July 18, 2010

A Vise-Grip on Truth

We live in a world of illusions and deception.  We are surrounded every single day by the work of people who have paid a lot of money in order to convince us that the reality of something is other than it actually is.  There are times when it seems like we live in one big carnival.  When we drive down the highway, we see countless billboards trying to convince us that our lives are incomplete without whatever their product is.  We are actively enticed to join in whatever “game” is being peddled with hollow guarantees of ease and success once we sign up.  Several years ago, the state of Missouri legalized gambling.  Driving down the main interstate through Kansas City now, drivers are confronted by dozens of billboards promising riches galore to be found at whatever casino is being advertized.  They leave the impression (intentionally I would say) that if you just ride on over a slip a few bucks in their slot machines or drop a few chips off at their gaming tables that you will walk out a millionaire.  The reality of course is that the vast majority of folks who go “drop off a few bucks” don’t come out with any more than they went in with and usually a lot less.  But wealth’s Siren song is a tempting one.  Now, I should say that not all of this is a lie.  The casino owners don’t want everyone to lose.  In fact, they want everyone to win…just enough to keep them coming back to make sure the net is in the house’s vault.  Speaking a bit more generally though, if you were to really pay attention to the commercials you watch during a one hour primetime television program, you could be forgiven for coming away with the sad confidence that apart from the advertized products you would be fatter, balder, hairier, dirtier, smellier, less attractive to the opposite sex, hungrier, poorer, less-fit, more prone to depression, more prone to heart attacks and any number of other health risks, and generally less happy than you currently are.  The net effect of all of this is to create this fantastical world where we can have anything we want to have and be anybody we want to be.  All we have to do is bow down and worship at their altar…I mean, buy their product.

Advertisers and the companies that hire them are not, however, the only ones shelling out dough to create a false world.  We are also surrounded by people who are willing to pay a lot of money in order to be convinced that the reality of the world around them is other than it actually is.  Perhaps, you may even be one of these people.  You see, in order for those advertisers to have any impact, people have to be willing to listen.  While the advertisers are certainly trying to create a sense of dis-ease with the current state of things, they don’t always have to work as hard as they used to.  In our pop-media saturated culture in which generally only the best and the brightest are put on display (and enhanced along the way so they look even better and brighter) many of us live with a general malaise because our lives do not reflect the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  As a result of this malaise, we do one of two things.  We look for opportunities to escape from reality as we see it through our cultural lenses—be that through television, alcohol, drugs, work, gardening, carpentry, reading, church, and etc.  Or, we embrace the discontent and look with scorn on those who “need all those fancy things to get by instead of just living simply as I am.”  As we have talked about already in this series, however, neither of these delusions will ultimately put us in consonance with reality.

Well, taking on the Biblical understanding that everything is spiritual, that God is concerned with His Spirit being embraced and honored in every aspect of this world, what all of these attempts to create and inhabit a world that exists apart from reality in order to make us feel less depressed about reality as it truly is constitute is a rebellion against God.  Consider this: our behavior reveals our beliefs regardless of what we verbally affirm.  Fair?  As professed followers of Christ, we may give verbal assent to the reality of the kingdom, but if we consistently try and live somewhere else, then we don’t really believe the kingdom constitutes the most permanent and pressing reality, do we?  Thus, when we pursue all these flights of fancy, we are rebelling against the Creator and Definer-of-Reality in favor of some fantasy world that is more comfortable and pleasing at the moment.  Shifting our attention now to the word and building on what we talked about last week, all of these false worlds are lies.  Each one is composed of some lie regarding the state of reality.  It may seem to us to be a small lie (this is just one little vice and surely God can’t fault me this one little pleasure), or it may reflect what we consider to be a huge lie (there is no God).  But regardless of the nature of the lie, the net result is our living apart from the glorious reality of God in favor of a lie of this world.  Well, these lies aren’t going to last.  The Truth is going to return powerfully to this world one day and sooner than we think.  If we want to be living fully in the reality of the kingdom when He does, then we need to resist the lies of this world and cling tenaciously to the truth.  Hear that again because I want you to remember it this morning: If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.  It sounds like a tautology, but it is a much deeper and more subtle statement than it first appears, if for no other reason (though this is certainly not the only reason) than the fact that we spend each day surrounded by a world of lies.  Unless we have a pillar of support to which we can cling, it is frighteningly easy to be swept away by this relentless tide.  If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.

With all this said, in our continuing journey to pick up a word on reality from the apostle-pastor-realist John, the next phase deals with exactly this issue of resisting lies by embracing truth.  You see, the community to whom John was writing was hardly free from lies.  In fact, there are some scholars who see 1 John as one long argument against the various lies of this community.  Indeed, in spite of John’s calls for believers to be united on the truth of Jesus Christ, there was sufficient division in the church that a group had recently left because of some unresolved issues.  Though the nature of these issues is not made clear, John gives us enough context clues to ferret out that in his view the departing group had embraced one of the popular lies about the nature of Jesus.  And while some who flirt with the various popular fantasy worlds around today might try and claim that they don’t have any problems with Jesus, subscribing to any of the lies of this world reveals a worldview belief that Jesus isn’t really Lord.  In this way everything comes back to our belief about the nature of Jesus who both embodies and defines the truth.  If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.

