Fresh start - 1 Peter 1:22 - 2:5
This last week & a half have given us in the UK an opportunity to indulge one of our favourite pastimes. That is to mock & poke fun at our American cousins.
The presidential election shambles has reminded us how superior we feel deep down to our rather brash ex colonial friends across the pond!
You may have seen the re runs of the classic 80s comedy 'Not the 9 o'clock news' a few months ago. One of their sketches begins with a video clip of the then US president, famous for his appearances in support films in previous decades. The superimposed voice over booms out 'President Reagan is a Born again Christian'.
It was great fun to see the most powerful man in the world at the time brought down to size by a caricature as an educationally challenged religious nutcase.
Yet in the 70s & 80s American politicians were very concerned about gaining the so-called 'Born again vote'. Indeed Reagan & his predecessor Jimmy Carter both claimed to be born again.
These transatlantic connections, for most of our fellow citizens, have given this term rather dubious connotations. The confusion as to its meaning has grown further still with the hijacking of the term in popular culture. We have had 'Born again VW golfs' or the description of the intoxicating buzz of romantic love with girl singing to boy 'With you I'm born again'!
Yet here is a phrase used by Jesus himself 'You must be born again to see the Kingdom of God' & it's used by Jesus' apostle Peter as we read, writing to pressurised Christians he encourages them 'You have been born again'.
So what on earth does it mean?
Over the past few Sunday eve's we've seen something of God's mission to his world. He has made a good creation with men & women in his image at its pinnacle, yet it is now also a bad & ugly world spoiled because of human rebellion against God. Yet God has entered our world, in the person of his son, who came to die to open up the way to God & ultimately for God's creation to be restored.
Tonight we're going to see how God's reconciling work becomes real in human lives how he can give a fresh start, enabling people to be genuinely 'born again'.
Do turn to passage in 1 Peter1 (p1218). Outline on sermon notes.
1)God Gives a Radical Fresh Start v23
Having recognised God's hand on these Christians through suffering Peter reminds them V23 'For you have been born again,'
To see the significance of being born again it's important to realise the kind of language the Bible uses for our spiritual condition without Jesus. People are blind, in slavery & dead (2Cor4:4, John 8:34, Ephs2:1). We are bluntly in a terrible state & helpless to sort things out ourselves.
Vaughan Roberts (Nathan's Vicar before coming to Hull) puts it like this 'There is no point going to a blind man & telling him about a wonderful sunset & urging him 'Look at it. Look at it!' sadly he can't. It's not tactful to speak to a prisoner behind bars & say 'Come on, out you come, this way' he can't! And I do not advise going to a corpse in a morgue & shouting, 'Get a life!' It can't!'
The Bible says that is how helpless we are. We are beyond pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. A miracle is needed if we spiritually blind, enslaved & dead people, are to see, be free & come to life.
Yet these things are possible because of Jesus' work of dying on the cross for rebels & that necessary miracle can be performed by the Holy Spirit.
God's spirit has been sent to make these things possible. He can give new life to the spiritually dead. People can be 'born again'.
There are some important implications of this image of being born again that we need to recognise;
God's work not human's. Being born again is not something we can do for ourselves. To be born again is not about us trying to be new & different like turning over a new leaf.
Think of our own physical birth. We're not responsible for it we can't make ourselves born! We have our parents & God to thank for that. Being born again is God's work
This truth should keep Christians constantly humble. None of us can claim any credit at all that we belong to God. Real Christians know they are only believers because of God & his kindness.
It is important to get this right in our thinking or else we can end up, perhaps inadvertently, steeling God's glory from him.
God's work of new birth reminds us, it is only when he has worked in us, that we can believe & turn to God. That means God gets the credit.
Now yes, we must respond, but we can only do so after God makes it possible for us.
Peter sets out the balance. God gives the new birth & having been made new we can then trust in Jesus & turn from our sin. So in v22 the Christians have 'purified themselves by obeying the truth'. They have accepted the gospel Peter has described as rescue through the precious blood of Christ on the cross & his rising from the dead (v18-21). They have, V21 'believed' & put their 'faith & hope in God '. Yet this human response is only possible because God has 1st enabled them, v23, to be 'born again'.
