Saturday, 8 January 2022

Hope for our Era of Anxiety - 1 Peter 1:3-5

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STUDIOCAM 





         •        Introduction

Have you noticed how really anxious our culture has become?

Now let’s be clear that there is clinical, psychological depression and anxiety … the sort of anxiety that is very hard to address for yourself and that needs medical and professional help.

But we’re talking about the other sort today that is far, far more common and that you can have a word with yourself about … even though it can sometimes feel quite overpowering.

There is a lot of what we’re talking about going around at the moment.

Certainly, in the last couple of pandemic years there’s been the bit of a dawn of a famine of hope!

And I suspect that has been taking root from uncomfortable uncertainty.

According to Dan W. Grupe and Jack B. Nitschke in Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2013 July; 14(7): 488–501:

“Uncertainty diminishes how efficiently and effectively we can prepare for the future, and thus contributes to anxiety … 

Comprehensive information about the probability, timing, and nature of a future negative event promotes more efficient allocation of these resources, but such information is rarely available owing to the inherent uncertainty of the future.”

The thing is, people can’t survive long without hope.

It is after all hope that keeps us going through both our present painful experiences AND our anticipatory fear of what the future may hold for us.

The sort of anxiety caused by uncertainty about the future in our culture is not just about the pandemic of course … it seems fairly general.

Now, these things do seem to go in cycles, but it seemed a good time for us to spend a bit of time looking over the weeks running up to Easter … no, Easter, daffodils, lambs and bunnies ISN’T that far away now … at this whole issue of the Christian hope.

We are not isolated from society around us and that famine of hope therefore brushes up against us … but this issue is also pretty relevant to all the people WE brush up against in the course of our daily lives as well.

So, we’ll spend a number of weeks now looking at this whole issue of what Christianity has got on hope … it’s explanation, implications and application to us and our times.

To me, the obvious first question is this one …

         •        Quite where has all the Hope gone?

When you look into it a bit, it seems that the Western world in general was heading into a bit of a crisis of hope even before COVID 19 came along.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there seems to have been a positive attitude in the West attached to the idea that humanity was making progress and that, basically, the next generation would enjoy a better world than the current one.

There was this idea that reason and science and stuff like that was going to make life better and things would get to be just fine.

Two world wars and a number of other factors seem to have put paid to that … so much so that W. H Auden in his long poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ seemed to very much capture the mood of the times … it won the Pulitzer Prize but didn’t get read very much. 

Too depressing a title, I suppose!

Two World Wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon in the Cold War knocked around people’s hope for the future quite a lot.

Now, I remember seeing live footage on the TV as the Berlin Wall came down, and what with that and the crumbling of Communist dictatorships in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and across the peripheral states of the old Soviet Union, the optimism of the pre-war period started to wake up a bit.

In 2006 Pew Research produced a paper called ‘Once again, the Future Ain’t What it Used to Be’ which showed that around that time the number of people who said that children in America would grow up to be better off than their parents had risen to over 50% of the populace.

But by around 2005, the numbers believing their children would have a better life had declined again.

A Pew Centre Research poll published in 2019 shows that the decline in our Western culture’s hope levels has only continued.

            •          Where has it gone?

Well, for sure, there’s been a polarisation and fragmentation of society that looks pretty much as if it is heading towards no good.

There’s no great shared idea of any common public good.

The last U.S. Presidential election, of course, just a year ago now saw a serious polarisation of opinion and led to the storming of one of their legislative bodies by a violent mob unprepared to see a President from the other party in power.

The same degree of difference … a going to opposite extremes … is getting reflected in UK politics too, or so it appears.

And with it comes a deep sense of distrust which is undermining the institutions that have previously held our society together.

Social media has undoubtedly fuelled all of this … becoming a forum for the expression of personal opinions that is peppered with abuse and antagonism.

We have seen a real rise in the threat of both ideologically inspired and non-ideological terrorism across the last decade … such that the list of destinations we are safe to visit on holiday has declined noticeably, and our news reports periodically carry accounts of violent outrages.

We can’t imagine where this is heading, and that breeds a loss of hope for our children’s futures.

Then there’s the growing anxiety about climate change:

According to the Lancet, respondents across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). 

More than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.

