February 13, 2011

Shining Light Where the Sun Doesn’t

I like to view our time together in this format like little journeys.  You’ve probably heard me use the word “journey” to describe what we do here on Sunday mornings.  Yes, we are on a lifetime journey of becoming fully who God created us to be, but each time we set out to explore a topic or issue or passage of Scripture together, we take a journey that is a part of the larger whole.  Last week, we began a journey whose goal is to develop a deeper understanding of what love is.  We started then by looking at Paul’s magnificent description of love as the medium in which our spiritual gifts were designed to operate.  From this passage we constructed a concrete definition of love.  Does anyone remember what that was and is courageous enough to shout it out?  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.  This is simply what love is according to Scripture.  When Jesus called us to love both our friends and our enemies, He was calling us to be involved in seeing the people around us—whether we like them or not—become transformed by the power and presence of the kingdom of God.  When John wrote in the third chapter of his Gospel that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son and whoever believes in Him will not die but have everlasting life, he was expressing God’s commitment to see us become fully who He created us to be.  That can only happen, by the way, thanks to Christ’s sin-atoning sacrificial death and death-defeating resurrection.  Pushing this even a bit further, when we declare our love for God, we are committing ourselves to seeing God not become who He was created to be since He alone was not created, but to seeing God receive all the glory that is rightfully His.  This is quite simply what love is; no more, no less.  When we use the word love to describe our feelings towards, say, Ann Clay’s pecan pie, we are stating our preference for it; we are acknowledging that we enjoy it, that we like it, to a high degree.  We are not stating that we intend to see the pie become fully what God intended it to be.  In English we don’t have very many good words to express an attraction stronger than mere liking and so “love” has become a catch-all.

As a result of all this, the definition of love itself has become so convoluted that most folks are largely clueless as to what love actually is.  The result of this is that love itself can be misinterpreted, sought in inappropriate ways and places, and simply corrupted to become a shadow of its true glory.  In fact, a quick search over at dictionary.com reveals 28 different definitions of the word.  As I was reading down this list the other day, a few things stood out to me.  First, there were the standard few definitions that had love expressing a basic liking of one thing or another.  Second, there was only one definition that mentioned anything about God or generalized divine beings.  Third and most interesting, there were two categories of definitions which had far more single definitions fit them than the others.  The first of these equated love with affectionate feelings towards another person which went beyond mere liking.  This was not unexpected.  Many people think of love along these lines.  The second category, however, contained even more definitions.  This was love defined as some form of sexual expression.  Love is defined as simply feelings of sexual desire, as a sexual act in itself (to make love), as the person with whom such an act is pursued (a lover), or a variety of other things along these lines.  As I read through all of this it got me thinking.  In our culture, love really is chiefly defined as sexual expression of some kind.  In the minds of many folks—but particularly young folks—being in love is the only prerequisite to starting a sexual relationship.  After all, if love is primarily defined as sexual expression, then having sex in some form must be the best way to show a person that you love them, right?  Maybe you see some problems with this?  Perhaps most notably, as the definitions of love and sex have become closer and closer intertwined, it has become easier and easier to separate sex from love such that it is pursued for its own loving merit (which, problematically, it doesn’t actually have).  In other words, as sex has become equated with love, if we desire to show love to someone else, then logically, the best thing we can do is perform some sex act with them.  This has allowed our love-addicted culture to become obsessed with sex—just watch television during the primetime hour sometime if you don’t believe me—pursuing it in every form imaginable and at every opportunity under the guise of making the world a more loving place.

There’s just one problem gumming up all the works here.  We are creatures created in the image of God and by virtue of that have an inherent sense of what is moral and what is immoral.  In other words, until we tune it out enough times that we turn it off we know what’s right and what’s wrong.  The truth is that sex was invented by God to be an expression of love between two people in a committed marriage relationship.  This means, according to what we talked about last week, that sex can only truly be connected to love when it is honestly helping another person become fully who God created them to be and that can only happen in the confines of marriage.  The result of all of this, then, is that when sex is overly connected to and then disconnected from love it has to be pursued in the dark where it can be hidden.  This is because sin must always hide from the light.  In the ensuing ironic, but logical, turn of events, sex has become saddled with a great deal of shame creating a host of problems that we are not even going to try to touch this morning.  On the other hand, true love, the love of Christ, is always and only pursued in the light where everyone can rejoice in its glory.  What lies before us then, are two different paths down which we can pursue our God-given desires to show love to the people around us.  One is dark, one is light.  One promises quick, easy, and promptly pleasurable payoffs, the other, not so much.  Guiding our decision is that fact that we were created to both give and receive love.  We have an inherent need to show love to other people and to feel that love shown to us.  What we need is some direction.  How can we seek to fulfill these dual needs in positive ways?  How can we avoid expressing love or seeking it in inappropriate ways and times?  Well, my friends, in our journey to understand love more deeply, we can find help in this part of the quest in some of Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus.  If you have your Bibles with you this morning, open them to Ephesians 5.  Here, Paul gives us just the encouragement that we need in order to keep ourselves pursuing love in its purest form—as a way to help the people around us become more fully who God created them to be.  If we are going to live lives marked by this kind of love, then we need to live lives marked by the light of Christ.  Walking in love means walking in light.  Let’s work our way through Paul’s Spirit-inspired words here to see how this is so.

