That We May Know

(Numbers 15:27-31; 1 John 5:13-21)

John is a big one for knowledge. “I write these things to you who believe in the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life,” he says. This is closely akin to his purpose statement near the end of his gospel, in John 20:31: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That we may know who Jesus is, that we may act on that knowledge by putting our trust in him, that we may know that in him we have eternal life—that’s what John is driving at here; and in this conclusion of his letter, he backs that up with statement after statement about what we as Christians know about who God is and who we are in him. Not merely what we think, not just what we want to believe, but what we know—what is bedrock, what is absolutely certain; what we can stake our lives on.

And as part of that, he calls us to stake our lives on what we know. These days, we tend to think of knowledge the way we do in school, as a collection of facts that we have to be able to remember to answer the questions correctly and pass the test. You tell me stuff, I tell it back to you to prove that I was listening and remember what you said. It’s rather like mama bird feeding little baby birds—eat worm, regurgitate worm, repeat.

That’s not the biblical definition of knowledge, and it’s not what John is on about. Biblically, true knowledge, knowledge of the truth, produces true action; it shapes and forms the way we live. Thus John says here, “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life,” but back in 2:1, he wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” To us, these sound like different things, but to John, they aren’t. Knowing we have eternal life in Christ—and Christ alone—affects how we live; it draws us away from sin and toward God. We don’t learn not to sin by force of will or fear of punishment or some form of manipulation, we learn not to sin by coming to know God and his blessings, and so to love him, and value them, more than the pleasures and promised rewards of sin.

That truth underlies the points John is making in this final section of his letter. “This is the confidence we have in God’s presence,” he tells us, “that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” “Hearing” in this context doesn’t just mean that God knows we said something, but that he responds positively to our request, and thus that we can know that we will receive what we ask. If we ask according to his will. In which case, isn’t our prayer redundant?

No, it isn’t. You see, God can bless us whether we ask him to or not; but he can’t bless us as an answer to our prayers unless we pray. And more than that, God doesn’t do things capriciously or without reason; why should we assume that his will doesn’t take our prayers into account? Our prayers don’t force God to do anything, but does that mean he doesn’t will to do things in part because we ask him to? I think one reason we have trouble thinking about prayer is that we implicitly have a transactional model of prayer, as if we were asking the bank for a loan, or the library for a book. We say prayer is about our relationship with God, but we don’t really think through what that means. Prayer is how God involves us in what he’s doing; we give him what’s on our mind and heart, and he takes that into his counsel, and he helps us to understand his will and what he intends to do. We learn to see our lives in that light, and to want what he wills.

This begins, though, with knowing—not just in our heads, but in our hearts and in our bones—that in Jesus, we have a different kind of life from the world at large, something more than the world has to offer. Prayer according to God’s will begins with the trust that God’s will really is better—and better for us specifically—than our own ideas and plans. Sin, by contrast, is the practical expression of the belief that we cannot trust God. They’re polar opposites of each other.

That may be why John commands us in verse 16, if we see a fellow believer sin, to pray for them: the first response we should have to the public sin of another is not condemnation, or lecturing, which are applications of our own power to punish, but prayer, which is an appeal to the power of God to heal and restore. Yes, public discipline is sometimes necessary as well, but that isn’t where we should start—and even discipline must be combined with prayer, because nothing we can do can bring people to repentance; only God can do that. Only he can give life.

Now, John distinguishes between “the sin that does not lead to death” and “the sin that leads to death”; people have come up with various random suggestions for what “the sin that leads to death” might be, but I don’t think John’s making a random reference here. Remember the context; remember the false teachers against whom he’s writing, who have deliberately turned away from Christ, choosing darkness over light. That deliberate rejection of our only hope of salvation is the sin that leads to death, because it is the sin of choosing death over life; we call it apostasy, and John says, “I don’t command you to pray for such people.” You can, but he isn’t going to force the issue, because that will break your heart. It’s not a bad thing, that what breaks the heart of God should break our hearts as well; but it isn’t easy to bear.

The danger in talking about this is that in bringing eternal punishment into the conversation, it can inspire fear; I remember a couple conversations in high school with classmates who were afraid they had committed the unforgivable sin. Thus John follows up with strong words of reassurance, reminding us what we know, why we need not fear or lose heart. None of this is new, he’s said it all over the course of the letter, but he wants to make sure it sticks. “We know that anyone born of God does not keep on sinning”—yes, we do sin, but we repent, we ask forgiveness, and we give it to Jesus, who took it all on the cross. Jesus protects us, and he keeps the evil one from leading us into the sin that leads to death. The system of this world is under the control of the evil one, but we know we’re free of that, because we are of God—we belong to him alone.

“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ, who is the true God and eternal life. Therefore, little children, keep yourselves from idols.” “Therefore” isn’t in the text, but I think it’s implied. John’s closing thought is at once a profound statement of praise and a call to action—a call to live lives in accordance with that praise.

We’re tempted to go after idols—to put our trust and our faith and our love in people or things ahead of God; but how foolish is that, really? In God, we have nothing to fear, and there is nothing better we could desire—the Son of God has come, and through him we are able to know the one who is true, the God of all creation, the source of all light and goodness and grace. More, we are in God, we live in him and he lives in us, because we are in Jesus Christ, who is God, who is eternal life. We have been united with Christ by his Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, who lives in us by the will of God the Father; he is the source of truth and grace and love, hope and joy and peace and all good things.

Don’t settle for idols; accept no substitutes. Jesus came that we may know God—not just know about him, or worship him, or know his commandments, but know him, as we know our closest friends and family. He came to be the way for us to God, and there is no better way. Indeed, there is no other way, never has been and never will be; and John writes so that we may know this beyond all doubt, and be moved to praise, and to trust—and to follow.

A Different Kind of Life

(Deuteronomy 30:11-14; 1 John 5:1-12)

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves everyone who has been born of God.” With that line, John begins his final turn, into the conclusion of his letter. The people of God are those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God born as an ordinary human baby to live and die and rise from the dead on our behalf, so that we might be ransomed from death and given new life, and that true life is found in Jesus Christ alone and no other. Those who believe in him do not merely have someone else to follow or someone else to worship, we have been reborn, spiritually, by the will of God the Father and the power of his Holy Spirit; he is alive in us, his Spirit fills us, and we have been given his love. By his love, we love each other—everyone else who believes in Jesus is family, and we love them even when we don’t like them very much.

