Two weeks ago, when we started this series, we discovered that our situation today, as Christians in Modern Asia, is almost exactly like the situation of Christians in Roman Asia 2000 years ago:
Just like us, they were being actively colonized by powerful cultural, economic, political, and religious forces. Just like us, they were living in a place where instability and rootlessness was becoming the norm. Just like us, they had questions about how they were supposed to deal with this.
Because, just like the empires of our modern world, the Roman empire was broadcasting a very clear message to the whole world of that time: if you submit to our system, then you will have freedom and stability in the warm, living center of civilization. If you resist our system, then you will experience the opposite of freedom and stability: we will force you out to the fringes of society, where you will suffer and eventually die.
And so, just like us, the Christians of Roman Asia were wondering whether to accept the empire’s offer of freedom and stability. Because, just like us, they wanted to live and work and feed their families. They did not see how it would benefit anyone for them to have to live as slaves on the unstable fringes of society!
And Peter basically answered by saying, “But you realize you are already on the fringes of society, right? The moment you were sprinkled with Jesus’ blood you were given a new birth: a whole new citizenship into a new nation that is actually incompatible with your old citizenship in the old nations you came from. But that is okay! Because to find yourself on the fringes of Roman society means finding yourself in the centre of God’s society.”
And that was a nice answer, of course.
But just like us, the Christians of Roman Asia wanted to know what this answer means in real life. We all know we are supposed to want to be in heaven with God — that is the Sunday School answer. But if we are honest with ourselves…we also want to be in the center of our earthly societies. Because, just like the Christians of Roman Asia, we Christians of Modern Asia want to live and work and feed our families. We are worried about the real-world effects of finding ourselves on the fringes of society.
In short: just like the Christians of Roman Asia, we are very interested in a cost/benefit analysis of our new citizenship.
So last week Peter began by outlining the benefits of our new birth into our new nation: first, we are going to live forever in perfected bodies. Second, we are going to inherit a perfected earth. And we saw how that future freedom and future stability actually work backwards to give us freedom and stability today, in this life. Basically, because our destination is fixed and guaranteed, our road to get there is also fixed and guaranteed.
And that is a pretty amazing set of benefits! Who among us, after hearing that, is going to turn down the opportunity to live forever and inherit the earth?
And so, at this point, those of us who are more impulsive say, “That sounds great! Sign me up right now!”
But those among us who are, perhaps, more analytical, say, “…mmmm, yes, that does look like a convincing investment portfolio. But can you show me the fine print?”
And that, friends, is good! In fact, Jesus himself told the people around him to count the cost of discipleship in advance. He made it clear that it is better not to start than to start and not finish.
And Peter, of course, was there with Jesus when Jesus said that. So today he is going to outline the costs of our new birth into a new nation.
He starts in verse 6 by acknowledging just how amazing these benefits are: In all this — in all these benefits — you greatly rejoice!
And then he breaks off to talk about the costs:
Though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
So we have a fixed and guaranteed destination, along with a fixed and guaranteed road to get there. We enjoy freedom and stability in the midst of a world where slavery and instability are the norm —
But for some reason, this freedom and stability does not delete grief from our lives. For some reason, the road to our destination does not deliver us from trials!
Why not? Isn’t that the whole point of freedom and stability?
And so, here, again, we are experiencing a cognitive dissonance, just like we did at the beginning of Peter’s letter.
Peter began his letter by calling us “God’s elect” and “exiles” at the same time. And this was confusing, because being chosen by God is a blessing, being homeless is a curse. Why would God allow his beloved people to suffer that kind of curse?
And now here it is again, the same tension:
If God is such a good Father, why would he allow his beloved children to suffer grief in all kinds of trials?
Last week Peter talked about the great mercy of God, the deep compassion that drove him to deliver the people of Israel from their slavery. They were suffering. Their cries went up to him. And he answered!
So why doesn’t he answer us now? We suffer. Our cries go up to him. But we are not delivered. Where is God’s mercy for us?
— oh. But wait a minute. Let’s slow down and review a bit.
Last week we discovered that Peter is using a lot of words and ideas from way back in Old Testament history, from the time right after the people of Israel were led out of their slavery in Egypt. Clearly, Peter wants us to look at their situation then as a model for our situation today.
So let’s look again at their situation:
They were suffering in their slavery. Their cries went up to God. God answered by leading them out, baptizing them as his own, and promising them hope and a homeland. They had a destination and a road to follow.