(https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00278-3/fulltext)

Andrew Sullivan (reviewing Stephen Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment Now’) points to a wider issue than these immediate things though:

“As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs.”

Tim Keller’s ‘Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter’ … not available in the UK until April this year but a great book to order for someone for Easter (not me, I’ve got a copy!) … has quite a lot about the current literature on the loss of hope and is well worth a look if you would like to understand better our times and how they can influence us too.

Keller says: “We hunger for meaning and purpose. We find that things we thought would bring us satisfaction do not. We are shocked at the evil things other human beings - and we ourselves are capable of doing.”

And then that, of course raises the question for Keller about what on earth we can also do about US.

“The greatest threat to our hope for a better world is not the natural environment but the various evils that continually spring from the human heart. Science cannot eradicate human evil - in fact it can give it more tools to use for its own ends.”

            •          What are they doing about it?

In October 2021, just ahead of the COP26 UN Climate conference in Glasgow, three-quarters (75%) of adults in Great Britain said they were worried about the impact of climate change, according to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS’) Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN).

(https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/threequartersofadultsingreatbritainworryaboutclimatechange/2021-11-05)

Just over two-fifths (43%) reported feeling anxious about the future of the environment more widely in the past month.

That’s really a pretty widespread problem.

And it’s just ONE issue.

So what are people doing, then, about this loss of positivity, this dread of where it is all heading, this pessimism for the future and famine of hope?

Well, if there is a particular issue to which concern for the future attaches, people tackle the problem they’re worried about.

Or rather … they tend to tackle it by proxy.

Activism is an action, but it doesn’t necessarily act on the actual problem.

So, for example, four people were recently acquitted on charges of throwing a statue of Sir Edward Coulson’s statue into Bristol Docks.

Now … has that done anything that actually helps anyone?

There is still such a lot of racism about in our society that could be directly acted on … but throwing a statue into a dock doesn’t actually help someone suffering racist bullying in their school or workplace.

Arguably it may well kick off a negative response towards them from racists around them … making things worse!

Now reforming activism in our country has a glorious history, but so much of this ‘activism’ seems to make the activist feel better.

Judging by the people I heard speaking on the radio after they were acquitted, those people were definitely feeling better … but I’m not convinced the underlying problem has gone away.

I think my point is that what we are all doing about future anxiety is to try to feel better about it … and probably to some extent to feel better by virtue signalling about it too.

This famine of hope really is a problem we’ve got in our culture, and the ways we are tackling it seem to be to feel better rather than change much in our experience of external realities.

What I want to do today ids to expose the problem and begin to show that there is a better hope-restoring narrative in Scripture that actually has its roots NOT in our changeable feelings, but deep in human experience of reality.

         •        The Hope of the Resurrection

The remarkable rise of the Christian faith in its earliest stages was due in no small part to the hope at its heart … Peter stood up famously on the Day of Pentecost at what we might call the birth of the church to preach and his founding premise in that first sermon in the new life of the church was this:

““Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 

But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

There’s the solid objective historical reality that colours the Christian’s future hope which tackles the anxiety and … in fact … most of the other challenges the Christian faces in living through this present evil age while travelling to the eternal home held out before us in the Gospel.

And this brings us today to a foundational Biblical text that the same apostle Peter wrote a number of years later from the heart of the Roman Empire in the city of Rome itself … where persecution had arisen … to a bunch of scattered believers across (probably) Asia Minor who were starting to worry that the state’s persecution was going to be shortly arriving on. THEIR doorstep too.

These verses open up the issues of anticipatory anxiety of the future and the Christian response to that, and it’s found in 1 Peter 1:3-5

“ Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 

and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”

            •          New birth

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 

In his great mercy 

he has given us 

new birth 

into a living hope 

through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead …”

 

The foundation of the Christian hope lies clearly, Peter says from the outset, not in anything WE may have done to improve ourselves, but in the sheer gift of God in Christ.

He has GIVEN us … these things.

This is the key to the Gospel’s success at dealing with human beings because it doesn’t rely on broken people attempting to do what it turns out we cannot satisfactorily achieve in our brokenness, but on what God has done for us … in His perfection.

So what is this gift on which the resolution of this our human difficulty hangs?