And then John throws us a bit of a curve. He’s been saying that the sign that we love God is that we love our brothers and sisters, which we see in verse 1 as well, but now he flips that; in fact, he closes the circle by saying, “This is how we know that we love God’s children, when we love God and obey his commandments, because obeying God’s commandments is how we live out his love.” We know we love God because we love each other, we know we love each other because we love God—if one is there, the other is, they can’t exist without each other, because love for God necessarily produces love for his people. And the sign of that, the practical heart of that, is obedience to God.

Which is interesting, because we aren’t accustomed to thinking of love in that way. We tend to define it subjectively, in terms of whether the other person feels loved. Understandable, certainly, and if nobody feels we love them, that should probably tip us off that something’s wrong; but those perceptions are not always accurate. People aren’t always going to receive loving statements and actions as loving, because as we’ve said, loving each other well has to involve challenging each other at times and calling one another to repentance. The final measure of whether we’re loving God and each other is whether we’re doing what he told us to do.

Now, against that, we have a lot of voices in the church insisting that following the commands of Scripture is burdensome, and that whatever commands they consider burdensome must not really be God’s commands anymore, because his commands aren’t supposed to be burdensome. If the Bible tells me I can’t have sex with that person I want to have sex with, or that I’m supposed to give generously to the church and to the poor and vulnerable, or that I have to love and serve that person over there who hurt me deeply, well, that’s burdensome, and so God can’t really mean that. Which makes a lot of sense, from a human perspective, and so a lot of people happily buy in to that approach, and happily follow teachers who present this as God’s word. John wants to change our perspective on what “burdensome” is, by changing our idea of what life is.

To give you an idea, one of the joys of being a Seattle Seahawks fan back in the days when there were any was the play of our great left tackle, Walter Jones. Normally, watching a left tackle isn’t what you’d call “fun,” but Big Walt was an exception. He’d drive defensive linemen back ten yards before they knew what had happened; on pass plays he’d stretch out one arm, grab a pass rusher, and put him flat on his back. He was as big and strong as a truck—and he got that way by pushing them around. Literally. Part of his workout every offseason was pushing a three-ton Escalade around a big parking lot near his house. You’d see pictures, and from his face the man was in pain. That hurt to do. But was it burdensome? No, it wasn’t. He did it gladly, even joyfully.

Why? Because that’s part of what it took for him to be what he wanted to be—a dominant, Hall-of-Fame force at one of the game’s key positions. That struggle wasn’t a burden, it was a blessing, because through it, he grew, he got better, and the physical gifts God gave him were realized in his performance on the football field. Walter Jones could easily have avoided all that pain and turned aside from all that struggle; but his life would not have been better for it, as he would have been far less than he had the ability to be.

We tend to go to God and say, “I want the world.” Maybe not all of it, but at least this part of it. When we don’t get the world, we complain and say bad things about God. When the Bible tells us we can’t have that particular part of the world we want, we try to explain it away or get rid of it; when other people call us on it, we say they’re unloving. But the fact is, God doesn’t promise us the world; in fact, he doesn’t even offer us the world. God offers us something completely different in Jesus Christ: a whole new kind of life, and a victory that overcomes the world.

I was thinking about this the last few days, not in quite these terms but in terms of our freedom in Christ; John doesn’t use that language here, that’s Paul in Galatians, but it connects. You know, the freedom I want in Christ—the freedom I believe we’re promised—is freedom from myself. Hear me carefully on this, I don’t mean freedom to be somebody different, I’m not talking about different talents or abandoning my commitments or anything like that; I mean at a deeper level.

I want freedom from the fears that cripple and paralyze me—I know God’s love has not been perfected in me yet, because there’s a lot there still to drive out. I want freedom from the desires that drive me—and I don’t just mean the sinful ones; I don’t want to be controlled any longer even by those that are perfectly appropriate. I want to be free from my bad habits, and more, I want to be free from my idols. I want to be able to stop putting myself first in my life, and thus to be free to love. I want to be unchained from my ego, and my need to make everything happen by my own power, so that the power of God may flow freely in me and through me. I want to stop flapping my puny little wings and just soar on the winds of God’s joy and grace and love. I’m not there yet, but before God, that’s the freedom I want. That’s the life I want.

And my hope—even as it’s also my frustration at how often I submarine myself—my hope is that that’s the life I’ve been given. It’s the life we’ve all been given, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Our faith is the victory that has overcome the world—including the influence of the world in our hearts—not because there’s anything special about our faith, but because it is through our faith that we confess Jesus as the Christ and have been born again, from above, of God. It is by faith that we have turned from the world to the life of God in Christ, whose life has overcome the world, and is overcoming it, and will overcome it.

God Is Love

(Leviticus 19:17-18, Deuteronomy 6:4-5; 1 John 4:7-21)

God has a strange sense of humor. Mind you, I can’t complain, because I have a strange sense of humor, too, but sometimes God’s is differently strange. This week was a good example of that, to find myself preparing this passage as we had two meetings with the Presbytery of Wabash Valley regarding our departure from the PC(USA); they didn’t use 1 John, but they did try to argue that it was a betrayal of Christian love for us to end our affiliation with them, and especially to do so in the way we did. It was another reminder of how easily the language of love can be used for the reality of manipulation.

That’s what happens if we define love in human terms; not only is that even true for Christians, I’d argue it’s especially true for Christians. If we affirm that God is love but don’t allow that truth to challenge and change our understanding of what love is, we end up by defining God in human terms—which is to say, we end up worshiping a god made in our own image; we end up worshiping an idol. We end up twisting Jesus, by one means or another, until we have a pretty picture of a Jesus who would never lead us anywhere we don’t want to go, or push us in any way we don’t want to be pushed. I don’t know if that’s what happened to the people against whom John is writing, I don’t know if that’s why they left the church—though I wonder; but I think it’s exactly what led astray the false teachers who are currently running the mainline Presbyterian church, and what has seduced them away from the true gospel to a lie.

This is why John has taken great pains to say two things. One, we know what love is by the example of Jesus, and especially his death on the cross for us; we learn what love is and what it looks like by looking to Jesus. This is essential, but it isn’t sufficient for identifying false teaching, because we can be deceived; thus John also says, two, that anyone who speaks by the Spirit of God is oriented completely toward Jesus Christ, and is primarily concerned that people put him first in their lives, love him above all others, and seek to please him in everything they do. The love of God never aims us at pleasing ourselves or fulfilling our own agenda, though that may happen along the way, nor at satisfying the desires and agendas of others, though that too may happen; rather, the love of God in us makes us concerned first and foremost with loving and serving him and doing what he wants us to do, whether it’s what anyone else wants us to do or not.