Then they started along that road. And they suffered grief in all kinds of trials.
Now: where was God’s mercy for them during those years? It was right there! in the very center of their camp, in the cloud and the flame of God’s presence with his people. Again and again throughout those years their cries went up to him. Again and again throughout those years he delivered them from danger.
But he did not deliver them from suffering. Because, if he had, that would have meant delivering them from the road itself. That would have meant delivering them from their destination.
So as we look back at the history of ancient Israel, we begin to realize that they actually experienced two kinds of suffering. The first kind of suffering was caused by slavery, and that was a hopeless, meaningless kind of suffering. God delivered them from that suffering, once and for all! The second kind of suffering was caused by their journey through the wilderness between the lands — but that was a hopeful, meaningful kind of suffering. And there is no way God, as a loving Father, was going to deliver them from that suffering! Because that is the suffering that ultimately brought them home.
God’s mercy for us is the same mercy he poured out upon the ancient people of Israel. Like them, we once lived in slavery to hopelessness, meaninglessness. Our cries went up to God. He answered by leading us out, baptizing us as his own, and promising us a living hope and an eternal homeland. Now we have a destination and a road to follow.
And now we have started along that road. We are now exiles, travelling through the wilderness between the lands. And exiles quite naturally suffer grief in all kinds of trials. That is part of the definition of being an exile. That is what it means to be a refugee in this world. And the only way to end the suffering of exile…is to finish the journey.
We were asking why, if God is such a good Father, he allows his beloved children to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
And we ask this because the world has taught us to believe that the children of the powerful should suffer less than everyone else. By that logic, then, the children of the All-Powerful God surely should not suffer at all, right?
This is why the fact that God’s children do suffer creates a tension in our minds. It does not make sense to us.
But Peter is unmasking that false perception of reality, and showing us the truth:
It is, in fact, because God is a good Father that he allows his beloved children to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. Our trials are a natural by-product of our freedom from slavery to this world. Our trials are a natural by-produce of our identity as refugees from this world; our trials are a necessary element of our journey through the wilderness between the lands.
If our Father rescued us from the trials of our travels, he would be rescuing us from our own salvation…and that makes no sense at all!
This is what Peter has in mind as he goes on in verse 7: These trials 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.
Basically, Peter is telling us that our trials are an essential element of our faith journey: our trials are part of the program our Father has prepared for us. They are designed to help prove that our faith is true faith.
Trials are a bit like exercises at the gym. Muscles are built by lifting heavier and heavier weights; cardio-vascular endurance is built by running a little further each time; faith is built by travelling through trials.
Or, as Peter points out here, trials are a bit like a metal-worker’s oven. Gold is purified by heat; faith is purified through trials.
And this is an important concept for us to understand clearly.
Because — once again — the world has taught us to believe that when bad things happen to people, this is evidence that their faith has failed.
But once again Peter unmasking that false perceptions of reality, and showing us the truth: that trials are actually evidence that our faith is real, that our faith is being actively strengthened by our Father. He is like a metalworker, a craftsman, intent on purifying us and shaping us all into something beautiful.
Peter is telling us that the reason our Father lets us pass throught these trials is so that our faith will be proven.
But why is it important for our faith to be proven?
Well, because true faith is more valuable even than gold.
Okay. But what makes true faith so valuable?
Well, because it is through our proven faith that we will one day receive praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
See: as God’s children, baptized and transformed by the Holy Spirit, we share in God’s spiritual DNA. Our Father lives forever: we live forever. Our Father owns the whole earth: we own the whole earth. Our Father deserves praise, glory and honor: we deserve praise, glory and honor.
And so, on Judgement Day, when Jesus Christ descends and reveals himself in all his terrible glory, mankind will have no choice but to see and acknowledge the truth about who God is, and the truth about who we are. Jesus’ revelation of himself — Jesus’ apocalypse — will draw every nation on earth to pour out praise, glory and honor upon the Father…it will also draw every nation on earth to pour out praise, glory and honor upon us. Because they will finally see us as we truly are: God’s children.
So, in a way, we could say that our proven faith through trials in this life is sort of like our certified DNA test that we will present to the Judge on Judgement Day. We will be able to point to the history of our life and say, “There, you can see from the way I lived that I belong here: I have been a faithful citizen in God’s kingdom, and I am here now to claim my inheritance.”
And at that point the whole world will have to acknowledge this truth.