In this light, then, let me read for you the next few verses of 1 John and we’ll talk about them a bit.  If you want to follow along with me, grab your Bibles and find 1 John 2.  We’ll start at v. 18 this morning.  “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.  Therefore we know that it is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.  But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.  But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.  I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.  Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father.  Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.  Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.  If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.  And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.  I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.  But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.  But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”

Well, let’s start at the beginning of this passage because initially, it doesn’t seem all that concerned with embracing the truth and resisting lies.  John starts out by issuing the warning that the last hour had arrived as evidenced by the appearances of antichrists in the world.  Just like the words I gave you at the beginning of last week’s sermon, those two phrases, “last hour” and “antichrist,” are words which evoke a reaction in us.  They are both draped in a lot of cultural baggage.  When we hear the phrase “last hour” we think about Revelation and the end times and cataclysmic events.  We think about Jesus coming back and judgment and Heaven.  Yes, we even think about the appearance of the capital-A Antichrist being revealed to the world.  Most of us, however, do not consider the last hour to be here; let alone do we consider it to have begun nearly 2,000 years ago.  I mean, are we really expected to believe that we’ve been in the last hour for part or all of 21 centuries?  Well, I’m not going to force that on you, but it is what all of the guys who wrote the New Testament believed.   They believed that the last days or the last hour began sometime during Jesus’ ministry (options are the Transfiguration, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension) and will continue on until His bodily return to earth.  In this, John and the other New Testament writers’ beliefs about the ends times could be described as “already-but-not-yet.”  We are not actively progressing towards the future time when God’s kingdom will be revealed to His people because that time is already here.  We are not on a collision course with the future time when all people will be called to decide for or against Christ because that time is already here.  But, the final revelation of God’s kingdom and the last judgment have not yet happened and so the end is not yet.

More intriguingly for many people than the precise time of the last hour is the identity of the Antichrist.  There has been much made of the Antichrist in Christian history.  Anytime someone has risen up as a major threat to the church, the laity and the clergy alike have rushed to identify him as the Antichrist and proclaim the advent of the last days.  Various popes have been called the Antichrist as well as infamous historical notables such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad, and even the current U. S. President by some of his critics.  There is much interest in who this figure will be and what he will do to the people of God.  Interestingly, however, the three references in this passage along with one more in 2 John 7 comprise the total usages of the word in all of the New Testament.  Now, there are certainly a couple of other places where the antichrist is probably being described using a different phrase (such as “the man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians), but on the whole the New Testament is not concerned with identifying some single person as the Antichrist.  Instead, as John belabors here, while there will be such a person who will be the chief persecutor of the people of God in the Great Tribulation, the real concern for believers should be the many small-a antichrists who deceive people and lead them astray now.  Make no mistake here, because of the cultural baggage that it bears, referring to someone today as an antichrist is going to come across as pejorative.  Perhaps we can find a better, more culturally appropriate phrase, but let us not lose the sense of what John is saying.  As we can glean from vv. 21-23, these folks are denying the lordship of Christ, either by their words or by their lifestyle, and worse, as the context indicates, they are leading others in doing the same thing.  We as a church must be vigilant against people like this whoever and wherever they are.  The lies they tell will undoubtedly taste like honey on our lips.  They might even be sweet enough honey that they will cover the bitterness in our stomachs for a time.  But they are lies.  We want the truth.  And if you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.

Well, as evidence that these antichrists can crop up anywhere, the next thing John talks about is a group of people who have recently left the church.  John speaks of them very diplomatically.  The Greek word translated “they went out” carries no sense of judgment to it (and John could have chosen words that did).  Yet the context is clear that he believes they left because their doctrine had left the lands of orthodoxy (which means right beliefs, by the way) and they were in fact denying Christ’s lordship in some way.  Look at the words John uses here.  This is a pretty intense verse: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”  In other words, this group of people left the church because even though they had been attending there for some amount of time they did not truly belong there.  And while we can only guess at the reasons they did not truly belong, given the context, it would seem that there were some areas of theological disagreement that kept them from becoming fully integrated into the body.

