To say it’s a strange time is an understatement. As this pandemic looms, and the lockdown enters its second month, it’s very interesting to see how people are reacting. While some sit at home bored, others, like front-line and emergency workers, are being run off their feet. The educated professionals that are used to having “important jobs” have been told they are “non-essential” while the service and retail workers who they used to look down on are now treated as vital “essential workers” who put their life on the line every day serving the public.
I’m 100% sympathetic to how difficult it must be these days to be a doctor, nurse, or other medical workers – but as a former Wal-Mart stock-boy and cashier, I have a special spot in my heart for the people at the grocery and department stores whose lives are all now far more complicated, much scarier, and way more difficult. Imagine for a moment being a 16-year-old grocery store cashier. It’s your first job and you just started a couple months ago. It seemed pretty straightforward. The main parts of the job were to know where stuff is, get the money right, and be polite to people.
How must they feel now? All of a sudden they are given surgical masks and gloves, are stuck in a Plexiglas cage, and have a dozen new rules to follow. The public is panicking and the management doesn’t know exactly what to do. And, they’re told that if they don’t get it right they could be held responsible for spreading a deadly virus. What must it be like as a parent to send your teen off to work these days while you are forced to stay at home?
Coping with Stress
No matter who you are – everyone in every arena of life has been affected by this. And, as the internet churns out more information, the government makes more announcements, the 24-hour-news-cycle generates more stories to grab your attention, and the weeks continue to wear on and on — everyone having to deal with more stress, anxiety, fear, confusion, loneliness, and worry.
How are people coping? I saw an interesting graphic this week put out by Stats Canada[i] talking about what Canadians are doing to deal with the challenges the COVID-19 situation has brought. As it turns out they’re watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, surfing a lot of internet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. I would imagine that if Stats Canada dug a little deeper they would find that Canadians are dealing in a whole lot of other self-destructive ways too.
Consider your own life over the past few weeks. How have you reacted to increased stress, decreased accountability, more time on your hands, or more responsibility dumped in your lap? What have you been doing to “cope” with your stress? More arguing and controlling? More alcohol or food? More pornography and non-stop media? Or are you sleeping more, avoiding life, zoning out? What have your interactions online looked like during this time? God honouring, faith-producing, helpful posts that point to truth and hope – or are you spreading fear, argument, and gossip?
Trial by Fire
Stressful times, and not just during global pandemics, bring out the best and the worst in people. The Bible talks about times like this being like going through a “fire” that either causes you to be refined like gold in a furnace, showing and helping you remove the negative dross in your life – or causing your whole life to burn down as you realize that everything from your foundation up was just made of matchsticks.
And I’m not talking about just the difference between believers and non-believers – though that is certainly the case too. I’m talking about Christians.
Turn with me and consider 1 Peter 1:3–7:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Peter is talking to Christians here who were going through a very difficult time of persecution and trial. He reminds them that their salvation is because of God’s “mercy” – meaning that He didn’t have to save them, but chose to anyway. He reminds them of what their present faith is in – the God who gives them a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Then, like the verse we read last week in Romans 8 that says nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ, Peter then reminds them that because of God’s mercy, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, nothing can ever take away that hope because it is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”.
He tells them that it is in remembering those things – the love of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ, their security in Heaven – all the things we talked about last week – that, as the meditate on their salvation in Jesus, they will find the strength and desire to pray, worship, trust, serve, and “rejoice”, even in the midst of their “various trials”.
But look at verse 6 again where Peter says that their rejoicing will be mingled and mixed with grief. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” Christianity doesn’t say that as soon as we get saved all our earthly problems are solved. That’s a false gospel. If anyone has ever told you that the reason that you are going through a bad time – grieving, suffering, hurting, sadness – is because you don’t believe in God hard enough – they are not telling you the gospel. That’s not Biblical truth.
Think about John chapters 13-17, the discourse in the Upper Room. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He told the disciples a lot of important things about what was coming and how they should respond. He washed their feet and then told them to serve one another in love. He told them that their faith in Him would let them see and experience the presence of God. He told them how to pray and that if they need something they only need to ask in His name. He told them of the importance of obedience and how the presence of the Holy Spirit would help them to know Him, follow Him, and would connect them to Him in the most intimate way imaginable.
And He gave warnings, telling them to stay connected to Him or their life would be weak and meaningless. He said,
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Then He warned them that living like that would make the world hate them, just as it hated Him. But, no matter what, He would never, ever leave them alone – and would always comfort and help them.
Then He warned again them about his imminent death, and the great sorrow they would feel – but that, after He rose again, their sorrow would turn to joy, and that joy would be greater than they had ever experienced before.
And then, after talking for hours, right before He prayed for them – and us – in His “High Priestly Prayer”… as He was rising to leave to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to face that death, He said this:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
That’s the gospel. In this world you will have trouble and trials and struggle and difficulty. This world is still affected by sin. As Peter said, “For a little while” meaning, in this life, we will be “grieved by various trials” – but “but take heart; [Jesus has] overcome the world”.
Testing the Genuineness of Your Faith
That’s what the next verses in 1 Peter 1:6–7 basically say: “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
These trials and difficulties, all the frustrations we are facing, the worry that has come over us – whether it’s the death of a loved one, our own sickness, a financial or job loss, dealing with loneliness, or having our work become harder, more complicated, and have more risk – are part of what Peter means when he says “various trials”.
What do these do? He says they “test” the “genuineness of your faith”. In other words, these times force you to see whether or not you really believe what you say you believe. At the same time, while it tests the strength of your faith – the strength of your convictions – it also shows you what your faith is actually in.
