PREACHER: REV. ADRIAN HALLETT
READINGS: 1 PETER 2:13-25.
SERMON TITLE: “AN EXAMPLE TO INFURIATE – OR TO INSPIRE?”
How do you feel when you are given an example to follow? If you are anything like me, initially you feel encouraged and excited, but, after a while, after numerous attempts and failures, it’s very easy to feel discouraged and then just give up! An example can either lead to frustration or encourage us to follow… an example can either infuriate or inspire.
I remember as a young boy… I was very keen on tennis…parents took me for several years to watch the British Hard Court Championships that were held in Bournemouth (sadly that tournament is no more)….I’m showing my age here, but I used to love watching Lew Hoad….he was bronzed, brawny and brilliant! To a ten year old boy he was awesome. I used to love watching how he played his shots…admired his precision and power (his forearm was a thick as my thigh!)…I’d go home inspired… he was the example I wanted to follow! I’d go on court, all fired up…. improve for a while, but very soon realise that no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to become the next Lew Hoad! It was all very well having him as an example, but I could never live up to the standards he set.
As I got older and no longer able to compete competitively at squash, tennis and hockey, I took up golf at age 50! Fatal mistake! Always inspired by the greats of the game…and today, like many other golfers, I look up to Rory McIlroy… I would love to play like him… the problem is my 73 year old frame can’t do the things his 27 year old frame can do! And I just don’t have his natural ability. He’s a wonderful example to every golfer, but if you try and live up to his example, your more likely to end up throwing your clubs in the lake next to the final hole as you come off the course! (tell the story of somebody who did that, only to discover he had left his car keys in his golf bag, and then in front of many people in the clubhouse overlooking the lake, he had to wade in, find his bag and then sheepishly hold up his car keys!)
Then today there is that reading from Peter’s first epistle, telling us that we should follow the example of Jesus! ‘To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.’ (1.Pet.2:21). At first sight there is a problem here. Live up to his example?!! How on earth can I do that? How can I live up to the example set by the perfect, sinless Son of God? Makes me want to give up before I even start! I don’t know about you, but I haven’t performed many miracles lately. I always fancied being able to turn water into wine, but without much success! Nor have I raised many people from the dead this week, so I fail miserably in living up to his example in terms of miracles. What about the example of his character? His compassion – he always had time for people and put himself out for the benefit of others. Failed again! What about his courage? Speaking the truth boldly without fear or favour? Failed! Or his total commitment to his Father living in absolute obedience to his will? Failed! What about his patience, his long suffering… his willingness to endure rejection…the way he coped with the despising of men? Failed again! How on earth can I or anyone else live up to his example? It’s so difficult… it’s impossible so it becomes totally discouraging… it freaks us out!
Is that what Peter had in mind? To set something before us that totally unrealistic? I don’t think so.
Let’s look at what it is that Peter has in mind when he talks about ‘example’. There are 15 biblical references to ‘example’ in the NT. Most of them are two Greek words which mean either type, or a thing shown… or a pattern or occasionally to imitate. But in 1 Pet.2:21 Peter uses a Greek word for example which only appears once in the whole of the NT. Peter uses another Greek word for example in his second letter (2.Pet.2:6) – ‘If he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly….’. The Greek word for example there means ‘a type’… ‘a thing shown’ – in other words, something that happened before and will happen again… it’s pointing to something definite…. there’s no room for negotiation…there are no ifs or buts…. no second chance. It’s an example in the sense of a warning…. ‘if you don’t measure up, watch out!’
Now imagine if Peter were to have used that word when talking of the example of Jesus we are to follow. How would we have felt? ‘I know how I would have felt…. I know what I would be saying to myself…. ‘I know I’m not going to measure up, so I’m written off… it’s hopeless… I’m condemned, I might as well give up now!’ Peter obviously knew that – know all about self-condemnation when he denied Jesus those three times – that was the low point in his Christian life…. he felt terrible and didn’t want other Christians to experience that – and Peter also knew the way Jesus was so gracious to him and gently restored him, so we begin to see something of the pastoral heart of Peter here, in the way that he uses another Greek word – are you ready for another quick Greek lesson? You learned two Greek words last week – ‘chiazein’ and ‘ exaleiphein’ – here’s another one – ‘hupogrammos’. And he uses it so as not to condemn his readers, but rather to encourage them and build them up.