The place where we’re so prone to go wrong, the mistake that so often wrong-foots us, is our assumption that the love of God, because it is unequivocally for us, is therefore about us. Nothing could be further from the truth. The love of God is above all else about God. We talked about this last year when we talked about the Trinity and what it means to say that God is love—not that he is loving, but that he is love. The key to understanding this is the truth that God is three in one—a reality which we see at work in verses 13-16, as the Father sends the Son, who pointed us to the Father, and he sends the Spirit by whom we are able to acknowledge the Son, and by whom God lives in us.

When we begin honestly to understand God in that way—which is beyond us to grasp fully, but when we begin to think that way—we can start to understand what John is saying here. We can say that God is love because in his very nature, they exist in love between himselves. The love of God is the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for each other. We were created that we might be drawn into that circle to share it, but the circle doesn’t break because we enter it. Love is still fundamentally something which comes only from God and which is directed ultimately toward God; we share in his love, we are included, it has become for us as well, but it isn’t for us first. Which means that we don’t get to define it, or control it, or try to dictate terms to God, because his love doesn’t depend on us; if we reject him and reject his love, it grieves him, but it does not diminish him or his love in any way, only us.

Now, does this mean that God doesn’t love me best? Yeah, it does. Is that reason to feel bad? No, it isn’t. The love of God is infinite, and his love for each of us is infinite, and how much headway are we going to make comparing infinities anyway? If Jesus already loves us more than we will ever be able to comprehend, what does it matter to us that he loves the Father and the Spirit even more? Where exactly do we lose in that? What matters is that he created us to love us, he redeemed us because he loves us, and he is leading us home to live in his kingdom for eternity because he loves us—and that by his love, he is teaching us to love him and to love each other as he loves us.

This creates a cycle here, one which is implicit in this passage though John doesn’t spell it out. Why do we love? Because God first loved us. How do we know? Because he sent Jesus his Son to offer himself as a sacrifice on our behalf, that our sin might be taken away and replaced with his righteousness. How do we know this, and how do we know what his love looks like? Because he has given us his Holy Spirit, who shows us Jesus.

And how does the Holy Spirit show us Jesus? In his word, the Bible—and in his body, the church. In the only body Jesus currently has in the world—us—his people, filled by his Spirit with his love that we might be like him. We learn to know his love, and we learn to love, in part because the Spirit of God loves us through the people of God; by so doing, he makes us part of his people and fills us with his love so that we might love others and they might learn his love through us.

This is what God is doing with us, and what he is doing in us, and through us; more than that—God is love—this is who he is, this is his nature, and this is what it means that he lives in us. This is what it looks like for Jesus to be the Savior of the world, because this is what his salvation means. It isn’t merely that we have sinned, that we are incapable in ourselves of getting free of our sin or making it all right, and that we need Jesus to cleanse us and set us free from our sin; that’s all true and absolutely essential, but it doesn’t stop there. He sets us free from our sin into his love—and in so doing, he radically transforms us, from the root up.

We can see this in John’s statement that perfect love drives out fear. From the context, part of the point is that the love of God removes our fear of being sent to Hell when we die; but God’s salvation is much bigger than just that assurance, because it isn’t merely a transaction, it’s not just about giving us a “Get out of Hell free” card, it’s a transformation. Our confidence, our assurance of salvation, is rooted in the fact that the love of God is at work in us, changing us from the inside out, to such a point that John could say with a straight face that we are in the world now in the same way as Jesus was then. His Spirit is in us, his love is in us, he is at work in us, and while a lot of other things are also in us and get in the way, they are dying; they are passing away as we become by the power of the Holy Spirit the people we already are in Christ.

Thus we can see that God’s perfect love drives out any reason for us to be afraid of God, because God no longer stands in relation to us as the one who will punish us; which, by the way, shows the essential falsity of those who would seek to scare people into Heaven by terrifying them with Hell. God isn’t in this to punish us because he has given us his love, and his love is purifying us and setting us free from all that. We love him because he loves us, and instead of being judged and punished, we are renewed and remade as the people of his love.

And in so doing, God’s perfect love doesn’t only remove our fear of him, it removes our fear of the world, because the world no longer has the ability to punish us. We fear rejection—that people will punish us for not being who they want us to be. We fear failure—that society will punish us for not being good enough. We fear loss—that the world will punish us for caring, for hoping, for dreaming. We fear many things, because we look to the world to meet our needs and give our lives meaning and significance. The less we look to the world and the more we look to God, the more we depend on him to provide all our needs and the more we trust him to do so, the less we need the world and the less power it has to hurt us; and so our fear of the world leaves our hearts, driven out by the perfect love of God, which is ours in the power of the Holy Spirit, through the grace of Jesus Christ the Son of God, by the will of God the Father, who is now and forever to be praised.

Our Spiritual Compass

(Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 1 John 3:23-4:6)

Unlike certain earlier parts of this letter, John’s argument here is very simple, and very clear. It’s also critically important. As we’ve seen, the purpose of his letter is to keep his audience from being led astray by false teachers who have left the church to preach a false version of Christianity; he has drawn a sharp line between those who walk in the light of God and those who don’t, and made it clear that those who walk in the light are those who are filled with the love of God, and those who don’t, aren’t. In our passage last week—of which we’ve included the last couple verses again this morning, as John once again links his argument very closely—he gave us the standard for what the love of God looks like: Jesus Christ, and most particularly his death on the cross for us. Love is not just anything that calls itself love, it’s something that looks like Jesus.

And here, he gathers that point up, binds it together with his earlier observation that the false teachers are false because their teaching denies Christ, sharpens it all into a spike, and drives it home. You want to know who to follow and who not to follow? One simple rule: anyone who is all about Jesus Christ, first, last, and always, is from God. Anyone who isn’t, even if they use the name of Jesus Christ, is not from God. Period.

