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Great Themes of the Bible: People of God

A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on November 4, 2012.

1 Peter 2:1-12

Morning Prayer:

Good and Gracious God, we continue to pray for the residents of the East Coast.  We ask that you would lift them as they recover from the week’s tragedy.  Empower adults and families as they bear their own grief and dismay and as they tend to and care for their children.  We pray that you would hold families together and give them hope.  For those who are alone, we ask that you would provide a circle of friends to support and encourage each one.  We pray for police, fire and rescue crews, and utility workers.  Keep them safe, particularly when fatigue sets in.  Bless them as they are away from their own families.  We pray that you would work in the details of the government, insurance, and relief efforts to speed the return of normalcy for those whose lives have been most affected by the storm.  Father, as we approach election day, we thank you for this country of ours.  We recognize that, though imperfect in many ways, we are thankful that our nation tries harder than most, means better than most, and has a more humane and friendly purpose toward the world than most.  Thank you that we can live here in relative peace and well being, free to think as we please, speak as we please, and live as we please within the bounds of a stable society and a decent world.  Help us to bear our citizenship proudly and in ways that are worthy of our heritage.  Help us to do whatever we can to maintain and preserve this heritage and to pass it on undamaged and, if possible, to pass it on increased and strengthened to those who come after us.  Remind us that each of us bears responsibility for America.  Remind us that each of us is America and that together we are America.  Remind us that how we live together now and how we treat each other each day is always and forever important to the future of our nation.  Even today, lead us to exhibit the spirit of Christ in our politics.  When the votes are cast and the election is concluded, inspire the victors and losers alike to care first and foremost about America.  Lead them and us to lay aside our particular issues, our partisan labels, and our caricatures of one another in order to work together in ways that insure the blessings of liberty to ourselves, to posterity, and to the world.  We pray all this in the name of the one whose kingdom shall know no end, at whose name every knee shall bow, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Meditation Text:

By the very act of our modern theological attempts at translation, we have unconsciously distorted the gospel and transformed it into something it never claimed to be—ideas abstracted from Jesus, rather than Jesus with his people.

                                    —Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in Resident Aliens

Depending on where you drop in on Scripture, the people of God are called by different names.  If you drop in early near the beginning before they have had a chance to become a nation, they are often described by their ethnic background.  When Pharaoh calls the midwives and asks them why the babies of the slaves are not being destroyed, the midwives said, “The Hebrew women are so strong they deliver before we get there.”  Early on, the people of God are called by that ethnic heritage.  They are Hebrews. 

If we begin to move through scripture and we come to that period where David has brought all the tribes together, he has made Jerusalem the capitol, and they are now a nation, the people of God are called by the name of the nation.  They are Israel.

If we move on further into scripture and we come to the place where the nation has been destroyed, now the people of God are described by their religion.  Their religion is Judaism, and they are called Jews, even until the time of Jesus.

We move forward into that time, and we find that when we get to the New Testament, for those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ (same word in a different language), they are called by his name.  They are called Christians.  Individually, the people of God are Christians.  Together as a group of believers, they are called, the Church. 

Wherever you drop in on scripture, the people of God are described by that particular era in different ways.  But if you choose not to go by the name of the people, the group, or the population, and you choose to look for other descriptions that the Bible writers are inspired to use to describe the people of God, we find that there are other titles that are always based on the relationship between the people and the God who has called them. 

One way that the people are called is they are called beloved.  In the prophets, the parables of Jesus, in the Book of Revelation, and the Song of Solomon, the writers are inspired to use the relationship between a man and a woman (when they love each other dearly and desperately) as an analogy and a way of describing what it means for God to love his people. 

In the Song of Solomon, God is described as a pursuing lover.  In the Book of Revelation when there is the grand coming together of the bride and the groom at the great wedding feast, it is a wonderful celebration.  In between, Ezekiel calls forsaking God adultery and Hosea says that God’s love is so great, so deep, and so powerful that it even forgives that kind of unfaithfulness.  We are called beloved because that describes the relationship between God and God’s people.

If you were in Adult Bible Study today, the lesson was on the Greatest Commandment.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, with all your strength.  As God’s people, we are beloved and we love God in return.

There is a second way that the people of God have been known and this one has often caused the people of God a lot of problems.  This one has tripped us up and, in many ways, been the undoing of the people of God.  It is a word that is used in Old Testament.  It is a word that is used in the passage from 1 Peter 2, and it is a word which often comes to mind.  The people of God are a chosen people.  We tend to sometimes get that wrong.

It has been a long time since I was in school, but we used to call it Teacher’s Pet.  What do they call it today?  Is that still the same thing?  You know who I am talking about—the person who always sits next to the teacher and says, “Oh, I’ll help you do that.” 

The coach always had a favorite player.  It did not seem like that player was quite as good as someone else in the position, but they always got to play.  We called him the Coach’s Favorite

I know a family with multiple siblings and they will tell you today which one was MSO (Mom’s Special One) because in some families there is someone who is the chosen child, the one who is the favorite. 

We often get tripped up and we often make a mistake when we think that to be chosen people is like being the Coach’s Favorite, the Teacher’s Pet or MSO.  We think that our bad habits might be indulged, that our failures might be excused, that there is extra attention or a larger gift at Christmas, and that there is some privilege that comes with it.  The people I have known who occupy these positions often assume that it is just the natural order of things.  Well, of course.  I’m the one.  I’m chosen.  I’m the special one.

