Sermon 05-14-2023: “Treasuring Christ Through Adversity”

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-17

Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you know what’s going on with my family, the subject of death weighs heavily on my mind. And I’m sure that it’s providential timing that today’s sermon series on 1 Peter features verses 13 to 17 of 1 Peter chapter 3. And our topic is “Treasuring Christ Through Adversity.” And I want to make three points about it: number one, adversity is part of God’s plan for our lives; number two, God sends adversity our way so that we might glorify him; and, number three, God sends adversity our way so that we might bear witness to others.

There’s a third important reason that God sends adversity: to sanctify us, but I’ll talk about that in a future sermon. These two reasons—God’s glory and our witness—are two reasons that Peter highlights.

But Point Number One, adversity is part of God’s plan for our lives.

There’s singer-songwriter many of you are familiar with named Jackson Browne. He wrote hit songs like “Doctor My Eyes,” “Running on Empty,” “The Pretender,” “Somebody’s Baby”… He even co-wrote the Eagles’ first hit, “Take It Easy.” 

One of his best songs, however, comes from 1974. It’s about the tragic death of a friend. It’s called “For a Dancer.” A sad and beautiful song… and truthful in its own way… because it perfectly captures the bleakness and uncertainty and meaninglessness of death… At least apart from the victory over death that Christ won for those who believe in him… The song expresses not a hope for eternal life—because on what basis would one have hope apart from Christ?—but a wish for it… “I wish for it to be true, and maybe it is… maybe there is something more to life than this world… There ought to be… But who knows for sure?”

In the song, Browne compares life in this world to dancing, and—in my favorite line—he sings, “In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone.”

That’s almost completely true. Literally no one else can die your death for you. When that time comes, you will make that transition with no other human being by your side. That’s potentially very frightening. Which is one point that Jackson Browne makes in the song.

Years ago, my daughter had a friend named Maggie who died at age 21, after a long battle against cancer. Her parents kept one of those CaringBridge blogs—to update and inform others about their daughter’s illness. Just a few days before she died, as she lay unconscious in hospice care, her parents wrote, “We’re walking her home as far as we’re allowed.” 

That’s a heartbreaking image! Whoo… Especially for parents watching their child die… But it’s true: when you’re on the threshold of that doorway marked “death,” only one person may pass through at a time…

“There is one dance,” Jackson Browne sings, “that you’ll do alone.” 

But the song is wrong about one thing: you’re not alone when you die. You certainly don’t have to be!

My mother-in-law, Anna Lee Blancato, was not alone last Thursday morning when she died. 

The last time I saw Anna Lee alive was last Sunday night. I met the “weekend” caregiver who was taking care of her on Sunday. She immediately ingratiated herself to me by saying, “I watch your sermons every week! I love them”… because she’s always at my in-laws house on weekends. But last Sunday night she told me, with a big smile, that Anna Lee had been talking a lot to Jesus, saying, “Yes, Jesus. Yes, Jesus. I’m ready.”

And so Anna Lee was ready. I’m sure I haven’t known anyone who was more ready to meet Jesus face to face. And Anna Lee was not alone when she died; our Lord was with her every moment of this transition—which for Christians is not a transition from life to death so much as from life to an even greater kind of life. 1 So she was ready.

Are we ready? I feel convicted by God right now to do everything in my power, by God’s grace, to get us ready. There’s no higher priority. Life, even life at its longest and fullest in this world, is the tiniest blip of time in light of eternity!

So there is no more important question than this one: “Are we ready to die and meet Jesus face to face?” And as preachers like me know too well, we can only “walk our loved ones home as far as we’re allowed.” And then we can go no further. It’s one person at a time. 

So a loved one’s death is a timely opportunity for all of us to remind ourselves of this “dance” that we all—each one of us—must some day do by ourselves—leaning every step of the way, I hope, on our our Lord Jesus, who is with us… and who wills it for us: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” We have an appointment with death that comes from God.

And our “appointment” with death is only perhaps the most extreme example of this truth: Our Lord Jesus wants us to go through whatever difficult trial, whatever adversity, whatever suffering,we are experiencing now, or we will experience in the future.

Adversity is not a disruption of God’s plan for us; it is an integral part of his plan for us!

Did you hear that? Even when we’re suffering, we are suffering because our Lord Jesus wants us to.

I understand that there are some Christians, not least of which some pastors, who reject this idea. I guess I did, too, at one time, years ago… But it simply makes no sense of the biblical data. It makes no sense of today’s scripture!

Peter is writing, after all, to churches that are filled with Christians who are suffering. Being a Christian in that time and place may cost them their social standing, their good name, their reputation; it may cost them their friends and family; it may cost them their jobs, their livelihoods, their future financial prospects. They may suffer beatings. They may go to prison. Indeed, they may even have to sacrifice their lives because of their faith.