It doesn’t matter if you were born in the church and your name was on the membership rolls three weeks before you drew breath; it doesn’t matter if you have a perfect-attendance badge in Sunday school going all the way back to your days in the nursery. It doesn’t matter if you’re an elder, a deacon, a pastor, a professor; it doesn’t matter if you work in a building that calls itself a church and holds services every Sunday morning. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of a denomination that’s been calling itself a church for 500 years, or 2000 years. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written books for Christian publishers, articles for Christian magazines, songs for Christian record companies, or greeting cards for Christian bookstores, or showed up on Christian TV programs to talk about any or all of them. If your primary purpose isn’t to point people to Jesus Christ, to encourage them to put their faith in Jesus alone to follow Christ alone, then you do not acknowledge him, you’re only trying to make use of him for your own purposes; and if that’s the case, then you are not from God, and you are not speaking by the Spirit of God.

Now, again, John isn’t expecting perfection here, and none of us do this perfectly; we all have ulterior motives that creep in at various places. We need to keep after them, cutting them back and digging them up, but they do not disqualify us. The key is, what are we trying to do first and foremost—what is our goal? What are we really on about, and what is essential about what we do and why?

You know, I certainly hope that y’all will invite people to come, and they’ll keep coming and invite others, and that some who are outside the church will come, and hear the gospel, and bow before Jesus as Savior and Lord, and in their turn invite others, and so on and so forth; I certainly hope that this church will grow, and it would be nice if it grew enough that the giving was high enough to support all the ministries we do, so that we didn’t have to keep selling off assets to pay the bills. That would be nice, and there’s nothing wrong in hoping for it. But if I start to make that the purpose of my preaching, if I start to make that the focus of the ministry God has given me here, then I would be out of step with the Holy Spirit, and I would become a false teacher. I want the church to grow—but if God should call me to preach a sermon that would somehow drive half the church away, my responsibility to him would be to stand up and faithfully preach that sermon, whatever the consequences. I don’t see that happening, of course—it’s a pretty extreme thought experiment—but that’s where my calling would be.

Similarly, when teachers come along insisting that we need to change our understanding of God or of the Scriptures, and their arguments are all about what people in our culture believe or want or think they know, when they contend that we must fit the biblical definition of the love of God to what the majority in our society wants to believe is loving, we need to stand against that. The fact that the world listens to them, and does so with approval, is not evidence they’re right, it’s a sign that they are from the world, not from God. If the world seeks to marginalize and silence us, it’s not a sign that we’re wrong, out of date, or regressive; rather, it’s evidence that we are standing in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth of God so clearly to the world that they butchered him for it.

Now, we need to be clear about something here: “the world” doesn’t just mean “not the church,” and it doesn’t just mean “liberal.” There’s plenty of the world in the church, too, unfortunately, and plenty of people who are conservative because the part of the world they want to please happens to be made up of conservative churchgoers. It’s all too easy, as Jesus notes in Matthew 7, to see the speck in our brother’s eye, and not notice the log in our own; the teachings of Christ, properly understood, will convict us and make us uncomfortable just as much as they will encourage and support us, and just as much as they will convict and disrupt “those” people “out there” who we know are wrong about this, that and the other thing. Indeed, if we are truly conscious of our own sinfulness and need for grace, we should expect the Spirit of Christ to convict us even more than others, for we should be able to say with Paul, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

That said, though we must be humble before all people, even the false teachers and false prophets of our age, our humility is because we are sinful and imperfect, and our understanding of God’s truth is thus incomplete and flawed. God is perfect, and his truth and love are utterly without flaw, and so we must hold fast to him and his truth with no hesitation, no apology, and no compromise. We don’t understand everything yet, and so we continually need correction and refocusing as we abide in Christ and grow in him; but by his Spirit we have all truth, and we can trust him to help us understand it more and more as we need to, in his own good time. We always need to recognize and admit our limits, but we never need to back down, no matter what anyone might say or do.

And you know, as we hold fast to Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we should do so joyfully, even when doing so brings us trials and tribulations. James doesn’t say, “Complain, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that society should appreciate you properly and do what you want”; no, he says, “Rejoice when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” When the high priest had the apostles flogged, they didn’t grumble that this was supposed to be a godly nation—they rejoiced that they had been counted worthy to share in the sufferings of Christ. And John doesn’t say, “Little children, expect the world to like you and approve of you for being like Jesus”; rather, he says, “The world just didn’t get Jesus, and it’s not going to get you either if you look like Jesus, so don’t be surprised when the world hates you.”

If we are truly agents of the gospel of Jesus Christ working to carry out the ministry of Jesus Christ in the face of the hatred of the Father of Lies, then the more effectively we point people to Jesus, the more the Enemy is going to attack us, using every weapon he can conjure up—and he is the Father of Lies, so that gives him plenty of opportunity for conjuring—and the more unexpected, undeserved, and painful the attack, the better. When we respond with complaint, with bitterness, with anger and resentment, when we fight back, we play right into the Enemy’s hands and give him what he wants. It’s far better for us to respond to those attacks by looking to Jesus.

Just as an example, when Dr. Kavanaugh’s ministry comes under attack in one way or another, if you hear him talk about it at all, you’ll always hear him say, “Well, praise God.” There are times I think he’s maybe a little ironic about that, but I have the sense—and correct me if I’m wrong, Doc—I have the sense that he’s trained himself to that discipline to keep pointing himself back to the truth that such things really are reasons to praise God.

When you are attacked for preaching the gospel instead of telling people what they want to hear, for pointing them to Jesus Christ instead of what they want to see, don’t complain, but rejoice that you are sharing in the sufferings of his ministry, and that his Spirit is using those sufferings for your growth; and don’t fight back, don’t let yourself be drawn away from the truth, but go on preaching the gospel. Go on pointing people to Jesus Christ. Go on trusting him to be faithful and true even when that’s hard to see, and in your own trust, show others how to do the same. And those who don’t listen, leave them to God—they’re not your worry, they’re his. You, look to Jesus, follow those who help you see him, and show him to others in your turn. That is enough.

Live Love

(Genesis 4:1-8; 1 John 3:11-24)

John concludes the previous section of this letter in verse 10 by saying, “This is how we know who are the children of God, and who are the children of the Devil: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God”—which restates what he’s already said in verses 7-8; but then he adds to it: “nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For,” he continues, launching into this next part of his argument, “this is just what you’ve heard all the way along: we should love one another.” This is the standard by which our relationships with other people should be measured, this is what our lives should look like, this is the sign that the love of God is in us: do we live out his love to the people around us?

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t like math—you can’t measure it or plot it on a graph to prove that you love someone (or don’t, as the case may be). As we’ve talked about, we can’t just take people’s statements about love at face value—not even our own—because human beings use the word “love” in some pretty slippery ways. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do,” and the world “love” is all too easy to use for that purpose. We recognize that it has power, and so there’s a great temptation to seize that power to use against others for our own purposes, to get what we want. Biblically, though, that’s the exact opposite of love, which is not about getting, but giving; the demands of love are directed not at each other, but at ourselves.

