Sermon: Faith Under Fire
Have you ever forgotten something you know you should have remembered and then said, “Silly me, I was having a ‘senior moment’”?
Sometimes we can laugh at ourselves when we fail to remember. But at other times, not remembering is painful. I think of Hubert, in the early stages of dementia, not always remembering that Vera is his wife. Some of you have been through experiences like that with a loved one.
And in 2 Peter 3, we hear how important remembering is for our spiritual health. We too face scoffers who mock our faith, and we too need to hear how the writer says,
I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles (verses 1b-2).
The early Christians faced scoffers, and we do, too. In our day, it ranges from friends and acquaintances who think we can’t possibly be serious about believing what we believe to sophisticated and organised atheist scoffers. Only in the last week the National Secular Society, an organisation of less than 10,000 members, have called for RE to be banned in schools. Richard Dawkins is always claiming you have to choose between evolution and a Creator God.
So it is worth us today hearing what Scripture says to us about how to stand firm when others mock our faith. To this end, 2 Peter 3 calls us to remember – to remember some things we already know, because they will fortify our faith. What are they, and what should we do about them?
Firstly, we remember what God has done – because what God has done in the past gives a sign of what he will do again. When you know what someone has done previously, it gives you hope for the future. God is not silent. He has not resigned. He is still up to the job. When we remember what he has done, we stand with hope in the face of mockers.
In particular, 2 Peter points to two things God has done in the past, and their counterpoints in what he will one day do again. Those two events are the Creation and the Flood. Just as God once judged the world in a flood of water (verse 6), so one day he will judge it with a flood of fire (verses 7, 10-11). And just as God made the heavens and the earth (verse 5), so in the future he will not simply destroy creation with the flood of fire, he will remake the new heavens and the new earth (verse 13).
How specifically does remembering these twin themes of Creation and Flood help us in the face of mockery? Let us take creation first. The fact that God has acted in creation (whatever means he chose to accomplish it) points to the new creation he will usher in at the end of all things as we know them now. Our Christian hope is not simply of ‘going to heaven when we die’; the biblical hope is that we shall receive resurrection bodies and live in a renewed creation. This is our destiny. The God who created, and who goes on upholding even this broken creation, will one day make all things new – including the heavens and the earth. And that renewed creation will be our home for ever. Remembering God’s work in creation firms up our faith in where we are going.
One thing Debbie and I did in preparation for moving here was that we bought sat-navs for our cars. They have been a great help in our first fortnight here. We know we only have to punch in the postcode and perhaps the door number of where we are doing, and – provided we follow the instructions – we will arrive at our destination.
Occasionally, of course, they go wrong. I had to educate mine to recognise that the postcode for this church did not put it in an unnamed road, but in Station Road! And occasionally, too, we go wrong. I did on Friday night, when we drove back from the circuit welcome service. We arrived at a roundabout in Chobham, I think, where I was instructed to go straight on. Only problem was, you had to go left or right. I knew I had been on a roundabout like that a few days ago, where the same thing happened, and the correct solution was to go right. In the dark, I thought I was at that roundabout.
Well … I wasn’t. Turning right led us ultimately down a narrow country lane, where further progress was blocked by a ford. Debbie is better at reversing in tight circumstances than I am, so she took the wheel and eventually the sat-nav recalculated a route home for us and we made it back.
The life of faith can be rather like that. We can end up on detours caused by our own foolishness or the actions of others, but when we live by faith in Christ, arrival at the ultimate destination is still certain. God’s creation and the promise of his new creation tell us that. And knowing that gives us a reason to stand firm when others mock us. We have reason to believe in a hope-filled future.
But you’ll remember it wasn’t just the Creation to which 2 Peter pointed, it was the Flood as well. As God once judged people’s sin in a flood of water, so this chapter tells us he will also one day judge with a flood of fire.
