by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 3.18-22 (click to see Scripture text)
Like you, I’m sure, I would love to kick the year 2020 in the gonads.
At this point on the calendar, 2020 is just rubbing it in.
And it’s not just the COVID-19 pandemic with approximately three million U.S. cases and counting and over 140,000 U.S. deaths and counting. Did you know last week the temperature spiked above one hundred degrees in Siberia— Siberia! Home of polar bears and Putin’s political prisoners. Siberia is a Vinny Testerverde Hail Mary pass away from the arctic circle and last week it was hotter than Nags Head. Speaking of North Carolina, have you read about the turkey plague? Yeah, that’s a thing too. Farms across North Carolina discovered their turkeys had contracted a rare strain of avian flu so they destroyed all of them before the contagion could jump to the human population. Maybe you saw— Krakatoa, the volcano in Indonesia, erupted and sent ash nearly 2,000 feet into the air. It’s still rumbling. The last time it erupted in 2018 it caused a deadly tsunami. Krakatoa’s most recent eruption could be heard as far away as Perth, Australia.
2020 kicked off with wildfires that burned 46 million acres of Australia. That’s the equivalent of the entire country of Syria. While we’re on the subject of fires, did you see Chernobyl spontaneously caught on fire, burning the entire wildlife preserve surrounding the abandoned nuclear power plant? And East Africa just experienced their second locust swarm of 2020. Billions of locusts, a swarm the size of Moscow, devoured everything in its path so, later in 2020, there will be locust-induced famines across East Africa, which I think is the fifth angel’s trumpet in the Book of Revelation. I’m praying no Black Lives Matter protestor says to the President “Let my people go” because I don’t have an umbrella strong enough for a downpour of frogs. There are so many apocalyptic events going on in 2020 I have a hard time keeping track of them. No wonder Joe Biden is hiding in his basement. It’s like we need Idris Elba to cancel the apocalypse for us.
John Prine is gone. Vanilla Ice is back, touring again. The Redskins are changing their name. The Astros still have no shame. Peaceful protestors are tear-gassed. Statues of Lincoln and Grant are toppled. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery and more names than I can even remember until they stop at Rodney King. James Bond got delayed. Black Widow got shelved. Ryan Zimmerman won’t play first for the Nationals this summer. The Black Keys won’t play Merriweather Post Pavilion. Karens keep showing up on social media, dropping the N-word and brandishing automatic weapons. Unemployment is at Grapes of Wrath levels. Yesterday, it was hotter in the former Soviet Siberia than it was in Siberia, Indiana. The COVID cases keep going up and our leaders fiddle happy songs while it burns.
There is so much bad news, yet— it’s like driving slow past a car wreck— I can’t not stare. Day after day, night after night during this pandemic I can’t unplug. I can’t put away my phone. I can’t stop checking the headlines. I can’t turn off the notifications. And according to a recent article I read in Wired Magazine, chances are neither can you.
Carl Reiner just died!
We’ve been so addicted to all the bad news during this pandemic we’ve begotten a new word. It’s called doomscrolling. Kevin Roose of the New York Times defines doomscrolling as “falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with coronavirus content, agitating oneself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep.” Says Angela Watercutter at Wired instead of Netflix or HBO, really we’re all binge-watching the world’s collapse. And it’s having a deleterious effect on our mental health. The article quotes a doomscroller on Twitter as saying, “Every marriage has one person who doomscrolls and reads headlines out loud pre-coffee, and a spouse who is begging them to stop.” Doomscrolling impacts more than marriages, says Wired Magazine. It has a compounding effect. Psychologists call it the “Mean World Syndrome.” Namely, the more media you consume that depicts the world as a violent, dangerous place the more you will view the world as a violent, dangerous place which, in turn, actually makes the world a more violent, dangerous place, for if you’re convinced the world is a dangerous place you’re more likely to resort to— or justify— violence. Worse, because what’s wrong with the world is other people, doomscrolling releases in our brains the same endorphin rush we get by participating in our self-righteous, like-minded tribes.
We look for the bad news, and then we judge and we point fingers and we demonize and we cancel because it makes us feel good. Chemically— it makes us feel good.
Before you rush to blame all the doom and gloom on Mark Zuckerberg or the Lamestream Media, note how a research scientist at Harvard’s School of Public Health says that “as humans we have a ‘natural’ tendency to pay more attention to negative news.”
It’s natural. Meaning, for evolutionary reasons, we’re hard-wired to pay more attention to bad news than to good news. We find danger before we find comfort. We notice brokenness before we see beauty. We see the not yet at the expense of the already.
We do this as Christians too.
We doomscroll with the eyes of faith. We fix our attention on the fallenness of the world and the far away-ness of the Kingdom. We obsess over our sins and, in doing so, we conjure a god who is angry at us. We focus on our neighbor’s sins, by what they’ve done or left undone, and, in doing so, we conjure a license to be angry at them.
