Monday, July 12, 2010

Alien Life - 1 Peter 2:11-12

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There is a fascination among human beings that we may not be alone in the universe. Science-fiction books, movies, and TV shows have never ceased being hugely popular, no matter how far-fetched their premises. And in a rather unusual case of life imitating art, many scientists and research organizations spend countless hours and dollars every year searching for intelligent alien life forms. I am encouraged by that expression, “intelligent alien life forms.” It assures me that if we were to find a colony of imbeciles on Mars, that we would not be interested in them. We are only looking for the intelligent ones. Are they there? Is there really an alien life-form to be discovered? Whether or not there is such a thing elsewhere in the galaxy, I am in no position to answer. But I do know that here on earth there are aliens. And I also know that there are some in this room. In fact, I want to let you in on something you may not have expected to hear this morning: I am one of them.

Of course, you know that I do not mean that I hail from another planet, though some of you may have suspected that from time to time. There is another way in which we use the word “alien.” We use it to describe a person who is living somewhere besides their true home. In the ongoing immigration debates in our country, we hear much discussion about resident and non-resident aliens. These terms describe those who reside in or visit a country that is not their homeland. This is the sense in which Peter describes his readers as “aliens and strangers.” It applies to them geographically because they had likely once been citizens of Rome, but had been transplanted by the Empire to colonize Asia Minor. But the term is also applied to these Christians spiritually because their true homeland was neither Rome nor Asia Minor. They were citizens, first and foremost, of the Kingdom of God. Like them, though we may have been born in America, or though we may have our immigration papers in proper order, or perhaps even become a legal citizen, if we are followers of Jesus, our status in this country or any other country on earth is that of an alien. As Paul said in Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are waiting for our King to come and take us to our true home, and He has promised that He will.

We are strangers and aliens in this world. This was a phrase that Abraham used to describe himself to the Hittites in Genesis 23:4 as he negotiated for a place to bury his wife. He said, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.” That’s how it is rendered in the NASB. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the wording is exactly the same as we find here in verse 11. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that though Abraham had been given that land by the promise of God, “by faith, he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10). He knew that Canaan was not his true home, just the place he was to dwell until God took him to his true home. Peter uses the same language to describe his readers, and it applies to us as well. We are strangers and aliens as we live for Christ in this world. We are the alien life-forms. So, how shall we live? What are the marks of the alien life? Peter gives them to us here in these brief verses.

I. The alien life is marked by personal spiritual discipline (v11)
On our street, we are one of a very few households that does not own a dog. But the neighborhood dogs are a constant source of entertainment for us. We watch them walk their owners every day, sometimes several times a day. It’s really interesting to compare dogs, or just about any other kind of animal, to people. Of course there are many differences, but one that I repeatedly notice is that when dogs want to do something, they just do it. Depending on the strength of the owner or the length of the leash, the owner may or may not be able to stop them. So, on a near daily basis, I observe the neighborhood dogs chase their would-be prey, fight turf wars with each other, and do many other things that obviously strike their fancy at the moment. Human beings do not have to do that. Every human being has the ability to make moral decisions that override natural desires. That doesn’t mean that we all do, but we all can. Many wonder today why young people demonstrate so little restraint in their conduct, and I believe it is a direct result of their being taught that they are descendants of animals, whose greatest evolutionary achievement is the development of a thumb. Oh no, we are so much more than that. We are created in the image of God and have a universal moral awareness of right and wrong. Sin has corrupted our desires and our ability to control them, but no person is without the ability to natural, but inappropriate, desires. Now, Christians have an advantage over the rest of humanity in this regard. We not only have the ability to override personal desires, we have a supernatural enabling from the Holy Spirit and a stronger motivation for denying ourselves when it is necessary.

