Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 24, 2020
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 Commentary
Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam chronicles her travels along the 10th parallel. In it she notes that many Muslims and Christians live and work close to each other along that parallel.
Peter wouldn’t surprise either Christians or Muslims in those areas when he says, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (5:8). Both Islam and Christianity, after all, don’t just take evil very seriously. They also see it personified in a devil.
Yet while modern first world Christians sometimes seem reluctant to talk about Satan, Peter isn’t. While westerners sometimes almost seem embarrassed by such talk, the apostle is very blunt about the evil one and his intentions.
Western citizens of the 21st century sometimes seem more comfortable with talking about vampires, aliens and monsters than Satan. By contrast, Peter isn’t shy about insisting that a merciless Satan is relentlessly hunting down Jesus’ followers.
Yet Satan the stalker may prefer the anonymity Christians sometimes afford him to Peter’s stark warnings. I imagine he’d rather track unsuspecting enemies than boldly attack prey that’s on the lookout for him. Satan could hardly ask for better cover than the belief he doesn’t exist or claims that he’s nothing more than a metaphor for evil.
Jesus certainly didn’t share some of our contemporaries’ skepticism about a real devil. After all, Satan’s “prowling” reached its peak in his attacks on him. Right at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Satan tempted him in the wilderness. He also dogged Jesus throughout his life. However, we believe Satan’s attack on Jesus climaxed in Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus, of course, both successfully resisted Satan’s attacks and defeated him. When he ascended to the heavenly realm he took his place at God’s right hand from where he rules over all powers, dominions and authority, including Satan.
However, a defeated and controlled Satan is perhaps an especially dangerous Satan. He at least suspects that he doesn’t have long to live. So Satan pours out his fury with growing intensity against God’s people.
That makes him a bit like Adolf Hitler in his last days. He knew that his enemies were closing in on him. Hitler at least suspected his end was near. But he threw children and old men into his defense of his thousand-year kingdom. And he ordered his concentration camps to ovens burn even hotter.
Peter calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to resist the dying Satan’s perhaps similarly increasingly virulent attacks. Yet Christians easily assume that means attacking people with whom we don’t agree or who are attacking us.
So Christians sometimes battle their Muslim neighbors in African countries like Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia. However, they also sometimes battle each other along the 10th parallel in Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Of course, those who seem be at least unwitting allies of Satan sometimes can be unremitting and cruel in their attacks on Jesus’ followers. In fact, even the current pandemic has given no rest from persecution for Jesus’ beleaguered and embattled followers in much of the world.
Eliza Griswold quotes the head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria as saying, “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naïve to sweep the issue of Islam under the carpet. I’m not out to combat anybody … [Yet as] I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”
But those who assume personifying Satan is a just a developing world problem should ask ourselves how many different people Americans have historically linked to Satan. Cartoons during World War II depicted, at various times, Japanese-Americans and Nazis with “devil’s horns.” Or think of how often people have identified Hitler, Stalin and Mao as the anti-Christ.
A few years ago I audited a course at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on fostering healthy relationships between Jews and Christians. Both its Christian and Jewish leaders reminded us how often Jews were historically portrayed as having “devil’s horns.”
Satan is quite pleased to have Jesus’ followers identify him with all sorts of other individuals, countries and religions. That, after all, may easily desensitize us to the reality of him at work right in our own hearts and lives.
Evil is very real in our world. People, including countless Christians, are suffering deeply because of it. But God’s dearly beloved people sometimes assume the line between good and evil runs between people, especially between us “good” folks and people we label as “bad.” We’re more likely to identify Satan and it in others than in ourselves.
Yet as my colleague Fleming Rutledge likes to point out, the line between good and evil runs right through even Christians. We too easily cave in to Satan’s temptations. He’s “roaring” just as much in Jesus’ followers’ hearts and lives as he is anywhere “out there.”
Yet Peter insists Satan’s relentless prowling and growling doesn’t get the last word. The last word is, in many ways, 1 Peter 5:7’s “God cares for you.” It’s what a colleague calls a “transfer of cares.”
Peter invites those who proclaim and hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to think about the cares that keep us awake until or wake us up in the middle of the night. The list may be a kilometer long. Those who proclaim I Peter 4 and 5 might even explore the list with our hearers.
Of course, in this strange time of pandemic, many of those cares are related to COVID-19 and its repercussions. Our cares include concerns about those we love and ourselves getting sick from it or even dying of it. They include worries about health care workers, first responders and others being poorly protected against its relentless assaults. The cares Peter invites us to cast upon the Lord include concerns for the virus’ impact on local, national and global economies.
But, of course, Satan’s arsenal is deep and creative. So I Peter 4 and 5’s proclaimers’ cares range beyond this pandemic. Maybe they include children or grandchildren who have wandered away. Perhaps it’s the downsizing in our hearers’ workplace. Maybe it’s a strange lump or lingering pain. Or maybe it’s sometimes forgetting just why you walked into that room.
This morning Peter invites us to take that anxiety, that “care” and hand it over to God. We can transfer our cares to God because God so deeply cares for us. God cares about Satan’s growling, prowling presence in our lives. Since we aren’t God, we might as well hand our care over to the only One who can be God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What happens to God’s adopted children matters to God. Yet that’s not always easy for us to recognize. After all, God allows things to happen that make even Christians question whether God cares for us. People we love and we lose jobs, health and economic well-being.
So how can the Spirit restore Jesus’ followers’ trust that God cares for us? My colleague Scott Hoezee invites us to think about how we believe a friend cares for us. How might we know that? It has to do with our history together.
For example, my belief that my wife cares for me is based on hundreds of thousands of big and little things that have happened over the years to and between us. Things like how we first met and the kinds of things we like to do together. Things like how we’ve been there for each other in both good and bad times.
How do God’s adopted children know that God cares for us, that what happens to us matters to God? Well, what’s our story together? God created all things, including people, good. God creates us in God’s image, to be like God in so many ways.
Do both those who proclaim and those who hear this Sunday’ Epistolary Lesson wonder if God really cares for us? Think of how God freed our Hebrew ancestors from Egyptian slavery and gave them a home in the land of promise. Think of how God sent Jesus Christ to live, die and rise again from the dead.
Do Jesus’ followers wonder if what happens to us matters to God? Look to the end of this creation and humanity’s story. In verse 10 Peter promises, “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” In other words, God, not suffering nor temptation or anxiety gets the last word. God will restore God’s adopted sons and daughters.
That knowledge frees us to give our anxieties and cares to God so that we can live lives of loving service. God’s care for us frees us to worry less about things like our health and salvation and more about serving God and our neighbors.
Griswold tells the story of James Movel Wuye, a Nigerian pastor who works alongside Imam Muhammad Nurayan Ashafa to change the way Christians and Muslims view each other. In the late 20th century each taught thousands of their young followers to resist Satan by killing each other. The imam’s followers even chopped off Pastor Wuye’s arm.
But now Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye teach young people to respect each other’s differences. They both remain deeply committed to their respective faiths. Imam Ashafa even says, “I want James to die as a Muslim, and he wants me to die as a Christian.” Yet they’re respectful partners in cultivating a deeper unity among Nigerian youth of all religions.
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