"Reason to Hope"#90-37
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 14, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: 1 Peter 3:15
A well-made violin, like a human being, is fearfully and wonderfully made, but needs time and use to mature. I'm told that it's a well-known fact among strings players that new violins and other stringed instruments must be played into condition. They need to be broken in with time and use. They have to be conditioned to develop that deep, well-rounded tone. It's debatable whether this is a scientifically established fact, but it is indisputably part of violin-making tradition. For example, Edward Heron-Allen, a violin maker writing from London in the year 1885, 138 years ago, explained it like this. He said, "Often when I've been playing my own fiddles into condition, friends have said, 'Well, old fellow, it seems unkind to say so to you who made it, but that is a beastly fiddle.'" To which the seasoned luthier replies, "Everything comes to those who know how to wait."
While a definitive scientific explanation remains shrouded in mystery, stories of aged violins soar into the realm of folklore. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the father of the famous Supreme Court justice writing 165 years ago, mused on how some things are good for nothing until they have been kept long and well-used, and the violin was his go-to example. In 1858, Mr. Holmes wrote, "The violin, played by the ancient maestro until the bow hand lost its power, and the flying fingers stiffened, the violin bequeathed to the passionate young enthusiast, who made it whisper his hidden love and cry his inarticulate longings, passed down from his dying hand to the cold virtuoso who let it slumber in its case for a generation, till when his horde was broken up, it came forth once more and rode the stormy symphonies of royal orchestras, beneath the rushing bow. Into lonely prisons, with improvident artists, into convents from which arose day and night the holy hymns with which its tones were blended, and so given into our hands, its pores all full of music. Stained through and through like an old pipe, with the concentrated hue and sweetness of all the harmonies which have kindled and faded on its strings."
A good fiddle, like a human being, is fearfully and wonderfully made, and must be conditioned by age and experience. But unlike a human being, a fiddle is not an individual. It's an ensemble of disparate parts and pieces—70 different components commingling in community for a common purpose. Maybe we should say a well-crafted fiddle, like a human community, an ensemble designed to deepen and sweeten in tone with time and use. It's a different way of seeing things, right? It's a way of thinking that's somewhat foreign to me. See, people like us tend to see ourselves as complete on our own, as single, unique individuals. We might temporarily voluntarily associate with some larger group like a family or a town or a club or a guild or a church, but we'd say that we don't really need that group to be who we are.
At least, that's what we'd like to think. But our deepest feelings sometimes betray us. We all want to belong. You want to be part of something bigger than yourself. I want to be bound to something bigger than my moody, quirky personality. At the same time, we're cautious, maybe fearful, because the group might try to herd us, like sheep for the slaughter. The group might try to hurt you, or try to turn you into something you don't want to be. Those are legitimate fears. Group think, mob mentality, social brainwashing, all those things happen, and it's good to be afraid of them. But the thing we Westerners need to realize is that most of the world, for most of world history has been afraid of exactly the opposite. They see it from the other way around. They are less afraid of losing their individuality and more afraid of bringing shame and dishonor to the group.
They're afraid of not playing well with others, of being out of tune, disappointing their family, their community. This is hard for modern Westerners like me to understand because the songs of my culture condition me to prize my individuality. Whether it's Frank Sinatra bellowing in my ear, "I did it my way," or the Beastie Boys hollering, "You got to fight for your right to party," or the sweet, soulful sadness of Ms. Taylor Swift, who sings more recently, "It's me. Hi, I'm the problem. It's me." For better or worse, our culture songs serenade the majesty and the misery of the most holy individual. And if you've grown up with it, individualism is like a tune you can't get out of your head. It conditions you. It conditions me to think that the worst thing that can happen to me is to lose my individuality, my rights, my liberties, myself. And what's more, it's a problem for me as a Christian, because when I listen to the Bible, this individualistic soundtrack is there in the background, playing all the time, and it's hard to tune it out. So, to really hear the Bible on its own terms, you might need to push pause for a moment. Because the Bible was written for a culture that put community first, a culture that thought the community was more important than the individual.
For example, there's a letter in the New Testament of the Bible written by a man named Peter, who was one of the first disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Peter was writing to a people living in the ancient Roman Empire. And the songs the Romans sang conditioned them to believe that the worst thing that could happen to them was not to lose their individuality, but to be disowned by their family, to bring dishonor to their country, to their community. That was the worst thing imaginable. And knowing this helps you understand why a foreigner in a Roman culture, in some cases, would voluntarily become a slave in a Roman household. Because at least a slave belonged. And the worst thing possible was not to belong at all.
It's hard for us modern Western people to resonate with this sentiment, but if we don't try, we'll never hear the Bible in full stereo, so to speak. When we hear a letter like Peter's, we need to remember whom Peter was originally writing for. Peter was writing for people bound up in a human pyramid, a social hierarchy with the emperor on top and everyone else below him. Now, just because the emperor was on the top of the pyramid, don't think that he could be an individual and do it his way, whatever he wanted. No, if the emperor stepped out of line, his people would assassinate him, which the Romans did to roughly half of their emperors. When the emperor wasn't being assassinated, he was on the top of the pyramid. And it was pyramids all the way down. Each Roman household was its own little pyramid, with the father at the head and everyone else below him.
