Beloved, do not be surprised – 7th Sunday of Easter 2011

1 Peter 4:12 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you.”

Words of practical wisdom for us today in the Epistle reading from St Peter. Our life here is a time of testing – the “fiery ordeal” like the smelter’s furnace that purges away what is worthless and purifies the precious metal. Don’t be surprised, he says, for this is exactly what we are to expect. A time of testing, getting us ready for glory. At Ascensiontide our thoughts are filled with the triumph of Jesus, raised to God’s throne, a sign of our own destiny as his people. Peter’s words are a reminder that present testing is the necessary prelude: “no cross, no crown”, as the saying goes.

Peter probably has in mind the difficulties faced by the early Christians, ranging from misunderstanding to mocking rejection to downright hostility and deadly persecution. And of course such could be the fate of Christians today in many places. But perhaps the most likely source of our testing will be less obviously “suffering for the faith”. We may get disillusioned with the Christian organisation, or fed up with the carry on of christians. We may lose heart because we become aware of our own frailties and failings. We might find ourselves on the receiving end of personal hatred from another. We may have to endure difficulties in relationships, or the loss of work, or a serious illness; and our sense of hope and joy may crumble under the strain. Particularly so if we recognise some of our troubles to be brought on by ourselves. Peter reminds us, this is only to be expected. Yes it is painful and difficult, but, rightly understood, it is necessary testing that with God’s help purifies and strengthens.

Peter goes on with some advice. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God.” The instinct is to rail at the unfairness of life; I don’t deserve this; what sort of God allows this to happen? These might be honest feelings, and one must be honest with God; but there is a potential in them to make us bitter and lead us away from God. So Peter advises: humble yourselves – not only in bowing to the inevitable – the mighty hand which we cannot resist – but in trusting ourselves to the one who can save – in Scripture the “mighty hand of God” is known in his power to rescue his people. Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God – entrust yourself entirely to the only one who can save you.

But it is not an impotent acceptance of an impersonal fate. “Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.” We may, indeed we should, tell our woes to our heavenly Father; not to throw them in his face, as to one who is a cruel despot, but so that our burden may be shared by a merciful companion. “Low at his feet lay thy burden of carefulness, High on his heart he will bear it for thee.” We may not always find the burden removed entirely, but we may well find strength in which to carry it. Some people sneer at religion as a crutch for the weak. Well, so what? If turning to God in prayer makes the difference between coping and not coping, the wise man will get down on his knees.

Peter sees well that the problem with suffering and testing is that it may destroy us. There is no guarantee that suffering ennobles the character. It may well damage us, by making us bitter and resentful, by making us hard and hateful, and turning us away from God the source of love and goodness. Peter speaks of the devil prowling around like a ravenous lion looking for someone to devour; so we have to “sober and vigilant”, or “disciplined and alert”. We can’t avoid suffering, but with God’s help it can be turned to good account, rather than being the destruction of us.

Peter ends with some words of hope, to encourage us. “After you have suffered for a little while” – it may feel a lot longer, but in truth it is only a little while – “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, strengthen and settle you”. When we find ourselves in the middle of the fiery ordeal, we need not be surprised. We will instead turn to God in humility and trust, so that he may strengthen, support, and establish us for good.

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