So what is so special about this rather strange word ‘hupogrammos’? Remember that the Christians he’s writing to are having a really tough time… they are experiencing trials… they’re suffering…. they are experiencing persecution…. life is really tough and it’s all so unjust… so unfair….
1 Pet.1:6 ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
1 Pet. 2:20b….’But if you suffer for doing good, and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
1 Pet. 2 21 ‘To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example (hupogrammos), that you should follow in his steps
Now they are struggling with all this… particularly the injustice of it all… didn’t like the idea of being ‘called’ to suffer… seems that some were wanting to fight back…. to cry out…. to complain…. to retaliate, so Peter goes on to say:
1 Pet. 2:22 & 23 ‘”He committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth” (quoting from Isaiah 53:9). When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly’.
That’s the ‘hupogrammos’, the example, he sets before them. So what is so special about this word, this special word for ‘example’?
To understand the meaning we have to enter the world of Greek primary education…. the way in which Greek boys were taught how to write. Papyrus were too expensive to use for boys to practice their writing…so the school exercise book was the wax tablet – a shallow box, filled with soft wax.. The writing was done with a stylus…pointed at one end to write with, and flat at the other end to smooth over the wax so it could be used again.
The teacher drew parallel lines on the wax to keep the boys writing straight and at the top of the tablet, he set a line of writing that the boys had to copy. That line was the ‘hupogrammos’…. the pattern the boys had to follow. Now, would the boys have done that perfectly to start with? Would their attempts be as good as the copper-plate writing of the teacher? No of course not, not to start with any way. They would have found it difficult initially… they would have made many mistakes… their efforts would have looked very different from the example they were given….the flat end of the stylus would have been used as much as the sharp end! “So Peter is saying: ‘Just as the schoolboy learns to write by copying the perfect copper-plate example, so we are scholars in the school of life, and we can only learn to live by copying the perfect pattern of life which Jesus gave to us.’” (Wm. Barclay, ‘New Testament Words’ p.139).
So it’s not ‘if you don’t measure up, watch out!’, it’s not ‘three strikes and you’re out!’… it’s a, ‘this is how we should be living… this is how we should respond to our difficult demanding situation…we won’t find it easy, we won’t do it perfectly… but we set our hearts on wanting to emulate that perfect example of Jesus’. Now, I don’t know abut you, but I can respond to that…. I’m encouraged by that…. I don’t feel condemned… I don’t feel as though I’m a hopeless case….I rejoice in the fact that I’m not expected to be perfect…. that there is room for failure and mistakes which encourage me to want to keep practising… that I might gradually become more Christlike in my attitudes, responses and behaviour.
But there’s more! Another reason why Peter chose this word ‘hupogrammos’ – this is beautiful… even more encouraging! Sometimes the schoolmaster traced the letters in the wax of the tablet…then he would take hold of the boy’s hand and guide his hand over the grooves….thus ensuring that he would make no mistakes. So, at first, the teacher helped the boy by placing his hand over the pupil’s…. but then he he would let go of the hand and let the pupil try it by himself and the edges of the grooves would keep him from straying beyond the boundary.
You can begin to see why Peter deliberately chose this word ‘hupogrammos’. To have to copy the ‘hupogrammos’ all by oneself can seem too difficult and demanding, leading to discouragement. But just imagine the difference that it made for the pupil to have the master’s hand over his hand, and to have the grooves to follow, so that his pen could not stray, made things so much easier…. so much more encouraging.
That’s the picture Peter is painting for us….Yes, Jesus did leave us an example ‘that you should follow in his steps’…that is what is expected of us…. that is part of what it means to be a disciple… to follow his example… yes, Jesus is our example, but he doesn’t just leave with us that example and expect us to get on with it the best we can… as the master’s hand guided the pupil’s first fumbling efforts, so he guides us… our master gently puts his hand over ours to guide and direct us… to encourage us to become more like him…as the groove kept the pupil’s pen within the boundary, so his grace guides and directs us. What a beautiful picture that is! How encouraging is that!
Yes, he left us the dauntingly perfect ‘hupogrammos’, but that’s not the end of it… there is room for errors and mistakes… there is the possibility of improvement…. but more than that, he also constantly gives us the grace to follow it. Not an example to ‘freak us out’, but an example to follow.. not an example to infuriate, but to inspire!