July 11, 2010

Whose Word Is Final?

Close your eyes for me for just a minute. I’m going to say some words and I want you to internally react to them. Whatever your reaction is, I want you to just dwell on it for a moment and then we’ll talk about it in a bit. Heaven. Grace. Love. The world. Sin. Submission. Obedience. Okay, open your eyes. Now, by a show of hands, how many of you reacted positively to all of those words? Anyone react negatively to all of them? How many were split between some of the words? How many of you reacted positively to the first couple of words and more negatively to the ones after that? Okay, how about this one: how many of your reactions went from most positive to most negative in the order of the words as I spoke them? That last word, obedience, leaves a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people today. I think part of the reason for this is that we have been fed since birth a worldview by our culture that believes the highest good is achieved when we are singularly in control of our lives. Now, while there are a few people in the world (including me) who have personalities that are very comfortable in a setting where we simply do as we are told, I suspect we are more the exception than the rule.

Thinking about this issue of having ultimate control over our lives, when people take time to really think about what their aspirations are, no one aspires to middle management. No one is encouraged to desire a position where there are a few people subordinate to you, but not really, and where there are a number of people who have power over you. Even fewer aspire to simply be a cog in a much larger wheel. Our culture isn’t satisfied with that. “Don’t you have any bigger dreams than that?” we might hear. “I don’t want your middle-of-the-road dream, I want your wildest dream,” someone might throw at us. When school children are told they can be anything they want to be nowadays, the list of examples doesn’t often include vocations like: night janitor at a big box retailer, plumber, construction day-laborer, or seasonal produce harvester. No, the list includes things like: CEO of a major corporation, astronaut, police chief, and, of course, President. Our society encourages people to strive to be the top dog, to be in a position where as few people are telling us what to do as possible.

Let’s face it: not many people like the concept of obedience, let alone the practice of it. And this isn’t a trend that’s going anywhere. I suspect that teachers who have been at it for very long can attest to this. Correct me if I’m off-base, but students of all ages (but particularly those who have had a few years of watching teenage dramas) are, generally speaking, not nearly as readily and unquestioningly compliant to instructions as they were even a few years ago. Why is this? When did obedience become such a bad thing? There are some circumstances in which obedience isn’t such a bad thing—such as when you are doing something for the first time alongside someone who is much more experienced. There are even some circumstances in which obedience is absolutely necessary for survival—like on a field of battle when a commander with greater experience and intelligence on the enemy is issuing commands to lower-ranking soldiers.

Well, this week finds us in our second week of our journey through the first letter that John wrote to the church in Ephesus (yes, that would be the same church to whom Paul’s letter Ephesians was addressed), more familiarly known as 1 John. And as we talked about last week, this letter is geared at helping believers deal with reality. In this sense, reality is defined by God and His character and His plans for this world. Everything that doesn’t fit within these broad lines (and they alone are truly broad lines) is fantasy. As we talked about last week, acknowledging this line between reality and fantasy and embracing the reality of both is an important part of living in God’s light. Well, after establishing the reality of God’s light and the currently corresponding reality of the darkness of the world, the next thing John talks about is how we go about living in this light. As I hope to make clear to you this morning, the primary way that we remain in God’s light is very simple: do what God says, and don’t do what the world says. In other words:

Living in God’s light means obeying His word and not the world’s.

Getting to the word, then, last week, our passage ended with John issuing a warning to those who might try and claim in one way or another that sin is not affecting their life. We talked about the fact that the reality of this world as well as human nature is that we are all impacted by sin and will continue to be so until we are made perfect when the final kingdom arrives. But, the passage seemed to close abruptly and was kind of open-ended. Well, after issuing these warnings, John continues smoothly in the second chapter by stating another of his reasons for writing. Grab your Bibles if you haven’t yet and turn with me to 1 John 2:1. Let me read for you the first couple of verses of chapter 2. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

So, John’s point here is pretty straightforward. All these things he is writing are to keep us from a lifestyle of sin. But, if we do sin, we have a pretty powerful advocate in our corner. You see, John’s goal for his readers is a sinless perfection. He was standing there listening when Jesus set the standard for His followers in the Sermon on the Mount. That being said, John is a realist. He understands that even though believers are born again by the Spirit, we still have a sinful nature and we still sin. Because of this, we have the second half of 2:1. The great hope of reality is that we have Jesus’ ministry and advocacy before God on our behalf. But I should note that grammatically, John had isolated sins in view here, not a lifestyle of sin.