God uses trials like this to refine and reveal. He refines your faith, strengthens your faith, purifies your faith, by forcing you to see and remove what is weakening it – and it reveals things in your life, showing you things about yourself and others, that you didn’t even know were there.
Bear the Fruit of Repentance
Turn with me to Luke 3:1–20. I want to share something that I think God was telling me this week about myself, and that might help you:
This is the introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist, a man sent by God – the final Old Testament style prophet – who was meant to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”
So there’s the general tone of John the Baptist’s message: “The Messiah is coming to begin the final work of salvation, so get yourselves ready for it.” Remember a couple weeks ago I preached the “Epic” sermon about the various phases of God’s plan of salvation? Here’s the announcement of God’s final and greatest phase: The Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the Judge of All Mankind, is coming into the world – with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and the refining fires of the Holy Spirit to purify the world before God’s wrath, God’s refining fire, sweeps through the whole world burning away the fruitless trees and worthless chaff.
He preached this with power and conviction and as he said, “Get ready” he would invite people to repent. To repent means to change your life, turn around and go the other way, acknowledge you are wrong and start doing right. And to show that repentance he invited them to be baptized – an external washing to show their desire to be clean on the inside.
But, some were coming for baptism that only wanted the outer sign, not to change their ways. But John wasn’t interested in numbers – he wanted people to really change and get ready for the coming of Jesus. He wanted the hard soil of their hearts to be tilled up, made soft, and made ready for the seeds of the gospel that Jesus would be coming to preach.
But some people just wanted to go through the motions. They wanted to say they had been baptised, but they didn’t actually want to repent. For whatever reason – out of fear, peer-pressure, religious devotion, or misunderstanding – when they came to John they didn’t want to change their hearts and prepare themselves for Jesus – they didn’t care about their sin – they just wanted to get wet.
John hated that hypocrisy because it was the same hypocrisy that completely dominated the whole Jewish religion at that point. So He looked at the crowds who were all excited to be baptized and said, “You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? I see your motives and I know that you’re not here to give your hearts to God and submit to the Messiah – you’re here for your own selfish, stupid reasons. You make excuses for your sin and think you’re going to escape God’s wrath because of your religious traditions or because you’re going through some religious motions. That won’t work! Religious devotion, devoid of repentance, devoid of hatred of sin and submission to God, will still lead you to hell.”
And when Jesus came, and the religious people saw Him and heard his message of repentance and submission to Him, they didn’t repent – they hated what He said and murdered Him so they could keep being religious hypocrites. The presence of Jesus was the fire, the trial that revealed their sin –and showed everyone how evil they really were.
The crowds, seeing how serious John was about making sure their hearts were right with God before they participated in any sort of external sign, said in verse 10, “Ok, then what shall we do?” If we’re not supposed to be just doing religious stuff – getting wet, singing the songs, saying the prayers, doing the sacrifices, bringing the tithe – if none of that actually matters to God, then what are we supposed to be doing? We’re here to get baptized because you told us to get baptized or God will be mad at us… so what are we supposed to do?
John’s answer was the one that we saw in verse 8. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. In other words, make your life show that your repentance is real – that you sin and want to be godly. Real repentance will require changed life, changed behaviour, different priorities, and different ethics. It reminds me of the famous passage in Micah 6:6-8,
“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s basically what John was saying, right? “If you’ve got extra, share. If you’re in a position of power, be kind and fair and honest. Show God you love Him, that your repentance is real, that your faith is real, that you want Jesus in your life and trust His way is the best way – by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly as a servant of God.”
Herod the tetrarch didn’t like this message. He was caught in a bunch of public sins that went against God’s commandments, and John called him out on it. What was Herod’s response? Arrest John and lock him in a room where he couldn’t hear him anymore.
That’s my conclusion today: During this time you are going to be faced with all kinds of temptations. Some in your home, others at work. Some online, others face to face. There will be temptations to overuse things that bring you comfort, to overindulge in addictions, waste your time, and use self-destructive behaviour. Some of you will face the temptation to live in fear and to be a fear monger, spreading bitterness and paranoia. Others will be tempted to be selfish and greedy or to make personal gain on the back of the suffering. Some will take their fear out on convenient people that don’t deserve it. Some will face emotional struggles worries rise up. Others will face spiritual struggles as they neglect prayer times, study times, and fellowship opportunities. Some will be tempted toward hopelessness while others will try to live in denial.
The list of temptations is endless – but what I want you to see is that this strange time that we are going through is also an opportunity for God to refine your faith and reveal your weaknesses and strengths.
When it happens, and God shows you your sin, feel the guilt and shame – but don’t be overwhelmed by it – just turn that sin over to Jesus, accept that He died for that sin too, accept His forgiveness – and then repent. Change the behaviour, put up a wall between you and the sin, tell someone else about your struggle, do the opposite of it, and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Then, if you choose to humbly reflect on your life, admit that you need a lot of help, listen to the voice of God, and allow Him to make some changes, God will refine you and you will be a stronger, more faithful, more joyful, person on the other side of this.
Or, you can respond like Herod. When God’s Spirit convicts you, when He shows you your sin – tell Him to shut up, lock that voice away, pretend you didn’t hear it, and persist in your sin – and then come out the other side of this time more addicted, more afraid, more bitter, more controlling, and more hurtful than when you went in.
I don’t want that for any of you. Please, submit to God. Listen to His voice. Cut out the things that are hurting your soul. And bear fruits in keeping with repentance.