Readings: Psalm 16, Acts 2:14a, 22-32, John 20:19-31, 1 Peter 1:3-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 23 2017
Gold. Precious Gold. ‘There’s Gold in dem there hills!” cried the prospector. The Gold Rush was on and thousand upon thousands hurried to far away places to earn their fortunes. Gold that had to be mined out of the ground or drained out of the creeks.
As a kid I remember watching Wild West movies where the whole plot was the acquisition of gold and the treachery of those who had obtained it, because they didn’t want to share it with their ‘pardners’ in crime. People robbed trains for it, killed for it. Lied for it. Cheated for it. Precious Gold.
In the wedding service we declare that; “Throughout the centuries the golden ring has been used to seal important covenants. A King would wear a ring with the seal of his country upon it. It's stamp signified royal authority. Friends have exchanged bands of gold to signify goodwill. In marriage the ring has particular significance. Its precious metal reminds us of the sacredness of marriage. It's never ending circle points us to the permanence that is the mark of a true love relationship.”
The groom takes the ring, places it on the bride’s finger and says something along the lines of “I give you this golden ring in God’s name, as a symbol of all we have promised - and all that we share.” Gold not only is a metal of value, it’s used as a symbol to declare the worth of things that all the gold in the world can never buy.
The first letter of Peter directs our thoughts to one thing that is more priceless than gold. Faith in God. Verse 7 speaks of “faith, being more precious than gold”. Faith, like all precious things, only comes at a price. Whilst our salvation is a gift of God, a gift that God offered two thousand years ago when Christ was crucified for our sins, our faith in God is something that we have to nurture.
Think about gold. If you are a gold prospector, you don’t just go along, dig up a little bit of earth, and expect to uncover a wedding ring, all beautifully prepared and shiny as glowing as the gleam in your lover’s eyes. No… gold is found in the depths of the earth, in the mud and among the stones. It has to be dug out, mined out, and extracted from the deep earth.
Then, if it is found, that’s just the beginning of the process. It has to be refined. It has to go through the fire. It has to be melted and shaped. It needs the application of a master craftsman’s skills if it is to ever become a thing of beauty or value. Faith, like Gold, doesn’t just happen. It’s something that takes the work of a master craftsman and the cooperation of our hearts and lives.
The faith that saves us is a gift. The account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about the God who reaches down to the depths of the earth to bring us to His love. We do not come to faith easily. God has to dig deep into the darkness, the mess and the mud of our lives to bring us into the light of the new day.
God in Christ comes to where we are, to the deep places of lives that are little more than existences, pulls us out of the gloom and bestows upon us promises of resurrection. Is this not we have just been celebrating at Easter? God in Christ redeeming a world that is hopelessly lost, buried beneath the darkness and misery of sin.
Peter in this passage rejoices – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1Peter 1:3).
God in God’s mercy pulls us up from the mire of our lives and declares us born again to a living hope! What a blessing this is. We don’t have to live as though the only purpose life had was to die at the end of it.
There is something more, for Peter speaks of “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4-5).
One of the startling distinctions between the Christianity of the earliest church and the church of today is that the early church truly believed in the promises of God’s inheritance and the existence of a realm of existence that was beyond anything that we can experience in our earthly state. Because they believed in eternity they were prepared to put up with all sorts of humiliations and suffering on earth.
The preachers that attract the biggest crowds today are the ones who promise health and wealth, in the here and now, not in the hereafter. Heaven has been transformed from being the greater reality that informed and guided each step the Christian took on earth, to simply being the reward at the end of the road where the good folk go. Hopes of Heaven have been relegated and confined to the after-life to such an extent that they seem irrelevant to everyday life.
This wasn’t the case for the people Peter was writing his letter to. The church he was addressing was traveling through an era of intense persecution at the hands of those who felt the Christian faith was a pariah to be extinguished from the face of the earth. They needed to know they had a hope in heaven because they had little to rejoice about in their circumstances on earth.
It is deeply ironic, that we, who are here in the wealthiest nation on earth, are the ones whose commitment to their church is often the weakest. That it is places where the church today is undergoing intense persecution that revival is taking place. That it is where Christianity is least tolerated that hope is blossoming!
Here I stand Sunday by Sunday proclaiming the importance of what we are doing in worship and the difference Christ can make to life, and some times it’s all we can do to get our own members to come to church, let alone be sold out to the task of transforming the community in which we live.
Meanwhile in other lands, there are people who are that determined and that committed to Christ that they are prepared to risk imprisonment and torture and even the loss of life itself just for the privilege of meeting together with their fellow believers. In order to pray, in order to join in Bible Study, in order to worship, they will go to great lengths. For they are convinced and assured that this life on earth is not the greater reality.
One of the things Peter writes to tell them… and tell folk like us… is that whatever trials and troubles we pass through they can serve a great purpose. That hard times can build our faith in ways that the good times can never accomplish. C.S Lewis once said something along the lines that, “God whispers to us through our pleasures, but shouts at us, as though through a megaphone – in our troubles” Peter puts it a different way, and uses the illustration of gold.
Gold - he reminds us has to be passed through the refiner’s fire before it becomes a thing of beauty. Gold needs the application of the master craftsman’s skills. Part of our problem is that we are hooked on the idea of shaping our own lives and destinies. We don’t want God interfering with our plans. We are not keen to submit to the disciplines the Bible suggests that we should.
When there is no refining, whilst the nuggets have been removed from the depths, they remain as un-fashioned treasures and never become things of beauty. If faith is to grow then it requires the discipline of whole-hearted commitment. We should rejoice in the faith that has brought us out of the darkness into the light, but if we leave it at that, then we never become the precious gold that God desires us to be.
Faith doesn’t come easily. We are surrounded by so much that is tangible. We are constantly bombarded with images and sounds and experiences that make us feel good. It is the easiest thing in the world for us to lay back and believe that life is good, because we feel fine. There is a lot we can see. There is a whole lot we can do. There is a whole lot we can be – a whole lot of seeing and doing and being - that neither takes into account the will of God or the ways of God or the purpose of God. We have heads and lives and existences that are full of stuff.
Then along comes the gospel and invites us to believe in stuff that we can’t physically see and realities we can only guess at and live for things that are yet to come. This is how Peter describes the faith of those to whom he is writing – “though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 8-9).
That is the challenge that Peter’s letter places before us today. That we look beyond the stuff to the reality of God’s love. That we cultivate within us and among us the awareness that this – this life – is not all there is to life. That our commitment to God should not be stifled by the attractions and desires of the present time.
Peter encourages us to ‘Go for Gold’. To be thankful to God for the faith God has gifted us with, but not to leave it there… not to take it for granted... not allow ourselves to pass through life never having the rough edges removed or our hearts refined.
When the difficult times come along, he teaches us, they will deepen our faith in unexpected ways. When trouble comes he encourages us to keep our hopes up, to trust in the God who will carry us through and nurture within us a faith greater than gold.
“There’s gold in dem dere hills” was the prospector’s cry. And there’s gold... precious gold ... that God is seeking to refine in our hearts and lives… something worth more than the most precious gold in all the world… the joy and hope of a living faith in God. May our hearts desire this day be for a faith that is more precious than gold.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.