What Keeps Us Going (1 Peter 1:1-12)

When faced with hard truths, it is sometimes tempting to ignore reality, even when reality is obvious.

Take these two churches as examples:

Cartoon of usher talking to new couple at almost empty church: "Welcome to Second Street Church. We're more concerned with quality than quantity."

Cartoon of pastor preaching to a sparse congregation: "Let us know consider the problems of urban growth and subsequent overcrowding."

Someone has said that the first task of leadership is to define reality. We need to define some realities, rather than deny them. Here are some realities that we are facing here in Toronto:

  • Church attendance is down. In 1946, 67% of people regularly attended a place of worship. Today, that number is 20%. There used to be a day that if you saw someone driving on a Sunday morning, they were driving to church. Example: recent radio commercial for a weight-loss meeting for men: "Are you doing something more important on Sunday morning?"
  • Christianity's market share and influence is way down. A large number of people still believe in God (around 85%). But most people think you don't have to go to church to be a good Christian. In fact, half of those who attend church regularly think you don't have to go to church to be a good Christian. As late as in the 1960s, Eatons pulled the curtains on their window displays so that people wouldn't covet worldly goods on the Sabbath. Today, the church has been marginalized as only one interest group within society.
  • We live in a very spiritual society, but one that has very little time for institutional or organized religion. There is huge spiritual hunger, but people distrust institutions, and don't look to the church to meet that spiritual hunger.

We can't deny these realities. So the question is: What keeps us going given these realities? What gives us hope, keeps us faithful, and propels us to mission in the face of these realities? We only face three options: to deny reality, give up hope, or to find a source of hope despite these realities.

We are not the first to encounter realities like this. I want to take you back to a group who faced a very similar situation to the one that we face:

  • They were drastically outnumbered; their influence in society was minimal.
  • If they embraced Christianity, it would not enhance their popularity. It was not a life-enhancing move. They would be swimming upstream rather than going with the current, and it would cost.
  • Things were going to get worse. The trend lines were down, and their place in society was going to get worse before it got better.

This group was aware of reality, and they did not deny it. Yet somehow this group stayed at it, and they had hope in the middle of these realities. What kept them going?

To find out, let's turn to 1 Peter.

It's tempting to see this as a book that was written long ago and far away to people who have long been dead. Today I'd like to picture this as a letter to real people who were facing a situation that is in many ways like the one that we face.

What kept them going in the face of tough realities? Here's what we're going to find: A solid grasp on the Gospel keeps you going.

I know what some of us are thinking. That's a preacher's answer. Grasping the Gospel is nice, but it's not really what I need to keep going. It's theoretical, nice head knowledge, but it's not really going to help.

The passage we're going to look at says: grasping the Gospel is anything but theoretical and impractical. There really is nothing more practical and hopeful and important for a church facing tough reality than to have a solid grasp on the Gospel.

Let's see what they understood:

  • Recipients of the triune God's saving activity (1:1-2) - The eternal God is at work in your life; we are recipients of His saving acts.
  • People who have experienced a new beginning (1:3) - a fresh start; "a brand new life;" it's a free act of God, not anything that we have accomplished
  • Recipients of an inheritance (1:4) - inheritance is not a family inheritance of land in Canaan, but inheritance in the eternal city of God
  • Guarded by God (1:5) - Picture: a military camp, with evil forces assaulting; but on the perimeter is the overwhelming force of the power of God. God protects us from escaping the Kingdom, and he also protects us from external attacks.
  • Possessors of the culmination of what God is doing in the world (1:10-12) - prophets, angels are amazed by our salvation. We are the ones who get to experience salvation after millennia of expectation. Our privilege is living in the AD rather than the BC era. It's so great that even the angels are looking down to gain a view. Neither the prophets nor angels experience what we assume and enjoy. We are insiders; prophets and angels are outsiders looking in.

This grasp of the Gospel was so practical that they were able to overcome some very real obstacles - not just overcome, but thrive:

  • Trials (1:6-7)
  • Not having seen Jesus (1-8-9)

A solid grasp on the Gospel gives us hope when everything else lets us down.

Occasionally you get reminded that everything and everyone else will let you down, no matter how good they are. I have an amazing wife, and yet I have had to learn that my wife is not God and will let me down. I have an amazing family, and yet I have learned that they are human and are fallible. There are great people in the church, and yet I have found that even the ones I thought I could bet my life on won't always be there. The reality is that if we pin our hope on anything or anyone other than God or the Gospel, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Yet if we pin our hope on God and the Gospel, we will be able to overcome any obstacle or disappointment.

