I wanted to let you know that as you go out, you’ll find copies of another sermon preached from this passage. One of the good times in my association with the Presbytery of Wabash Valley came at the February 2008 assembly, when the Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman preached. Dr. Detterman is the Executive Director of Presbyterians for Renewal, a position which at that time he’d only just taken; I knew him primarily as a church musician and theologian of worship, and in particular for his work on the editorial staff of the quarterly Reformed Worship, and so I was delighted to meet him and thank him for his writing. I appreciated his sermon, too, which used 1 John as a lens with which to examine the state of the PC(USA) and the various ways in which its darkness has held us back from the gospel ministry to which Christ calls us. Circumstances have changed in the 43 months since, and not for the better, but his message that day still sounds clear.
In part that’s because Dr. Detterman chose his text well. It was a good time for me, but not for that denomination, and this is a passage which speaks particularly clearly in bad times. At least, that’s the conclusion I came to this past week, which wasn’t a good one for me. Partly, I just haven’t been well; I started feeling sick during the wedding rehearsal the other Friday, and I’ve been up and down since. I wasn’t completely out of it, but whatever it was really took the stuffing out of me. More than that, though, to be honest, I was angry a lot of this past week. Nothing you need to be worried about, I’m not unhappy with the church; y’all aren’t perfect, to be sure, but you do well and I’m proud of you. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on, and I came away angry.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because anger is not necessarily sinful; it may be selfish, to be sure, but it can also be perfectly righteous, coming in response to injustice and evil. What matters is why we’re angry and how we handle it—and in particular, that we do not allow anger to curdle into bitterness and hatred toward others. If we let it, as the Jedi Master Yoda always insisted, will pull us out of the light and into the darkness. I’m no great fan of the spirituality of Star Wars on the whole, but George Lucas had the right idea there; and he was right to note that people can draw great power from hatred and bitterness toward other people—but only power for destruction, not for good, not for truth.
It is right to be angry at evil and injustice; it is even right to hate evil and injustice—but not to hate the evil and the unjust, whom God loves even as he hates what they do. If we cross that line, we step out of his light and into the darkness, and we cease to be able to see truly. Hatred, bitterness, all such things cloud our minds and distort our perception: of others, of ourselves, and ultimately of God, because God is love.
Here we see the answer to the question we considered last week, “What does it mean to walk in the light?” It means that we love those around us. And how do we do that, and how do we know that we’re doing that? We follow Jesus, we live as he lived, we keep his commandments. This is the key: Jesus is our reference point, and our only reference point. It’s not enough to look holier than our neighbors, our friends, our family, our fellow churchgoers, because they aren’t the standard by which we’ll be measured: Jesus is. Nor is there any room for bending our understanding of God’s holiness to match what those around us, or the prevailing voices of our culture, value and believe to be right, because they aren’t the ones who determine what is right: Jesus is. Voices of compromise with the world come from the world—they are voices from the darkness asking us to turn down the light, or even turn it off altogether. Jesus calls us to walk in the light, whether anyone around us likes the light or not.
Of course, there are a lot of folks who try to argue in the name of Jesus that God really doesn’t want them to do what his word tells them to do, but to that, John’s response is pointed: anyone who claims to know Jesus but doesn’t keep his commandments is a liar, because their life doesn’t match their words. Biblically speaking, the fruit of knowledge is action; true knowledge is knowledge which is lived out. “Head knowledge” isn’t a biblical category—if you claim to know something but it has no effect on how you live, you might be able to repeat the words, but you don’t really know it.
The late physicist Richard Feynman caught this well in an account of his time lecturing in Brazil.
I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question—the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell—they couldn’t answer it at all! . . .
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” was the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. . . .
So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all.
True knowledge changes how we act because it changes how we understand ourselves and the world around us. The light of God shines, and by that very fact it changes us. The light shines, and we see what we could not see before, and we understand what we did not understand before, and so we live differently—not out of a sense of duty, not because of what others will think of us, not in the hope of reward, but simply because you don’t walk into things when you can see to avoid them.
At least, you don’t if you’re paying attention. Sometimes we get distracted; sometimes we’re looking the wrong way, focusing on something other than where we’re going. Some of us are prone to woolgather; when my sister-in-law’s older brother was a student at Michigan State, he was walking along thinking about something, and looked up to realize he was out in the middle of one of the fountains on campus. He’d walked right into it without even noticing. (Being in his own way a very practical person, Jim just kept on walking until he’d walked out the other side.) And of course, some of us are just clumsy. Even when we can see where we’re going, none of us walks perfectly, and some of us less so than others.
This is why John gives us this assurance: “My little children, I am writing these things to you to light your way to guide you out of sin. But if anyone does sin”—and we all know John is being tactful here, because he’s already said that none of us can claim not to sin at all—“if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. When he gave himself up as a sacrifice for sin, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.” The light of God shines, but though it’s the light of truth, it isn’t cold, hard, dispassionate, and pitiless, as we sometimes imagine truth to be; rather, it is the light of grace, because the one who is truth is the one who is love, and his truth is his love, and vice versa. The greatest truth in which we walk is the truth that God loved the world in this way, that we don’t have to be good enough because he is good enough for us; the light that shows us our path is the love of God in which we walk entirely by grace, knowing that it’s all by his power, not our own.