Even as Christians, we doomscroll.
You don’t need to be woke. It’s easy to notice what’s wrong with the world. That’s no achievement. The slow and steady process of natural selection has made sure your default gaze is trained on the bad news, which is a scientific, doctor-approved reason why, in the Church, we can never assume the Gospel.
Where the Gospel is assumed, the Gospel is endangered.
Where the Gospel is assumed, the Gospel is endangered because survival of the fittest has fashioned us to pay attention to bad news rather than good news.
Therefore, before I go any further, allow me to give you the goods of the Gospel.
Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, has elected you in Jesus Christ from before the foundation of the world. His covenant in Jesus Christ, to be your God and for you to be his people, precedes creation itself. Before there was anything or anyone, God had determined in Christ Jesus not to be God without you.
And in Jesus Christ, God has made peace— once, for all— between himself and sinful humanity. Thus, salvation is not a possibility we point to. It is a reality we proclaim. God hasn’t merely promised to save us. In Jesus Christ, God has gone and done it. In Jesus Christ, God has spoken a finished and final YES over us that none of our No’s can ever mute. The perfect tense of Christ’s faithfulness for you is always present tense with you.
Christ’s reconciling work is perfect. His righteousness is yours. Because this one man died to Sin, all have died. Your life is hidden now in Christ with God. Nothing you do or leave undone can evict you from him who is your home. And because you are in Christ, no matter what your eyes tell you— take it on faith— you are a new creation (even you). You have been begotten anew by the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
The Father’s Son has journeyed into the far country of Sin and Death and has brought you back to the Prodigal Father. Whether you know it or not, whether you believe it or not, you are safe in Jesus Christ. In him, you already possess as much as you allow, for you share in the infinite fullness that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is nothing you need to earn for Almighty God. His good and faithful servant has done well for you. There is nothing you need to fear from Almighty God. By his resurrection, Jesus Christ is eternally alive as your Representative and Advocate.
And if you wander in your life, if you wobble in your faith, if you wonder if your sin is stronger than his grace, then look to your baptism. As the Apostle Peter says today, your baptism is the outward and visible sign that the baptism of his death and resurrection has saved you. Christ suffered for sins once for everybody, Peter proclaims today. Christ the only Righteous One suffered for the remainder of us, the all-inclusive category called the unrighteous. And Christ suffered, Peter says today, NOT in order to beckon us to God but in order to bring us all by his lonesome to God.
You’re already home free, gratis.
God’s grace in Jesus Christ isn’t cheap. It’s not even expensive. It’s free.
And not only free— it’s finished and final.
Not only is this the good news, it’s good news.
No matter what the headlines say, no matter what your eyes see, no matter what that voice inside your head whispers, in Jesus Christ everything that is wrong in the world— including everything wrong in you— has already been and is now being and will yet be rectified.
Made right, the Gospel promises.
You can’t hear news like that anywhere else. Before COVID-19, you had to get up at an inconvenient hour, get dressed up, and get yourself to church to hear news so strange and good. News that is neither sentimental nor cynical.
News that’s a counter-narrative.
According to Wired Magazine, not everyone is doomscrolling.
It turns out the people most likely to get sucked down the virtual rabbit hole, reading story after story of the world’s financial and civil and public health collapse, are the people who until very recently thought they had the world firmly under their control, i.e, white people.
Allissa Richardson, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, notes that when she was researching her new book Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, she spoke to many activists who didn’t participate in doomscrolling simply because, they said, “I can’t see myself being killed over and over again in this tiny square on my phone. It’s like all the bad news is meant to condition us to accept the world as it is.”
Instead of doomscrolling, Wired Magazine reports, black smartphone users have been more likely to spend the pandemic searching for and sharing good news, staging music competitions on Instagram and ranking one another’s discographies.
Says Professor Richardson, “Doomscrolling for black people works in the inverse, we’re actually trying to look for something separate and apart from bad things.”
Rooting ourselves in a place of joy and good news rather than the bad news “is our act of resistance.”
It’s like all the bad news is meant to condition us. Starting from a place of good news (of great joy) is an act of resistance to the world that we’ve made in our image.
As the Church, we can never assume the good news, roll up our sleeves, and get about fixing the brokenness of the world. We can never assume the good news, not simply because we’re hardwired to fixate on the bad news. We can never assume the Gospel because, notice how the Apostle Peter frames it in our text today, the good news of the finished work of Jesus Christ— it is the basis from which we engage the brokenness of the world. Our text today from chapter three, the Apostle Peter is in the middle of exhorting the messianic community to do good in the world. To do good in the world and, if necessary, to “suffer for righteosness’ sake.” That is, for the sake of justice.
But notice, for the Apostle Peter, what compels us to do good and suffer for the sake of justice in the world: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison… and through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, with every authority and all the Powers now made subject to him.”