This is not only Biblical, but churches today that are making a difference in tough places are finding this to be true. Tim Keller, who pastors a missional church in New York City - a place where there are plenty of tough realities - recently listed six ways that the church can affect culture for Jesus. Listen to them, especially the first two:

We need more Christians (1) living long-term in the cities, (2) with a deeper grasp of the gospel, (3) who are creating dynamic counter-cultures inside the city, (4) integrating faith with work, (5) pouring themselves out sacrificially for the common good of the whole city, and (6) contextualizing.

What keeps us going when all the indicators are down? That we have a solid grasp on the Gospel.

There is nothing more important as we prepare to transform our community than we get our grasp on the Gospel, and do it in such a way that the obstacles and realities become almost insignificant in comparison.

So let me ask you: how is your grasp on the Gospel?

Notice I didn’t say, “Is this true in your life?” It’s true whether you believe it or not. The question is, “Will you cash the check?” Will you put what is already true into practice, so that your life is filled with hope and joy because you see the Gospel more clearly than you see your problems.

When the Gospel becomes real in our lives, we will be ready to live as God's people in a post-Christian world, even when we face tough realities.

Richview Blesses

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Do you ever feel that you’re close to something but you can’t quite get to it? That’s how I’ve been feeling these past couple of years at Richview. It feels like we’ve been so close to what God wants us to be doing, but never quite there. It’s been frustrating to say the least!

This summer a lot of us spent time praying and hoping that we could finally break through to what God wanted us to do. I think God has answered. I don’t come this morning with a message from the mountaintop, but I do come with some excitement and hope because I think that some things have been clear, and that God has called us to something specific, and that we will be able to translate good intentions into reality.

Let me introduce you to something called “Richview Blesses”. I’m going to ask a few questions: what is it, why, who, and how?

First, what? What is “Richview Blesses”? It has a logo and it sounds like a program, which makes some of us suspicious. It really isn’t a program and it isn’t something new. It’s shorthand for the purpose which God has called us. What is the goal of “Richview Blesses”? Simply this: to bless our community. Let me tell you why.

For thousands of years, God has been on a mission. His mission has been to get back what was rightfully his in the first place, to clean up and restore what he created perfect, but which was damaged by sin. God could have done this in a number of ways, but he’s chosen to do it through people, and to use us to bless the world.

In Genesis 12:2-3, God said to Abram:

I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

I’d like us to memorize this verse. This is really the Gospel given in advance. God called a people – first Abram, then his descedents, the nation of Israel, and then people of every nation within the church – to be a blessing to the entire world. God is on a mission to bless this world, and he has called us to participate in it.

“Bless” is a bit of a strange word these days, but it’s a good one. It’s exactly what God has called us to do, and it’s why he has put us here in this part of Toronto. Bless means that God looks favorably on a person, and that something good from God be endowed on someone. In blessing our community, we’re bringing the presence and benefits of God to people in every imaginable way.

You’ve probably heard the idea that we should stop asking God to bless what we’re doing, and starting joining God in what he is already doing. We know what God is already doing: he is on a mission in this world. Every time I go somewhere, thinking I will take God with me, I find that God was already there way ahead of me. God is on a mission, in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools, and he’s calling us to join him in blessing those all around us.

That’s the what. Now the second question: why? The answer is: this is the Gospel. When Jesus came to the world, he said this was his mission:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
(Luke 4:18-19)

If you look at Jesus’ ministry, he did all of that. We focus on his death and resurrection, which brings us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, as we should. This is the centerpiece of what God has done through Jesus Christ. But sometimes we miss the cosmic implications of that. Jesus didn’t just come so we could be made right with God; he came so that we could become his people who would join him on his mission to the world. Like Abram, we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing to others – to the poor, to prisoners, to the blind and oppressed. Everywhere we go, we go with a desire to bless because of the Gospel, so that others can experience what we’ve experienced.

We don’t want to just bless our community. We want to do it because of the Gospel. Our service to the community comes from the overflow of what God has done in our lives. We are so changed that we can’t help but care for the whole needs of all people – not just spiritual needs, but every type of need.

The next question is, who? To answer this, we’re going to start looking at the New Testament book of 1 Peter next week. 1 Peter was written to a group of churches filled with ordinary people who were not at all privileged, in a society that was hostile to the Gospel. It’s a book that tells Christians how to live life faithfully in a culture that doesn’t think too highly of Christians. I want to look at this book, because that’s exactly where we live today. 1 Peter tells us that all of us, no matter where we work and what we do, or how hostile people are around us, can show the presence of God through our lives.

There’s a tension here. The who is both “individually” and “with the support of the entire church.” We’re going to spend a lot of time this year telling stories of what God is doing, praying for each other, and supporting what God is doing through us. I think we’re going to hear a lot of God-stories.

The last question is, how? You’re going to have to wait to find out all the details, but here’s an overview:

Preparing
Dreaming
Acting
Hospitality
Supporting
Celebrating

We’re about to enter into the preparation phases starting next week.