Believers’ lives should not be characterized by sinful behavior. A life characterized by sin is not a life in God’s hands. Rather, the sin John has in mind the isolated, occasional sin. John has in view the believer who is genuinely struggling to overcome her sinful nature along the lines of Paul in Romans not the so-called Christ-follower who has simply given up and given himself over to sin.

There is one other thing worth a quick explanation before we go on. In v. 2 in the translation I’m using this morning, John calls Jesus the ropitiation” for our sins. If you have an NIV in front of you, you see the phrase “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The NIV translation team ose that phrase because propitiation isn’t exactly a word we throw about casually in modern culture. The literal translation of the Greek word there is he means by which sins are forgiven.” Though there is some debate as to exactly what these “means” are, most evangelicals come down in favor of the anslation as I read it to you. So what does it mean? Propitiation describes the satisfying of God’s wrath over sin. Jesus’ actions on the cross did not rely result in God waiving the penalty for our sinfulness as some argue—that would not ultimately be just of God. Instead, it resulted in God’s wrath ing satisfied. Let me see if an example will make things clearer. Let’s say that I have stolen your car. You are understandably angry with me…some might en say wrathful…and I rightfully owe you a new car and deserve to go to prison. But, let’s say that someone else comes along and offers to serve my prison ntence for me. This would pay the price for my transgression, but it would not abate your anger at the situation (or me). But let’s say, though, this person went one step further and gave you a new car in my name. This would take care of both the criminal aspects of my crime as well as the civil part. Granting the limitations of human nature, this is what Jesus’ death did for us on behalf of our sin. John, the realist, recognizes that believers are still going to sin. Yet he knows the greater reality is that we have an advocate before the Father on our behalf. We need only to live our lives in light of this eality to remain people of God. And as we are about to see, living in this light means doing what God says, not what the world says. Indeed, living in od’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s.

Well, if this is the truest and greatest reality the world has ever known, can we be sure that we are living in it? Can we fool ourselves into thinking e are living in the light when we are in fact living in the darkness? John seemed to make clear in chapter one and experience assuredly tells us that this s a distinct possibility. Indeed, there are many who wonder loudly and regularly about their standing before God. In this light, listen to the next four erses. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a iar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever ays he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Let us not underestimate the incredible import and comfort of this great truth. We an be assured of our standing before Him if we obey His commands. One of the temptations believers have faced for generations is to doubt our salvation. he devil will introduce these thoughts to our minds and let them run rampant. The logic in these situations often flows in one of a few ways: “If I can’t e sure of my salvation, then I might not have it. Well, if I might not have it then it really doesn’t matter too much how I live. In that case, I’ll just o about doing the things I want to do and will make sure I ask forgiveness regularly to cover my bases.” Or, “If I can’t be sure of my salvation, then I eed to work extra hard to make sure I have it. I’ll study the Scriptures really hard and try to do exactly all the things Jesus did. All those people who ren’t living up to this standard of behavior must not really be Christians.” Or, “If I can’t be sure of my salvation, then I’d better not be judging anyone lse. I should just keep my mouth shut when I see people doing things wrong because I don’t want to invite them to cast judgment on me.” None of these and ther similar delusions are a proper response to the grace of God. We can and should have a humble confidence that we belong to God and nothing can change hat. How we can achieve this confidence is what John is talking about here. Living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s.

Dealing with reality again, as John hinted at in 1:6, there are folks who make such a claim but whose lives do not match their rhetoric. We would call hese kinds of folks hypocrites today. I hesitate to use an example from the political realm to make this point, but let me do so generally. Many oliticians go to various interest-based groups today seeking support and while there, give loud verbal affirmations that they agree with all of the various ositions on the issues of this interest group. If the same politician does not then legislate or govern in accordance with all those principles, he or she s a liar. Now, in our modern, touchy-feely culture the word “liar” seems unduly harsh to some. John isn’t trying to be excessively pejorative here, he’s imply stating a truth: the person who claims to know God but doesn’t do what He says is telling a lie and is thus a liar. If we really know and understand ho God is, obeying His commands, His words, will come exceedingly naturally. After all, living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s.

