Strangers In A Strange Land?

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Can I take this opportunity to restate the welcome here to St Joseph's this morning. Whether we call this place our home church, or whether you're visiting us for a short period. To those of us who are Christians, we are

"a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."

To those who are still exploring what it means to be a Christian, I hope that you will get a glimpse of what it means to "have life, and life to its fullness" (John 10:10). If nothing else, it may help explain why Christians can appear strange, and why our view of the world is so different to yours.

But that won't happen if we don't have God's help to ensure that I speak accurately from his word, or if we don't have his help to understand. So let me pray for just that:

Dear God, may the things that I say be clear and accurate, and help us all, through your Spirit, to understand what your word is saying to us this morning. Amen.

At this holiday time, many of us have will have been having new experiences, either here in the UK or abroad. More of us will have come to Newcastle after a period of living in a different city, area or country. My experience of both is a disconnect between what I'm used to and familiar and the new country and culture. Whether that is the seemingly small differences of greetings or pronunciation that native English speakers use for this delight.

This map shows how people born in the British Isles tend to pronounce the treat, with the redder areas pronouncing it correctly as 'scone', whereas the bluer areas tend to get it wrong by calling it a 'scone' – you can see a marked concentration between Hull and Manchester, and then again in Essex, as well as the SW part of Ireland. I also understand that that there is a beetroot pronunciation line running roughly through Birtley to Whitburn – above the line, it is definitely 'beet-root', while below into Sunderland and County Durham it is 'beyt–rut'. Maybe one to try out on your next Metro trip?

Or in the more significant challenges of getting to terms with a different culture, language, system of government, I'm hoping that this feeling of disconnect or strangeness is a familiar one. And that disconnect can produce stress and challenge. My family will certainly let you know about how stressful I find driving an unfamiliar car on strange roads.

But this strangeness – of being alienated from the surrounding culture – is also a recurring theme throughout the Bible, and in 2 Peter we see why that is for Christians, the impact that it should have on our lives, and why that very 'strangeness' can be a cause of deep celebration – recognising that we are citizens of a different place, and that being with God in heaven is the ultimate home for everyone who builds their lives with Christ as our cornerstone.

But let's start with some background to the idea of being a stranger. We start with Moses, for it was he that coined the phrase 'stranger in a strange land' that seems to resonate strongly in our culture, with songs by diverse artists ranging from Iron Maiden to Barbra Streisland and the haunting melodies of Fiddler on the Roof as the Jewish people are subject to pogroms, persecution and forced exile. Moses, you may recall, was an Israelite, born at a time of persecution of that people by the Egyptian Government. First hidden in a basket to escape death as a baby, then adopted into the royal court, at age 40 Moses was at the height of his power.

As Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith takes up the narrative in Acts 7:

"At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God's sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father's house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarrelling and tried to reconcile them, saying, 'Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?' But the man who was wronging his neighbour thrust him aside, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?' At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons."

It was while he was in this strange land that Moses names his oldest son 'Gershon' that means 'stranger'. While in Egypt, Moses had thought that he had known God's plans and how he could secure them – by his own might and wisdom, but it was here in Gershon that, for another 40 years he laboured and felt the disconnect with his neighbours and even his family, before eventually, God called him to be part of his family and do the job that God wanted him to do.

So why does Peter take up this theme of being strangers in our passage this morning?

While as Christians our new citizenship ceremony is not usually as dramatic as that experienced by Moses in the burning bush, but our call is every bit as amazing. Because we can base our foundations are based on a living stone. That's Jesus. And Jesus' experience was of rejection by the world's authorities, and even his own people. That cornerstone is the basis for every Christian's outlook and world view. Although it is rejected by men, it is precious in God's eyes, and he calls us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to that cornerstone and foundation. To Jesus. He guarantees our passport to this new country, and unlike some the vagaries of my colleagues in the Home Office, he gets it right every time.

And we have a promise here that such devotion will be worth it. There is an eternal reward. Turn with me now to 1 Peter 2 in the Bible to examine this in more detail – firstly looking at 'who we are' and then 'what that identity means for us'. And in looking at both who we are and what that means, Peter gives us some classic advice for how we can live our lives as a citizen of heaven.

So in verse 8, let's examine what our identity is, in six brief, but amazing descriptors:

  • We are a chosen race

Here Peter is clear that there is a new chosen people, that there is a new covenant or agreement that has been made with Christians that relies entirely on what God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it is not just a chance occurrence, but something planned from the beginning of time. It is hard to grapple with something so far outside our own understanding. I don't know why God has chosen me – it certainly nothing to do with what I do, or where I come from, my family or status. But I know that he loves me, and the fact that he does is a source of great comfort. In what is a surprising turn of events from a Northern Irish Presbyterian schooled in the Westminster Confession of Faith, I actually find the words of article 17 of the Church of England to be really helpful in understanding that concept of 'predestination';

Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour.

