This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Have you ever felt like a "duck out of water"? Have you ever felt uncomfortable, out of place, like you just didn't belong? Perhaps you went somewhere in casual clothes, while everyone else was in more formal attire, and you felt rather conspicuous and out of it. Or maybe you found yourself in a group of people who were swearing or telling off-color jokes, and you didn't quite know what to do or how to react. Or you go to a birthday party, but are the only one who forgot to bring a gift. Or maybe the gift you brought is obviously the cheapest, and the recipient can barely hide her disappointment. From time to time, we all feel conspicuous or out of place, like we don't belong.
According to these Scripture passages, God's people, Christians, should always feel somewhat out of place in this world. They ought to feel like strangers, pilgrims, aliens, like "ducks out of water," out of their proper environment. The Psalmist said, "I am a stranger on earth" (Psalm 119:19a). The phrase, "wherever I lodge," in verse 54, literally means: "in my temporary house." According to Hebrews 11, the "heroes of the faith" "admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth" (verse 13). Peter describes his Christian readers as "aliens and strangers in the world."
As strangers in the world, we are disturbed by many things. Our own mortality can be distressing. Children grow up and parents grow old. In the countryside, one can see many abandoned farm places. At one time the houses were probably dream homes, but are now dilapidated and the people are long gone. If you have not seen the friends and acquaintances of your youth lately, it might surprise you to see that they now have gray hair. It reminds us that we are growing older, and that life is going by rapidly. Also distressing is the fact that bad things happen to basically good people, to God's people. There was a fine Christian woman, who was very active in her church. Once she took her son's paper route while he was at a Cadet camp-out. Somewhere along the line she fell, severely damaging her ankle. In fact, later she ended up on crutches. Although in considerable pain, she wanted to finish the route before going to the doctor. To save a few agonizing steps, she hobbled across a lawn. Halfway across, the door opened and an angry voice shouted: "What's the matter with you, walking on the grass? Someone your age ought to know better."
She saw some humor in that later. Other things that happen to us are no laughing matter; not now, not ever. They are downright distressing or discouraging, and remind us of how vulnerable we really are.
The Psalmist was well aware of his weakness and frailty. In the Psalms we read of both high and low points in the life of faith. Like the Psalmist, there are times when, spiritually speaking, we feel like we could "soar with the eagles." A short time later, however, we seem to be waddling around like penguins. Our own instability can be distressing.
Something that ought to distress us is when God is ignored or dishonored. The Psalmist said: "Indignation grips me because of the wicked, who have forsaken your law" (119:53). When God's law is broken, people get hurt, God is offended, and society suffers the consequences.
Whether we observe it or experience it, we know that life is simply unfair. For example, God's good gifts are not evenly distributed. Professional athletes earn far more than farmers, although farmers' work is far more important. Athletes merely amuse us; farmers actually feed us. Injustice occurs every day, in all aspects of human life. The problems of the world seem so overwhelming that we are tempted to just throw up our hands in despair.
But strangers in the world are not alone in the world. In one Bible version, Psalm 119:49-56 is entitled: "God's Word is my comfort and guide whatever the circumstances." The Psalmist wrote, "My comfort in my suffering is this: your promise preserves my life" (119:50). "I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them" (verse 52). He found comfort not only in Scripture, but in Scripture's Author: "You have given me hope" (verse 49).
A Christian author once said: "Life is unfair. Get over it!" His point was that in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people problems are inevitable, so don't expect too much. While our life's "book" will certainly have a happy ending, there is some sadness on almost every page.
Children soon discover that life isn't fair. There are times in your lives when bruised knees or broken dreams have brought tears to your eyes. You have probably experienced how some children and older people can be downright nasty or unkind. Maybe you yourselves said or did something that made you feel bad, that gave you a guilty conscience. Life simply isn't fair. Some people have great beauty or brains, health or wealth, while our portion seems rather small. Diseases and accidents happen to both believers and unbelievers. The Bible reminds us that while life may be unfair at times and people might be unkind,
God is always just and loving.
