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Sermon for May 21, 2023 – 7th Sunday of Easter

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5026 | Reaching out to the Lonely
Greg Williams

Are you a fan of the Beatles? If so, you may remember their well-known song, Eleanor Rigby. In the chorus they sing, “…look at all the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

Despite the many tools we have to stay connected, younger generations in western culture have been described by mental health professionals as the loneliest generation.[1]

Wrestling with feeling alone is an experience most of us can identify with and it brings us to ask the same nagging question posed by the Beatles – where do I belong?

Thankfully God supplies an answer in a wonderful scripture, Psalm 68 tells us that God is for us and with us:

Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him – his name is the Lord. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing.

Psalm 68:4-6a

Where there is a need for relationship, we see our loving Father in heaven ready to step in and bring healing and an end to the loneliness. In the church, we are blessed to join in our ministry of inclusion. God sets the lonely in families, and we can be those families: ready to accept, love, and encourage the lonely souls God sets before us.

Lend an ear to the chatty person on the bus in desperate need for conversation, not just once or twice, but whenever you are able!

Make a point of speaking to the quiet individual often ignored in the back corner of the room – and not just about the weather – find out what they enjoy talking about!

Keep your eyes and ears open so you can see those who are feeling lonely, and you can reach out to them.

If someone seems like an outsider, then help them feel the belonging that can be found in a loving community that shares the love that God has given them.

The ways in which we can join in God’s ministry of inclusion are many, and often require us to be ready to step out of our own social bubbles, or out of our own state of loneliness so that we can truly engage with those in need of relationship and care.

Let Jesus’ love in you reach out to the lonely around you. Show them they matter. As the doors open, share God’s love with them and help them see they are included among those God loves. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll end up in a new relationship that God has prepared for you.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-case-connection/202208/3-things-making-gen-z-the-loneliest-generation

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 • Acts 1:6-14 • 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11

In our final week of the Easter season, we look forward to Pentecost, which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. The theme for this week is getting on with God’s work. Our call to worship Psalm reminds us that God cares for the lonely and the prisoners, suggesting that we have an active role in worship-leading them in singing and praise. In Acts 1, we hear the gentle rebuke from the angels following Jesus’ Ascension, reminding the disciples that they have a commission. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples in John 17 recalls that they have been chosen by the Father, and he prays for their protection as they remain in the world following his Ascension. Finally, in our sermon passage for today, we are told in 1 Peter to cast our worries on God so we can stand firm in doing God’s work amidst any challenges or trials we have to endure.

Unmoved by the Lions

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 (NIV)

Perhaps you’re familiar with Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy. This iconic song hit top of the charts at the time, and thirty-six years later can still be heard regularly in coffee shops, street parties and glass elevators (especially helpful for anyone who’s both claustrophobic and acrophobic). McFerrin’s lyrics offer the title’s simple advice for any and every situation and they have become the guiding principles for many seeking to live a carefree life.

Dig a little deeper into the lyrics of the song though, and there is cause to wonder whether McFerrin was parodying a phrase that is often carelessly used to dismiss the real concerns and anxieties by well-meaning but socially inept friends. In the song he tells people wrestling with homelessness, financial ruin, loneliness, and social stigma to stop bringing everyone else down with their negative attitudes – instead, he advises, “like good little children, don’t worry, be happy.”

While “don’t worry, be happy” has the ring of sage advice, in the face of real tangible life challenges it smacks of insincerity. Most of us would love to be able to throw our worries away and indulge in some good old fashioned positive thinking — however, it’s far easier said than done. Yet the advice to put our worries aside has its roots firmly in scripture. Jesus warns against worrying, asking us whether we can add any time to our life by doing so (Matthew 6:27), and he goes on to tell us not to worry over the future (6:34). In Philippians, Paul tells to be anxious about nothing but rather to bring everything to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6-7). In our passage for today, Peter explores the trials that suffering and persecution bring to Christians, and calls for us to surrender our anxieties to God in the midst of those struggles.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:6-11 NIV).