Thus John gives us first the negative example of Cain—an extreme example, as one who literally physically murdered his brother, but one who in that very extremity offers a powerful illustration of the problem. Why did Cain kill his brother? We saw this last year when we worked through Genesis—Cain was all about Cain. He didn’t give God the best of his crops, just what he felt like giving; and when God favored his younger brother because Abel did give God his best, Cain grew angry and bitter. Instead of accepting God’s rebuke and admitting his sin, he blamed it all on his brother. He put himself ahead of his brother, which led him to see Abel as a rival and a threat; as a result, he came to hate him, and ultimately to kill him.

By contrast to Cain, we also have the positive example of Jesus—also an extreme example, as of course he was God and therefore perfect, which makes him the perfect illustration of love. How do we know what love is? Jesus died on the cross for us. What does it mean for us to love others? Go and do likewise.

Now, as John goes on to say, this doesn’t mean that we all need to lay down our lives for others in the exact same way as Jesus did; for one thing, we can’t because we’re not him, and for another, that’s not what people need from us. As James Denney put it in his book The Death of Christ, “If I were sitting on the end of the pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and some one came along and jumped into the water and got drowned ‘to prove his love for me,’ I should find it quite unintelligible.” I might need love, but such an act would do nothing for me. But, he continues, “if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning,” and someone jumped in and saved my life at the cost of their own—“then I should say, ‘Greater love hath no man than this,’” because then I would understand the sacrifice that was made for me. I. Howard Marshall sums it up this way: “Love means saying ‘No’ to one’s own life so that somebody else may live.”

Note this: what we see most clearly in Jesus’ way of dying is also his way of living, and the way in which he calls us to live. Living out his love means, day by day, saying “No” to ourselves and our desires so that we can say “Yes” to meeting the needs of others. If we see others in need and harden our hearts against them, lest pity move us to sacrifice some of our comfort to help them meet their needs, then the love of God is not in us. I don’t agree with the Occupy Wall Street movement as a matter of economic policy, but I do believe there’s a moral intuition here which we must take seriously: I think most people in this country perceive that the very rich don’t care tuppence about them, and I think for the most part, they’re pretty much right. As it happens, experience has taught me that the exact same thing is probably true of most of them, and if they were suddenly hugely rich they’d be no better, so I don’t think their high horse has any legs to stand on; but that doesn’t make their insight false, just truer than most of us would like to admit.

Does this mean that we must give to anyone who asks, or that we must give them whatever they want? No; again, we aren’t Jesus, we aren’t God, so we don’t have the ability to give so much to so many. It is not given to us to meet every need we see; we are far more limited than that, and we must begin by taking care of those closest to us before we seek to provide for people outside that circle. Then too, not everyone who claims to be in need is trustworthy, and I don’t see anything in the gospel that necessarily makes a virtue of being cheated. There are prudential decisions here, of whom we can truly help, and how, and how much. But it is to say this: love changes our priorities. Love isn’t about getting what we want, it’s about giving others what they need. Love seeks first to bless others, not to bless ourselves.

And you know, maybe we can’t apply that with mathematical precision, but this is a standard we can use to evaluate ourselves. When we look at how we spend our time and what we do with our money, what do we see? Do we only give when it doesn’t cost us anything, when we really don’t have to give anything up? If I go home, and I’m tired, and Sara’s tired, and the kids are squirrely, and I go off in a corner and do whatever I feel like while she’s trying to make dinner and manage four kids and keep herself together emotionally, do I love my wife? Not at that moment, I don’t. If I decide that I don’t want to give my tithe to the church this month, that I’m going to keep that money and buy a flatscreen TV, do I love the church? Not with my actions. If I see a friend in need—it doesn’t have to be financial; it could just as well be emotional or spiritual—if I see a friend in need and choose to look the other way because I want to keep my time, my energy, my money, for myself, do I really love them? Not in any way that matters.

And if I do these things, if I choose to spend my money, my time, and my energy on my own pleasure and my own satisfaction, can I say that the love of God is in me? No, I can’t. But if I live my life as an ongoing offering to God—recognizing that he has given me all the time I have, all the energy I have, all the money and possessions I have, and that he gave them to me so that I might use them to love and bless the people he has given to me, and those he sends across my path—if I desire to please him and to bless him by blessing other people, to respond to his love and live in his love by loving others and giving them what best I can, then I can say, yes, this is the love of God in me; this is what it looks like. I’m not all the way there yet, but by God’s grace, by his love, by the power of his Holy Spirit within me, I trust he’ll get me there. May it be so for all of us.

Children of God

(Psalm 17:6-15; 1 John 2:28-3:10)

I hate to rag on the NIV too much, since a couple of my favorite profs were on the translation committee, but here in 1 John, the NIV puts us on the wrong track right from the start of this section. It’s not a huge misdirection, but it’s a real one, caused by the fact that the NIV likes to use different English words to vary the translation. Thus all over chapter 2, John uses the Greek word meno, which means “to abide” or “to remain,” and throughout the passage we looked at last week, the NIV translates it “remain”—you see it in verse 19, and a couple times each in 24 and 27. And then here in verse 28, all of a sudden, the NIV takes that same word and translates it “continue,” as if John has just moved on to something new—as if it’s just a transition, nothing more.

Which is too bad, because there is in fact a very close connection here—so close that scholars don’t actually agree whether verse 28 marks the beginning of a new section at all; some see 28 and 29 as part of the previous section, with the next part of the book beginning with 3:1. Truth is, I think, those two verses really belong to both sections; there really isn’t a break here at all, because John’s argument in our passage this morning is deeply rooted in what he’s just been saying in the passage we read last week. He’s been talking about abiding in Christ, and abiding in the Father, and abiding in the Holy Spirit—he doesn’t say it that way, but that’s what he means, as the Holy Spirit is the anointing we have received from Jesus—but it’s not just about abiding in God so that we know true things and aren’t deceived. This is much deeper, and so he drives deeper.