That is not what God intended when he chose a people.  It is not what is meant when Peter in the First Letter of Peter says, “You are a chosen people.”  There are really two sides to this coin of being God’s chosen people.  One side is the beloved side.  On one side is what I describe as that great and intense sense of loving God and being loved by God.  But a coin always has two sides.  On the other side, I tried to come up with a word to describe it.  I will not pretend that this is a word that would have been used in scripture to describe it, but maybe it comes closest in our experience to understanding what it means, and that is drafted

If you are not old enough to remember a military draft, I would suggest you ask a parent or a grandparent about what it means to be drafted.  Ask them what it means to receive a letter from the government that tells you that your life is not your own.  You have been called to service and you will service as directed by the government.  Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam can talk about it.  While I did not go to Vietnam, I was the first year without a college deferment and they did a lottery.  I can remember everybody waiting desperately to find out what their number was so we would know whether or not we would be drafted. 

To be chosen is to be called for service.  It is to do the work of God, to live out the purpose of God, and to do God’s bidding.  When we stand in the baptismal waters and say that Jesus Christ is Lord, then that does make us servants of God.  We are, therefore, called to carry out that service.

Peter also alludes to this when he talks about being a royal priesthood.  The priests serve in the temple.  It is one thing to be beloved and it is another thing to recognize that that love is not privilege but calls us to do the work of God. When God’s people are faithful to the calling, this is what they are known for throughout scripture.  They are doing the work of God.

When Peter is talking about the foundation and the rocks, the idea is that when Jesus is the foundation, what is a worthy structure to build on top of the foundation?  If we, as God’s people, are built on top of the foundation, what would be worthy of being built on top of Jesus Christ?  It is when we begin to ask these questions that we see we are called to live a particular way.  As God’s chosen people, we are not only servants but we are called to reflect the very character of God in the world.  People are supposed to be able to look at us and see the things, the work, the spirit, and the characteristics of God. 

What we want to do is say, “Don’t look at me.  Look at Jesus.  Don’t look at me.  I am not worthy of that.”   However, the scriptures tell us that people are going to look at us.  They do look at us.  Just because it is hard doesn’t mean that we can be excused. 

If, as God’s chosen people, we are called to serve God, and if we are called to be a worthy structure built on top of the foundation of Jesus Christ, what would a people look like that are reflecting God’s nature in the world?  If we were to describe God as “the Lord is my shepherd,” or when we pray we say “Our Father, who art in heaven,” or when we quote the verse that nearly everyone can quote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” what kind of people would reflect the character of that God?

All of a sudden, the passage begins to make sense to us.  In all the passages and the letters of the New Testament, many times Paul says, “Lay aside this.  Don’t do this.  Lay aside these activities.”  Peter says, “Rid yourselves, therefore, of malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander.”  These things would not reflect the God that we would describe when we quote the 23rd Psalm or say the Lord’s Prayer or talk about how he sent his only son to save us.  We would have to get rid of these things if we wanted to reflect the God of the Bible. 

If you notice in the Letters of Paul or 1 Peter, it is not only get rid of the malice, slander, etc., but it is also put on this, start doing this.  “You are a chosen race, a holy priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  So live and begin to take on the very characteristics of God.  What would those be? 

If God forgives us, are we not to be a forgiving people?  If God is merciful to us, are we not to be a people of mercy?  If God is compassionate, are we not to be people of compassion?  Therefore, we would represent him in the world. This is what it means to be chosen people. 

This is the season of the year in which we often reflect upon how being a child of God affects our hearts.  One of the things we include in that is whether or not we are a generous people.  If one of the first things we say about the character and nature of God is that “God so loved the world he gave. . .”  that might be one of the things that would be a hallmark of the people of God as well. The people of God are giving people. 

In this church for many years, we have said, “This is the time of year we want to pledge the budget.”  We have gotten away from that.  We don’t ask for anybody to pledge an amount.  We simply ask people to consider in your own life what it means to reflect God’s nature in the area of generosity.  Why do this as opposed to not doing it in other areas?  Because we all know that the wallet is one of the last converted places in many of our lives.  We all hold back secret corners of our hearts and places that we will give to God everything but that.  We know from our own resistance to it that, if that part of our lives would be converted, our whole lives would be.  It is the final frontier, the last campaign.  It is to make sure that we truly and completely have given ourselves totally to God.

Nobody is asking you to pledge the budget.  Nobody is asking you to give an amount.  You are being asked just to consider the question, Does generosity play a factor in what it means for you to be a part of the people of God?  If so, how would you indicate that?

Perhaps you noticed in the mail this week that the Stewardship Committee sent you a card where you can check off different ways that you might indicate and grow in what it means to be a generous person.  I hope if you did not look at your mail or did not see it that you will go back and look for it and that you will consider, as an exercise in personal expression of love and return to God, what you might put on that card.

We are a chosen people.  That does not mean that we have privilege.  That does not mean that our failures are excused, and it does not mean that we are looking to see what we can get out of it.  We have been called to God’s work and to reflect the nature of a loving, giving, and compassionate God in the world.  That a simple thing to do in order to indicate where our hearts are.