Follow along with me as I read starting in v. 1: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  Those are powerful words and they set the tone for what comes next.  If we belong to Christ and have experienced His saving grace through our faith then we are children of God.  That fact is affirmed in numerous places in the Bible.  Well, if we are children of God, then we need to do like any child naturally does of his father.  Last Sunday morning when I was getting dressed, I had Noah in with me playing on the bed.  As I was getting dressed, Noah grabbed my tie and tied it reasonably successfully (for a two-year-old) around his neck and wrapped my belt around his waist.  He was, rather cutely, imitating me.  In the same way, we must imitate our Father.  In order to do this, Paul declares that we need to walk in love following after the example of Christ, who is light.  Walking in love means walking in light.

With this standard in place, Paul sets to his main point in this section: If we are going to walk in the love of Christ who is light, then we can’t walk down the dark path of love.  Let me read these powerful and convicting words for you starting in v. 3: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.  For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”  Here’s the deal with this: humans are sexual beings.  God created us that way.  We very naturally have desires that are associated with our creation.  And God, in His wisdom, gave us an outlet to see those desires satisfied in such a way that we are able to, in the process of satisfaction, both express and receive love from another person.  The medium God designed to see this happen is commonly called marriage.  Because of sin, however, both our desire and the media in which we see it fulfilled have become corrupted from their original design.  As a result, we put the fulfillment of desire ahead of everything else and try to mask the immorality of this by dressing it up in the language of love.  This, in a nutshell, is a description of sexual immorality.  About this spiritual malady—which can have unfortunate physical consequences when pursued to certain extremes—Paul commands that it must not even be named among God’s children.  He says this not only about sexual immorality, but about all forms of impurity and covetousness.

Think for a minute about what Paul is saying here.  This is a pretty remarkable command.  Consider for just a moment how much sexual immorality we are surrounded with on a daily basis.  Consider just how much we let into our lives, but let slide because it is seems pretty insignificant.  This includes things like off-color jokes, sidelong glances, comments which even subtly reduce men or women from people to objects to be admired, watching some television programs, and a number of other things of which each of us have been guilty at some point in our lives.  Yet why does Paul set such a firm boundary on this?  I thought the Christian life was about grace and freedom, not adding more tight restrictions on behavior.  Well, the first and most obvious answer is that God’s standard is perfection and anything less than that is unacceptable.  Paul keeps the bar just as high as Jesus Himself does.  The second and more nuanced answer is this: Paul’s initial command is for us to walk in the love of Christ. We are to demonstrate that love to everyone around us without distinction.  Christ’s love needs an object—a person—in order to find its fullest expression.  When we seek to find fulfillment for our sexual desires in ways which lie outside the bounds of what God has intended, such efforts very naturally reduce people to objects of gratification.  When this happens, the object of this impersonalizing reduction ceases to be someone we can love.  We can no longer help them become fully the person God created them to be because we no longer consider them a person.  People who do this are disturbingly delusional because they can no longer accurately identify the nature of things around them.  When they look at a person they see an object.  If you can’t tell the difference between a person and an object, you need psychological help.

When we confuse sex with love, we open ourselves up to all kinds of troubling situations like this.  Now, someone might try and protest what I’m saying here with this line of reasoning: “Well, I’m just a sinner saved by grace.  Isn’t that what Paul was talking about back in chapter 2 anyway?  You aren’t trying to add legalism into the faith are you?  If I act out of my sinful nature from time to time, that’s obviously not ideal, but it’s just me being me.”  Ever try that one? Paul shoots this down before it can even get off the ground.  He describes all of this immorality as improper among saints.  We may be sinners saved by grace, but once we are, the Bible begins describing us as saints.  That’s because we are saints.  When we are in Christ, we are made holy by the blood of the Lamb.  We may still have a sinful nature with which to contend, but we are no longer sinners—individuals whose lives are characterized by sin.  We are saints.  And for saints, walking in love, means walking in light.   The reason for this is clear in v. 5: folks whose lives are marked by this inability to distinguish a person from an object, who are determined to live in a reality of their own making, who are determined to view themselves as the final arbiter of what is real instead of God, who are addicted to idolatry, have no inheritance in the kingdom.  In other words, they are not in fact children of God.  Now, Paul’s assumption is that none of his readers actually fit into this category of people, but the warning is offered just in case.  And in light of v. 6, which is remarkably culturally relevant, the warning is germane.  Our culture cries loud and long that there is nothing wrong with any form of sexual expression.  Because sex is love and love is sex, to criticize someone who is just trying to experience love in all its wonderful forms is unloving in the extreme.  Yet these are words devoid of substance and life and such determinedly delusional folks are part of the reason God’s righteous wrath is coming.

