“what a mess the world is in, I wonder who began it. Don’t ask me I’m only visiting this planet.” Larry Norman
by Jack Wald | September 12th, 1999

I Peter 1:1-5

If in heaven, we have the opportunity to talk with the saints from all of time, I imagine there will be longer lines in front of some people than others. Given that we will be in heaven for eternity, I don’t think long lines will be tedious as they are in this world. But at any rate, one of the longer lines will be waiting to talk with the Apostle Peter. Unlike the Laodician Church mentioned in Revelations, Peter was never lukewarm. He was hot or cold.

Peter was a fisherman from Galilee who left his fishing business along with his brother Andrew and his partners James and John to follow Jesus.

When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter is the one who spoke out with words that could have caused him to be stoned to death for blaspheme, “You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Shortly after this, Jesus told the disciples he would go to Jerusalem and be put to death. It is Peter who blurted, “God forbid, Lord. This shall never happen.” This response earned him Jesus’ rebuke, “Get behind me Satan.”

Peter is the one of all the disciples, terrified at this ghostly figure walking on the water toward them, who stepped out toward Jesus. He is the only human in history, other than Jesus, to have walked on water – not for long, but at least a few steps.

At the Mount of Transfiguration, when Jesus was revealed in his heavenly glory along with Moses and Elijah, of John, James and Peter, guess who broke that holy silence, spoke out and had to be reprimanded by God? Peter.

When Jesus began to wash the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, who protested? Peter. At that supper, Peter proclaimed that he would lay down his life for Jesus. Peter then proceeded to deny he knew Jesus three times in order to save his life.

This is Peter, the rock, who Jesus named to lead the church.

And lead it he did. Peter led the way when he received a vision in Joppa and received a visit from Cornelius. Gentiles and not just Jews could be followers of Christ.

Peter, in prison for proclaiming the Gospel – just after his fellow disciple, James – the brother of John – has been killed by Herod, is sleeping when an angel appears to him and leads him out of prison. And Peter, according to strong tradition, was executed by Nero in 67 AD. He was crucified upside down because he felt he was unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.

So Peter will have a few stories to tell and a long line waiting to talk with him.

I Peter was probably written in 64 AD, the same year that Nero set fire to Rome and blamed it on the Christians. This gave Nero the excuse to persecute Christians, including throwing believers into the Coliseum to be ripped apart by wild dogs, as a spectator sport and using Christians as torches to be ignited after dark. Pretty horrible stuff.

Peter writes this letter to Christians in what is modern day Turkey, to brace them for persecution that was building and under which Peter three years later lost his life.

We in the United States have to stretch things to identify with persecution. There are skirmishes in which the Ten Commandments are not allowed to be displayed in state buildings such as courthouses. Christians in the USA get outraged at this and other limitations. But we in the USA are not really persecuted. In this congregation, I would guess there are Christians from countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. Just this week, hundreds of Christians have been murdered in East Timor. But the message of I Peter applies not only to those who are being persecuted. It applies also to those who doubt their faith. It applies to those who are being overwhelmed by the world and the pressures imposed by the world. The message of I Peter applies to any who struggle and are tempted to give up their faith.

So whether you are facing persecution, doubts, or pressure, I Peter 1:1-5 offers you what you need to stand up under the pressures, persevere through your doubts and endure persecution.

In this and next week’s sermon, I want to point out three things from these verses. In the midst of difficulties: Our identity protects us, Our hope sustains us, and Our inheritance gives us security. I’ll talk about our identity this week and our hope and inheritance next week.

First our identity protects us. What does Peter say our identity is? “To God’s elect, strangers in the world scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappodocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.”

Many times when we read Scripture, it is like driving down a highway at 100 kilometers an hour. We get a general impression of the landscape as we pass by but we miss the wonder and beauty of the details. I’ve read I Peter many times but when I stopped to study these few verses the beauty and glory of the truths in these few words made me glad I’d stopped to take a closer look.

There is so much here that deserves to be talked about. The unbelievable privilege of being God’s elect, being chosen, being chosen for obedience. Some have asked where the Bible talks about the Trinity, claiming that it is a concept invented much later in Christian history. Well, here in one verse the Trinity is mentioned: “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ”

What I want to focus on this morning is the phrase “strangers in the world”. As I read through these first verses of Peter, this phrase popped out at me. Why does Peter make a point of saying we are strangers in the world?

We’ll look this morning at what “strangers in the world” means, how this identity protects us and then how we can preserve our identity.

First, what does it mean? This word “stranger” does not mean one who does not know the people he is with. It doesn’t mean he walks through his neighborhood and doesn’t know anyone. It carries the meaning of one living temporarily in a foreign land. Strangers in the world carries the meaning of those who know where they are but also know they do not belong.

I’ve been in Morocco now for four days. When I walk the streets of Rabat, I have no illusion about being Moroccan. I know who I am. I am an American. I am a stranger in this country, living here for two weeks. I lived in Germany in a suburb of Hamburg for one year. Even at the end of that year, I knew I was not German. There was never a moment that I was unsure of who I was. The state of Maine in the northeast of the United States has a certain reputation. Even if you have lived there for 50 or 60 years, if you weren’t born there, you are an outsider, a stranger. Most of us in this church are strangers to Morocco.

The language of Morocco is not my language. When I see a price in dirham, it doesn’t mean anything to me until I calculate what it is in US dollars. If I go out on a summer day to the market wearing shorts, perfectly acceptable in the United States, I might get strange looks in Rabat. If I go to the market and pay the asking price without haggling for a better price, I’ll probably be just another dumb tourist.