Happens only once. We were dead, now made alive. We might be able to date the experience or we might not know when. Many people brought up in Christian homes seem to learn Christ & without a major crisis point realise they have been born again.
This image suggests that there is a point at which spiritual life is given, but it might not be remembered. The great 19th C preacher CH Spurgeon reassured those with this type of experience 'a persons ignorance of the precise moment of their birth does not give evidence that they are not now alive!' Similarly with the spiritual new birth.
Often though, people do recognise a change has come over them, after God has given them new birth.
Attitudes & instincts change there's a new sense of trusting Jesus, an assurance of forgiveness, a desire to pray. Reading the Bible makes more sense, we want to meet with other Christians & tell others about Jesus. People say something like this; 'I don't know exactly what happened, but before that moment I didn't rely on Jesus for salvation. But then the penny dropped I knew I did trust Jesus. Something happened inside me'.
Maybe you're here & thinking 'This isn't my experience, but if it's God that gives new birth what can I do? I want real spiritual life'.
There is no contribution you can make, but listen to the advice of John Blanchard a man God has used to introduce a great many people to Jesus over the last 30 years: 'All you can do is cast yourself on the mercy of God, call upon him, cry out to him. Tell him of your need, your sin, your failure, your unbelief. Ask for his mercy. Ask for a miracle! Christ died for sinners, so come as a sinner. Ask him to give you a new heart, a new birth, a new life!'
2) This Fresh start is God's work through his word v23b-25
Those in a genuine relationship with God then, have been born again. There is a new start, a radical new beginning.
What means does God use to enable people to be born again?
This is crucially important for us as individuals & as a church. We want to see people find Jesus & all the brilliant benefits that means for now & eternity. We've already seen new birth is God's work but do we have a part to play in seeing God do this work? Answer is yes, according to Peter.
I need to mention something here which is sometimes thought to be God's means of giving new birth. That is baptism.
Whilst we we're on holiday recently in Norfolk I came across a sheet in a beautiful mediaeval Abbey still used as a parish Church, Called 'What do Christians believe?'
Much of it was helpful but when talking of God's family the church it read 'We becomes members of this Church community through the ceremony of baptismwe are 'born again' into a new relationship with Jesus'.
The new CoE service book (given publicity last week by the Queen officially receiving a copy) could be seen to give a similar message suggesting that the baptism ceremony itself imparts new birth. ['We thank you Father for the water of baptismit we are reborn by the Holy Spirit']
Baptism is a sign of new birth not its cause. But if this were really the case rather than a misunderstanding albeit an ancient misunderstanding, you would expect the Bible to teach it which it doesn't. You would also have to ask some hard questions. Like where is the evidence of spiritual life in an Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin both of whom underwent the ceremony of baptism?!
But Peter here tells us what the means of God's working really is - he mentions it in v23, v24 & v25. Can you see it?
It is God's word. The message about Jesus, now available to us in his written word in the Bible.
3 things here to notice i) This word of God is a living word.
'You have been Born againThrough the living word of God'. God's word has life within it because it is the word of the living God himself.
God's gospel message is no mere statement of human words like any other description or idea or philosophy. It has power, it is effective in bringing new life. Spiritually dead people are brought into the sphere of the spiritually living through the living word of the living God.
ii) This word is an everlasting word
'You have been Born againthrough the living & enduringword of God'
In v24 Peter quotes from Isa 40. This was a message to a demoralised people feeling hopeless as they suffered the consequences of their rebellion against God.
'All men are like grass & their glory like flowers of field; the grass withers & the flowers fall but the word of the Lord stands forever' All seems like death but God is going to keep his promise. His word will give life & life that lasts forever.
iii) This word is a communicated word.
v25 b 'This is the word that was preached to you'.
Here is a reminder of the priority of communicating the gospel. As God's written word is opened, he speaks. The unchanging, eternal gospel needs to be got out. Ultimately it is not our arguments nor even the example of our lives that brings someone to new life but the powerful word of God himself the word still found in our Bibles.