And listen to what Peter says, in verse 17: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Notice those words: if that should be God’s will.

Many years ago, there was a series of memes on social media called “First World Problems.” They were very funny: They show a young woman who’s crying and clearly in pain—and then she complains about something, which indicates how privileged she is: “I just dropped my MacBook… on my other MacBook.” These memes make light of the things that we who live in the so-called “first world” worry about! We often have trivial problems, not real problems, these memes tell us—especially compared to the majority of the world who struggle with much, much less material wealth. These memes make us feel guilty about our particular suffering!

Well… I disagree with the premise of these memes, which, first of all, wrongly implies that money somehow solves our deepest problems. The Bible, and our personal experience, tell us that this is certainly not the case. In fact, the Bible warns repeatedly that wealth itself is potentially a spiritually deadly snare, which creates its own anxieties and stress. Proverbs 30:8-9: “Give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” 

Who cares if you’re relatively comfortable for 75 or 80 years in this world if you die without knowing Jesus as your Savior? Wealth can easily and often become a rival god that we worship instead of the one true God. 

We all know that… But I disagree with these “first world problem” memes for an even deeper reason: Even if we live lives of relative comfort and ease, we all know our share of great suffering. Money and privileges and possessions and relative good health don’t insulate us from that! And some of our most intense suffering, of course, happens when loved ones die—or possibly even when we face our own deaths.

God is going to put every single one of us to the test in the most intense way imaginable when we face our deaths—but he also puts us to the test in a million other ways before that! And these tests will often cause suffering. God is ultimately responsible for that!

But if you’re still not convinced that even our suffering is according to God’s will, consider the following thought experiment. We know from many scriptures that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray boldly for what we think we need. And he tells us emphatically that God answers our prayers. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:11… That’s just one promise.

So if we are praying for the safety, or deliverance, or healing of a loved one—and God doesn’t protect or deliver or heal them, the way we want God to do, what are we supposed to conclude? I see three options: Option One, contrary to what Jesus and the rest of scripture teaches, God doesn’t hear our prayers… or even if he does hear them, he doesn’t really have the power to give us what we pray for. 

That makes no sense, of course. One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 59:1: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear.” One thing this verse assures us of is that God hears all of our prayers. And… that he has all the power—including the power to literally move heaven and earth, if necessary—to give us what we pray for… if he wants to…

So Option One can’t be true…

Option Two: God does hear us when we pray, and he does have the power to help us, but whether he will or not is completely arbitrary. It’s like a roll of the dice. We may get lucky, or we may not! 

Well, that’s ridiculous. Scripture says that in “all things”—not in some things, but in all things—“God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” 2 Romans 8:28. Everything that happens to us who are God’s children through faith in Christ happens to us for our ultimate good. Nothing happens to us apart from God’s will—and what God wills for us is always ultimately good for us… what God wills for us is always ultimately in our best interest.

So Option Two can’t be true

Which means Option Three must be true: When we pray, and God doesn’t give us what we pray for, we must conclude that God heard our prayer request, and he considered our prayer request—knowing full well everything that was going to happen in our future, in the world’s future… knowing full well everything that was happening and would happen in the lives of every other human being alive right now and alive in the future… He considered our prayer request alongside the prayer requests of literally every other child of God praying in the world… and having considered our prayer request, he knew that what we were praying for would be less than the best for us… or for people we love… or for our world. Only God knows all the consequences of every single answered prayer request. Therefore, ultimately God didn’t give us what we pray for, not because he’s powerless, not because he’s capricious, but because he knew that he had something better for us and for our loved ones and for our world than that thing that we were praying for… God knows that, and God knows best. So we trust him!

And that’s true even when we die… or even when a loved one dies… We trust that God’s sovereign plan is better than our own.

Psalm 139:16, David writes, “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Every day of our lives is written in God’s book. God plans every moment of our lives in advance!

We thought God’s plan for Anna Lee last summer was that she was going to die in a matter of days. The hospice nurse told us last summer that she appeared to be dying, so we needed to get ready. And we did. But Anna Lee rebounded, and continued to live. Of course she suffered from hallucinations and dementia to some extent—she has been in and out of lucidity for the past year or so. But Lisa, my wife, a woman of profound faith, wondered aloud last summer why God didn’t take Anna Lee home back then. She asked, “I wonder what God is up to?” She prayed about it. And Lisa told me months ago that God was probably using this extended period for his glory and as a witness to others. Lisa said, “Who knows who might get to see and experience Jesus in Mom between now and when she dies.”

