How big is your world?
You are not the centre of the world (most of us know we are not the centre of the world) but at the same time, from some kind of centre you take in the world around you:
You see the world looking out from where you are.
You relate to the world and to others from your body.
You identify people and institutions that are important to you.
You pay attention to certain things and ignore other things.
You may not be the centre of the world, but you are at the centre of something. And from that kind of centre, what do you see? What are the things that register for you? How far does your gaze reach? How big is your world?
As we think about who we are and what matters to us, perhaps we think about our past – perhaps we think about grand parents and great grandparents and their influence in our lives – or about the towns or cities or countries that our recent ancestors came from.
And when we think about our lives and our identity, perhaps we also think about our future. Perhaps our own immediate future preoccupies us. What we will do in the next few months – who we will see – where we will go. If we think a little further into the future perhaps it is in terms of how those we love will fare in the years ahead.
And of course we think about other things in our world. Other things register for us: our work and our neighbours and our studies and our research and our family. Our world includes all of these different realities.
When we look out from our particular location in time and space – these are some of the things that register for us – that mean something to us. And for each of us the world is different in size. For some of us the world is quite small – we don’t see much beyond our immediate family or our immediate past – or the near future. That’s all we see.
For others of us the world may be slightly bigger – we may have broader experience within the world. We may think of our research or studies in terms of its impact on future lives and wider communities. We may have an interest in history that takes us a little further back into the experiences of our ancestors.
How big is your world?
But perhaps the world must get even bigger to really tell the story of you. Perhaps to understand who you are and how you live and what you feel and what you think – perhaps in order to tell the story of you, history must go much deeper, and our vision of the future much further. Yes, back into the history of human culture and philosophy, but even further than that, into evolutionary history – back into the recesses of human development to understand human adaptation and formation over time. And beyond evolution, perhaps we must reach even further back in time to discover the basic laws of matter and gravity and space and time. And into the future, how far will time stretch – how many hundreds and thousands and millions of years will the ripples of our lives somehow extend into the future.
How big is your world?
Now the truth is that we human beings have a hard time holding the distant past and the distant future in our minds and hearts – we have a hard time taking them too seriously. Even if we have some interest in scientific theories about the origins and history of human life; and even if we have some keen interest in how human life will develop into the future. Even so, we humans ultimately have a hard time taking the distant past or the distant future to seriously,
We are, by nature, creatures of the moment. This isn’t because we are evil people – it’s not because we don’t care about the vast world we inhabit, though sometimes we don’t care. Rather, we are preoccupied with a pretty small world simply because that’s how we have been formed – that’s how we have developed – that’s who we are. We are limited creatures. We can only see so far. We live in worlds that are, at the best of times, fairly small – even if one persons’ world is slightly bigger than another’s. Each of us almost certainly touches back down in a particular and narrow sphere of living and loving and thinking and struggling and learning.
This morning we want to put all of this in a slightly different perspective. We want to think about another dimension of human life, and another dimension of our world, that is all too easy to forget. It is the dimension of praise.
From the perspective of faith, we want to say:
Before and after anything in our small worlds: Praise
Before and after anything that defines us from the deep past: Praise
Beyond anything we can imagine about the distant future of our world: Praise
The Psalms, especially, get us thinking in this direction – the psalms embody and give voice to this broader reality of praise. Psalm 148 is perhaps a perfect example. Let me read portions of that Psalm – and let me add to it the process, in terms of our reflections so far this morning. Psalm 148:
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Let the Lord be praised before all things.
Let the Lord be praised after all things.
Praise him, deepest recesses of time.
Praise him, future cosmos beyond our imagining.
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted; Praise the Lord
From the perspective of faith, there is a great and grand chorus of praise that envelopes our world from its beginning to its unknown end. Our passage for today adds its own voice to that chorus of praise, opening with these words: May God be praised; may God be eulogized; may God be blessed. And this text doesn’t only add its voice to the great chorus of praise – it invites us to add our voices to that song. The text invites us to expand our world – to inhabit a much bigger world than we tend to inhabit – to live in a world that is defined by praise from its beginning to its end.