But it gets more complicated for us when we talk about our spiritual identity. When we come to faith in God through obedience to Jesus Christ, we are reborn and given a new identity. We no longer belong to this world. We become strangers in this world. Paul says in Philippians, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20

As a Christian, I am as much a stranger in my own country and my own city, town or village as I am in Morocco. I am a stranger because I do not belong to this world. I belong to God. I am a child of the King. I am a citizen of heaven. Peter carries this message into his letter. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” When I see a price of $10, I may know its value immediately. When I dress to go outdoors, I may dress appropriately without having to think a great deal about it. The ways in which people interact may be instinctive. But I still do not belong. I am a citizen of heaven.

When I come to faith in God through obedience to Christ, I begin to separate from the world. The more I grow in my faith, the more I differentiate from the world, especially in a culture that is not friendly to Jesus Christ. Increasingly as I grow in Christian faith, the values of the world are not my values. The goals of the world are not my goals. The way the world treats people is not the way I treat people.

I, as a Christian, may make decisions like any other person, weighing the pros and the cons. But what is a pro and a con may be different because I am a Christian. If the decision is to choose between two job opportunities, the highest paying job may not be the one I choose. The job that offers more prestige or power may not be the one I take.

In the business world, an employee having personal problems that are affecting job performance may be given some help and time by a Christian employer rather than being fired for poor performance. I was presented in my business with opportunities to get more business by offering in one case a week’s stay at a condominium in New Hampshire, a mountainous region of the United States that is a desirable vacation spot. I chose not to offer the condominium and passed up the extra business.

The world, at least the Western world, seems to rate the right to have sex with whomever and whenever as one of the most precious rights we have. A Christian increasingly stands out in this world because sex is practiced as God intended this gift to be used, between a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage. Increasingly in the world, to simply be a Christian is to make a radical departure from the world.

As a Christian, I am a stranger in this world as were the ancestors of my faith.

“They admitted that they were strangers and aliens on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he had prepared a country for them.” Hebrews 11:13-16

Strangers and aliens in the world – longing for a better country, a heavenly one.

This is our identity. How does knowing who we are, having an identity help us face persecution, doubt or pressures?

My youngest sister married a man from Somalia, Abdi Suleiman. Abdi arrived in New York City with just a few dollars. He slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment and began to look around. He was walking down the street and heard Arabic spoken and went into a pizza shop and asked for a job. They said they didn’t have any openings but Abdi said he didn’t want money, just food to eat. Within a couple months, he was being paid and running the night shift. He began driving a gypsy cab and then a limo and saved enough money to begin going to college at City College in New York City. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He is a remarkable person. He married my sister and they now have four children.

He is taking his family to Dubai in the Arab United Emirates for the next few years. One of the reasons he is doing this is because he wants them to have the identity of being Somalian. When he is called a “niggar” in the United States, a derogatory word for someone who has black African heritage, it doesn’t bother him. He knows he is Somalian and his identity as a Somalian protects him. He wants his daughters to have that same identity to protect them from the racism they will encounter in the United States.

My passport protects me. It tells a lot about me: where I was born, when I was born, where and when I have traveled, but most of all, it tells me where I belong. If I am in trouble, I need to get to an American embassy and I will be safe. Friends of mine who have lived overseas are some of the most grateful Americans I know because they have experienced the protection their citizenship offers them.

What is my Christian passport, my Christian identity? I am God’s elect, chosen, a citizen of heaven where my name is written in the Book of Life. When I face difficulties, I know that when I get to heaven my difficulties will be over. These difficulties are only temporary.

People may insult me and call me names, but no matter. I know who I am and who I have believed.

I may be pressured and persecuted but I am a child of the King who is able to lift me out of the rapids and set me on a firm rock

I am a stranger in this world, in the words of a Christian songwriter, Larry Norman, “I’m only visiting this planet.”

Our identity protects us and allows us to stand up, persevere and endure what the world sends our way. Despite what the world says about us. Despite what the world does to us. We know who we are.

We are strangers in the world. This identity protects us, but how do we preserve our identity as strangers in the world?

When I read a good book, I get so caught up in what I am reading that after finishing the book, or even putting the book down for a period of time, I am often still living in that book. If the protagonist has committed adultery, I walk away from the book feeling guilty. When that happens, I have to stop and remind myself of who I am. I am Jack Wald. I love my wife. I have never committed adultery.

This is the way it is for us in the world. We get caught up in intrigue at our workplace. A promotion is available and the employees are positioning themselves to get the promotion. We start to crave that promotion because it will make life so much better and easier. We begin to wine and dine the right person. That promotion becomes the most important thing in the world. When this happens, it is time to say, “I am Jack Wald. I am a citizen of heaven. This promotion is not the most important thing in my world.”

We do this with possessions. We get our mind fixed on an appliance or car or boat or in my case a particular cd and then the desire to have this thing becomes all important. We think about it too often. Our craving for it becomes greater and greater. When this happens, it is time to say, “I am Jack Wald. I am a citizen of heaven. This thing will not go with me when I go home to heaven. It is not that important. I can be happy without it.”

We need daily reminders of who we are, who we follow, what is important. This is the importance of a regular devotional life, not that I need to learn anything new but that I need to be reminded of who I am and who I follow.

As a businessman, I was focused on sales and profit. Companies do not exist to lose money. Profit becomes all important. I found it helpful to read the book of Ecclesiastes periodically, just to remind myself of what was really important, what mattered, what had eternal value. Solomon talks about his pursuit of pleasure, power and wealth and then in Ecclesiastes 2:10-11, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

Living in this world is like floating with the current of a stream or river. To be a Christian is to swim against the current, upstream. The world eats away at our identity and we forget who we are, where our citizenship lies. The world pushes us away from God, floating with the current. We need daily reminders of who we are and where we belong.

We are strangers in the world, chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirt for obedience to Jesus Christ. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy. We are children of God, heirs to the King.

And don’t you forget it.