It is easy to read Peter’s advice to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” as a flippant dismissal of those same anxieties. And the same thoughts could be had about the passages in Matthew and Philippians — but only if you remove them from their contexts. These are not throw-away lines intended to placate someone’s grief, so we don’t have to deal with it ourselves. The advice given in each case comes amidst a far more detailed discussions about worry or suffering. Jesus speaks his words of advice after framing the greater context of God’s care for his creation – we do not worry because we have come to believe God truly cares for us. In Philippians, Paul tells us not to be anxious after having already talked about how to focus on the incredible things God has done – a pathway to fortify our faith through his faithfulness.

In our passage Peter begins with a “therefore” – meaning it follows the greater context of what was written before it, thus the bulk of Peter’s first letter. Throughout letter, we have been taught that righteous suffering, that is, suffering for righteousness’ sake, means participating in Jesus’ suffering by only suffering for doing what is right or for the sake of the Gospel. In other words, when we suffer, we relate more clearly to the love that Jesus had when he chose to suffer for our sake. In no way is Peter trying to downplay our suffering per se — he is instead trying to help us understand it in its proper context in Christ.

In fact, a theme throughout the book is that sufferings and trials are things we endure just as Jesus endured suffering for us. Also, as is indicated here in this passage, the machinations of the devil are to be resisted. Endure, resist, stand firm – these are the responses we are called to have in the face of suffering and trials. These responses are not grounded in simple “positive thinking,” rather, they infer challenge, patience and practice. In other words, it’s not so much “don’t worry, be happy” that’s grounded in scripture, but more “don’t worry, stand strong in Jesus.” And our capacity to stand strong is something that we have been given by God in grace:

…the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast…

Therefore, the basis for our letting go of anxieties and worry is grounded in the certainty of God’s faithful love. We cast our worry and anxiety on God because he cares for us. And our God who cares for us and loves us will not let us remain in suffering eternally, but instead he draws us out, comforts us, and gives us the strength and hope we need.

The reason that throw-away phrases such as “don’t worry, be happy” or “it’ll be alright on the night” can sound trite is because they are rarely said within the context of faith. In fact, Christians can often be perceived as callous toward those outside the faith because we may seem to be too dismissive of death and suffering. What is a statement evoking deep theological truths to a mature Christian, may appear as an offensive platitude to a non-believer.

Peter’s advice about enduring suffering applies solely within its correct context — i.e., suffering for doing the right thing or the Gospel. Suffering brought on by our own sin and actions are a different matter entirely. Rather we should enable the transformation of our behaviour through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If we suffer, let it be for a higher reason – following Jesus.

When we delve back into Peter’s discussions on suffering, we see that he is giving his advice so that believers may live out their faith with eyes wide open. We don’t live perfect happy lives, because our enemy is prowling around seeking whom he may devour. Naivety about this risks our being potential prey as we succumb to despair when life does not go our way.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14 NIV).

Back in chapter 4 Peter tells his readers that the suffering they are currently enduring should not be a surprise. It is a test, not from God as he has no need; he knows who are his and his Spirit speaks the better word of Christ over any such need. No, this is the challenge of the prowling lion, or of those who oppose Christ. Much as a vindictive individual might aggravate their Christian neighbour just to see how Christian they are, so too we can see this in action on larger scales within the body of the church.

We are called to respond to such trials, not with retribution or anger, but as an opportunity to join with Christ in his suffering. In doing so we become witnesses to those around us and can celebrate when that witness bears fruit. Our endurance of suffering and the surrendering of our anxieties is a participation in Christ, and potentially ends up with a clear and intentional goal – the preaching of Christ and the glorification of God.

Hopefully, you can see here that Peter is not talking about an abstract concept when he speaks of casting our anxieties upon God. He is asking us to frame suffering in its correct context and take on a mindset to trust in God, remaining unmoved even when surrounded by lions. And we do so because we know that God is good and that, by witnessing to this truth, we partner with him in the ministry of Salvation.

