ever go to church or not. When you run for president, suddenly you start talking about how religious you are because, well… the vast majority of Americans identify as Christian. It’s unlikely that a non-Christian will be elected president any time soon.
All that to say, how does today’s scripture speak to us in our situation? Does it speak to us?
A Baptist pastor named John Piper, who pastored a large church in Minneapolis for decades before he retired recently, is one of the most gifted and influential preachers of his generation. In fact, he has inspired a younger generation of Christians through his work with the Passion Conferences, which have been held in Atlanta. At one of these conferences, before an audience of thousands of college-aged Christians, he shared the story of a couple of older Christian women in his church—both around 80 years of age—who were serving as medical missionaries in Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa. A few weeks before he gave this talk, these two women died. They were on a bus, on a steep mountain road. The brakes gave out. They went over a cliff. Killed instantly.
I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.
No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.
I tell you what a tragedy is. [And Piper pulled out an article he clipped from Reader’s Digest, which he acknowledged that none of the young people in his audience ever read. He said:] I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”
That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing. And look at my boat!”
Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.
I believe the apostle Peter is also telling us this morning: “Don’t buy that dream.” Don’t buy any dream based on a glory that will wither like grass or fall like a flower. Don’t buy any dream that isn’t rooted in the word of the Lord. Everything outside of God’s Word and the things of God and his kingdom are passing away! They don’t last! Why would you want them? Why would you devote your life to them? Why would you settle for that when God wants so much more for you?
You say, “Look, I’m a nobody. I’m just a normal, everyday Christian. I’m not cut out for devoting my life to God the way those two 80-year-old missionaries were—the way John Piper is. I’m not ‘on fire’ for Jesus like that. I’m glad other people are—God bless ’em—but that’s not me. I’m just a Methodist.”
Are you kidding me?
Peter says earlier in this letter that God foreknew you—for all eternity God knew you, and loved you, and wanted to save you and make you his beloved child, so that you could be with him forever. God paid an infinite price—the precious blood of his Son Jesus—to ensure that you would be saved. And God has an inheritance waiting in heaven for you, and God is protecting you right now so that on day you’ll receive it.
Why do you think God did all this for you? So you could pursue a high-paying career like everybody else? So you could have a bigger house? So you could buy a bigger TV with more channels to watch sports on the weekend? So you could flit away your free time on hobbies, or shopping, or working out? So you could put your kids through college, so that they too can devote themselves like you, to achieving the American Dream? So you could retire comfortably and live a carefree life devoted to your personal pleasure?
What do you want out of life? What is your passion? For whose glory are you working? Are you “seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness”?
And I say this as the biggest hypocrite myself. Because there was a significant part of me that went into ministry not for God’s glory but for my own. I see that in retrospect. I wouldn’t have seen it that way at the time. I used to pray that Wesleyan Covenant Prayer…
“Put me to what you will…” So long as what you “put me to” makes me look good!
“Rank me with whom you will…” As long as I come out on top! As long as I’m made bishop by age 45.
“Put me to suffering…” Suffering? What are you talking about?
The prayer goes on: “Let me be laid aside for you…” “Let me be brought low for you…” “Let me be empty…” I used to pray this prayer with my congregation, and I was the biggest liar. Because I didn’t want any of that stuff!
You know who did want that stuff? Those two 80-year-old missionaries on that mountain road in Cameroon, on a bus whose brakes failed and sent them over a cliff to their deaths! That’s what “being laid aside” for God looks like. That’s what “being made empty” for God looks like. That’s what “being brought low” for God looks like.
A small price to pay… a small price for God’s glory. And if we ever meet these two saints in heaven some day, and we ask them, “Was it worth it?” What do you think they would say? They would say, “Absolutely! We were glad to do it. Glad to lay down our lives for Jesus in this way.”