But in the meantime, this truth has not yet been revealed. We claim to be the adopted children of the All-Powerful God; we claim that we have been set free from slavery to the empires of the world; we claim that we are pilgrims on the road to a new homeland, one that will never perish, spoil, or fade — but to everyone else we are delusional, arrogant even. To them, our decision to choose exile makes no sense.
And this is why the people of our world work so hard to bring us back. Some are motivated by hatred, because they do not like their perception of reality to be questioned. But many are motivated by love: they believe we are going to hurt ourselves if we persist in following this road into the wilderness between the lands.
And Peter knows that we are in a tough spot. He knows we are being asked to live by faith, our eyes fixed on a reality that the world cannot see. And so he praises us for the faith we already have:  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  for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
The Christians of Roman Asia, 2000 years ago, had not met Jesus during his time on earth. They had only heard about him from men like Peter. And yet, they believed.
It is the same now for us Christians in Modern Asia: we have only heard about Jesus from men like Peter. And yet, we believe. And because we believe, we are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.
When people from other faiths ask us, “Why do you believe?” we often find it hard to answer, because often the answer is inexpressible. How can we describe what it is like to hear to people who were born deaf? How can we describe what freedom feels like to someone who was born into slavery? All we know is that we were blind, but now we see.
And this joy is a kind of firstfruits of our salvation. This joy is evidence that we are already receiving the end result of our faith, the salvation of our souls, even though we have not yet fully arrived at our destination.
So: yes, in our physical bodies we still do suffer grief in all kinds of trials. And to be honest, sometimes those trials result in the death of our physical bodies. But no matter what, our souls are being saved. And this means that, no matter what happens, one day our eternal souls will be reunited with our eternal bodies — on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed, the day we finally receive the praise, glory and honor due to us as children of the All-Powerful Father.
So: we rejoice in these amazing benefits! We have been redeemed from slavery. We have been baptized into a new identity. We have been promised a living hope and a homeland. We have a destination and a road to follow, we have a destiny and a purpose.
But: now it is time for us to count the cost.
Many of us did not fully realize it at the time, but when we chose to leave the false comforts of the nations that gave us birth, we were actively choosing the true discomforts of life on the road: the discomforts of a life in exile.
And to be very honest with you, this was a disappointing discovery!
Many of us, when we first heard about the forgiveness that comes from Jesus, we thought all of our problems were over! Like the ancient people of Israel, we followed our Messiah out through the long terrible night of Judgement…and when the sun rose we found ourselves on the other side of the sea, bruised and limping but free at last! — with the mountains of God shining just there: just across the river. And we thought for sure we were going to cross those waters by sunset.
But then, as the sun rose further, we found our vision of the promised land receding from us into the distance. In the cool of the early morning, the moisture in the air refracted the light and made our destination look like it was close enough to touch. But as the heat of the day began in earnest, we discovered that there is actually a desert between here and there: a wilderness, and a road that will take days and days to travel.
That is when we realized that we are now refugees on the road between the lands. That is when we realized that God’s salvation is not immediate salvation from all suffering, it is immediate salvation from a certain kind of suffering. We thought we were choosing between “suffering” and “not suffering”. But our choice was actually between different kinds of suffering: we can stay back and continue to suffer as slaves to the powers of this world, or we can follow our Messiah forward and suffer as refugees from the powers of this world.
Many of us, when we first chose to follow Jesus, thought that would be the only time we would have to make that choice. We did not realize that we would have to keep on making that choice. We did not realize that every morning we would have to wake up and decide whether to go forward or back. And we definitely did not realize just how attractive our former slavery would become, or how double-minded we could be! In the peace of early morning, with the mountains of God shining over us, of course we choose to go forward! But then the heat increases, we begin to suffer grief in all kinds of trials, and suddenly the slavery we once escaped from begins to look air-conditioned and cool. And sometimes we turn back. We go forward for a while, then we turn around and go back — and sometimes we find ourselves camping in the exact same spot we camped the night before: no further forward and no further back. Still stuck in the middle: exiles and refugees, neither here nor there.
And those are the moments when we cry out in our frustration, don’t we? When we feel like we have been stuck in the same uncomfortable spot, wrestling with the same uncomfortable sins, getting nowhere, that is when we say, “God! What are you doing? Why won’t you deliver me? Where is your mercy for us?”