Well, understanding that God’s word and His commandment are in fact one and the same thing John starts to shift his focus a bit here to talk about this ommand. It would have been easy for someone to take what John has said up to this point and move in new directions away from Christian orthodoxy. ertainly this has been done when believers have fixated on something “new” Jesus said to the exclusion of the broader witness of Scripture (which Jesus ever contradicted when understood properly). Living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s. This means all of God’s word. The world would ladly take bits and pieces of God’s word and twist them to suit its purposes in order to convince wavering believers to leave the path of Christ with irages of some “greater righteousness.” I wonder how many wavering believers have left the fold of the kingdom with the false confidence that they had ecome too righteous for Christianity. This is always a temptation before us whether under the guise of legalism (the Pharisees), asceticism (some ocialist/collectivist communes), or libertinism (the free love movement). It is this exact approach that Satan took with Eve in the Garden of Eden. The eality is that we need every part of God’s word to the exclusion of none in order to remain in His light.

In your Bibles find v. 7 with me as we keep reading. “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the eginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard.” The command John has in view here, as is made clear over in chapter 3, is Jesus’ summary f the law from Matthew 22: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. John is not telling his eaders anything Jesus hadn’t already told them. In fact, he’s not telling them anything that has not been a part of God’s commands to His people since the ery beginning. The imperative to love God and love others as a reflection of this love is a foundational aspect of God’s character and has always been so. ow, our culture often eschews things that are old simply because they are old today. This is a dangerous practice because many of the old things have been ested and proved true. On the other side of this, we need not fear the new. Not all that is new is bad. Things new, particularly a newness that grows orth from the old, can be very good. In this light, we have v. 8: “At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him nd in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” The command is new because it has been spoken fresh by Christ in pite of being in existence from the beginning. It is made new in our lives when we incorporate the commands of God into our daily practice. Let us neither ate the old nor fear the new, but be obedient to God’s commands in whatever form we receive them. Living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the orld’s.

Moving to the next verse, John gets even more serious about the need for obedience in our lives. “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his rother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is n the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” Let me share with you one of the ruths of Scripture that can be hard to swallow: simply affirming our allegiance to the life of Christ is functionally meaningless. A simple expression of ords does not bind those who are intent on dishonesty. A spy working undercover in foreign territory might make all kinds of affirmations of fidelity to he infiltrated country and culture, but these are all meaningless because his real loyalties lie elsewhere. A book came out recently by an agnostic, ulturally Jewish woman who wanted to do some research on the Christian subculture. So, she moved to Lynchburg and joined Jerry Falwell’s church. She ecame an active member, went forward, was baptized, participated in evangelistic missions with her new friends, shared her “faith” with nonbelievers, and id a number of other things that convinced everyone in the church that she had become a full-fledged follower of Christ. But the whole thing was a lie. he never meant any of it. She has since repudiated everything she did there and wrote a book about her experiences. I heard another story about a pastor who after a Wednesday night revival service had one of his deacons and his wife come up to him with the news that their school-aged son wanted to become a christian. He brought the family into his office and talked with the son about the Gospel and spelled out the basic message and hope of Christ to him. When the kid gave clear affirmation of his intention to give his life to all of this, the pastor circled up with the family and led the son in a salvation prayer…except when the pastor paused to let the boy repeat after him, his deacon father beat him to it. Folks who affirm a life of righteousness but do not actively live such a life are enemy spies in kingdom territory and could be called to active duty any time. This is the word of the world. But, it will not last. And it will not lead to life. Living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s.