I need to get to the part of scripture that I began with: this “pure spiritual milk.” In Greek, it literally means the “pure milk of the word.” In fact, that’s how the King James translates it. It’s clear what Peter is referring to when he refers to “pure spiritual milk”: he’s referring mostly to God’s holy Word—and how, if we’re going to sustain our lives as Christians, we need to crave God’s Word. Just like a baby craves his or her mother’s milk. We need to treat it like we can’t live without it!
Tim Keller wrote a book on prayer a few years ago, and he shared personal story about the time he was diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment. He was getting chemo or radiation or some treatment for cancer. It was a difficult time in his life, as you can imagine. And he realized that he had lived most of his Christian life not being as faithful in prayer as he ought to be. And he and his wife, Kathy, were talking about this. And Kathy, who he would say is wiser than he is, said, “Tim, if prayer were as important to you as the treatment you’re receiving and the medicine you’re taking to send your cancer into remission—and you believed that you would literally die if you didn’t do it—then of course you would pray much more than you do! Of course you would make it a vital part of your life. Of course this is something that you would not overlook. You would make it the kind of priority that it ought to be.
And I believe in today’s scripture Peter is telling us something similar about God’s Word: It is how we live as Christians! Our lives need to be based on the foundation of God’s Word. We need to “taste that the Lord is good.” And the main way that God has given us to do that is through the Bible! It’s not the only way. I don’t think Peter is saying that this “spiritual milk” is just the Bible. But we have an advantage over the original readers of 1 Peter—they didn’t have a complete New Testament or in many cases the Old Testament. By contrast, we have the whole treasury of God’s Word at our fingertips every day! Are we treating it like it’s life-saving medicine—like it’s what we need for our very survival?
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how I would like to be “on fire” for the Lord. How at some point in my life I lost my “first love,” as Revelation 2 talks about. And it’s true. I became a Christian when I was 14. And the Lord really got a hold of me: I responded to an altar call; I prayed a prayer of repentance and confession—asking Jesus into my heart. And I experienced the Holy Spirit, I am sure. It was real to me. I was excited. I got baptized. I told friends and acquaintances at school what happened to me. I wanted everyone to know about Christ. I was on fire! I had a zeal for the Lord.
And some time around then I got an NIV Study Bible. It’s a wonderful resource for understanding what God’s Word is saying. It’s been updated since then, and there are plenty of study Bibles out there, but I think this was the first of its kind. Anyway, I loved it. I devoured it. So much so that within a couple of years, I had literally worn it out. Literally, the cover had fallen off, pages were crumpled and torn; it was all marked up.
So just before I went off to college, I replaced it with a new copy—a nicer copy. Leather-bound. Had my name engraved on the cover. I took it with me when I went off to college at Georgia Tech. And, well… I never needed to buy a replacement. Because I got busy with other things; distracted by school, by the pressure to fit in, by the pressure to succeed in a worldly sort of way, by the pressure to find a good job… to be a successful husband and father. Before long, I realized I wasn’t feeding on the “pure spiritual milk” anymore. And this lasted for years. Even after I went into ministry. I’m not proud of this; this is just reality.
Seven or eight years ago, the Lord got a hold of me again. At a low point, he showed that I was not taking his Word seriously. And, thank God, he gave me the grace to change.
So I can tell you from experience that when we devote ourselves to God’s Word, we can taste that the Lord is good, and we will want more and more and more of the kind of sustenance that the Lord provides us through his Word. I want you to be just like that!
In fact, I brought this with me this morning: this is my ESV Study Bible. It’s about the same size as my old NIV. And I’m proud and pleased to tell you that it’s looking a bit worse for wear these days. And I’ve never been happier as a person, with a kind of joy that Peter says is possible for us—a joy that doesn’t depend on whatever circumstances we’re going through. And I credit that to the “pure spiritual milk” I’ve been feeding on.
So my prayer for you this morning is that you’ll wear out a Bible like this one. Let’s wear one out together. O.K.? Let us pray…
1. John Piper, “Don’t Waste Your Life,” desiringgod.org, 19 May 2017. Accessed 20 May 2017.