YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE A REFUGEE
A sermon on 1 Peter 1:17-23
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
April 26, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The last movie that I saw before the theaters closed down in response to COVID-19 was the epic war film 1917. If you have not yet seen it, I would heartily recommend it to you. As the title might imply, it is a movie that occurs during the First World War. It would be fair to say that it is one of the most honored movies made last year. It won numerous awards at film festivals all over the world, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards this year, including that of “Best Picture.” It did not win that one, but it did win three other Oscars at the awards ceremony held back in February. I am sure that it is available on one of the streaming services if you would like to see it. And it was released on DVD last month. It is a well-made movie that is worth your time.
The plot of 1917 is an adaptation of a story that director Sam Mendes heard his grandfather tell years ago. The movie revolves around two British soldiers who were stationed close to the front battle line in France. There is an assault planned on the German positions in the next day or two. However, British intelligence has discovered that the Germans have received word of the impending attack and have fortified their position. If the attack proceeds as planned, then over 1600 British soldiers will be slaughtered within a matter of minutes. Furthermore communication lines had been cut. It was determined that the only way to call off the assault was to send someone to deliver the message personally to the commander of the unit involved. So two young British soldiers volunteer to deliver the message. But, in order to do that, they have to make their way across several miles of no-man’s-land. (To further add to the urgency of the story, one of the soldiers has a brother in the unit that is to lead the attack.) The movie follows the two soldiers as they make their way to the endangered unit. It is a story of courage, perseverance, duty, resourcefulness, and hope against formidable odds.
One scene toward the end of the movie depicts a group of several dozen British soldiers resting and sitting around under the shade of some trees. It is quiet among the soldiers. No one says a word. They know that they will soon be thrown into battle. Their minds are filled with thoughts of home…and families…and sweethearts…and wives as they contemplate the upcoming fight. The expressions on their faces are somber and thoughtful. They are fully aware that many of them will likely fall in the hours that lay just ahead.
A lone soldier stands up in the middle of the group. He begins to sing a song in a gorgeous tenor voice that catches the attention of his fellow soldiers. The song that he sings is one that I am sure you have probably heard before. It is the traditional folk song “Wayfaring Stranger.” The camera pans the group of soldiers, showing their faces as they hear the song and think about the looming battle. It is a poignant, compelling moment:
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I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while travelling through this world of woe,
Yet, there’s no sickness, toil nor danger, in that bright land to which I go.
I’m going there to see my Father; I’m going there no more to roam.
I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.
I know dark clouds will gather o’er me, I know my way is rough and steep;
Yet beauteous fields lay just before me, where God’s redeemed their vigil keep.
I’m going there to see my mother; she said she’d meet me when I come.
I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.
I want to wear a crown of glory, when I get home to that good land;
I want to sing salvation’s story, in concert with the blood-washed band.
I’m going there to meet my Savior; to sing his praises evermore.
I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.
“I am a poor wayfaring stranger…” The soldiers are far away from home and all that is familiar to them. In the present moment, they face imminent danger in a strange land. The words and the haunting melody of the song underscore that feeling in a powerful way. In the scripture text for today in 1 Peter 1, the apostle speaks to Christians, noting that they too are “poor wayfaring strangers” in a land that is not their home…
1 Peter 1:17 reads, “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during your time of exile.” He describes their lives as a time of living in exile. What does he mean by that?
In the opening verse of 1 Peter, we discover that this letter is addressed to the members of the churches in Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia… These are names of Roman provinces that are primarily located in Asia Minor—the land we now know as Turkey. The names were also those of ancient kingdoms whose power had waned and which were brought under the control of ancient Greece and then later Imperial Rome. Within these churches, there would be many different types of people—Greeks, Romans, Asians and probably some Jewish believers as well. And he addresses them all as “exiles.”
Years ago when I served as a journeyman missionary in Japan, I had a conversation with a college student who was spiritually searching. He had heard about Jesus through some of the English language Bible classes that the missionaries taught. He admitted to me that he felt a desire to explore the Christian faith further. As he and I chatted about faith and the claims of Christ, he asked me a pointed question that caught me off-guard. He asked, “How can I be a Christian and be Japanese at the same time?”
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At first, that seemed to me to be an odd question. But it was not long before I understood what he meant.