The Chosen w/ Cherith Nordling W3

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May 21 – Seventh Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, “Accusation Nation”

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Program Transcript

The Chosen w/ Cherith Nordling W3

Anthony: Let’s move on to our next passage for the month.

It is 1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the seventh Sunday of Easter, which falls on May 21.

Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. 13 Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory—indeed, the Spirit of God—rests on you.

Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world. 10 After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be power forever and always. Amen.

So, this pericope tells us to throw all our anxiety onto God because he cares. And I truly do believe that, to the extent that I do. And yet I have friends (and I’ve experienced it myself) who love God and still struggle with real and sometimes debilitating anxiety. Are we doing something wrong?

Cherith: No.

Anthony: Not to put too fine of point on it, but no.

Cherith: No, I think that just really practically, when we read about the levels of anxiety that are increasing every single day in our culture and across the world, and we watch the debilitating forms of that anxiety in terms of profound panic attacks or just really disordered neural pathways, that just cannot get out of the place that feels most real and feels most familiar and feels like the place where the world is really happening, in that kind of fight or flight or paralysis kind of space. I feel like our God of compassion knows so much better than we do why that is rising and rising and rising.

And I think it’s because we’re actually trying to live as creatures who have a global sense of things—which is really like a God sense of things—and able to see all things, know all the news at all times, be aware of the thousand million dangers that we didn’t even know were happening before.

Whether it’s the stuff in our food that’s poisoning us, that’s intentional in the sense that it’s making money for somebody, and so let’s just name it as something. Whatever it is, our phobias are (which is fears, right?) are just becoming not just temporary, they’re working their way into our brainwaves.

They’re working their way into almost it feels like our DNA in a way that just should alert us that we’re really trying to navigate a world that I don’t think as creatures, limited human creatures within a time and a space and a focus, and being able to be for the other instead of every single day being asked to be even more afraid of someone else or something else, or seeing the dangers of the world.

All that to just say God in his grace and mercy cannot be the one who [says], step up and get over yourself because I’m trustworthy and I could just help you navigate through all this stuff. I think the Lord of compassion is like, I know so much better than you how we got here and what it is that you are suffering.

And I think that’s different than a kind of low-grade anxiety that is also being—it’s part of the human condition—but I think is also being perpetuated in us all the time. And again, like the marketing industry is a 300-billion-dollar industry that’s built on causing in us a sense of not being enough, not having enough, not being valued enough. And that if we just do this or that or the other thing then, if we spend our money in these ways, maybe that will satisfy the sense that we belong or that we have value.

I think when you’re waking up in a world every single day that is going to tell you that story—even if you live in a pretty secure and loving context, just imagine what it’s like for people who live that constant, constant flow of narrative when you also live in spaces that are actually dangerous, that you’ve learned that from a child, that the world’s a place to be fearful of.

So when we do this kind of transacting again with God that says, if you love God enough, that anxiety will go away. If you’re reading your scriptures enough, if you are, whatever it is, like there is a master slave thing here, and your master is just asking you to serve him better in this way, and you just have to try harder. And I think that’s about as far from everything that we ever hear in the Old Testament or the New or in the life of Jesus. Ever.

So I think we go back then to 1 Peter and go, okay, what are they anxious about? It’s not just common anxiety and low-grade anxiety. Though, that’s part of their life too. But at the same time, what are you anxious about? And who knows that? And what is the source of anxiety?

It’s fear. And so whatever those sources of fear are, whether they’re external in the context of 1 Peter, as a community under oppression. Whether it’s deeply internal that this isn’t the life I thought I would have with Jesus and it’s really hard. Or I’ve lived under so much fear under empire that now to realize if I wake up today to follow Jesus means I’m a target for these kinds of things.

Or did my family abandon me because I’m following Jesus? Or what happens when I, who was the master sit in community with those who I was the slave holder and the master over? And can I trust that these people can really be for me?