It starts with the gateway event to Christian life - the new birth.

You see, the Old Testament prophets expended a lot of energy over a long period trying to get people to bring themselves back to God, but they failed at the hurdle of humanity’s broken ability to walk with God … at the problem of the fallen and therefore sinful human heart which habitually turns away from the Living God.

So Jeremiah spends thirty long chapters exposing and addressing the situation God’s people had got into due to the sinfulness of their hearts and then receives this word from the Lord in Jeremiah 31:33-34

““This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel

    after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put my law in their minds

    and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

    and they will be my people.

34 No longer will they teach their neighbour,

    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

    from the least of them to the greatest,”

declares the Lord.

“For I will forgive their wickedness

    and will remember their sins no more.”

And Ezekiel after much description of the sad human state of heart carries this prophecy in Ezekiel 11:19

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”

It is spelled out again in Ezekiel 36:26

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

And so the Lord Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in John 3 about the need to be born again or ‘born from above’ in this way in order to be able to even SEE the Kingdom of God.

It is the gateway to Christian life, and it is the gateway to the new humanity that was the hope of Israel through all its years in the spiritual wilderness.

You HAVE been born again though, writes Peter, to these believers who were fearing for their future.

Now here’s the key thing … what they (and all true believers) have been born into is a hope.

That’s what colours our response to the fear of the future … the hope we’ve been born again into (if indeed we have been born from above) and the INHERITANCE we are thus born into … which colours our transforms our experience of our present realities well as our future’s.

It is a LIVING hope, writes Peter.

We mentioned earlier the sort of dying hopes that people pursue in our culture for a bit of a feel-better (if not quite feel good) feeling in response to anxiety and the fear of the future.

These are not, of course, necessarily bad things in themselves … not at all … but they are dying hopes.

You, says Peter, have your current experience and response to it shaped by the fact that you have been born again into a LIVING hope.

The new life in Christ that will be enjoyed supremely in Glory has taken root in your hearts and lives even now and will endure to the end of all time!

It is alive.

It is life-giving.

It is ENERGISING, in the life of the believer.

Our current experience is often trying, but I am anchored in the sure and certain resurrection hope … initiated and bolstered by the reality of Christ’s resurrection … anchored and bolted on to the eternal life of the Heavenly Kingdom … we have this hope as the ANCHOR for our souls … as Hebrews 6:19 puts it.

As we’ve ben seeing, it’s just that anchor of hope that our hearts need in the current uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage that we’re embarked upon.

You see (1 Peter 1:4) that new birth brings us into a new inheritance … ours now, but that we receive in full when the terms of the will are enacted.

            •          New inheritance

“and into an inheritance 

that can never 

perish, 

spoil or 

fade. 

This inheritance is kept in heaven for you …”

It’s not only a living hope … a lively, life-giving and on-going eternal hope that lives on … it’s a glorious inheritance too that the new birth brings with it.

Now, please bear in mind, these believers Peter writes to from the hot-spot of the persecution at that time in the city of Rome itself were looking at the loss of all things that had been afflicting so many of their brethren in that big city, but they were at least anticipating facing a similar experience on their own part.

Peter is reminding them - in order to stimulate a proper, invigorating, reality-based, real-world hope in them in place of their fear and anxiety for the future - that they have been born again into a sure and certain future hope (based in their born again experience of God) but also CRUCIALLY into the inheritance pledged to the new-born children of God.

Imperishable … which addresses fear for the future.

Undefiled … which addresses the fear that everything in our world is getting mucked up.

Unfading … which addresses the fear of things turning sour on us.

And this is KEPT in Heaven for us … there is no scope left for the fear of loss and that it will all be taken from us.

This is the reality towards which the born again believer now lives, and the promise in which we anchor our souls.

It is fail-proof, because God guards it and preserves it eternally in Heaven for us by His Almighty power.

Yes, powerful people may take against us.

But our hope and our inheritance are KEPT … and kept by the power of the Almighty.

No.

People cannot survive long without hope.

But people can LIVE on for ever with this one! 