Peter does not exhort the Church to do justice in the world because of all the injustice in the world. Peter does not urge believers to do good because of all that is wrong in the world. Peter does not push the messianic community to bear witness to the cruciform way of Jesus Christ because so much reconciling work yet remains to be done. No, Peter orders us out into the world to bear witness to the cruciform way of Christ because everything has already been done.
It’s not the brokenness of the world that enlists us to engage the world with the way of Jesus; it’s the beauty of what Christ has already accomplished for the world that sends us out into the world.
The Apostle Paul echoes Peter’s point in his second letter to the Corinthians, “God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and God has entrusted the message of that reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is persuading the world through us.”
We are hardwired to view the world as though we’re all aboard Flight 93 and we’ve got to get up and do whatever is necessary. But the Gospel is that in Jesus Christ the plane has already safely landed. All our iniquity has been born away. God has reconciled all the world to himself. The Power of Sin— the Devil, Satan, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Principalities and Powers— has been defeated by the cross of Jesus Christ. And all the brokenness in our world, they are but the Enemy’s last gasps. All our strife is the Enemy’s stubborn death rattle.
When Peter says today that Jesus Christ harrowed hell to proclaim the good news of himself to the spirits in prison, he’s talking about that Enemy, the Powers, the spiritual Powers in rebellion against God who cause all the misery and acrimony in God’s world. Those Powers have been made subject to Christ, Peter says today. And Peter’s point is the same one that Paul makes in his letter to the Romans. “What then are we to say about these [Powers],” Paul asks, “If God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or violence?” You see, he’s talking about all the ways God’s Enemy, the Powers, manifests in our world. “No,” Paul declares, “in all these things we are more than conquerors. For I am convinced that nothing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As Karl Barth says of these texts, the perfection of Christ’s work does not mean that nothing now remains for us to do. The complete and finished work of Jesus Christ does not bring humanity to rest. Rather, it sets humanity in motion, with a cruciform way, to resist the Powers with a counter-narrative. For example, we don’t feed the poor out of pity or religious obligation. We feed them because theirs is the Kingdom already. Our food— our money even- belongs to them. For example, in a culture of racial division, we don’t seek to tear down the walls between us. We bear witness that in Jesus Christ the dividing walls between us, as Paul says, have already been reduced to rubble. The complete and finished work of Jesus Christ sends us out to say Put that brick down. Why are you building that wall back up? Jesus worked harder than you’ll ever understand to take it down.
The finished work of Christ sets us in cruciform motion and sends us out with a counter-narrative. For example, we refuse to perpetuate the political antagonisms in our culture. Why? Because as Christians we ought to be nice? Or because religion and politics shouldn’t mix? Hardly. No, as Christians we avoid perpetuating the political antagonisms in our culture because we’re the ones who know the good news. Like Mother Mary said, the proud and the powerful have already been ripped out of their corner offices by the Lord Jesus Christ. They just haven’t gotten the memo yet.
We act in the world, Peter says today, not because there is so much to do but in order to bear witness to the everything that Jesus Christ has already done, on the basis of the good news not because of all the bad.
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this all semantics, Jason? Good news versus bad news. Do versus Done. What difference does it really make?
Go back to that Wired Magazine article on doomscrolling. When your view of the world is shaped by the bad news rather than good news, by Sin more so than Gospel, you will resort to any means necessary to save it. Including ways contrary to the way of Jesus Christ. In the complete and finished work of Jesus Christ, God has literally given us all the time in the world to bear witness to the Kingdom in a manner that does not contradict the message of our King.
What’s that look like?
In the darkest days of apartheid, when no one thought that apartheid could ever be dismantled without a bloody revolution, Archbishop Desmond Tutu insisted on living as though he had an invisible army. On one occasion, the bishop, with a large band of demonstrators and activists, was attempting to meet with officials of the South African government. This was not permitted, so protestors proceeded to the cathedral where they had a worship service where Tutu preached:
“I am a bishop in the Church of God, I am 51 years old, yet I don’t have a vote…Well, they can remove Desmond Tutu. They can end the South African Council of Churches. But the Church of God goes on. The government must know that the Church is not frightened of any earthly power…More are for us than can ever be against us. A vast throng no one could ever count, from every nation and every tribe, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white and bearing palm branches in their hands, shout together, Victory to our God! We are joined with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.”
While Tutu preached, standing ranks of policeman lined the walls of the church, keeping a wary eye on the protest.
Suddenly, in the middle of his sermon, Tutu looked directly at the police— the police who were determined to keep apartheid in its place by any means necessary— and he declared to them, “You have already lost! You have already lost! Come over here to us! Join us! Don’t you see, we are inviting you to come and join the winning side! Don’t you understand? It’s the knowledge that in Jesus Christ we have already won that makes our nonviolent witness possible.”
In the complete and finished work of Jesus Christ, God has literally given us all the time in the world to bear witness to the Kingdom in a manner that does not contradict the message of our King.
18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.