There just have to be like a thousand fears that in a sense have to be risen to the surface—actually in the waters of baptism. They just have to float to the top and have Jesus [say], this is real stuff and this is the deep stuff that will actually very quietly entice you because your accuser will make you shamed over this.

And he will deceive you into thinking that if you could just adjust a little bit of what Jesus has called you to, just to relieve the tension a little bit that that’s a good choice. That’s a good apple from that tree because it just helps you in the moment. But the minute we start giving ourselves a little pass in that way, we just start giving ourselves really big passes later and then suddenly we’re in the passage back in 2 [1 Peter 2:8] where he [says], you know what? Jesus turns out to be a stumbling block for a lot of people who don’t want to, or are really afraid to, trust God and to live into the life of God that does not mean we only get to see glory now, but that really has to trust that the life we’re living is the life that Jesus has aligned himself to in every single way. And that the anxiety that we’re experiencing, he gets that and has been tempted by that.

That the fears that we’re tempted by, he has been tempted by them. And he is never like, shame on you. He’s, I get that. And as your high priest, can you sit with me and let me mediate that? And let me tell you what I know about that from my experience and yours because now we share one. And how do we come before the Father knowing that the one who loves us is not ashamed of us.

He is the one who is going to go after the prowling lion, just like with a lion of Judah who wears the marks of his wounds and suddenly looks like a slain lamb because it’s going to be such a different story. But the Shepherd and the overseer of your souls is somebody who lived Isaiah 53. This is the way that God is going to save you is to actually embody all the stuff of a suffering servant to say, this is how it feels to live the hope of a world that needs that hope. (Not every minute and not all the time, and certainly not even every day—though for some that you and I know, that is the life that they’re just barely trusting there’s anything else other than it.)

But I think he’s just trying to say this, the one who wants to deceive you, mostly wants to deceive you into thinking that Jesus doesn’t get you, and that what he’s asked you to do is something that’s not like God, and that God is asking more of you than God is willing to do himself.

All we keep doing is looking at Jesus and going, oh, oh! Oh, of course! And it doesn’t make it easier in the sense that it goes away. It goes, okay, I trust you to be with me here. And what do I come to know that I wouldn’t otherwise know? Like the language that talks about suddenly you’re in a fiery trial that came to test you. Well, it’s not God saying, I think it’s time for Cherith to really be tested in a certain way to see if her metal’s still strong here or whether she’s starting to fall away.

It’s to go, you live in a broken world, this stuff’s going to come. And that’s the place where suddenly it’s, I really thought I trusted Jesus, but I think even the way I trusted him was not helping me here. And I really need to ask him about this because I’m not sure I do trust him. I think I’m trusting something I want from him to happen.

And those are the places where God goes, thank you so much for looking at that with me because if I can kill it off and burn it off, then you become more free. And that’s the gift of love, is love and freedom that says, I want to set you free, not out of all of these things, but free to not fear that they have the last word over your life.

Anthony: We have a great high priest who understands. And if you’re in a place where it feels dark and the walls are closing in, let me read verse 10 and 11 again.

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. To him be power forever and always. Amen.

Cherith, you mentioned the accuser. And it is the business of the one who is opposed to what God is and what he’s doing. And I don’t have to tell you, you see it every day. We live in an accusation nation, and I’ve thought, if the Father didn’t send the Son to condemn the world, then why would he send us to do it, if Jesus is not the one who’s accusing us.

But it has become a sport. We love to accuse others. So, help us course correct in light of this passage.

Cherith: Maybe it’s just to fall back into some of the other stuff that I just said, which is, I think the fact that we live in such a polarized world around so many things, is that we’re coming to what feels to me like the crumbling foundations of modernism, which is really built on this idea that we could really control things.

If we just understand them enough, if we master them, including Scripture and the understanding of God, then we’ve pocketed it. We’re in a good place. And suddenly, we start looking around and realize, no, this world that we thought was building up and progress to better and better ways, including the way we were telling the Christian story, it’s not.