This great and grand framework of praise is one that the Hebrew people bequeath to us through their scriptures. But the text of First Peter adds to that great tradition, and gives particular voice to it in the light of Christ, with these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” The good news that gives rise to our praise is the good news of Easter – the good news of Jesus resurrection.
Yes, there is reason to praise God for the gift of creation. Yes, there is reason to praise God for his care of all things. Yes there is reason to continue praising God for his covenant faithfulness to his people. But for those who have come to know Jesus, there is a broader and more specific reason for praise: “a new birth, into a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Now one of the most striking things about this letter of First Peter, and this small passage in particular, is that when you get down to the experiences of the community to which it was written – when you get down to the details of their lives – when you get down to their small world – you discover the reality of suffering. This letter, which opens with praise for the resurrection of Jesus, is written to a Christian community that is alienated and abused and under threat within the Roman Empire, on account of their faith.
In their particular context, these Christians are mistrusted for not participating in the civic and religious festivals of the Empire. They are marginalized because they withdraw to their own celebrations and their own sacred meals. They are abused because they hold to firmly to the particularities of their faith in a culture that insists that such faith convictions be held lightly. In their culture, simply put, Christians are different! And this profound difference has given rise to situations of outright hostility and violence – some are even put to death for their faith and identity.
It is in this small world of suffering and marginalization that a note of praise is sounded. It is in this small world of hostility and violence that the wide and deep and echoing praise of God is invoked. That note of praise is intended give shape to their world – that note of praise is intended to define their world – that note of praise is intended to enlarge their world in the most meaningful way possible. Praise for the risen Jesus, now and always.
Let’s be clear that the letter writer doesn’t think that this note of praise, this great framework of praise, will somehow resolve the troubles experienced by this community of Jesus followers. The letter writer does not invite them to some superficial rejoicing. The letter writer knows that aside from a response prayer and worship and courage and obedience, the reality of suffering may not change.
There are no quick and easy answers. Nothing of the sort our culture reaches toward today:
No 10 easy Jesus steps to resolve the suffering of your life.
No 12 minute TED talk to answer the challenges of persecution.
No awesome BuzzFeed video that will make you forget your pain.
In their small world – life is suffering – life is a trial. And they understand that this means their faith is being tested. These hardships are experienced as a challenge to their faith in Jesus and his resurrection life. Their suffering is experienced as a suggestion to give up on the possibility of praise.
A voice they hear in heart and mind tests them, and says: “There was silence in the beginning, and there will be silence at the end. Praise is a lie. Praise has died. Jesus cannot help you or the world. It’s just you and your small world.”
A Christian musician named Josh Garrels released a new album this week. And one of the songs on that album is entitled Leviathan, and that song speaks of this reality of suffering – this reality that faith is tested – that hope is challenged – that the great framework of resurrection praise is called into question through suffering.
All my love, all I’ve done
Falls apart, is undone
Built a tower; You tore it down
I am weak; You are strong
Who can tame Leviathan?
Mouth of Sheol sings a lonely song
Yahweh gives and takes away
Will you curse or bless the name?
Trial tests us like the flame
The context of this song is obviously different from that of first century Christians. But the letter writer puts their suffering and our suffering into perspective in the same way. “In this you will one day rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – that your faith maybe found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
There are no simple or saccharine words of assurance. There is only a promise. The promise is that if God’s people hold firm to Christ – if they walk faithfully in the faith and hope of Jesus – if they trust that the resurrection of Jesus means everything for their lives and their future – then one day they will find themselves caught up in that grand and great chorus of praise. The day of the Lord – the day of Jesus’ final revealing – will see them participate in the praise and glory and honour of the risen Jesus. In fact that praise and glory and honour will in some sense be theirs.
We all live in small worlds to begin with – even if our world is larger than most – even if our minds and hearts sometimes range out to the deep things of the past or to the possibilities and unknowns of the future. We live in small worlds. And we all know that suffering has a way of constricting those worlds even more.
But the writer of First Peter wants to open our eyes on the widest possible vista – a vista of praise and glory offered to God, through the resurrection of Jesus. Yes we suffer. Yes our faith is tested – sometimes painfully so. But praise defines us and our world; praise that is before and after everything; praise that can never be silenced. A praise into which we will one day be decisively caught up, as we put our hope in the risen Jesus.