April 26, 2015 Third Sunday After Easter
Living the Light
1 Samuel 2:1-10, Psalm 40, 1 Peter 2:11-17, St. John 16:16-22
“Then I saw in my dream, that when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is ‘Vanity’; and at the town there is a fair kept, called ‘Vanity Fair’; it is kept all the year long. It bears the name of Vanity Fair, because the town where 'tis kept is lighter than vanity; and also because all that is there sold, or that comes thither is vanity. As is the saying of the wise, ‘All that comes is vanity.’
“This fair is no new erected business; but a thing of ancient standing. I will show you the original of it.
“Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are; and BEELZEBUB, APOLLYON, and LEGION, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the City lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold of all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long. Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold: as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms; lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts – as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.
“And moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be deceivers, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues and that of every kind.
“Here are to be seen, too – and that for nothing – thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers, and that of a blood red colour.
“Now, as I said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town, where the lusty fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go through this town, must needs go out of the world . . .”
Well, it develops that vain things hold no fascination for the pilgrims Christian and Faithful, who have neither time nor money for anything but truth. The townsfolk find such an attitude surpassing strange, and in short order they examine them, beat them, besmear them with dirt and cage them to make of them a public spectacle.
These two bear their humiliation with such uncommon grace and patience that some of the men of the town come over to their view and inform their fellow citizens that they are the ones behaving shamefully. A brawl erupts and, when it subsides, Christian and Faithful are hauled out and blamed for it as well.
They are sentenced to death and returned to the cage.
“Here therefore they called again to mind what they had heard from their faithful friend, EVANGELIST; and were the more confirmed in their way and sufferings by what he told them would happen to them. They also now comforted each other, that whose lot it was to suffer, even he should have the best of it; therefore each man secretly wished that he might have that preferment; but committing themselves to the all wise disposal of him that rules all things, with much content they abode in the condition in which they were, until they should be otherwise disposed of.”
So wrote John Bunyan in his Christian classic “Pilgrim’s Progress.” That old preacher – who also wrote our sermon hymn -- must have read and reread passages such as our epistle lesson for today and others like it as he crafted his tale of this fellow Christian who must make his way through the peril and perfidy of an alien world on his way to the Celestial City.
This lesson precedes the one we considered last week in chapter 2 of Peter’s first letter and in it we encounter those familiar themes of arrogance and submission and slavery and freedom. We also find new ones, beginning with a paradox:
Like Bunyan’s Christian, we inhabit the world that will be our eternal home and yet we are sojourners and pilgrims in it. We are all Abraham and Sarah, called to a far country to do our Lord’s bidding with His full knowledge of the obstacles and snares we will face along the route.
Until our Lord has completed His renovation of His creation, sin defines it. Sinfulness – the willful pursuit of iniquity – is the default mode of this realm of darkness. Jesus prescribed the antidote we have at our disposal now to prepare the way for His return in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Peter urges his readers, those children of light of his day and ours, to behave in such a way that the Gentiles would “by your good works which they observe” glorify God. We are His instruments for rolling back the darkness.
A few years ago a woman named Maria came each week to clean our house. As soon as she arrived she raised all the blinds and tied back all the drapes. Those in the business of combating mold, like those engaged in the war on sin, testify that light is the best disinfectant.
If we persevere in shining our Lord’s light into all the dark corners, some will receive the light and emerge from the shadowlands. You have one such standing before you. The example of a godly wife availeth much.
We may exercise ourselves in exegesis, we may labor at theology, but a sermon will never make as eloquent a case for Christianity as a Christian life well and faithfully lived. The gospel lived is the gospel unfurled.
He who lives out the gospel plants a seed. He may see no fruit but another will come along to water the ground and still another to reap the harvest. The gospel anoints those who enslave themselves to its Author and makes them its heralds.
They tell a tale of redemption, of sin and suffering and salvation. Its exquisite logic defies the world. It is too simple for the secularist to grasp: God created, man sinned, God died, man was saved . . . and freed from bondage.
The escape artist Houdini made a tidy living getting out of tight spots. Wherever he traveled he issued a challenge, proclaiming he could escape from any cell in the local jail in no time flat. And he never failed . . . almost.
He entered one cell and the heavy metal door clanged shut behind him. He produced from his belt a piece of metal and set to work without delay . . . but there was something strange about this lock.