I mean, even that wonderful caregiver I mentioned from last Sunday night, she experienced experienced a little bit of Jesus through Anna Lee. She saw that Anna Lee loved Jesus; she saw that Anna Lee was in a relationship with Jesus. I’m sure others have as well. Or who knows… maybe someone will be able to attend Anna Lee’s funeral this week who wouldn’t have been able to attend last year; they’ll hear the gospel, they’ll hear about God’s love for them, what God has done for them in Christ, and they’ll turn their lives around… and even be saved? Who knows?

Well, God knows… And there may be a thousand-and-one different reasons our Lord Jesus didn’t take Anna Lee home to be with him in heaven last summer.

And this bring us to Point Number Two… Peter highlights two reasons from today’s scripture for the adversity and suffering we endure… The first is, God sends us adversity for his glory.

Let’s look at verses 14 and 15:

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect

In your hearts honor Christ as holy. One pastor I admire made the point that “honoring Christ as holy” includes the exact same Greek word—hagiazó—that gets translated as “hallow” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” 3 I’ve said before, as recently as this past Wednesday in Bible study, that one thing Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is that the “hallowing of God’s name” is the ultimate point of praying. Everything that we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer—which, remember, Jesus gave us as a model to guide all of our prayers… but everything that we ask God to do in that prayer is for one overarching purpose: for God’s name to be hallowed… Which means to be glorified… to be set apart as the greatest thing imaginable… to be made to look better than anything else in Creation… 

Or to put it in language that we at Toccoa First should especially understand, since it’s in our church’s vision statement: to hallow God’s name means nothing other than this: that God would be treasured above all. And our vision statement, remember, is that we “treasure Christ above all and help others do the same”—and since Christ is God, we of course treasure God, which means that we hallow or glorify or set apart as our greatest treasure all that is God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the ultimate reason God put us on earth: to make God look great, to show the world his greatness, to glorify him, to treasure him! John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, used to teach his confirmands the Westminster Shorter Catechism, or at least a slightly revised version of it, which includes this question: “What is the chief end of man?” In other words, why did God put us human beings on earth? And the answer? “To glorify God”—that is, to “treasure God above all”—and “to enjoy him forever.”

That is good summary of what the Bible says is the very meaning of life: God loves when we give him glory; God enjoys when we treasure him; in fact, as Peter says in verse 14, we are blessed when we treasure him.

And this is especially true, Peter says, when we treasure Christ in the midst of trials, and trouble, and tribulation. Our Lord loves, in other words,when we treasure him through adversity.

Even if no one is around to see or to notice or to appreciate the ways in which we treasure Christ. God sees… God notices… God appreciates… And so do his angels who are watching us… And that itself is glorious!

Even in the throes of the worst harm that Parkinson’s Disease could do to Anna Lee, my mother-in-law, she continued to do precisely what what Peter says we’re supposed to do in verse 15—“in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” For example, Anna Lee spent her career working in churches as a children’s minister… She did this for decades… That’s how Lisa and I met, in fact… when the Briarcliff Baptist Church in northeast Atlanta hired Anna Lee in 1988 to be our church’s children’s minister. 

But Anna Lee spent her life and ministry teaching children about the love of Jesus, about his gospel, about what God did through his life, death, and resurrection to save us. That was her life’s work. One small legacy of Anna Lee’s life’s work is that her daughter, Lisa, is outstanding at working with children and doing children’s sermons—as so many of you have now noticed. 

But even in the last couple of years, as Anna Lee began experiencing hallucinations—which are a normal if disconcerting part of late-stage Parkinson’s—she continued to fulfill verse 15, she continued to “honor Christ as holy” in her heart, to glorify him, to make him look great, to set him apart as her greatest treasure… Because in one recurring hallucination, you could watch and listen to her teaching children about Jesus. They were there, as far as she was concerned. She was teaching them, answering their questions, correcting them, and loving them with the love of Jesus Christ, which she spent her life doing so beautifully!

That’s the kind of person she is right now… even more so now, of course… But it’s the kind of person that she was when she lived in this world… It’s the kind of person she continued to be even when she faced her own death.

Her example inspires me… but it also challenges me. 

Because I think, “What kind of person will I be when I’m facing my own death?”… How or to what extent will I glorify Christ when I’m facing my own death? How will God, and his angels, and other people see the way I face my own death? Will they be able to see that I—even I, sinner that I am, saved by grace alone—even I “treasure Christ above all”?

Dear Lord, I hope so!