And the answer, in those moments, is this: God’s mercy is right here, in our midst, in the cloud and the flame of God’s Holy Spirit. In ancient Israel, God lived in a tent in the center of the camp, and the ordinary people could only worship him from a careful distance. But here, today, he lives right here in our midst, within each one of his children.
So what do you think: since he is right here among us, does he hear when we cry out to him, again and again, in our grief and frustration? Yes! Does he deliver us from the dangers of the road, again and again? Yes! Does he deliver us from the suffering of our life on the road to salvation? No! Of course not! But he has promised that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age. On the days we go forward with courage, he is with us! On the days we lose our nerve and turn back…he is with us.
And that is our Good News here: we are God’s children. Our certificate of adoption is a covenant written in Jesus’ blood. Yes, we are often disobedient children. We are often afraid. We often try to turn back and rejoin our former slave nations. But our Father never tires of taking us once more by the hand and turning us around to face the road ahead. We are often faithless. But he is eternally faithful.
And what Peter is telling us today is that this process of going forward, and growing discouraged, and falling back, and crying out to God, and being led forward again: this is the process that refines our faith, preparing us for the great Day when we will finally cross that river into the inheritance that has been promised to us.
Okay. That much is clear.
But, as always, what we really want to know is how all this is supposed to affect our everyday lives.
Last week we were told the future benefits of our citizenship in Jesus’ nation, and we discovered how those future benefits actually work backwards to give us freedom and stability today, in this life. Because our destination is fixed and guaranteed, our road to get there is also fixed and guaranteed, and this certainty fills us with an inexpressible and glorious joy.
Well, this week we have just been told the current costs of our citizenship in Jesus’ nation, and we were told how those current costs actually work forward so that we will receive praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
And that’s great!
But what about today? What are we supposed to think or do when we suffer grief in all kinds of trials today? What difference does all this make in how I face my sufferings today?
And the answer is: this makes all the difference in the world! — because now we know our sufferings are no longer meaningless.
See, I’m going to tell you a secret now. It is actually an open secret, a secret that everyone already knows, but we don’t talk about it very much because, really, we are trying to hide this secret even from ourselves. That’s what makes it a secret.
Here is the secret: everyone suffers.
Oh, yes. It’s true. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Atheists — we all suffer. In fact, suffering is guaranteed.
But we don’t want to admit this. So we all try to hide that truth from ourselves. We all try to pretend that if we can work hard enough, or please the right gods or something, then we will be able to avoid suffering.
But it’s not true. Suffering is guaranteed. And eventually we have to come up with some kind of explanation, some kind of solution. And there are a number of different approaches on offer:
For instance, Hinduism acknowledges that suffering is real, and that it is impossible for you to escape from it in this life. Now: what is the source of your sufferings? Well: you are! You did bad things in a former life, and now you are paying. Your only hope is to try to do good things in this life and maybe in the next life you might suffer less.
Buddhism also acknowledges that suffering is real, but that it is possible to escape from it in this life. How? Well, once you realize that your mind and your nerve endings are the source of your sufferings, all you have to do is learn how to turn off those parts of yourself. Basically, if you stop feeling, then you stop suffering. For you, suffering will become an illusion.
Islam acknowledges that suffering is real, and holds that the trials you experience in this life are God’s judgement upon you for sins you committed in the past. Every sin, every failure, must be accounted for and paid for through your suffering. Only after your payment in suffering is complete will you arrive in a paradise where there is no more suffering.
Atheists also acknowledge that suffering is real…and that’s it. There is no afterlife, so there is no meaning. The best you can do is try not to increase your sufferings through stupidity. Oh, and remember to pass on your genetic code to the next generation! Why? No reason.
And there are a thousand other variations that I cannot mention here — including one that claims to be a Christian approach, where suffering can be avoided if you become a Christian and develop a faith that is strong enough to pray away your problems. But even though these thousand different approaches to suffering are all very different in the details, they all agree on this: suffering is a result of things that happened in the past. There is nothing you can do about that. But, if you can be a better person, you will suffer less in the future. So be a better person!
Now, our Christian bible has a name for that way of thinking: it is called slavery.
Because, friends, look: if it is true that our sufferings are all the result of mistakes that happened in the past, then there is no meaning, no ultimate purpose behind anything that happens. Our sufferings are basically accidental, and there is no way to go back and redeem them. The best we can do is try to be better people going forward…which is exactly what the empires of our world want. They want us all to believe that if we submit to their idea of what a “better person” looks like, then we will suffer less. If we resist, then we will suffer more.