Do look at the resources on the church website for more information and a far better explanation than I could ever offer on this.

  • We are a royal priesthood

And not only are we chosen, we are part of the royal family, queens and kings, princes and princess – we are directly related to the King of kings – brother and sisters, adopted into a royal family. And as well as being royalty, we also have direct access to God – we are all part of the priesthood. What an antidote for self-doubt or feelings of worthlessness!

  • We are a Holy nation

In this challenging times politically in this country, with questions of national identity seeming to come at us from every angle, and politicians vying with each other to proclaim their vision of what it means to live in this country, it is amazing to know that, whatever the colour of our passport, we as Christians have been set aside as a new people – one precious to the creator and sustainer of the Universe. Because our identity is in Jesus, and we rely on his righteousness, not our own, God sees us as pure.

  • We are a people for his own possession, God's people

This image is being part of the royal household, again set apart and precious. We belong to God the Father. This is a fulfilment of the intended creation order, of God and people working together, with God at the centre. For me, that is about finding true purpose in our lives – answering the question of 'what on earth am I here for?' Some of us have spent time together thinking about that in looking at Rick Warren's books on the purpose-driven life. Remembering that you're a stranger here on earth can help us get our priorities right – we are aiming to live our lives as God's people. How do we measure up against that aim – perhaps take some time after the service today to think about that – maybe even during the coffee in discussion with those around us.

  • We have received mercy

This new identity can only come about because of what Jesus has done for us. None of us, even the good people here, deserve to be part of this royal priesthood or holy nation – we were without mercy. The Bible is clear that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), but also that we can receive mercy "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

  • We are sojourners and exiles

Lastly in this section we come to our key phrase – sojourners (or strangers) and exiles. Peter has already opened this letter by addressing it to 'strangers in the world', and here he returns to the theme, summarising that as we have a different king, new values, changed status and are a new people, we are no longer part of the previous world order. No, our lives should reflect that new reality, and that will mean disconnect and strangeness with those who don't acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

So we need to work out what that actually means for us.

In verses 11 to 13, Peter highlights three key impacts – proclaiming the good news, abstaining from evil, and keeping our conduct honourable. I'll unpack those in a bit more detail.

  • We are told to 'Proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light'. One of the dangers of strangeness is that it becomes uncomfortable to share our lives with non-Christians, and we retreat into some sort of holy huddle with people who share our values and outlook on life, But Peter is clear that this is the wrong response – our proclamation needs to be to the whole world. We have received a marvellous gift of mercy, and Jesus has told us to go into the world and make disciples everywhere. We should share this marvellous light.
  • We are instructed to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. This call to abstention fits with our status as 'strangers'. We should distance ourselves from lusts – whether that is indulging in greed, idolatry, drunkenness, gossip or slander. A temporary resident in a foreign land is not likely to adopt all of the customs of the land where they are visiting. Our standards of value, and our lifestyle should be different, and we should bear witness with our deeds, as well as our words, that we are citizens of a better kingdom.
  • Peter also tells us to "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation." These good lives are ones that are attractive and beautiful – obvious conduct that is consistent and full of integrity, reflecting the instruction of Jesus in Matthew 5:16, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven". But, even with perfect good deeds or a perfect life, we can still expect to be spoken about as evildoers. There is a bias of unbelievers against all things to do with God. That is true today, and it was true when Peter was writing. The Roman historian Tacitus remarked that Christians were 'loathed because of their abominations'.

So we must conclude, and in verse 16, Peter gives us great advice on how to live as strangers in this land. We should live as people who are free, but not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, and instead live as servants of God.

This, seemingly contradictory, identity of a 'free slave' is at the heart of who we are as Christians, and that knowledge can release us to live our lives as a people chosen by God, set apart as a royal priesthood.

And perhaps turning to the words of that great American evangelist, Dwight L Moody, who saw first hand in his own life how God can use 'strangers in a strange land', while leading a mission here in this city, just down the West Road at Rye Hill, in 1872 – which grew to such an extent that people required tickets for entry, and packed out both the Assembly Rooms and Tyne Theatre for several months, who gave this apt description of our original 'stranger in a strange land':

"Moses spent forty years in the king's palace thinking that he was somebody; then he lived forty years in the wilderness finding out that without GOD he was a nobody; finally he spent forty more years discovering how a nobody with GOD can be a somebody."

Surely the challenge is for us here in realising that we are 'free servant', a stranger, can really be used for God's purposes here in Benwell, across Tyneside, and to the end of the earth, if we take on board our heavenly citizenship.

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