At that time, Christians made up only about one percent of the Japanese population. The dominant religions in Japan were Buddhism and Shinto—and I guess they still are. (One example—traditionally most Japanese people have Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals. That may seem to be curious to our Western minds, but no one in Japan sees anything particularly strange about it…)
Most national holidays in Japan are built around Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and practices. Taking part in these cultural/religious celebrations is a part of what it means to identify as a Japanese citizen. It is a vital part of the culture. To refuse to participate in things like worshiping ancestors or praying to various gods during the appropriate festivals means to reject one’s own heritage. It also brings shame because it means that you are not fulfilling your obligations to your family. If this student were to become a baptized follower of Jesus, he realized that he could no longer do those things with a clear conscience. He recognized that he could not be a follower of Jesus and pray to other gods or worship his ancestors. But…if he refused to participate in these practices, then he would likely be estranged from his friends and face rejection from his own family. In all likelihood, he would become an outsider—an exile—even among his own people… IF he took the claims of Christ seriously…1
A similar situation confronted the churches to whom Peter was writing. At that time, Christianity was a very small minority religion in the Mediterranean world—one among a host of other competing religions. There were the traditional religions of Rome which worshiped the old gods and the new. There was the cult of emperor worship that was becoming an essential part of Roman society. There were ancient indigenous gods that retained their followers even after the Roman conquest. There was a movement of new religious sects that cropped up—the groups called by scholars as the “mystery religions” that beckoned many. And Christianity found itself competing with the old religion of the Jews who based their faith and practices wholly on the Old Testament law and traditions of the elders.
All of these religions had their own set of customs, rituals and observances that were celebrated in that culture. The brutal truth is that none of them were compatible with the Christian faith. Thus, to live in the Roman Empire at this time as a Christian was to live as an exile—a person whose identity and way of living was often at odds with the prevailing norms of society.
One of the main emphases of 1 Peter is the instruction of the apostle to live lives as Christ has taught us to live. Peter teaches that he lifestyle of a follower of Jesus should be different than the way others live in the prevailing culture. In essence, he writes that since we know the truth and have been brought into a new relationship to God in Christ, then they should live like it. Peter writes in the verses preceding today’s passage, “Therefore prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform
1 A few months after we had this conversation, my college student friend moved out of the area and I never spoke with him again. Sadly, I do not know if he was ever able to resolve his questions.
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to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
He continues in today’s passage, “Live your lives in reverent fear…because you know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors…with the precious blood of Christ.” (Verses 17-19—emphasis mine.) What Peter is telling them (and us) is, because you have been brought into a new relationship with Christ, then live like it. And why? Because you know better…
And what does that look like? In addition to a call for holy living, Peter goes on to discuss one of the most important characteristics of one who lives like they have a new relationship to God in Christ. That characteristic is love. In verse 22, Peter writes, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” And in chapter two, he writes, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world”—there’s that idea of being in “exile” again—“to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.” (2:11-12)
The use of the term “exile” in today’s passage would have been fraught with meaning for any of Peter’s readers who came out of Judaism or who had any knowledge of Jewish history. That is because one of the pivotal events of the Old Testament had to do with an event known as “The Exile.”
A little bit of Old Testament background…After the reign of King Solomon ended in 922 BC, the nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The ten northern tribes formed a nation referred to as “Northern Israel.” The southern tribes formed a different nation which came to be known as “Judah.” Northern Israel ceased to be a nation when it fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC. Judah managed to stay independent for a little while longer, but then they fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC. When Judah was conquered, the city of Jerusalem was plundered and the Temple—the center of the worship of God—was utterly destroyed. From among the people of Judah, many were taken away from their lands and homes and carried off to Babylon. This became known among the Jewish people as The Exile.
Many of the books of the Old Testament were written during this time of exile as a backdrop. Much of the prophetic writings and even many of the Psalms were written during this time of exile. For example, one can hear the pain of exile and the longing for home reflected in these verses from Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
When we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
For there our captors asked us for songs,
Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
While in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)
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Perhaps the first readers of Peter’s letter felt the same way…living as followers of Jesus among people who did not know him.
So if the followers of Jesus are to live as a people in exile, what does that look like? Peter has already told them that they are to live their lives in a Godly manner—in a way that reflects that they have been redeemed by Christ and brought into a new relationship with God. But what else? How might living as an exile look to Peter’s readers—and to us?
The prophet Jeremiah gives us a unique perspective on how to live as an exile. His advice to the Jews who are living in exile in Babylon would seem to be that you do not have to live like a refugee. Yes—it is true that Peter calls you to live the distinctive Christ-life that God has called you to live. And yet we are not to completely withdraw from the world. We are to live as obedient believers, so that those who are not Christians may benefit from our presence and influence. In Jeremiah 29, the prophet writes,
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles who I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for our sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Verses 4-7)
The prophet tells us that, even though we are exiles in the world due to our faith in Christ, that we are to work for the good of the community in which we find ourselves. This world may not be our home, but we are to seek its welfare and work for its benefit. And as we do that, we will have opportunities to share the good news of Christ. And we will be able to help the Holy Spirit fulfill the words of the prayer that we pray together every Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so Lord for all who read this sermon…May it be so.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
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YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE A REFUGEE