Is this just a case of saying that those who disagree with us have got it coming to them? No, it’s more than that. This chapter tells us that the reason some people don’t merely disagree with our convictions but specifically scoff at us is because they ‘come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts’ (verse 3). In other words, some people who vehemently mock Christianity do so because to accept Christian faith would be to invite judgment on their morally dubious lives. The Christian speaker, author and activist Tony Campolo tells a story of how a student who had previously been well disposed towards Christianity came up to him one day and said that he’d been having doubts about God for about six months.
“Is that when you started sleeping with your girlfriend?” Campolo replied.
And he was right. The student’s intellectual objections were a cover for his rejection of Christian sexual ethics.
It isn’t that every objection to faith stems from that motive – of course not! But 2 Peter 3 reminds us that some of our opponents have hidden, unworthy motives for attacking our faith. The more mocking they are, the more likely it is. And they won’t get away with it in the long run. God sees their lives and their hearts. This is not anything for us to gloat about – in fact, we should be stirred to pray for such people. But it is a reassurance that we serve a God whose ultimate purposes are justice.
So the first step in coping with mockery of our faith is to remember what God has done and recognise what he will do. We gain confidence in God’s good future for us, and in his justice.
Secondly, we remember God’s character. The original readers of this letter were being mocked for their belief that Jesus would return and that God would judge creation. “Where is the promise of his coming?” (verse 4), they taunted. So 2 Peter 3 reminds them of Psalm 90,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (verse 8 )
and from that draws the conclusion that God has delayed his final purposes in his divine patience, because he does not want any to perish, but to come to repentance (verse 9). He does not want to have to judge the mockers – he would rather they found new life in Christ. Nor does he want Christians to fall away – he desires that we resist that temptation and stay faithful, even when it would feel more comfortable to disown our Lord and Saviour.
What, then, do we need to remember about God’s character? One word: grace. We would not know God in Christ were it not for his grace, his unmerited favour extended in love to us through Jesus and the Cross. God wants to demonstrate that same love even to those who ridicule his Son and our faith in him.
Every now and again, I read discussions on the Internet about the existence of God. Some of the comments from atheists are arrogant and hateful. My instinctive feelings towards such people are not good. But I need to remember that these are people for whom Christ died, and had God not been gracious to me I would never have known him. It is when we forget truths like this that we may be most likely to slide away from true faith into a parody of true religion that is full of self-righteousness rather than God’s extravagant love to the world through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we need to remember just how much God has forgiven us, and let that fact inform the way we relate to difficult or hostile people. God wants them to know him. He may well want to use us in reaching them. That will have implications for our words, our actions and our attitudes.
The third and final thing we need to do is to remember God’s call. If we have a future in the new creation, and if God is both just and gracious, what kind of people does he call us to be? Let me just draw together a couple of fragments.
In verse 13, where we read about the new heavens and the new earth, we learn that the new creation is a place ‘where righteousness is at home’. If we want to be at home, we need to lead a consistent life, a righteous one. And to that end, the final plea of the letter in verse 18 is that its readers might
grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
What does this amount to? If we believe in God’s coming new creation, then we need to live in harmony with it. That means righteousness (and justice – the Greek word covers both). And if we believe that God is gracious enough to want even his enemies to find his love and put their faith in him, then we need to grow in grace – to become more like him, especially in becoming more full of grace to others ourselves.
All that amounts to a tough call. In the face of opposition and mockery, God calls us not to give up or mingle with the crowd, but to live righteous and just lives that are full of grace for the most undeserving of sinners. But how else are we going to live a convincing witness to Jesus Christ in the world? We are deluded if we think all we have to do is provide the right answers to people’s questions – although that is important. Jesus calls us to a difficult assignment, but an important one: to live the life of faith, even and especially when we are under fire.
But he’s simply asking us to do what he did when the heat was on, and the good news is that he gives us the Holy Spirit in order to do his will. When I read the claims of atheists on the Internet, I realise they not only need to hear reasonable answers from Christians, they need to see Christians show by their lifestyles that a different way is real and possible.
And that’s a good place for me to end my first sermon here, with that challenge. Our calling is to live different, Jesus-shaped lives in the midst of the world and not just in our religious ghettoes.
Who is up for the challenge?