May 24, 2020

“A Fiery Ordeal &Where to Cast Your Anxiety”

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

 

Today’s passage from 1 Peter resonates in so many ways with what is going on in our world these days. The letter was a circuit letter, possibly written by the disciple Peter, but more likely a later follower of his, and was written to groups of Christians throughout the Holy land during a particularly rough time to be a follower of Christ near the end of the first century. The lives of the recipients, who once participated in Roman culture and in the Roman government (which was the official religion of Rome), were now being abused and marginalized by Roman society for their conversion to Christianity and turning away from the one true faith of Rome. They were considered apostates. There were rumors of some kind of cannibalistic ritual (communion.)   There was no widespread governmental persecution as of yet, but believers faced plenty of verbal abuse and threats. These are mentioned in verse 14. “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed…” Hence the “Fiery ordeal” they were facing. The writer of the letter’s reference to a fiery ordeal is connected with Chapter 1:7. Here, the writer talks of “ faith more precious than gold, though perishable is tested by fire.”

 

These suffering Christians are reminded they are not alone, and that as they suffer, they are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Suffering is a major theme in 1 Peter. The word is mentioned twelve times in this short letter! This repetition makes it clear that the audience is experiencing difficult circumstances. Yet the writer wants to remind them that they are not alone in their suffering. He writes: “for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering” (1 Peter 5:9).

 

This is a perfect reminder for us, here and now, as we experience a different kind of fiery ordeal which also tests our faith- a global pandemic where hundreds of thousands have died, where we must keep socially distant from each other, where society has been turned upside down - as though something strange was happening - and it is!  This verse reminds us that we are not alone in our sufferings. Christ knows our sufferings. The rest of the world knows our sufferings, and in many cases, experiences them far more than we are in Southern Oregon.  As the world journeys through this pandemic, we can find some solace in knowing that we are united in our suffering.

 

Moving on to the section in chapter 5, these suffering Christians are called to humility. The word in Greek, Tapeinōthēte, Ταπεινώθητε means to have lowliness of mind, to be brought low, modesty. Being humble means not to think of yourself as superior, above, in the mastery of your life. The writer reminds them to rely upon God instead, and that in due time, God will exalt those who suffer.

 

Furthermore, they are to cast their anxiety to God, because God cares for them. How does this section apply to us here and now?

 

I have certainly been humbled by this disease. Perhaps it is human nature which makes us believe we are indeed in control of our own lives, masters of our destiny. If we have some financial stability, a place to call home, watch what we eat and exercise, our future is well in hand, right? COVID-19 has stripped all of those false pretenses away. Death and sickness are all around, reminding us we are not in control, and bringing us to a place of humility- not necessarily a bad thing. Theologian Thomas Wilson wrote, “A fault which humbles someone is of more use to them than a good action which pulls them up.” When we finally get to a place of humility, it is then that we realize the need to rely upon God. Theologian Jennifer T. Kaalund writes, “Humility requires self-awareness. It is not, however, analogous with self-degradation or low self-regard. Humility must be considered in relationship to God. Humility is what enables the believer to come before God and cast their anxieties before God.”

 

This brings us to perhaps the most important verse to consider during this time of a pandemic. “Cast all of your anxiety upon God, because God cares for you.” There is so much that causes anxiety or worry these days.  I am finding myself being anxious about a lot of things. For instance, going to the store causes anxiety for me. We have this awkward social dance we have to do now. First, I strap on my mask, which makes it difficult to breathe, which causes me to feel anxious. Then we have to go the right direction down the store aisle in many stores, have to keep our distance from other shoppers and wait for them to get their item before we move to where they were, have to worry about those walking around with no masks, and have to wait in our socially appropriate check out line to purchase our groceries.  Then we have to TOUCH the ATM machine, which makes me worry about who touched it before me. I went grocery shopping this past Friday and found my anxiety level rising, especially when I had to go to a second store to purchase some rhubarb for my wife, Paula, who was making a strawberry rhubarb pie.  I did most of my initial shopping at Albertsons, but they had no rhubarb. So, full of anxiety from my first shopping experience, I went to Shop’n Kart, danced around some folks who were not wearing masks and not worrying about social distancing, found the rhubarb, and worked my way to one of the many lines which were all very long, all with floor markings on where to stand. Some people were following those markings and some were not, which rose my anxiety further. For 10 minutes, I slowly worked my way forward, clutching my rhubarb, trying not to get too close to the woman in front of me, yet making sure someone else didn’t sneak in from another line to move in front of me. By the time I got to the place in the line where it broke into 2 lines because there were 2 registers at the end of the line, I had been holding on to the 4 stalks of rhubarb for close to 15 minutes. And, just as I was about to move to the one open register, a young man pushed past me, went to the register, and slammed down his 12 ounce can of Yerba Matte. I just about lost it, and said, “Excuse me? (No response) Hey! There’s a line back here…” in a not so pastoral voice. He said it looked like there was no line at THIS register. I then showed him the 2 arrows on the floor where the line split. He then didn’t feel like waiting in line but saw the ire of all of us customers who had been waiting, picked up his yerba Matte, put it back on the shelf, and left. The man behind me seemed pleased I spoke up and chuckled as the young man left.  By the time I finally got into the car and took off my mask, precious rhubarb in hand, I needed to take a few deep breaths. And yes… the pie was absolutely worth it in the endJ.

 

Evil looks for opportunities to divide, fracture, make friction. Anxiety can be used by evil to sow those seeds. The writer likens the evil one to a prowling lion looking for an opportunity. I certainly could have been more gracious to the young man who cut in front of everyone, but my anxiety got the better of me. That is where verse eight comes into play- Discipline yourself. This verse directed at those early followers of Christ was meant to remind them to be Christ-like, to keep alert. We discipline ourselves by reading scripture regularly, worshipping, and praying. Had I began my second shopping experience by casting my anxieties upon God, spending a bit of time breathing and praying before getting out of the car, I would have perhaps been more disciplined in my response to the young man. 19th-century bishop William Bernard Ullathorne wrote, “Beware of anxiety. Next to sin there is nothing that so troubles the mind, strains the heart, distresses the soul, and confuses the judgment.” Especially in such anxious times as these, we need to be constantly in prayer and connection with our Creator.

 

As it says in today’s passage, we need to cast our anxiety upon God. In the times I have fished in my life when I cast my bait, the bait goes far away from me. God wants us to cast our fears, our worries our concerns away from us, and towards God. When I cast my bait, I expect to receive something different when I reel it back in, hopefully a fish. Likewise, when we cast our fears upon God, we can receive something different as well- hope, peace of mind, comfort.

 

Finally, there is good news at the end of today’s passage which can give us some of those things. Verse 10 tells us, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen and establish you.” We will not always be in an anxious pandemic. We will not always be worshipping on line. We will not always be socially distant from one another. At some point there will be a cure. At some point, we will shake hands and hug and be with those we love. God will help restore, support, strengthen, and establish us again. But we will not rush back to worship irresponsibly, putting ourselves and our surrounding community at risk. As the shepherd of this flock, I will not act out of compulsion to bring us back together, but out of sound faith.  At some point, when it is safe when we can live out that promise to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, making sure we do not spread the virus to our flock or the surrounding community, when we can reach out to those in need safely with Christ’s love, we will be back together again.  Until then, hold onto the hope and faith that things will get better.  Trust in God’s promise, so that you may have hope in the midst of this particular fiery ordeal, while faith is being tested. Know you are not alone in your suffering. Cast all of your anxiety upon God. Discipline yourselves in faith, until once again we are restored, through the power and glory of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Amen.

 

 

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