Peter addresses his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ here, and says to them, “I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts.” First, let’s identify what he means by fleshly lusts. At first glance, we would most likely assume he is talking about illicit sexual desires. To be sure, those are included, but fleshly lusts are not merely limited to that. The Greek word here translated lusts is a word that means a longing or intense desire. Now, it should be noted that in some contexts, this can be a positive thing. For instance, it is the word Jesus used at the Last Supper when He said, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you.” Paul uses this word in Philippians 1:23 when he says that he has a “desire to depart and be with Christ.” Desire in itself is not a bad thing. God gives us desires. But the problem with desire is that it is corrupted by our sin nature. The sexual desire, for example, was given to us by God for pursuit and expression within the bounds of holy marriage. But sin corrupts this desire and people pursue the satisfaction of it outside of those boundaries. Take the desire for food as another example. We need food to live, do we not? God gave us the ability to feel hunger so that we would know when our bodies need nourishment. But sin unbridles the desire and leads to gluttony. We could also speak about our natural desires to seek revenge, to amass wealth, to accumulate possessions, to gain popularity, etc. In Galatians 5, Paul lists “the deeds of the flesh” to include “immorality (porneia, sexual sin), impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery (pharmakeia, perhaps alluding to drug use in the acts of sorcery), enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” These things come all too naturally to us. The point is that we who are the followers of Christ must not respond to every stimulus that comes our way by doing what comes naturally. We have been empowered to act supernaturally.

God does not issue commands to His people in His Word that are impossible to carry out. So when Peter says that we are to abstain from these fleshly lusts, we need to believe that it is absolutely possible to place these desires under the Lordship of Christ and have victory over them. It is not merely an act of master and slave obedience, but God has given us the power of the Holy Spirit, so that where our flesh is weak, His strength is perfect. So in the moment of temptation, we need to pause long enough to consider our actions rather than just responding to the stimulation of our desire like Pavlov’s dog. In that moment, we need to surrender to the Holy Spirit’s control and find His power to overcome those desires.

Well, we might ask, what does it hurt to indulge a carnal desire, especially when it is done in private and no one notices? Peter actually answers that question here. He says that these fleshly lusts wage war against the soul. Imagine for a moment that you are the commander of a military post. One day, the guards at the gate phone you and say that there is a group of terrorists at the gate, and they said they don’t mean any harm, but they would just like to come in and poke around a bit, take some pictures, ask some questions. What commander in his right mind would say, “Well, I guess if they mean no harm, what could it hurt? Go ahead and invite them in.” When we indulge inappropriate desires, or even appropriate desires in inappropriate ways, it is like we are inviting a spiritual terrorist into our soul for a visit. The indulgence of those desires will sabotage us spiritually, weakening us and dulling our spiritual sensitivities, making us useless for the cause of Christ. Over time, our sensitivity to conscience and to the Spirit’s conviction becomes numb as we repeatedly ignore their warnings, and soon we begin to engage in deeper levels of sin more habitually and indiscriminately. What could it hurt? It could destroy you, even if no one ever knows about it, because it corrupts from the inside. Sooner or later, that corruption will begin to be evident on the outside.

Some months ago, I put a mouse trap in our laundry room. It was one of these “humane traps,” you know, no blood, no mess, instant, painless death for the mouse. The only downside is that it is hard to tell when there is a mouse in it. A couple of weeks ago, I began to smell this really awful stench, and sure enough, my nose led me to the trap. Who knows how long that little mouse had been in there? There was rotting death inside that trap, and eventually, it became evident because of the odor it emitted. Folks, when we engage in so-called “private sin,” we can keep up appearances for a while. In fact, others may never know exactly what we are up to. But that sin is working spiritual death within us. Over time, people begin to notice that things are different with us. Maybe it is our attitude, our personality, our temper, our interests, or something else. But soon, the stench of spiritual death begins to surround us like a toxic cloud. At any moment along the way, repentance is an option for us. We can fight the good fight in the Holy Spirit’s power and begin to experience victory. But the longer it progresses, the more difficult it becomes because we become weaker and weaker for the battle. At some point, we may need help from our brothers and sisters to bring us out. Sin is deadly, and it is a big deal. So we must be vigilant in our internal war against it.

So, one mark of our lifestyles as strangers and aliens is personal spiritual discipline in which we depend on the Spirit’s power within us to abstain from fleshly lusts.