What he’s on about here is a very deep truth, and a very difficult doctrine—difficult because it’s something of a mystical reality, not something which we can easily rationally define: our union with Christ. Christ himself talks about this in John 15, where he says that he is the vine and we are the branches, and so we must abide in him and he in us if we are to bear fruit. Paul goes after it from a number of angles—he describes the church as the body of Christ, united in him who is our head; he also talks quite a bit about our having been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, crucified with him and raised to new life with him. Following Jesus, being a part of the church, isn’t just about doing certain things or not doing other things; it’s not just about working together, and it’s not even just about being in relationship with God and with each other as we usually understand that. It’s about being one with Christ in a very deep way that we can’t really fully explain, we just have to live into and experience.

That’s what John’s talking about, and it’s important we understand that, because if we don’t, we’re going to misunderstand everything else he’s saying. If you were here when we started this series, remember what John says in chapter 1: righteousness is a result of walking in the light—you walk the right way when you have the light to see where you’re going. Remember what Jesus said: the branches bear fruit because they are a part of the vine, and that’s just what healthy branches on a healthy vine do. Remember that he told his disciples, “You will know them by their fruit”—a tree doesn’t grow up, decide it wants to be an apple tree, and then start working as hard as it can to squeeze apples out of its limbs; if it’s an apple tree, apples are simply a natural part of its life, assuming it’s healthy, has enough water, and so on.

This is how it is with righteousness—it isn’t something we have to strain to make happen, it’s evidence of what has already happened and is happening. We have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, we have been crucified with him—our old life is dead, and we now live by his life in us—and as such we have become God’s children; all his love is ours, lavished on us, poured out with utter abandon and complete disregard for dignity. This is now the fundamental reality of our life; we just need to stop striving to live something else instead. It’s not even about trying to live this way, trying to abide in Christ—it’s about not trying not to. My kids don’t have to try to be my kids; they just are, they’re stuck with it. It’s not always the best bargain in the world by any means, but no matter what may happen, thus it will always be; and it’s how it’s supposed to be, which means that even though my kids no doubt wish sometimes that I did things differently—and sometimes no doubt are completely right—and even though I’m not the best father in the world, them being with me is what is best for them.

And so it is with us and God, except that he is the best Father in the world; all the more, then, is it for our best to abide in him as his children, to live in his love and humbly bow before his authority. Again, this means living differently from the rest of the world—because we are in the light instead of the darkness; because we are loved and we respond to his love. It means giving up our own plan and direction for our lives and accepting being remade like Christ—which, in truth, is being remade as ourselves, the falsehood stripped away, leaving us as we truly are, as God made us to be. This also means being purified, because drawing near to God has that effect; nothing impure can survive in his presence—including, ultimately, our impure desires. The closer we come to him, the more we want to please him, and the less we want anything that doesn’t.

This will set us against the world around us—not that we’ll always feel that strongly; sometimes it won’t be obvious at all. But that reality will always be there, and we should always expect it to be there. The world hated Jesus, after all, and the more we’re like him, the more it’s going to have a problem with us. And remember, it wasn’t the bad people in the world that hated him most, on the whole: it was the religious part of the world, the people who were good and godly and upstanding and righteous. Why? Because they were the folks who were most impressed with themselves, and so they were the ones least willing to hear the message that they were sinners, alienated from God and in desperate need of his grace. That’s the start, that’s where abiding in Christ begins: right there, in giving up the false hope that we can somehow be good enough to make it all right ourselves, in accepting his grace. Being really good at being really good doesn’t make you a Christian, it makes you a Pharisee.

Now, it might seem strange that I would say that when verses 4-10 are full of strong language against sin; but remember, in chapter 1 John has already said that no one can claim not to be a sinner, and anyone who does is a liar. Remember that he said that as he was talking about the importance of walking in the light—we walk in the light, we have fellowship with God, and yet we know that we do stumble and we do sin; the key is that when this happens, we are in Christ, who allowed himself to be crucified for us as the sacrifice to pay the price for our sin and purify us from our unrighteousness. He became sin for us so that he might be our righteousness—so that we might have his righteousness instead of our own, because our own wasn’t good enough.

And remember the context of this passage, why John is writing this letter: because there were those in the church who had left to follow their own preferred version of Jesus. This is the sin of rebellion—or lawlessness, as the NIV renders it in verse 4—of choosing to reject the will of God because his will isn’t what we want it to be. It’s the sin of choosing the darkness over the light. Do we sin? Yes, and then we repent, we ask forgiveness, we seek to make it right—and above all, we trust in Jesus and give thanks for his grace. We sin, but we don’t go on sinning; we give our sin to Jesus, who took it all on the cross, and we are cleansed. As Luther said, we are at one and the same time sinners and saints: we sin, but Jesus takes away our sin; there is darkness yet in us, but the light of Christ is in us, driving away the darkness. We sin in various ways, but by the power of Christ in us, by the work of his Spirit, we continue to choose him over sin But those who are committed to sin—those who, when it comes down to brass tacks, choose their sin over Christ—don’t abide in him, they abide in sin, and so their sin remains.

The bottom line is that this is about living as God’s beloved children. Be loved; live in his love; let him teach us what that means, rather than insisting on defining it for ourselves; trust him to know and do what’s best for us, obey his commandments, and follow where he leads; and when we don’t, repent of our disobedience and ask him to forgive us. He loves us; he has redeemed us; he will never let go of us. All we need is to abide in him, and all will be well.


(Jeremiah 31:31-34, Daniel 12:1-4; 1 John 2:18-27)

If you were here last week, you may remember I asked you a profoundly important question: how many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? I hope you remember the point, that there’s a real and dangerous temptation to try to blur the line between walking in the light and walking in the darkness. It’s a temptation we see quite clearly in the American church—not just among the Methodists by any means, far from it—but it’s not new to us, it’s not new to our age; indeed, it’s as old as sin, which is why John goes after it in this letter.

He hammers at the point: you can have God or you can have the world, but you can’t have both; and whatever the world may have that you want, what God has for you is far, far better. There is far greater joy, far greater blessing, far greater good in letting the world go to follow Jesus than in pursuing the world; it will send you running the opposite direction, and in the end, you’ll find it was just a will-o’the-wisp after all. There may be a pot at the end of the rainbow, but there’s nothing in it but fool’s gold and rust.

The thing is, true as that may be, truth doesn’t govern human belief. Rather, as Francis Bacon put it, people prefer to believe what they prefer to be true. We have an amazing appetite for the comfortable lie, and no matter how many times it gives us indigestion and how badly it sickens us, we still feel the temptation; without the intervention of the Holy Spirit and the work of grace, we just keep going back to it, time after time after time, hoping that this time the results will be different.