Thirty minutes ticked away and he remained confined. An hour passed and he was still caged. His frustration was approaching the breaking point. He was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation. After two hours the great Houdini collapsed from exhaustion . . . collapsed against the door that had finally defeated him.
And when he did, the door swung open, for it had not been locked. Some crave freedom desperately and never find it, refusing to discern that our Lord has left unlocked the door out of our bondage and into His glory.
Some of our fellow citizens who have not accepted Christ peer nervously into the future and wonder if the nation should not embrace Christian principles while rejecting all of that “Son of God” superstition. If we lived according to the ethical principles of the Bible, could we not save first the country and then the world? Could we not achieve perfect freedom?
Oh my, no. Liberty without the Lord as Savior is an illusion. For mankind would be ever struggling to live up to a code of conduct, to a standard it could never attain. It would repeat ad infinitum the failure of the Pharisees. We cannot be good enough.
Yet this is the ethos of our secular age: perfection without redemption. Our ever-advancing knowledge will allow us to drain the swamp and save the planet. No one need pay a price for our sins.
We take exception.
And so now, Christian, armed with your perfect gospel knowledge, make your way through the darkness of this world and emerge in the realm of radiance. Pick your way through Vanity Fair, veering neither to left nor to right, forsaking its tawdry pleasures, and exit into the glory of God.
Those who receive the light you reflect will follow . . . and until the last day you may not know who they be. Trust . . . follow . . . trust more . . . lead . . . and allow your Lord to reveal Himself.
We may stand at the threshold of a day in which Christians meet the kind of hostility they knew in Peter’s. Cardinal George of Chicago, who died a few days ago, had said a few years ago: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
The first-century Roman world widely reviled the strange new sect called Christianity, circulating stories of depravity including incest and cannibalism.
The historian Tacitus wrote that Christians were “loathed because of their abominations.” Suetonius applauded the demented Nero’s persecution of them because they were people “animated by a novel and mischievous superstition.”
Peter urges on his readers as a counter-measure honorable conduct. Many of our brothers and sisters in the Muslim world are living out this teaching today. Their neighbors may revile them, they may shun their company, but when many Muslim employers seek a trustworthy employee they look first to the Christian community to supply one.
These Christ-followers have accepted the apostle’s teaching: The kingdom of God will not prevail using the methods of the kingdom of man. When Peter drew his sword and lopped off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus restored the ear and commanded Peter to sheath his sword.
The Christ did not take up the sword in His hands. He stretched out those hands to be pierced by nails. He did not heft a spear; He felt the thrust of the spear in His side. Peter now perceives that Christ conquered Satan by His death . . . the death that ushered in God’s kingdom of light and life.
The children of light can claim no status higher than their Lord’s. His submission is our model. And we carry more potent weapons than the world’s:
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Peter is preaching here subjection not to elders in the church but to the governing authorities. Some of them are vile. Are there no caveats?
There are. But before we invoke them let us remember that our Lord Christ commanded us to pay tribute to Caesar. He accepted the authority of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Peter saw Nero’s day, and no bloodier day has there been. The apostle died the most gruesome death imaginable in Rome at the hands of the authorities.
Following him, I submit again as I argued last week that our response is slavery. It is almost amusing to hear the secularists decry the absence of condemnation of slavery in the Scriptures. In fact, it’s worse than they know. Oh, much worse indeed.
The Scriptures celebrate slavery on every page . . . slavery to the Lord. God doesn’t overlook the horror of slavery. He uses that abominable institution to show us our need for a Liberator . . . the One who can free us from bondage to that evil master called sin.
A human master can torment us for a year or a decade or a lifetime. The author of sin can bedevil us for all eternity. When we agree with sin we agree with him, and he has us in his shackles. And the Redeemer is our only hope.
Peter is teaching the lesson of freedom while holding firmly in mind the memory of his Lord washing his feet . . . the work of a slave. Properly understood, liberty will manifest itself not in domination of others but in service to others.
We are most free when we honor the image of God in all people because we are most in tune with our pre-fall nature. Before the fall, Adam’s brief from his Creator was not to run roughshod over his family but to provide for and protect them. His was a priestly function.
His freedom lapsed when he chose not to serve God but to elevate himself to God’s level. So doing, he compromised his ability to serve his family, for the only truly free will is the will uninfected by sin. Sin demands service to self. Sin despises freedom.
Our Lord is our light. If He had demanded His due for a sinless life, if He had bypassed the cross to claim the crown, you and I would have nothing to plead but our own merits. And woe betide us. Amen.