II. Alien life is marked by a witnessing lifestyle. (v12)

You have heard me say that one of the many things that Christians and non-Christians agree on is that the idea of witnessing makes both of them nervous. I recently observed a young Christian sharing the Gospel with someone in public, and I was curious as to which one was going to pass out first. Both were extremely uncomfortable. Some years ago, I suppose in an effort to relieve some Christians of the anxiety of witnessing, the concept of “lifestyle evangelism” became popular. The idea was that it is not our words, but our deeds that do the witnessing, so we should not worry about talking to others about Jesus, we should just live good moral lives, and that will present the gospel to them. There are several major problems with this approach. First, none of us live lives that are THAT good. Don’t get me wrong … you may be a person of superior moral excellence, but can any of us really say that our lives are a clear reflection of the gospel? Second, are there not morally good lost people? Some of them are living more upstanding lives than many Christians! So what does that say for letting our lives do the witnessing? Thirdly, none of us are better than Jesus, are we? So, how often did Jesus say, “You know, I am not going to use words, I think I will just let them see how I live. That ought to do the trick.”? Easy answer: NEVER. So, can your life outpreach Jesus’ life? To think that it can is the epitome of arrogance. Fourth, the gospel is “good news.” To tell the news means that words are necessary. There is nothing we can do or not do that can communicate the news that Jesus Christ is the incarnate God who died for our sins and rose again. Sharing the gospel means that we will need words.

So, is the lifestyle not important? Oh, on the contrary. You see, the Gospel is a message about radical transformation. It is news that because of what Christ has done, we can be made brand new, born-again, empowered for victorious living by the indwelling Spirit, and made citizens of God’s Kingdom. Now our lives are either going to confirm that news or contradict it. If you do not demonstrate the gospel through your life, then words about the gospel are meaningless and empty. So, lifestyle minus words equals not witnessing. Words minus lifestyle equals not witnessing. Witnessing equals words PLUS lifestyle. And what does the witnessing lifestyle look like? Peter says that it is one of excellent behavior. The word translated “excellent” here is also translated elsewhere as “beautiful, lovely, fine, etc.” The interesting thing about those words is that they typically describe something you can see, or at least perceive in some way. So our lives should be noticeably excellent in the eyes of those we encounter. This will validate the truth of the gospel.

Have you ever known a Christian who “acts better” when they are around other Christians than they do when they are around lost people? It’s like, when they come to church, they put on this show of spirituality, but when they are around lost people, they just blend right in with them. Well, notice here that Peter says that we must keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles. This is really a rather unfortunate translation. The Greek word is ethnos, and is used elsewhere in the New Testament to denote “the nations.” To understand the point, remember what he said earlier in verse 9, that in Christ you have become “a holy nation.” Now, when you are among those who are not of this nation, but of “the other nations,” it is of the utmost importance that we demonstrate godly lives. That’s not to say that when we are with other Christians that we can just let it all go and act like pagans. No, it is to say that we must be done with the hypocrisy of pretending to be righteous around one another, and chasing after unrighteousness among the lost. We must show the lost the difference that Christ makes in our lives.

Now, Peter says here that these lost people are slandering the Christians as evildoers. Christianity was seldom understood by outsiders in the first century. They heard things about them and made assumptions about them that were not accurate. So, for instance, they heard that the Christians refused to worship the Emperor or the gods of the pantheon; therefore they were accused of being atheists and traitors. They heard that Christians were eating flesh and drinking blood, and did not understand the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper, so they assumed the Christians were cannibals. They heard that Christians loved their brothers and sisters, greeted them with holy kisses, and only married their own brothers and sisters; so, they were accused of incest. This was slander against the church: spoken lies that were told to defame the Christian’s character in the society. What were the Christians to do? Peter’s exhortation is to prove them wrong by the excellence of their conduct. Let them see what we do, and how we live, and of course, when there is an opportunity, tell them what we believe and correct their mistaken assumptions. And as a result, these people may turn from slandering Christians to glorifying God.