And that brings us to the root that underlies and tethers tight this living hope in a world painted in despair …

 

         •        The POWER of the Resurrection

Peter doesn’t hesitate to hammer home his point, but goes on to spell out for the persecuted Christians he was writing to just exactly what the future prospects of their inheritance (and ours on the same terms) really were … and who those prospects actually depended on.

“This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 

who 

through faith are 

shielded by God’s power 

until the coming of the salvation 

that is ready to be revealed 

in the last time.”

We’ve touched on this already so there’s not much left to say here, but there you have it, you see?

There lies the strength and the power that secures the Christian’s future and our destiny.

Now, Peter knew the objective reality of the resurrection.

He had been there on the day, in fact when the women broke the news Peter and John went running to the tomb, but Peter was the first to dive in and look around in there.

Grave clothes lying where they’d been left when the Lord was raised from the dead … and then meetings that took place with the risen Jesus that entirely blew their human minds.

These guys like Peter saw He’d died and been literally raised from the dead.

That is the hugely life-changing reality.

Through faith in the future hope held out by God in the Gospel and the experience of the first instalment of that resurrection of Jesus as we undergo our own personal experience of new birth from above, we as believers are from that point on shielded by GOD’s power through the vagaries of this life and brought securely to the destiny that will only be revealed for all to see in the last time.

         •        Conclusion

Now, I wonder whether you’ve noticed the words I’ve not mentioned in our text?

In fact I’ve left them deliberately until now.

I’ve done this because they are the key to living in the living hope and living on the future inheritance that we’ve been highlighting in addressing the Age of Anxiety that we are living through, the spirit of our age that can so easily affect us.

I’ve left the part of what Peter says here that helps us live in the light of the truth about us and to Iive in that truth day by day.

You see, some will emphasise to you that in the face of anxiety we should take courage.

Well, mebbe there is some truth in that if what we are talking about is the courage that is born of faith, but when you are fearful and anxious that often seems like telling a person that is ill to not be ill.

It doesn’t work too well!

No, the cure for the anxious soul is something Peter models here for these anxious believers, and that he models from the very start of the things he has to say to them to help them in countering their problems along the way.

Look how Peter starts all these powerful things he wants to say to them.

V. 3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope …” and so on.

Praise be.

Look who we’re being addressed by here.

The apostle Peter wrote this letter (1:1). 

He was once a fisherman but now was a disciple, a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1). 

That is really a very significant thing.

He has seen his beloved friend His Lord and God, the Messiah, suffering and crucified before his very eyes (he says).

And He was following in the very dangerous and self-sacrificial way of His crucified Messiah.

He probably wrote this letter from Rome (in 5:13; “Babylon” almost certainly refers to Rome).

He seems to have been writing this around A.D. 62–63 during Nero’s reign. 

The letter is addressed to Christians scattered in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1). This is an area north of the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The area had been through rapid social and cultural change as it was subjugated by people propagating a new Graeco-Roman culture and politically the people there had been under uninvited Roman control from the mid-first century B.C.

Life for Peter particularly as a bold Christian leader living in Nero’s Rome but for these scattered Christians too was full of things that could cause a person some anxiety.

Peter is going to talk reasons about that in a moment as these verses progress, he is going to talk about the new birth they knew and about where that leads in terms of living hope and inheritance … but Peter starts off immediately with what is going to cure their anxious souls and that I setting a conscious and deliberate practice of praise to God.

There was a LOT in Peter’s current experience to be anxious about.

There was a lot that his readers seem to have struggling to not be anxious about in the future prospect of the persecution that had started in Rome spreading out in their direction.

But Peter sets, first of all, an example of praise to the God Who is Sovereign and gracious and kind and Who has not only given them a future that is glorious and wonderful, but Who holds them in the inheritance they are living towards … and in doing so he calls them to that same soul-curing praise.

Of COURSE, there is little in their current circumstances (and possibly we think ours) to rejoice about.

This life can be very much like that.

But lift up your eyes to your eternal future and what lies in it, says Peter, and praise the good God who secures our eternal future.

Peter starts with worship for fundamental realities, the truths because of which the Christian lives … the LIVING hope which isn’t going to fade.

And THAT is his pastoral theology for when the prospect of following a suffering Messiah becomes very real … he KNOWS from his personal experience that anxiety fades in the presence of theological and faithful praise to the God Who saves. 



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