John does not stop here, though.  The next thing he argues is for a purpose behind their leaving: “But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”  Let me see if I can put this in the broader context of Scripture.  Believers are not going to agree concerning every point of Biblical interpretation or church government or Christian practice.  Would that this was the case, but until the final kingdom arrives it won’t be.  Fortunately, most of these issues fall under the category of nonessentials: issues on which our salvation does not depend.  On these issues we can and should have robust disagreements in which we lovingly debate the pros and cons of each position and eventually come to a consensus as a body on how we will proceed with a great deal of humility and mutual submission, with a desire to help those who fit Paul’s description of the weaker brother from Romans 14-15 grow fully into the spacious freedom of God’s kingdom.  There are, however, a number of essentials that do determine whether or not one is a follower of Christ.  On these there can be no disagreement.  On these there is no room for error or tolerance.  And the body that does tolerate variance on these will find its doctrinal purity polluted, watered-down, and eventually lost.  In this light it is a good thing when such theological disparity is revealed and either resolved (in favor of orthodoxy, of course) or the erring group departs so their lies no longer threaten to lead younger believers astray.  And from the wisdom of Matthew 18 which we talked about a few weeks ago, this departing group should not be stigmatized, but loved and prayed  for and sought eagerly in order that they might be brought back within the fold of the kingdom once again.  The context here suggests that the point of contention with the departing group was of this latter nature.  In dealing with this kind of an issue, we must rely on the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit in whom we have knowledge and confidence of the truth.  And if our foundation is not this truth and the capital-T Truth behind it, we will be blown away by the winds of falsehood.  If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.

Let me jam just a minute longer with you on this last issue of the Holy Spirit giving us knowledge and confidence of the truth.  This really is an important truth.  This is what John is talking about at the end of our passage.  Let me read these verses for you one more time starting from v. 24: “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.  If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.  And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.  I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.  But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.  But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”  This is the second time John has mentioned this thing that his readers have had or known from the beginning.  What he’s talking about is the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that led us to first embrace the message of the kingdom.  This confession: Jesus is Lord, is what we must abide in if we want to make sure we are also abiding in the Son and in the Father.  This is the truth of the ages.  Everything else we know hinges on this one thing: Jesus is Lord.  This is the truth that is powerful enough to cling to and the lies of this world will not blow us away.  If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.  God knows we need to rest and provides it for us at appropriate times, but otherwise the lies and deceptions of this world never cease to try and steer us off the straight and narrow path that leads to the kingdom.  But this rock: Jesus is Lord, is strong enough to shed light on all falsehoods.  Any teaching which attempts to lessen or distort this fact is a lie.  Any new ideas that try and add to this fact are a lie.  Anything that stands in the way of this great truth and threatens to take its place is a lie.  It is a world of fantasy trying to pass itself off as reality.  And as we have seen and heard, these fantasy worlds will not last.  If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.

This is why John is writing; to inform and alert us to those who might try and deceive us away from orthodoxy by convincing us that Jesus really isn’t Lord.  It is in this context that John tells his readers they don’t need anyone to teach them.  He is not saying that don’t need any teaching, period.  He obviously doesn’t believe that since he is writing them this letter!  Rather, they (and we) don’t need to learn anything that would reinterpret the fact that Jesus is Lord.  They (and we) don’t need to learn any so-called “deeper” truths because there aren’t any.  We need only abide in and live out of this truth that we have and know because of the Spirit’s anointing in our lives: Jesus is Lord.  This is our chief and really our only defense against the lies of this world.  If we try and fend them off with anything else we will be fighting fire with fire.  We will be trying to deconstruct one lie with another lie.  This will only lead to more trouble and heartache for us.  Jesus encouraged rightly that when we remove some lie from our lives that we fill up the hole it leaves behind with truth.  If not, we’ll just buy back into the lie and probably fall prey to two or three or four others along the way leaving us worse off than when we started.  If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.

Yet we must not merely cling to the truth; we must live out of the truth.  This is what it means to abide in Him.  As we talked about last week, simply affirming that Jesus is Lord, while important and impossible to do honestly without the Spirit’s help, is meaningless without obedience to His word.  The truth that Jesus is Lord must necessarily shape everything else in our lives.  Because He is Lord we cannot go on thinking of ourselves in the same ways we always have.  Because He is Lord we cannot go on treating our spouses the way we always have.  Because He is Lord we cannot go on reacting to our kids in the way we always have.  Because He is Lord we cannot go on make the same assumptions about the people around us we always have.  Our work changes.  Our worship changes.  Our rest becomes more fulfilling.  Our activities become more purposeful.  Nothing remains the same.  Every facet of our lives is impacted by this truth, by the capital-T Truth.  Clinging hard to the truth opens the door to life as we have never experienced but always desired.  We are able to become for the first time fully the men and women that God created us to be from the very beginning.  But a single lie can distort and truncate this process.  All these lies come from the position that Jesus is not Lord in some area.  Each place in our lives where this is the case, where we have been led astray by the antichrists in this world, is a place marked not by life, but by death.  Where the lies reside and increase, the death consumes everything around it.  Yet grace is abundant and sweet and powerful enough to overcome these.  The follower of Christ is being consumed by life, not death.  By truth, not lies.  If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.  Jesus is Lord.