Of course today, everyone loves Christians and speaks highly of us in the public square, right? No, this is not 1950 anymore. Public perception of Christians has changed. We are accused of being hateful because we oppose homosexuality. We are accused of being misogynists because we oppose abortion. We are accused of being ignorant because we believe in creation instead of evolution. They say we are angry, narrow-minded, and all kinds of other things.

What are we to do about this? I tell you what we must NOT do. We must not do what some Christians, some churches, and some entire denominations have done. We must not compromise our convictions for the sake of public relations! And we must not respond in anger and retribution. That would only prove them right! No, instead, we must do two very specific things. First, we need to be very clear with our message. If you were to ask the average person on the street what Christians believe, how do you think he or she would answer? They probably wouldn’t know, right? They might say, “They believe in God,” or “they believe in Jesus,” or “the Bible.” More often, they might say, “They believe that only people who go to church go to heaven, and they don’t believe in homosexuality or abortion, and they don’t drink or do drugs.” Friends, an answer like that needs to be received by the church as an indictment. If this is what the public understands Christianity to be, then we have really garbled up the message. In many cases, the Church has crusaded to make well-behaved pagans out of people rather than making disciples for Christ. We have aimed at reforming morality rather than transforming lives by the power of the Gospel. Every now and then I get a call from someone at News & Record about something going on here in the corridor, and honestly I usually dodge their calls. But sometimes they get me. And they ask me about crime and safety and drugs and prostitutes, and all this stuff. And in every answer I give them, I mention the cross and Christ and salvation and the new birth. Why? Is it to be annoying or to shove religion down their throats? No, it is because I want to be very clear that we are not a people who are simply against things. We are a people who are passionately FOR the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are a people who believe that the government can throw as much money as they want at the problems of our city, but unless Jesus Christ changes the heart of the individual person, there will be no change. I want to be really clear with the message. I want to challenge you to do the same. When you have opportunity to speak to unbelievers, let’s talk about what we are for, and let’s keep the focus on the cross. As Paul said in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of” what? THE GOSPEL! Why? Because “IT is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” If someone is going to hate me, I want to make sure the central issue is the bloody cross of Jesus and not our difference of opinion on a social issue or a mistaken assumption about what my Christianity entails.

So that’s the first thing we must do in the face of public opposition to Christianity: be clear with the message. The second thing is this: confirm the message with our lifestyle. Do you realize how much harm is done to the gospel every time a professing Christian is involved in a moral scandal? When King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, Nathan the prophet told him, “by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme.” And that is the way we need to see it. When our lifestyles compromise the Gospel, we actually give the lost a reason to not believe. So, we must keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles. And as we do that, and as we keep the message of the Gospel clear, we may find that some of them begin to realize that there is something to this Jesus stuff after all. Maybe God would be pleased to use what they see and hear in you to draw them to faith in Christ.

Peter concludes here with a reminder of the urgency of this. He mentions the “day of visitation.” What is that? That’s the day of the return of Jesus Christ. Folks, we can’t just sit back and say, “Oh yeah, one of these days we need to get serious about this stuff.” Now is the time, and today is the day. Christ is coming, and when He does, He will find two kinds of people on the earth: those who glorify Him by faith in Christ and those who blaspheme Him in unbelief. And it is our task as aliens and strangers in the world to make worshipers out of blasphemers. How then shall we live? In personal spiritual discipline, that we might be useful to the Lord, filled with His power and presence, and strengthened as we abstain from fleshly lusts. And in a life of excellent behavior that confirms our words of witness to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you are here today and not a follower of Jesus, we invite you to join us. None of us are perfect, and we have often presented a poor witness for Christ, but it is for imperfect people that Christ came and died, and that should give you great hope. Trust Him to save you from your sins and make you His own, and His Spirit will empower you to live in abundant victory, and to live forever in the home He created for you.

Believers, it may be that the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart today about something related to your personal spiritual struggles, your witnessing, or your lifestyle. My prayer would be that we might all allow Him to convict us as He will, and that we might surrender every point of personal weakness over to His perfect strength to transform us for His glory.

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