And our fears are actually coming forward. And we don’t trust our leaders. We don’t trust one another because we feel like everything is being played out to say, who’s going to win? Who’s going to get the benefit of this? And if somebody else benefits from this, I won’t. So, we’re living in this scarcity world, this kind of crumbling world of, I thought it would work this way and now it’s sort of not.

So, you watch this fundamentalism or this polarization happening religiously all around the world, politically all around the world, militarily all around the world. And the only way to defend that kind of position is to push the other person or to see them in your heart’s eye—and then suddenly, socially locate them in that same place—as “the other.”

And then to go, and I don’t have to love the other, I just have to hang with the people who are like me. And then you’re (you were mentioning community earlier) going, huh? And here’s the New Testament that just wants to talk about one another-ing. Allelon is the word of Christian community.

And it doesn’t mean that you’re going to find people who think like you or love the things that you do, or that there’s never going to be conflict. If you want conflict, just stay in the church for more than three weeks, right? But this is the place where you become like Jesus.

This is where you learn to bear with one another and their burdens. This is the place where you suffer long on behalf of the other and learn the character of Christ with those who you forgive because they have forgiven you. Because you’re forgiving one another, you’re having compassion on one another.

The grace is the multiple, I don’t know, like 20, 30, 40 allelon passages that come out of these letters to churches saying, it’s about the other. But the language of God for the “other” is “another.” It’s the another-ing that says, without the other, I cannot be who I am without the other, who is different from me. I cannot bear the character of a triune God.

And so, what would the enemy do? To say, well, the first and last thing I can do is to divide what God puts together in the very nature of God, which is to be distinct and yet in profound communion and union. And as long as I can see the other as someone to be feared, as someone to react and live in opposition to, instead of to lay my life down for, even if they never recognized that as a choice or a gift given to them, and they see it as power over and that they won.

Jesus is like, okay so did Herod and so did the Romans and the Sanhedrin who thought they won in this moment of laying my life down. But this was God’s moment to change the course of the world by the fact that new creation starts through baptism and resurrection. This is the place of living out our baptism.

So, I think we just have to name the accuser for who he is. And it’s not just personal shame, [the accuser says] that person who you’re a little bit suspicious of and don’t know what to do with, you are right in doing that. And let me tell you all the reasons why you should just stoke that fear and then build a world that surrounds you to keep them out from everything that God would call you to see them as a fellow brother and sister sitting at the triune table of God,

Anthony: The local church is such a gift and such a quandary. It brings together people who would probably never be friends otherwise and puts them in community. And like you said, we don’t always agree. Oh, there’s such disagreement within the body of Christ, and yet we learned to love one another, to be with one another, to really drink in of living waters.

It’s just such an interesting dynamic, and I thank God for the local church and the beauty of sharing life together. And I think once we do that, as we break bread, as we come to the table of fellowship, the communion table, what we realize is that we do belong to one another. And that we do like each other.

When we’re apart, I find that we either fill in the gaps of relationship with trust or suspicion. And in the local church is where we learn to trust, even though we’re different. Hallelujah. Praise God.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Speaking of Life

  • Share a time you struggled with feeling like you were alone? How have you coped with those times?
  • What does it tell us about God that we’re told he’s a Father to the fatherless, friend of the widows and sets the lonely in families?
  • How do you think you can get involved in God’s ministry of inclusion?

From the Sermon

  • Have you ever had someone use a phrase like “don’t worry, be happy” in a sincere attempt to respond do you in a time of need? How did it make you feel?
  • Why do you think it is important to make sure that advise to give anxieties to God are given only when the hearer is a follower of Christ?
  • How do you think you could respond to someone going through struggles who has no relationship with Christ in a way that does not assume the benefits of that relationship?
  • Have you ever been persecuted for your faith – how did you/would you go about responding in a Christ-like way?

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