I have a great fondness for light bulb jokes, and especially ecclesiastical light bulb jokes. How many televangelists does it take to change a light bulb? (One—but for the light to continue, send in your donation today.) How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? (None—Presbyterians don’t change light bulbs. They simply read the instruction manual and pray the bulb is one that has been predestined to be changed.) And how many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? (This statement was issued: “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb (or light source, or non-dark resource), and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life, and tinted—all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.”)
That last one’s always told on the Methodists, but I don’t know that it’s really specific to them; there are a lot of folks in the Protestant mainline who really don’t want to insist that people need the light—who want to muddle the distinction between walking in the light and walking in the darkness. John, though, draws a sharp contrast: you’re either in one or the other, no middle ground. You can’t be partly following God and partly following the world; you can’t be most of the way with Jesus but keep part of yourself back to do something else. You can have Jesus, or you can have the world, you can have what you want, you can have your own way. You can’t have both.
Now, John’s laid this out pretty clearly in the first chapter and a half, which we’ve read these past two weeks, building toward the first command we see in this book: “Don’t love the world or the things of the world”; and what he’s said through verse 11 of chapter 2 is certainly enough to support it. “There’s light, there’s darkness, you have to choose, so choose God, not the world.” But interestingly, he doesn’t go right from that point in his argument to verse 15; instead, we get this strange little thing, verses 12-14, stuck in between them. This has always puzzled me, and I did a fair bit of reading on it before it started to make sense.
The key here is to remember that John addresses his readers all the way through the book as “little children,” so he’s not actually talking about three different groups. Rather, he’s addressing his readers in general, then breaking them up into two groups. He’s made it clear to them that the choice between God and the world is absolute, you can only love and serve one, and he’s going to command them to choose God; but first he takes a step back to tell them why. First off, all of you: for Jesus’ sake, your sins have been forgiven, and you know God the Father. You have been given an incredible gift—you’ve been set free from your sin, you’ve been set free from yourself, you’ve been brought into relationship with the Creator of all things; this is better than anything the world can give you and anything it can do for you.
Second, to the older people in the church, he says: “You know him who is from the beginning”—which is to say, Jesus. Why does he say this? I suspect it’s both a corrective and an affirmation. On the one hand, we learn how to live by living, and the longer we live and the more we face, the more we draw on our own experience and how we’ve dealt with things in the past to figure out how to deal with the challenges of the present. This is good, and how it must be, but it does have a downside. How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? (Change?) It’s the famous seven last words of the church: we’ve never done it that way before. So John reminds us all that even our oldest traditions are but temporary and fleeting; only Jesus is from the beginning.
At the same time, the less important the new and different becomes to you for its own sake, the more clearly you can see the importance of that truth, that Jesus is the one who was from the beginning, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever—and the more clearly you can see how badly we need a God who does not change with every wind of fashion, but who remains the same and remains faithful no matter how the world might shift or what it might decide to do tomorrow. That’s the perspective which it seems every generation of new leaders in the church is in danger of losing—and which too many leaders in each generation do lose. Too many never get it back.
Which is all too predictable, for a number of reasons; the old are not always humble by any means, but the younger you are, the less time you’ve had to be humbled, and to learn that you don’t really know better after all. Increasingly, I think the most important part of learning is coming to appreciate the extent of our own ignorance. But there’s another part to this, too, and that’s fear. Some people know their own fears, while others repress them in some way, and everyone’s fears are different, but they all would drive us to the same basic thing: compromise with the world. Maybe we’re afraid of failure, maybe we’re afraid of rejection or of being thought a fool, but fear pushes us to make our separate peace with the world; and so John says, “No, you don’t have to do that. You are strong, because the word of God abides in you”—Jesus Christ is in you by the power of his Spirit, his teaching is in you—“and in him, you have already overcome the evil one. You don’t know that yet, you haven’t experienced that yet, but it’s true, because he has already won the victory; just trust him.”
Don’t love the world, John says, because the world is temporary, it is passing away; the world is dying, only God and those who walk in his light will live. Don’t choose that which had a beginning over the one who was there when it began. Don’t love the world, because you don’t have to give into it—it will not always be easy, but by the power of God you have the victory over it; in him, you need have no fear. Don’t love the world, because you don’t have to settle for it: God has given you something much, much better. Far beyond its temporary and distinctly mixed pleasures, he has given you the freedom of his forgiveness, and the blessing of eternal joy and love in his presence. Love that which is most lovely, and let the rest go.