Living in obedience to this basic command to love our neighbors (and specifically our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ) roots us deeply in the life of Christ. But harboring hatred (or resentment or bitterness or anger or malice or just about anything else along these lines) towards another believer blinds us to the light. This is the point of v. 11. Anyone who hates a fellow believer walks in darkness and is in fact blinded by the darkness. That’s a really hard hitting truth. We react to something like that. We react and most of us would quickly say, “Well, I don’t really hate anyone. Whew! This must not apply to me.” Here’s the thing, though: if we are blinded because of the darkness, then we can’t see in order to fix the problem. We need to actively pray for God’s wisdom on this. We need to actively seek His light in order to be able to see where we have gotten off track, where we are “hating our brother.” Really John’s words here go right along with Jesus’ command to love our enemies. Sometimes, when we have a disagreement with a fellow believer, we are sorely tempted to treat them as an enemy. If we carry the idea that we should hate our enemies (one which the world still very much pushes on us today), then we find ourselves in the position of justifying hatred of fellow followers of Christ and all the not-so-savory things that go along with this. As a case in point, in the Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990s, most of the Tutsis and Hutus that were killing each other were Christians of various stripes. But if we are driven to not hate our brothers and sisters in Christ as well as to love our enemies generally, then even when we have disagreements we will not act towards each other in disagreeable ways. But if we’re making the rules; if we’re the ones in charge, then we’re going to be drawing from the cesspools of our sinful natures rather than the deep, clean well of the Spirit of God. We’ll be stumbling around in darkness rather than walking confidently in the light. And living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s.

Well, after a brief pause in vv. 12-14 to reassure and encourager his readers, John launches right back into his tirade against the world and its trappings. Here’s the thing: to say something as simple as living in God’s light means obeying His word and not the world’s is easy. Understanding the reality of the world in light of the reality of God is not. You see, the reality is that when it comes to God and the world, there is no middle ground. There is no room to maneuver. Either we are totally for God or we are for the world. In the end, all those who try for some middling position will be revealed to have been for the world all along. If we are going to live a life of obedience to God’s word, then we need to understand the reality of the world. John spells some more of this out for us in vv. 15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

Put even more simply, love for the world is not reconcilable with the life and love of God. Think about what John’s saying here. Love for the world precludes one from the love of God. Well, is this saying that someone who is devoted to this world is removed from God’s love? In a word, yes. It’s not God saying, “I’m not going to love you anymore because you’ve chosen the world.” It’s us saying, “God, I don’t want Your love, I want the world.” This is a tough pill to swallow, particularly in our culture of leftist tolerance that encourages us to love the sinner and to love the sin because it might not be a sin for the person committing it and who are you to judge anyway. Furthermore, in a culture that is so infused with pictures of an all-loving God such that many people forget about His being just and holy, the thought that we might do anything resulting in our having God’s love removed from us runs roughshod over the line of anathema. This is all a result of wanting to have it both ways. We want to have eternal life, but we also want to have as much of this life as we can muster. We want to have God and the world. But the consistent witness of Scripture is that the two are totally mutually exclusive. One cannot exist where the other is. One cannot have dominance where the other reigns. Jesus made very clear that we cannot serve two masters. As the title of this sermon asks: whose word is final in your life? We cannot paint a wall both black and white at the same time. We cannot have all the benefits of something without the costs. Even if it appears so in the short term, in the long term the costs are going to come to bear. If we want the world and the things of this world and give our chief allegiance to them, we cannot have God. We can strive for them now, but in the end we will wind up losing everything. Or, we can choose to obey God and His words and in the end inherit everything. Seems like a pretty simple choice to me. Living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s.

The reason for this is simple: the world and its adherents aren’t going to last. God and His followers will. End of story. No, God isn’t going to “unmake” those who finally oppose Him—this is called annihilationism and it is false. But they will not have life any longer. The Bible describes their fate with phrases like “unending destruction.” The point is that the life of God will be totally absent from them. This will be a death that never ends. On the other hand, the reward for those who obey God’s word to the end will be eternal life. They will abide forever. That sounds like a pretty good thing to me. My concern this morning is not whether or if you have publically given your life to God’s way of life. My concern is that you are living in obedience to His words now. Take a few minutes as we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together and lay yourself open before God. How is your obedience these days? Do you have any hatred towards a brother or sister you need to resolve? Keep in mind that this hatred can take a lot of different and elusive forms. Open your hearts to listen to the words of your heavenly Father this morning. As we remember the sacrifice of the One who is the propitiation for our sins let God reveal where you are right on target and where you might living off-center. Confess the times and places where you are living out of the worldview of our culture that says, “I’m in charge.” At Central this table is open to anyone who names Jesus as Lord and Savior so join with us gladly. Let us be a people for whom the word “obedience” is a good and exciting thing. Living in God’s light means obeying His word, not the world’s. Let us live in that light. As your hearts are prepared, please take, eat, and drink this great symbol of what obedience can accomplish as you are served.