Sunday Sermon • 1 Peter 3:13-22
“Set Christ Apart”
Post-Easter Series: “Feed My Sheep”
Last year Psychology Today magazine ran an article that would turn out to be far more prescient than they ever could have imagined. The article was titled, “What Are You Afraid Of?” While a glance at the title might lead one to believe that the article would be about different phobias that leave people paralyzed – phobias like the fear of spiders or snakes or the fear of heights – the article actually delved more deeply into core anxieties that act as an undertow in our lives, those fears that are constantly dragging us down and holding us back from becoming the type of person we really want to be – phobias like being rejected or being abandoned or being controlled or manipulated by others. What intrigued me about the article was the way it underscored our fear of losing control and being at the mercy of other people, especially when other people can rarely be trusted to have our best interest at heart (“What Are You Afraid Of?” Psychology Today, 8/4/19).
I call that article prescient because of how in spite of the fact that so many of our fears turn out to be unfounded, this fear of losing control has not. If anything, the last couple of months have pushed all of our phobia buttons more times than we care to admit. That’s because this novel coronavirus we’re all trying to avoid is something that in itself is beyond our control. Yes, we can wash our hands until we wash them raw. We can practice social distancing so that we don’t get close enough to others to touch them with a ten-foot pole, Yes, we can don masks to go out in public and bump elbows with one another instead of shaking hands like we used to. But even then, even then we know all too well that none of these practices is a sure-fired guarantee that we won’t come down with something. And so, we have been confronted with the fact that we are most definitely not in control, and the consequences of that reality make us afraid of what our future holds. It makes us afraid of the future now more than ever.
How, then, do we cope with such a fear? The best way to overcome our fear of no longer being in control is to commit ourselves to someone who is, someone who’s control over all threats and dangers in life, both seen and unseen, is unparalleled and never in question. The best way to overcome our fear of being out of control of our lives is to yield whatever control we ever thought we had in life to Jesus and to learn to be at his mercy, which at its core is at the same time outrageous and everlasting.
That’s the truth that Simon Peter had discovered in his own experience with Jesus and passed on to these new believers to whom he directed his first letter. Since Easter Sunday, we’ve been working our way through 1 Peter and revisiting what it means to live as Easter people, who have been given by God’s “great mercy…a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3).
In this section of the letter Peter addresses his readers’ fears over having no control over their lives and the pain that they are experiencing because of it. As a marginalized people they find themselves with the short end of the stick more times than they care to acknowledge and they wonder if their newfound faith in Jesus can give them anything to go on for the days ahead.
Peter, of course, assures them that it will. Their newfound faith in Jesus will very much sustain them. All that is required is for them to focus their attention on Jesus instead of the challenges that are before them, because if they do, they will find the power they need not to be pulled down by all of the things in their lives that are beyond their control.
“Do not fear their threats,” Peter tells them. “And do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.”
There are two memories Peter is drawing upon with that word of instruction. One is a teaching from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, which he no doubt had learned from Jesus. It’s from that part of Isaiah’s prophecy where Isaiah hears a word from God not to follow the rest of the nation in looking to a neighboring nation, the Assyrians, to secure their future. “Do not fear what they fear, and do not dread (what they dread). (For) the LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy. The LORD God Almighty is the one you are to revere and to set apart. The LORD God Almighty…will be for you a sanctuary” (Isa. 8:12-13). And indeed God was. Peter saw how Jesus did exactly that and how God honored his faith by raising him from the dead to a place at God’s right hand, where all angels and authorities and powers are in submission to him.
That was the first memory. The second one is a much more familiar story to us. It comes from an experience Peter himself had when he found himself with the other disciples in the midst of a howling storm in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, where those accomplished fisherman were out of control and at the mercy of the elements. As the Gospels record the episode, the disciples were out in the boat a considerable distance from land when the wind came against them and the waves began to beat against the sides of their boat. In the fourth watch of the night, the last watch right before the sun rises in the eastern sky, Jesus came walking to them on the water, but they did not recognize him. They thought he was a ghost, and the text says, “they were afraid.” That’s when Jesus called out to them and commanded them not to be afraid. At which point in one of the brashest acts anyone could ever have come up with, Simon Peter jumped out of the boat to go and be with Jesus. And so he was, walking with Jesus on the water, until he took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink. It was then that Jesus caught him and when together Jesus and Simon Peter climbed into the boat, the wind died down and the sea became calm, and the disciples together confessed, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Mt. 14:22-33).
Remarkable things always happen when people invite Jesus into their midst, into the very center of where their fears have gotten the best of them, so that his abiding presence cast out all fear and transforms the situation into one of peace and possibility.
Can you do that this morning? Can you invite Jesus into the center of your life, into the very place where fears of every type have camped out and taken over? Can you focus your attention on him so that his Easter power might deliver you from every threat and grant you a victory that only he can make possible?
Lillian Livingston was a member of a church I previously served. Her husband Duncan and she were solid, salt of the earth people. Just prior to my coming to the church, Duncan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Lillian was his primary caregiver. They were married for well over 50 years when they passed away, one month apart from one another.
Duncan was a traveling salesman for the Lance Cracker Company and serviced country stores all around the area. Though she worked for the county driver’s license agency, Lillian was primarily a housewife. To show you what kind of people the Livingstons were, Duncan would often come across someone down on his luck or in need of some encouragement, and more times than not, he’d bring them home with him for dinner. And Lillian, knowing her husband’s heart, even though she had four children to feed along with Duncan, always had an additional place set for anyone her husband might have brought home. It didn’t happen every night. But when it did, Lillian was ready. She always had a place set apart for an unforeseen guest.
When the family was sharing that story with me, I have to admit that I could think of a thousand reasons why I would never consider such a thing and all of them based on one emotion, the emotion of fear. But Duncan and Lillian had someone in the center of their lives that never let fear get the best of them. They had Jesus.
I’m not asking you to consider setting a place at your dinner table tonight for an unforeseen guest, though that wouldn’t be all that bad of a thing to do. But I am encouraging you to make sure that you always set a place in the center of your heart for Jesus. Only then will you find the strength and the courage to overcome every single one of your fears. Keep your focus on him and you won’t have anything to be afraid of, not anything at all.