This is why Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” because what drives our faith, what drives our decisions, isn’t our experience, but our thirst. Bad experiences in relationships do not by themselves drive people to pursue and build healthier relationships, and good experiences of God do not sustain faith. Experiences shape our understanding, but they’re in the past, and they fade with distance; what drives us, what moves us, is what we hunger and thirst for now, in this moment. That’s why the pleasures of the world never satisfy; if they did, we could move on to something better, but instead, they leave us wanting more, building the craving, strengthening the addiction. It’s also why the Holy Spirit does not work to sate our hunger and thirst for righteousness, for love, for joy, for God, but only to deepen and strengthen them. Which sounds just like the world, but there is this difference: with the world, the hunger and thirst are an agony; with God, they are in themselves a joy.

As dissimilar as they are, though, we still tend to want to satisfy both—to try to find hope in Christ and at the same time pursue the hope that this relationship will be the one that makes me happy, or this job will be the one that turns out well and makes me feel secure. As agonizing as hungering and thirsting for the world may be, we resist giving up that hunger and thirst—we resist admitting defeat, admitting that we are in fact hungry and thirsty for something that will never nourish us. But if we’re in the church, if we name the name of Jesus, then we don’t want to give that up either; and so one of three things happens. We may acknowledge the conflict and, by the Holy Spirit, make the painful choice to let him go to work on our soul, to wean us off the world; we may instead openly choose the world over Christ; or we may try to find a way to pretend that Jesus actually approves of our hunger and thirst for the things of the world.

This, I think, is what John was dealing with. We see the word “antichrist” and we think of a powerful figure of evil at the very end of time, but that’s not what John’s on about here; rather, that figure will have many, many precursors, all in the same spirit. What is antichrist? It is one who seeks to replace the true Christ with a false Christ—and who may even, and in the end certainly will, claim to be Christ himself, while leading people away from God.

Now, let’s be very clear here, this doesn’t just mean anybody who has some of their teaching about Jesus wrong—that’s all of us; this is talking about someone who systematically denies the heart of the gospel, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, God become human, in whom alone is salvation through his atoning death and resurrection on our behalf and for our sake. Anyone who denies any of this denies Jesus, and anyone who denies Jesus denies the Father, because it is the Father who sent his Son and bears witness to his Son, and it is the Son who testifies to the Father and reveals him to us. Anyone who denies this is a liar, and a servant of the lie; anyone who does this serves the spirit of the antichrist. It doesn’t mean they’re evil, or beyond redemption, but it does mean their teaching is a lie and must be fought.

To understand why John’s opponents were doing this, look what he says: “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” Indeed, he actually says, “They went out from us so that it would be revealed that they were not of us.” They looked like Christians, considered themselves Christians, but they never really belonged to Christ; God allowed their outward departure from the church so as to reveal the fact that they were never truly part of it to begin with. John doesn’t tell us explicitly why they weren’t, but from the context, it seems they loved the world and were unwilling to give that up.

As a consequence, their governing theological principle became the insistence that God couldn’t actually be telling them they had to give it up—everything else had to bend to fit that, even including their understanding of Jesus, who he is and what he did. Like the Pharisees (though in a very different way), they would only accept Jesus as the Messiah on their terms, provided he would be the kind of Messiah to suit their preferences; they would not accept Jesus as the Messiah he was.

Now, we don’t want to make too much of this as a conservative vs. liberal issue, because this is no less a temptation for conservatives; we tend to be guilty of this more covertly, is all. But it is a governing principle of liberal theology—it has been ever since Friedrich Schleiermacher, who essentially founded modern liberal Protestantism with his work On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers—that Jesus and his gospel can and should be trimmed to fit what the culture is already comfortable believing; when we see those who call themselves evangelical adopting this idea explicitly, as I believe we have seen and are seeing with Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and others in the emerging-church movement, this should be cause for great concern.

In that context, it’s interesting—one of the first complaints I ever heard against Bell, from another Grand Rapids-area pastor, is that he was telling his congregation that they needed him in order to understand the Scriptures. At the time, I just put it down to a little bit of ego, not really surprising in a megachurch pastor, but you know, that’s a very common approach among false teachers. You find it a lot in cult leaders, actually, as a means of keeping control of their followers. I think John was dealing with this as well on the part of those against whom he’s writing here, because he tells his hearers, “No, you don’t need anyone to teach you—you have been anointed by Jesus, you’ve been given his Holy Spirit, and you have all knowledge.” NIV follows a different reading in verse 20, but I think that’s the correct one—“you know all things”—because that’s really what his argument requires; you can see that he ends up with that point in verse 27.

This isn’t to say that good teachers aren’t valuable, nor is it a justification for spiritual pride, as we must always be humbly open to learning from each other. This is, rather, an attack on any claim of spiritual dependence, and on our tendency to vest authority in human figures rather than in God. God chooses to raise up men and women to preach and teach, and they bless us, but in the last analysis, none of us who do this are necessary, because God could perfectly well do without us if he chose. I’m grateful he doesn’t, but he could. And in that process, we aren’t the ones who really matter; God uses the work I do, the work Matt and Kathy do, the work Pam and her volunteers do, but we aren’t the ones who make anything happen; it’s the Holy Spirit working through us who teaches and strengthens and builds up the body of Christ.

The key here is that this all comes back to what I noted last week, that the only way to learn to live is by living; ultimately, the only way to know the truth is by abiding in the presence of the One who is Truth, by remaining in him and letting his truth fill us. We just need to keep coming back, again and again, to the heart of the gospel, to who Jesus is and what he has done for us—to keep coming back to that and letting that judge and correct everything we think and everything we want to do, letting ourselves be conformed to him rather than seeking to conform him to anything else. We need to keep coming back to God and opening our hearts and minds to him, through his word and through prayer, trusting that by his Holy Spirit he has given us all truth and will lead us into all truth—because he has, and he will. He desires to do that, because he wants us to know the truth, because he wants us to know him—that’s what he made us for. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—who hunger and thirst for God—why? Because they will be filled.

Passing Away

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 John 2:12-17)

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.

Light Shines

(Isaiah 6:8-13; 1 John 2:1-11)

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.