But as with the emperor, if the father, the head of the house, got too much out of line, the rest of the house, even the slaves, but especially his wife, had ways of turning him, like the neck turns the head. Still, there was a clear social hierarchy, with people jostling, sometimes fighting, for more honor and more status. But nobody saw himself or herself as an isolated individual. They all knew that their place was somewhere in that pyramid. So, remember, Peter was writing in a way that would resonate with the people in that context. At the same time, his letter is countercultural. Peter's tone undermines the status-seeking, social ladder-climbing songs of Rome. But Peter's not an individualist either. Peter is a slave of God who has been adopted as a son of God. He's a son of God because the eternal Son of God became a human being called Jesus.
Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead so that He could be a Brother to human beings like Peter, a Brother to everyone who follows Him. And now Peter's got this song, this Jesus song stuck in his head, and he can't help but share it with us. In the 20 centuries since Peter wrote this letter, Jesus' song has spread around the globe. And it is gradually drowning out all music that is not its own. It is bringing people together in a new ensemble called the kingdom of God, the family of God, the church.
In the letter Peter addresses house churches in the Roman Empire. He speaks directly to different classes of people in those churches, each at different levels in the Roman hierarchy. He speaks to household slaves; he speaks to wives; he speaks to husbands. He tells them each to live honorably and peaceably and sacrificially within their current social structure.
There's no need to fight it. There's no need to rebel against it. There's no need to declare your individuality and independence over it. You can live and thrive within any human social structure, because you know it's temporary. You know a better Kingdom has already come, a better King, a better Lord, a better Master in Jesus whose rich tone of sacrificial love is drowning out all our distortions, and reining us into His greater harmony. Peter speaks to Christian slaves and Christian masters and calls them to love as brothers. Peter speaks to Christian husbands and Christian wives and calls them to live as co-heirs of the Kingdom. He speaks to everyone and calls us to be in tune with each other, resonating with the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ, our pores and fibers all full of His music, colored with the concentrated hue of harmonies He's kindling in us.
Listen to it, this Jesus song, this movement in Scripture's symphony, recorded in 1 Peter 3. Peter writes, "Finally, all of you be of the same mind. Be sympathetic. Love as brothers and sisters. Be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil, or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called, so that you would inherit a blessing. For, as it is written in the Psalms, 'Whoever would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceitfully. Let him turn from evil and do good. Let him seek peace and pursue it, because the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and His ears attentive to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is upon those who do evil.'
"So who's going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are still blessed. Do not fear what they fear. Do not be troubled, but in your heart, set apart Christ the King, as Lord, as holy. Always be ready to give an answer to everyone, to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you all have. But do this with humility and fear—fear of God, since you have a good conscience. So that when you are slandered, those who insult your good behavior in Christ would be put to shame. Because it is better to suffer if it is God's will, better to suffer for doing what is good than for evil. Because Christ the King also suffered for sins. Once for all, the righteous One for the unrighteous ones, to bring you all to God" (1 Peter 3).
There's a common question people ask about the Good News of Jesus' kingdom. If the kingdom of God has already come, then why is there still so much discord in the world? Why does the church, the people who belong to Jesus, why do they display such beastly behavior? Why do they project such disharmony? Why are they so out of tune with the self-giving love of Jesus? I don't have an explanation that could satisfy these questions. There is much sin and evil left in us who follow Jesus, and the cause of it is shrouded in mystery. I have no scientific explanation and no excuse for the bad behavior of Christians, me included. If you've been hurt by the church, I ask your forgiveness in the Name of Jesus. Or if you're on the inside of the church and you know that you don't live up to Jesus' expectations, then I ask you to remember His promise, that He who began this good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ. That's a promise from another New Testament letter written by a man named Paul. And Paul, like Peter, is not an individualist. When he says that God is doing a good work in you, how did you hear that? You, singular? The "you" there is plural, as in all y'all. It's like when Peter says that Jesus died to bring you to God. It's plural, to bring all y'all—all you folks everywhere. And this is the reason for our hope. Peter tells us to be ready to give the reason for our hope. Jesus is the reason. He gave Himself for everyone, all of us, those on the inside the church and all on the outside. And so that most definitely includes you, wherever you are. You see, in God's hands, we are becoming something like a new violin. God doesn't need us to make music for Him. God, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit resonate in the perfect harmony of Their self-giving love for all eternity. No, God doesn't need us, but He lovingly, stubbornly, commits to sharing Himself with us. And His music, through time and use, is canceling out our distortions and reining us into His harmony.
In Christ we are the unique and varied components of a new fiddle, fresh from the hands of our Maker. And these pieces, as someone once observed, are like strangers to each other, and it takes a century, more or less, to make them thoroughly acquainted. All good things will come to those who, by God's grace, know how to wait. Now is the time, between the resurrection of Jesus and His return in glory to raise the dead and restore all things, now is the time for every individual, every family and community and culture, for the whole world to be drawn into Jesus through His church. It's a transitional phase, a breaking-in period, the beginning of our conditioning. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me. Lord God, Heavenly Father, You once blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so that their family would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, as the grains of sand in the sea. You blessed their family to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, and You did it by sending Your own Son to be born among them, to die and to rise and to reign as King, to restore Your blessing to all creation. Continue this blessing in us and through us who have been called by faith to sing the songs of Jesus, so that we too would love life and see good days. In Jesus' Name. Amen.