In the next few verses, Paul picks up and runs with the metaphor of light versus darkness.  The path of darkness leads to death, the path of light, to life.  Walking in love means walking in light.  Let’s pick back up in v. 7 and see how this is so: “Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of the light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.  But when anything is exposed by the light, it become visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.  Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’”

Before we came to Christ, we were all children of the darkness, as Paul puts it.  ­Now, some of you have been following Christ for so long you may not even be able to remember what life apart from the light of Christ is like.  And yet, there was once a time when you walked apart from it.  But no longer.  Paul is clear: “Now you are light in the Lord.”  We don’t simply reflect Christ’s light.  By virtue of God the Spirit dwelling within us when we are in the Lord we are that light.  Paul’s call, then, is for us to be ourselves.  There is a famous song that anyone who has ever been to a Vacation Bible School anywhere knows: “This Little Light of Mine.”  The song is about putting the light of Christ within us out there for all the world to see and not hiding it or otherwise obscuring it.  The idea for the song came from something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about our being the light of the world, but Paul here is writing another verse in the same song.  When we pursue the path of love that is shrouded in darkness, we are forgetting who we are.  Just like we are losing touch with reality when we start viewing people as objects of desire instead of unique individuals created in the image of God, when we who have been made light in the Lord try to pursue deeds of the darkness, we are losing touch with reality.  It’s like a person with a candle trying to hide in a dark room.  We stand out like a sore thumb.  Much worse, though, if we blow out the candle in an attempt to blend in better!  Now, this is not a call to distance and cut ourselves off from the nonbelievers of the world, it is a call to remain light even when we enter into dark places so that they can see where to go.  This is love lived out.  By doing this we are helping guide them along the path of who God created them to be.  Indeed, walking in love means walking in light.

Our call from Paul is not to join in with the deeds of darkness in order to call people out of them, but to shine the light of Christ on them.   We are not to fall to pursuing love in the ways most common to our culture.  We are to shine the light of Christ on such attempts at loving and being loved.  They are empty and ultimately absent love by their very nature.  When people seek love solely or even primarily through sexual expression they simply won’t find it.  Their search will get more and more desperate and extreme until either they hit the wall and give up on love entirely or else are awakened to the light and pulled out of the trap.  If we mask our light and join in such loveless pursuits as bearers of Christ’s light, we only encourage people in their delusions that there is love to be found there.  They see the light in us and figure if they search hard enough in the same direction they will eventually find it.  In all of this we are loving no one.  We are not helping anyone become more fully who God created them to be.  We’re actually leading them away from it.  But when we instead, shine the light of Christ into the darkness, we can reveal the inanity of deeds done there and call people to the light.  Walking in love means walking in light.

And yet, shining light into the darkness is a tough thing to do. It is loving, but such love runs so directly counter to the world’s definitions of love that it will not usually be well received at first.  Ever turn over a rock and let the sun shine on what was once the darkness underneath it?  Ever seen a movie (or experience for yourself) in which a character turns on a light in a kitchen with roaches in it?  The creatures of the dark scatter when they see the light.  Depending on the kind of creature, they will attack the one who caused the light to shine in the nice, comfortable darkness in an attempt to drive them away.  The darkness seems much safer and certainly feels more comfortable in the short term, but love demands that the light be brought to bear.  And if we are going to be walking in love, then we must be the ones bringing the light.  It must be brought lovingly—in other words, with a desire to see those illuminated step into the light of God’s design for them rather than as a means of torment without any real offer of help—but it must be brought.  The result of such light is life.  Life from death.  Newness where there was only destruction.  Community where there was loneliness.  Spiritual health where there was only sickness.  Life sweet and abundant.  Walking in love means walking in light.

What all of this means is that not only do we need to have a solid understanding of what love is, but we need to live out of that definition.  The truth we must face in this life is that there is only one source of love in this world and it’s not our culture.  Elsewhere in his writings Paul describes people whose gods are their stomachs.  In his day, the stomach was seen as the seat of a person’s desires.  So what Paul was saying is that when people try and live apart from God, they are left at the mercy of their desires.  They can’t reach for anything more because they don’t believe there is.  When we are at the mercy of our desires, whichever desire is strongest is going to receive the most attention and the most eloquent attempts to justify its demands as good, right, and true regardless of reality.  Well guess which desire is the strongest in most people?  Sex.  And how might this desire be justified the most keenly?  By calling it love.  Such is the life of one living in the dark: one long, endless delusion.  For those who live in the light, however, we are free to pursue all of our desires within the spacious boundaries of the kingdom of God.  It is within those boundaries that we will find the deepest and most satisfying fulfillment of every single one of our desires in their purest form, including our desire to be loved.  For most folks—not all because God calls some otherwise—sex will be a legitimate part of this fulfillment.  But only one part.  And not the biggest part either.  But this is only available to those who are walking in the light.  They’re the only ones who can see where they want to go and how to get there.  Walking in love means walking in light. Let us be a people of the light?