Out of the Darkness

(Psalm 14:1-3, Micah 7:18-20; 1 John 1:1-2:2)

There’s a common assumption in Western culture that faith is blind—that it’s a matter of wilfully closing one’s eyes to the reality of the world and choosing to believe in something else. This is a charge hurled at Christians by atheists—thus, for instance, we’ve seen a number of prominent folks on the anti-Christian left dub themselves the “reality-based community,” in distinction to the “faith-based community.” That doesn’t bother me, but more worrisome is the fact that many who consider themselves believers have a similar view of faith; they seem to think that what matters is not what their faith is in but simply that they have faith. Power, for them, is in faith itself—which is to say, really, that it’s in them, and faith is just a means of unlocking it. Either way, both groups agree that Christian faith is not about understanding things as they really are.

John has no time for that nonsense. The point is Jesus Christ; and yes, we follow him by faith, but faith in Christ isn’t about closing our eyes to the world, it’s about seeing truly. It’s about coming out of the darkness of the world to walk in the light. It’s about exchanging deception for truth. It’s not about believing what we want to believe, it’s not about choosing to believe for the psychological or emotional or spiritual benefits, it’s not about religion as a coping mechanism or self-help strategy or organizing principle; he doesn’t offer any of these things as reasons to follow Jesus. Instead, he says, believe this because this is reality, because we know this is true, because we’ve seen it for ourselves.

Now, here as in most cases, we have to be careful of the equal and opposite error; there are certainly those who treat Christian faith as a matter of intellectual assent to ideas which can be proven by rational argument. That’s not the point here at all. But John does clearly assert that our faith is based on evidence, beginning with his own testimony and that of his fellow disciples. What he says here is much like the beginning of his gospel: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes”—in other words, no metaphor here, we literally physically saw this—“what our hands have touched—the word of life—was revealed, and we testify to you that we saw it, and so we proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father”—he’s breathlessly piling up words here, trying to somehow capture a reality that’s almost beyond words: the eternal God, the source of all life, the one who is life, became a human being, he’s saying, and I saw him. I saw him, I touched him, I knew him, he was my friend; and I want you to understand this so that you can fully share in what I have.

Note that: “that you may have fellowship with us—a fellowship which we have with the Father, and with Jesus Christ his Son.” That’s the goal. And remember, we’ve talked about this, that this word is much stronger than “fellowship” makes it sound; it comes from the word “common” and means to have or to be in common—one commentator translates it “joint ownership.” This isn’t just getting together once in a while in a friendly way, it’s a matter of living life together with Christ, and thus all of us together in Christ, sharing each other’s lives, being in joint partnership in life with each other and the Lord. It’s a deep union, and a deep unity, that is supposed to be the fruit of our faith in Jesus. That’s why John is writing this letter, so that we will truly be captured by and filled with the life of Christ and so live together as his body in this way.

Now, if you know anything at all about 1 John, you probably know that it talks a lot about love; that theme is right here in sum in verse 3, and as we explore this book together in the next couple months, we’ll spend a lot of time unpacking it. But John doesn’t go there right away, because he has some other things he needs to say first; it’s not until chapter 4 that he makes the famous declaration, “God is love.” The reality is that it can be a dangerous thing to just tell people that without taking the time to tell them what it means. The word “love” might not be the most misused word in the English language—but it might be, as people keep twisting it and redefining it to try to push their own agendas. “God is love” does not mean that therefore I should be able to go out and sleep with anyone I want, or that God wants me to do whatever I think will make me happy, or that we have no right to tell anyone anything they don’t want to hear; but if that’s so, then what does it mean?

The answer to that question begins with John’s statement in verse 5: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. That might seem like an odd statement at first blush, but follow me on this. If God is love, then true love is an expression of the character of God. Our understanding of what love is must be defined by, and must arise out of, our understanding of who God is, because to act in love is to act in a way which is in accordance with the character of God. It’s not about what we find pleasurable, or what makes us happy, or what another person tells us we would do if we really loved them—it’s about what pleases God.

Of course, that raises the question: how do we go about living in a way that’s pleasing to God? Unfortunately, we tend to mentally frame that question purely in terms of morality, and thus to answer it moralistically, and so this part of 1 John gets read in that way, as a bunch of commands and threats; and that’s not quite right, because the focus is off. John isn’t commanding us to walk in the light, as if that’s purely a matter of our own effort; he is, rather, making a simple observation. There is light, and there is darkness. The light is from God alone; the darkness is not from him, and there is no darkness in him. You can walk in one or the other, but not both at the same time.

Which points us to a few key truths. First, consider the obvious: when there is light, we can see what is around us, where it is, what’s happening, where it’s safe to walk, where we can sit and rest. When there is no light, we can only guess and feel our way, and construct our own version of things in our heads. Do you ever get up in the middle of the night and move around with the lights off? It works fine as long as everything’s where you think it is; but if you don’t know the laundry basket is there—or if there are toys on the floor over here—then walking becomes a painful experience. Walking with God is about seeing things differently from the rest of the world, not because we close our eyes to how things are, but because God is light, and in his light we see truly.

Second, everything else flows from that. If our culture looks at our faith, if it looks at how the Scriptures say we are supposed to live, and objects, that isn’t a reason to change our faith or how we read the Scriptures—it’s just reality; those who do not walk in the light are not going to be able to see in this world’s darkness what we see by faith in Christ. No amount of argument on our part can change that; God may use our argument to bring others into his light, but it’s only as he gives light that anyone can see.

And it’s only as we begin to see differently, only as the truth of God lights up our lives, that our lives begin to change as he desires. We tend to focus on controlling our behavior—or the behavior of our children—at the output end: reminders, restrictions, laws, punishments, limiting options, keeping busy. Nothing wrong with any of those things, but they leave the root of the matter—the self which acts, the desires that drive us, the ways of thinking that frame and shape our decisions—untouched. God changes us by changing us right at that level, by shining his light right into the heart of that darkness. When you turn the light on in a dark room, it changes how you walk through it, and how you behave in it; when God turns his light on in a dark heart, it does much the same. That’s where true change of life comes from.

Of course, that doesn’t happen all at once; lasting change, whether in a person, a church, or a nation, is a process, which takes the time it needs to take. Part of the effect of walking in the light of Christ is to show us just how much darkness is in our hearts, and just how sinful we are; it’s a lot easier to imagine ourselves free of sin when we’re standing in the darkness, with no light to show us we’re wrong. It’s been my observation that the holiest people I know are the ones most humbly conscious of their own unholi-ness—not obsessed with it, trusting in God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but keenly aware of their absolute dependence on that grace. Indeed, more than that, rejoicing in that depen-dence, desiring nothing more than for the light of God to fill their hearts, driving out the darkness. May the same be said of us.