That is slavery, brothers and sisters. And slavery always means suffering for no reason at all.
But what if there was a nation in our world where our sufferings were not merely seen as the accidental by-products of past failures? What if there was a nation in our world that believed our trials could also be the purposeful plan of a loving Heavenly Father, the purposeful by-products of a glorious future echoing backwards into the present and drawing its citizens ever closer to their destination?
Life in a nation like that would be completely different, wouldn’t it? We would still suffer grief, just like everyone else — but our grief would have purpose in a nation like that. Our grief would have an end, and it would one day come to an end.
Well, guess what, friends: there is a nation like that: it is called the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. And our little church here is a mobile outpost of that kingdom. We are a company of pilgrims in the wilderness, travelling to a destination that can scarcely be imagined. We do suffer grief in all kinds of trials, but we suffer knowing that we do not suffer alone: we carry the Holy Spirit with us, in our midst — or, really, we should say that the Holy Spirit carries us.
So, look: if you are here today, and you are not a Christian, then allow me to urge you now to join the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. As you have heard, the benefits are amazing! And the cost of suffering…well, that is a cost that you are paying anyway, under your current system.
I know that your current system is promising that, if you play by their rules, they will reduce your suffering — but I think you already know, in your heart of hearts, that this not true, that in the end you are going to grow old, and sick, and you are going to die never knowing whether all your suffering in this life was worthwhile.
But Jesus is different. He does not lie, he does not make false promises that your suffering in this life will be reduced if you join his kingdom. However, he does promise a change in the kind of suffering you will experience in this life.
Until now, you have had a home in some nation of this world. In exchange for that home, you have been a slave, and you have experienced the meaningless suffering of a slave.
But if you are baptized into Jesus, you will be set free from that slavery. In exchange for that freedom, you will become an exile, a refugee from the nations of this world. But then, from that point on, you will experience the meaningful suffering that comes from being a refugee for the sake of Christ.
So, now that you have heard the truth, now that you know the costs and the benefits, you have a choice to make:
You can stay where you are, and keep your identity as a slave.
Or you can follow Jesus the Messiah, and be born again into a new identity as a child of God.
You can continue to suffer as a slave to the powers of this world.
Or, you can suffer as a refugee from the powers of this world.
But you cannot choose both. You must count the cost, and make a decision.
If you do decide that you want to give up your former citizenship and join the Kingdom of Christ, please let one of us know, and we will tell you how to get started on the paperwork.
Now, if you are here today and you are already a citizen of God’s Kingdom, then this is our application: we need to keep on preaching the truth to one another. We need to keep reminding one another that the suffering of our former slavery is infinitely worse than the sufferings of our current journey.
And the reason we need to keep reminding each other is because we forget. Especially when the sun is high in the sky, and all we can think about is how far away the mountains of God are, and how close behind us the air-conditioned land of Egypt seems to be. Those are the moments of doubt, when we wonder whether all of this is worthwhile. So those are the moments when we need to remind one another most urgently of who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going. Our road is set. Our destination is guaranteed. And this is what our journey is supposed to be like: a series of trials, a series of decisions, a series of set-backs, good decisions and bad decisions — this is the road to salvation. This really is our Father’s plan for making us holy.
In closing, I want to finish with this encouragement:
The Christian life is sometimes frustrating. We have all experienced those times in the cool of the morning when it seemed as if we were standing right there on the banks of the River of Life, with the mountains of the Lord casting their shadows across the lands. Life is sweet in those moments. It is easy to love God during those times, it is easy to make the right decisions.
But we have also experienced times of heat and thirst, when God seemed far away and silent. And the truth is, the heat of the day does last much longer than the beauty of the dawn, especially when we lose our nerve and lose our way and end up right back where we stopped the night before.
So I want to close with this: our journey may be two steps forward and one step back. That can be discouraging. But that also means we are making progress. The mountains often look small on the horizon, they grow so very slowly! but they are growing. And I can testify to you, friends — many among us can testify to you — that after 30+ years of faith, what began as a vision in the cool of the early morning is becoming more and more real to me as I go forward in faithfulness. 20 years ago, it seemed to me that I could only catch fleeting glimpses of God’s country through the heat and dust of the desert. But now I am finding that my vision is clearer than it was, the mountains are closer, and the shade they cast in the early mornings lasts longer than it used to.
So stick to it! You will not be disappointed.
This is the word of the Lord.