Peter reminds his readers that they are "God's elect, strangers in the world...who have been chosen" (I Peter 1:1, 2). Being God's chosen people does not keep us from life's storms, but it is our security in life's storms. Another Psalmist reminds us that "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." When we are in the midst of a "storm," we usually ask God to calm it. Until he does, we may pray: "Lord, keep me afloat during this storm." The sea around us might be raging but in our hearts there can be the peace of God.
Psalm 4 says: "Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord will hear when I call to him" (verse 3). Children, young people, and adults need to know that they are children of God. The awareness of God's presence helped Jacob on his way (Genesis 28:12ff). Once he was alone under the stars, running for his life, when he saw a stairway with angels on it. He woke up and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.... How awesome is this place!" Then he continued his journey.
If only we could live each moment of every day with that awareness, thinking: "Surely the Lord is in this place and in my life. Because of that, How awesome is this place, and how awesome is life itself and eternal life!" Even though you might feel out of place at times, feel as though you don't belong, you do belong to your Savior.
Because you belong to him, live for him. Peter writes: "I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul" (I Peter 2:11). Abstaining is not a very popular concept. Yet young and older people need to abstain from the sinful desires that war against our souls. Parents, teachers or pastors might say it, too, but first of all it is your God, your Savior, who says: "Abstain from sinful desires." He does not want us to lose the battle for our souls.
It is hard enough to abstain from sinful words and actions, how can we abstain from sinful desires? Perhaps we can't keep inappropriate thoughts from crossing our minds from time to time, but we can keep them from staying there. We can't prevent them from using the road, but we can put up "No Parking" signs, and we can enforce that rule.
Peter urges us to live good lives among those who don't believe (I Peter 2:12). Many people are concerned about treasures on earth, but Christians desire spiritual riches. Christians are thankful for what they do have, not angry or bitter about what they do not have. Christians confess and repent of their faults, but are not obsessed with them. They know that they have physical, mental, emotional, financial limitations. They accept God's love and forgiveness, and do their best.
A man once claimed that he was a "war baby," that his parents had taken one look at him and started fighting. Like him, everyone one of us has limitations, whether real or imagined, limitations that we have to live with. The good news is that God loves us!
Hopefully we, God's children, never waste our time wishing for things that others have, or wishing that we were more beautiful, athletic or intelligent than we are. Hopefully we realize how beautiful and special we are in the eyes of God and in the eyes of those who love us. Hopefully we enjoy ourselves, our lives, our Lord, and develop the unique gifts he has given us. Hopefully we seek first God's kingdom and God's will for our lives. Hopefully we will be the best that we can be, for God's glory and for our own good.
Though we travel as strangers or temporary residents, the Lord wants us to do good along the way, and to promote the well-being of church and society. The pilgrim Abraham was a great man of faith, who interceded for Sodom and rescued Lot. Like Abraham, Peter urges believers to make a difference in this world for God and for good. All of us are called to be part of God's Rescue Squad, who throw out the lifeline, who fulfill our part of the Great Commission. Many of us have been strangers at some time in our lives, newcomers to a certain city or community. After living for awhile in a place, people usually become more and more comfortable. They adjust, and may even adopt some of the customs and traditions of their new home. In time, they no longer feel like strangers.
Yet Scripture warns us not to become too comfortable here on earth. The Bible does not promise us comfortable lives. It teaches us that our lives on earth are temporary, and that, spiritually speaking, even when we are in the world we are not of it. It informs us of the comfort that comes from knowing that we belong to Jesus.
A company once sent pamphlets in the mail, containing the phrase: "an investment in paradise." No place on earth is a "paradise." In reality, we make an investment in the true Paradise when we commit our lives to Jesus. Paradise is the place where we will never again feel alone, out of place, discouraged, or sad. And as we travel there, we pray: "I am a stranger on earth.... Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.... Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge" (119:18,19a,54). AMEN.