Putting it all together: Richview Blesses is about blessing our community because of the Gospel, individually and with the support of the entire church.

I’ve sensed a desire here to do this, to use our lives to bless the community around us. I’ve also sensed that we really don’t know where to begin. We’re going to deliberately move through some stages this year that will prepare us to turn our intentions and prayers into reality, so that our lives will have the impact that God desires us to have.

What I want to do now is to pray. I’m not going to pray that God will bless this initiative. Instead, I want you to join me in praying that we will join God in what he is already doing in this community, so that we can be a blessing to the community because of the Gospel, both individually and with the support of the church.

Let’s pray.

Father, we worship you today for who you are, and because of your saving acts. You created this world, you saved those who don’t deserve it, and you are on a mission to recreate and redeem all things. Thank you for saving us, and for allowing us to be part of your mission.

Thank you that you are already at work in our community. We want to go where you are already at work, and join you in what you are already doing.

Prepare us, Lord. I pray that you would use this coming year so that we can participate in what you are already doing. We ask that through this church, this community would be transformed, and that people would be blessed. We look forward to supporting each other, telling stories of how you’re at work, and of celebrating what you will do.

Prepare us now, in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior, Amen.

The Greatest in the Kingdom

If you've ever been through a job search, you know that people use a bit of creativity when they put their resumes together. Here's what they say and what they mean:

I seek a job that will draw upon my strong communication & organizational skills: I talk too much and like to tell other people what to do.

I take pride in my work: I blame others for my mistakes.

I'm willing to relocate: As I leave Kingston Penitentiary, anywhere's better.

I am adaptable: I've changed jobs a lot.

I am on the go: I'm never at my desk.

I'm highly motivated to succeed: The minute I find a better job, I'm out of here.

Thank you for your time and consideration: Wait! Don't throw me away!

If God was taking resumes, what would you put on yours? In other words, what makes a good Christian? What would really impress them when you arrive in heaven? Experience, qualifications, references, character traits.

The reason I asked is because followers of Jesus Christ have sometimes asked these questions. Matthew 18:1: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'"

They didn't seem to care that Jesus had just told them that he was about to die. Imagine Peter: he'd walked on water, been on the mountaintop, even had his taxes paid through a miracle.

Their assumption: that greatness in the Kingdom comes from human endeavor and heroic accomplishments.

The way that Jesus responded tells us that greatness in the Kingdom doesn't come from any of that.

He called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)

Jesus wasn't saying that children were innocent. Anyone who has children know that children are anything but innocent.

This story took place at a time when only adult males really counted. While Israelites saw children as gifts from God, children weren't always viewed all that highly. They were valued primarily for the benefit they brought to the workforce. They had no rights or significance and were powerless in society. They were seen as only half-human until they entered puberty. In the Greek language, children were not referred to as masculine or feminine (he or she) but in the neuter - "it."

They were seen as the most insignificant, the most vulnerable, the weakest of human beings. They had no rights, powers, or privileges.

I imagine that Jesus brought a child over - not just a child but maybe a girl, who would be even less regarded in that society.

Here's what I think Jesus was telling us: Greatness in His Kingdom does not come from human accomplishments, but from receiving and sharing the grace of God.

It doesn't come from anything we accomplish - We analyze our performance, and think that we are greater in the Kingdom if we do certain things (quiet time) and avoid other things (sins). Greatness doesn't come from anything we accomplish. Jesus' words are a pronouncement of grace on those who are unworthy, and a pronouncement of condemnation on those who think they are worthy.

It comes from receiving the grace of God - Children have no status apart from love, no privilege apart from what they receive.

When we receive that grace, we also share it - "And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5). Many think that Jesus isn't talking about literal children here. He's talking about what happens when all of his followers become like children and enter the Kingdom through grace. They create environments of grace where people are present not because they measure up, but because they have come empty-handed and been filled with the abundant grace of God.

The weakest, most vulnerable, least significant human being you can think of is a signpost to what the kingdom is like. The church becomes the kind of place that welcomes people like this, because we're all like that.

Think about this in three areas:

1. Your relationship with God - you don't earn it

2. What he has called you to do - not about your own skills

Here is God's leadership model: he chooses fools to live foolishly in order to reveal the economy of heaven, which reverses and inverts the wisdom of this world. He calls us to brokenness, not performance; to relationships, not commotion; to grace, not success. It is no wonder that this kind of leadership is neither spoken of nor admired in our business schools or even our seminaries. (Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp)

3. As a church - an environment of grace

Without this, you don't even get in the Kingdom, never mind find greatness.

Our response today: To come as children, with nothing. Greatness in His Kingdom does not come from human accomplishments, but from receiving and sharing the grace of God.