It is God's work to give new birth but for him to do that God's word must be communicated whether it's preached, gossiped or chatted. Whether it's read from a book or a CD ROM, whether it's downloaded from a web site or heard from radio, TV or DVD. The living, everlasting word of God needs communicating & when it is, God can give new life to human souls.
3) This fresh start leads to a Holy life of love nourished by Jesus through the Bible. V22, 1-3
The particular reason it seems Peter reminds these Christians of their new birth is very practical.
Because we are born again our lives now as believers not only should be different but can be different.
Peter tells us, as he did these early Christians, to be God-like in our behaviour v16 'Be holy because God is holy'. Yet that would be impossible if we were still dead, blind & enslaved. But we are now new creatures with God's life within. V23 'For you have been born again by the living & enduring word of God' That means we can follow God's commands.
And there's one command in particular to recognise; the command to love our fellow Christians. V22, 'Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.'
This is an uncomfortably clear command to a Christian community. It's a clear command to us to mutually care & look out for the interests of our fellow believers.
That means the Christian I know who is different from me in background & temperament whom I find so difficult. It is a word to me about the Christian who has hurt me through a careless comment, a broken promise or even deliberate sin.
Such loving attitudes are very demanding, indeed impossible for many - but they are possible for those made new. God's gift of new life makes possible a new love especially for those who too have experienced God's new birth.
Following on from the straight command to love our fellow Christians some specific implications are spelt out. Believers may have been made new but we still need to be reminded.
ch2;1 'Rid yourselves' Peter says, of all that is contrary to love, get rid of all that harms others.
Rid yourselves of malice; desire to hurt others. Deceit; misleading others by telling lies or tricking them. All kinds of hypocrisy, masking evil motives by outward shows of goodness. Envy, wanting what others have. Slander; running people down, speaking of them to damage their reputation.
Having been born again, we're told 2:2 of the need to 'grow up' in the salvation that has been given us. Peter shows us what is the means of growth;
v2 'Like new-born babies, Crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.'
'Spiritual milk' is required to nourish the spiritual life given by God.
Both of our children, Joanna & Sarah, within minutes of emerging into the world were suckling away, gulping down their mother's milk. Milk is vital to a baby's physical growth, naturally they craved it & pretty quickly let us know when they wanted more! Indeed our 2 year Sarah (no longer a baby) continues to crave her 'Milt', screams house down without it!!
Well, similarly Spiritual milk is the means to growth at the start of Christian life & as we go on. All Christians, having been made new in the past are 'Like new-born babies' to crave nourishment.
What is this 'spiritual', metaphorical, milk?
Before we guess we must look at the context of the phrase in the passage.
All that Peter has just said controls our interpretation. Just as God's word brings new life at conversion it also brings spiritual nourishment to the growing Christian. The Spiritual milk we are to crave is God's word in the Bible.
Now v3 tells us this nourishment is from the Lord himself 'crave pure spiritual milk now that you have tasted that the Lord is good'.
This is a reminder that to read or hear the bible read or taught is to hear God speak, to hear his good & nourishing words in our hearts.
To drink the milk of the word is to taste again & again what God in Jesus is like. In hearing God's words, believers experience fellowship with him.
Do you realise what this means? Bible reading is not merely a mental exercise - it is in the word that we meet Jesus himself.
When the Bible is read & heard, preached, taught & applied, Jesus the Lord can nourish us with himself.
So when we read the Bible think of him, bring him into the reading of the Bible with you, speak with him about it - & we will be strengthened & nourished in our relationship with him & equipped to grow in love for others.
To be born again then is not to be part of a sub group of the religious life of the USA. It is a completely new spiritual start. It is a work of God alone, brought about as his word is communicated.
That same Word can also bring about growth after new birth, nourishing us with he Lord Jesus himself.
Peter's concern is also practical. To be born again will make a difference a difference seen in our attitudes to fellow Christians. Let's hear Peter's challenge; where is the evidence of God's newness in the way we love here at St John's?
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