I am haunted by the memory of a grumpy man I knew in Alpharetta, when I was an associate pastor at Alpharetta First. I visited him in intensive care one time. This man was 86 years old. He had some health crisis that brought him first to the E.R. and then the I.C.U. But when I saw him he was in the I.C.U. with all these tubes and wires and pumps and electronic instruments connected to him. But he was alert, and he could talk. And he was angry. And I promise the first words out of his mouth were these: “Well, I don’t know why this is happening to me! I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

And I didn’t say this out loud to him, but I’m thinking, “Dude, you’re 86 years old! And up to this point in your life, you’ve enjoyed good health and an active lifestyle. You’ve had a pretty good run! And even if you end up dying here, you’ll be in Paradise with Jesus—not because of you and anything you’ve done, not even because of the strength of your faith, which obviously isn’t strong; but because of Jesus and what he’s done to rescue you from your sins. So even if you die, you’ll soon be in Paradise with the Lord. That’s not the worst thing, is it? That’s not a bad trade-off, is it? Why are you angry about it?”

But I knew why he was complaining! Because I was a lot like him… It was like in that Charles Dickens story, I was being visited by the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.” I was seeing my future! That was me… unless I changed course!

I got back to my car and prayed, “Dear Lord, please don’t make me like him. I mean, I am like him too much of the time. But I’m only 40 years old! Please change me. Don’t let me die like that. Don’t let me be ungrateful like that! Don’t let me be on my deathbed—unhappy and ungrateful and angry and bitter and grumpy because I’m not getting more life in this world, especially since I was never entitled to a single moment in the first place! Don’t let me be angry on my deathbed, Lord, when, after all, in only a matter of moments, or hours, or days, or weeks, I’m going to be in eternity… in the direct presence of you, enveloped in your love in a way that I can scarcely imagine now, enjoying the kind of abundant, eternal life that I can scarcely imagine now!

“O Lord, how can I complain? How can I be angry or bitter or sad?

“Dear Lord, let me be a man who treasures Christ above all, even on his deathbed, and, God willing, let me be a man whom people notice ‘treasuring Christ above all,’ even on my deathbed!”

And this brings us to Point Number Three, the other reason from today’s scripture that God allows us to suffer and face adversity… Remember: the first is so that we will treasure Christ above all. The second is so that people will see us treasuring Christ above all. In other words, God sends us adversity so that we can be witnesses.

See verse 15 again: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”

What I want us to remember, again, is that Peter is talking to a group of Christians who are undergoing persecution and suffering and even possibly martyrdom. While I’m sure that these Christians were also going out and initiating conversations with their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers about the gospel of Jesus Christ… while I’m sure that they were inviting them to church… while I’m sure that they were also telling them about Jesus and how they, too, can be saved… that isn’t even what’s going on right now. Notice Peter says, “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asksyou for a reason for the hope that is in you.” 

In other words, other people notice the difference that Christ has made within us… and the difference is so obvious that they actually come to us… and ask us. “Why are you like this? Here you are—in this case, suffering—and you ought to be deeply unhappy and miserable and angry and upset… but you’re not. How is that possible? I wish I could be more like you. What do you have that I don’t?”

They notice the difference that Christ makes and they ask us about it!

Enemies of the apostle Peter noticed the difference that Christ made in his life…

In Acts chapter 4, Peter and John were under arrest by local authorities for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, even though it was incredibly dangerous to do so. Listen to chapter 4, verse 13:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

“They recognized that they had been with Jesus.” 

That hospice caregiver last Sunday recognized that in Anna Lee: “She has been with Jesus.” 

Dear Lord, do whatever you need to do—even when that means suffering—in order that others can recognize that we have been with Jesus… that others can see the difference Jesus makes, and want what we have… that others might “treasure Christ above all,” just as we do. Amen.

  1.  2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:21, 23
  2.  Romans 8:28
  3.  Matthew 6:9 KJV

2 thoughts on “Sermon 05-14-2023: “Treasuring Christ Through Adversity””

  1. two thoughts: 1) this sermon hit me just where I am. My MIL is very ill and we brought her home to hospice care. She’ll die here but in familiar surroundings with friends and family if they can. I love the line “as far as we’re allowed.”

    2) have you run (or hiked) Curahee? you’ve been asked this before I am sure. But there’s a movement to make that site a memorial to “the greatest generation.”

    3) Pray with me that I’ll be moved to a place that I treasure Christ above all else.

    4) I have an illness that is taking away my capacities, of which I was so proud, which I thought were necessary to life (my life anyway). But they are eroding slowly.

    That’s my two thoughts.

    1. Hello, bobbob! Lifting you in prayer now, dear friend. I have not hiked up Currahee. I’ve driven up there once. I pass by all the time. The military museum here pays honor to the paratroopers and the “band of brothers,” etc. I was unaware of that history until I got here. Sounds like your MIL is (or was) in the right place.

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