Reflections for May 14, 2023
Title: Reason to Hope
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. You'll find FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, at lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark, and happy Mother's Day to all of you who are listening. I am speaking today with someone who is not a mother but has one: Rev. Dr. Dale Meyer, emeritus Speaker of The Lutheran Hour, emeritus president of Concordia Seminary, and son of a wonderful mother. We're going to talk about her in a little bit. But first we want to talk about 1 Peter.
Dr. Meyer, you're writing this commentary on this ancient letter. So let's keep talking about this letter and let's talk about this hope—sometimes Peter is called the "epistle of hope"—what difference this hope makes for us now. Dr. Meyer, several times in the letter, Peter refers to the recipients as "sojourners and exiles." What does that mean? Does that mean we're just passing through and we're not going to get involved?
Dale Meyer: Well, thank you, Dr. Ziegler, and I have enjoyed my time with you and with our Lutheran Hour audience. Two things: first, if you were born in America, you are automatically an American citizen. That was not the case in Rome. Some were citizens, but many were not. Slaves were not citizens. There were large groups of people who were known as "sojourners," short-term travelers through a region. And then there were "exiles," people who weren't citizens but lived permanently in a place. Sojourners and exiles was literally true of many of the people to whom Peter wrote, but it also has a figurative meaning for us. We are journeying to heaven, to the heavenly inheritance that is laid up and waiting for us, as Peter says in chapter 1. This present life is not our permanent home.
Now, to your question about being involved in the community, Peter did not want the Christians to retreat. It would've been easy for them to do that because they were being shunned and slandered and hey, you want to back off from things like that. But the middle section of his epistle is all about how to be doing good works in the community. In that day, doing good works for others showed your commitment to the community but also gave you an occasion to share your faith in Jesus. That's especially true today in our post-church, no-longer-Christian society. We worship on Sundays, but we want to be doing good works in the community the rest of the week.
Mike Zeigler: Peter's writing to people who, as you said, are some of them are literally sojourners and exiles. This isn't their homeland. Wherever they're living, in modern-day Turkey, they're residents, but they're not citizens. And because of their faith and their loyalty to Jesus Christ, they may be going through some, maybe not overt state-sponsored persecution under the Roman Empire at this time, but at least perhaps some ridicule or some pressure. How does Peter encourage them and ultimately encourage us to endure that trial, that suffering, in hope?
Dale Meyer: Universal citizenship did not come to the Roman Empire until the year 212 under the Emperor Caracalla. It's the model of Jesus that is the answer to your question. Jesus suffered and was then exalted. Following Jesus means that we will experience discrimination from others and sometimes even physical sufferings. But as Paul says, "If we have died with Him, we shall also reign with Him." Our hope is not simply getting through the present crisis. Yes, we can hope for that, but our real hope in 1 Peter means Jesus appearing in glory to take us to our heavenly inheritance.
Mike Zeigler: What is Peter's strategy that he gives his encouragement that he gives to Christians to share this hope—for people who, like in our day, may be more like Romans society than we realize? Many people have that kind of live for today and today only—yet you ask people, you used to ask people, "Where are you going to go when you die?" And there was this question: "Heaven or hell?" More and more people that I talk to say, "Into the ground," and think nothing of it. What is our strategy to share this hope with other people today?
Dale Meyer: A friend of mine says, "Don't tell me what a friend I have in Jesus until I see what a friend I have in you." Do good to all people, not only to fellow believers. We like to bring a dish to the potluck. We like to participate in the church sports league, or whatever it happens to be. Not only to fellow believers, but also to people in your community who do not know Jesus. It may be that they'll become curious and ask you about the hope that is in you.
Mike Zeigler: We don't have to tell them that their whole worldview's wrong on the first meeting. We might just bring them some cookies and make small talk.
Dale Meyer: Yeah.
Mike Zeigler: That's how we share this hope. I mentioned your mother at the very beginning, and I know that she has since gone to be with Jesus. But I've heard you talk about her and I just would ask, this being Mother's Day, tell us about how your mother was a witness for you of this hope that we have in Jesus.
Dale Meyer: Well, thank you. She passed away several months ago at the age of 96, almost 97. She was, among other things, a faithful listener to The Lutheran Hour, even when her son was in your position, Dr. Zeigler. She lived life to the fullest until the last weeks, and the diagnosis came, and it took her downhill very fast. I'll tell you, I learned so much by watching her at the end. She quickly came to terms with what was happening and she faced it with a resolute faith. Now, I know a lot of theology. But my mom, Norma, showed me how a Christian faces death in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. And I'm going to take her model with me until I see her and Jesus.
Mike Zeigler: Well, thank the Lord Jesus for Norma and for all those mothers who pass on this faith and hope to their children.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.