July 4, 2010

A Vibrant Realism

Every preacher has his own speaking style. Each one has a set of catch phrases that marks her off from any other preacher. If you listen to a preacher for very long, you will eventually start picking up on what some of these are and if you think about it they will probably tell you a thing or two about the preacher. For example, one of the preachers I really enjoy listening to is a guy named Rob Bell. He uses the phrase, “Are you with me?” a lot. This suggests to me a concern on his part to make sure that his congregation is understanding the things he’s saying. Now, for those of you who have been listening to me for nearly a couple of years, you might have picked up on a few of my catch phrases. One of these is a version of the phrase, “Let’s face the facts,” or “the reality is…” Let me save you from some guessing. One of my concerns in preaching is that I present you with not merely a picture of how you or I wish things were, but of how they actually are.

Far, far too many people in this world, and particularly in this culture, live in a fantasy world of their own creation in hopes of remaining safe from the often harsh reality of the world around them. The reality is that the world around us is often an unfriendly place. For many of us, if we have a chance to live apart from this for a time in a world that is much more suited to our own liking, we’re going to take it. In this sense, many of us have a place that is safe from the wiles of the world, even if it is only a creation of our own minds. But, just because we prefer this false if comforting reality doesn’t mean that the actual reality is going to adjust itself to our whims. And the longer we remain in this false reality, the more difficult it will be for us to make forays into what we call the “real world” (which is actually false until it is made true when the kingdom of God finally comes). Yet once again, it matters not how difficult the journey to face reality is, we will still have to face it from time to time. This leads us to a crisis point. When we are faced with the fullness of reality and it isn’t what we want to experience we can either toughen up and stick it out, knowing that it will not bring us down forever; or we can retreat further into our protective false realities, so far in fact that we cease to interact with the world in healthful, helpful ways.

People who have taken this latter approach are fairly easy to identify. They go through the motions of societal life only as much as they absolutely have to—to earn a paycheck and to get out and purchase the basic necessities of life, for example. Other than this, they stay away from any people who don’t have a place in their constructed world. But—once again—this doesn’t change the facts of the world around them and eventually, whether in this life or the next, they are going to have to come fully to grips with reality. For other people, though, these false realities can be tricky to identify. They might have simply picked up a false belief or two that causes them to live apart from reality, but the majority of their lives are consonant with how things are. The problem here is that even a single false belief can rob us of the joy that is rightfully ours if we are living according to the great reality of the kingdom of God; for His kingdom is the plumb line of all reality and our lives are either in line with it or they’re not. There is no middle ground. If we choose to live out of line and persist in such a delusion our eventual realization of our mistake will not be a happy time.

With all of this in mind, I want to spend the next few weeks with you talking about reality. Not reality as we want it to be, but reality as it actually is. The kingdom of God and the life Christ opened to us form the only actual basis of reality in this world. They comprise the foundation on which everything else we know is built. To live apart from these is to miss out on some part or even all of the abundant life that Jesus opened to us and desires for us to live with the Spirit’s help. Another way to think about this contrast of reality versus fantasy is light versus darkness. The cosmic battle of light versus darkness is a familiar one in human history. It is used several times throughout Scripture. The reason for this is that if reality is defined by God and Scripture defines God as light (in the passage we will look at this morning in fact), then to live apart from reality (fantasy) is to live apart from light. Living apart from light is living in darkness. Well, turning our attention to Scripture—our only reliable source for understanding the light in this world—there is a book that more than most is concerned with presenting for us a picture of reality, what life there is like, and how we can be sure we have it. This is the book of 1 John. His first letter to the church in Ephesus, where he ministered for many of the final years of his life, is going to serve as our guide as we seek to identify some of the limits of reality and how we can reside comfortably within them. In order to do this, though, as we are going to explore briefly this morning, we must understand the contrast of light and dark. If we want to fully understand and relish the light of God’s kingdom it is helpful to know and understand the darkness apart from God. This does not mean we should seek to experience the darkness—for you don’t necessarily have to experience something to know it. (There are things that are better not to know from experience.) It does mean is that we should take advantage of the wisdom available in Christ, the Word, with the Spirit’s help, and learn the lessons of the dark by closely studying the light. As Billy Graham once noted to a reporter curious as to whether or not he kept up with all the latest cults and divergent movements bearing the Christian name, he said that didn’t spend his time studying those, he spent his time studying the Bible. The better he knew his Bible, the easier it was to identify things that don’t jive with it. Putting all of this a bit more succinctly, then: Living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness.

Well, John opens this letter by offering his take on reality and why he has such a take. Grab your Bibles and turn with me to 1 John 1:1 and hear these great words. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Now for some of you, your first reaction to these words might have been a rousing, “Huh?” And I’ll admit, at first read, it’s not immediately apparent what John is trying to say. When you look at the original Greek of the verses (sometimes a helpful thing to do when the English translation isn’t clear), things don’t get much better. But, as confusing as these verses might seem, they are saying something that was really important for John’s first readers and should also be important for us. Let me see if I can clarify things for you a bit. John is reporting to us the things that he personally heard and saw. He is not writing simply of things that he heard about secondhand. He is relating to us things to which he was an eyewitness. This is expressed in the third verse: “…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” The “we” here is probably a reference to the other apostles and witnesses of Christ’s activity on earth, but the point is that John’s teaching is based on the things he received from Christ Himself in the flesh.

Now, in our modern justice system which has become so driven by forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony isn’t such a big deal as it once was. This is at least in part because of the prevailing naturalistic worldview that discounts as valid anything which was not discovered by means of the scientific method. And so we’re clear: 2,000 year old eyewitness testimony falls under that category. Adding to this modern difficulty is the nature of what John is reporting. He is telling us about something that was from the beginning—language that alludes to both the beginning of his Gospel as well as the beginning of Genesis and refers to Christ as preexistent with the Father—and is thus decidedly non-detectable by scientific methods. Furthermore, this thing (or person, rather) that was from the beginning is concerning the word of life. Modern science can easily assure us that there is no word that grants life. And since we’re piling on incredulities let’s add another: this word of life is not just some word that will make our lives have more substance, it is the word of eternal life which we certainly can’t measure. When you pack in all the allusions and fill out the context of John’s life and theology you will come to understand that in John’s view this word of life is not some sacred word as some other religions might claim, it is in fact a person. It is a person who was with the Father (that’s God) and was made manifest to us. Making this as plain as possible, John is speaking very specifically of an actual, historical person named Jesus bar Joseph, more familiarly known as Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. He is further claiming that this Jesus is in fact the same person as God the Father and that eternal life is available through Him. That’s quite a claim for three confusing verses! What all this boils down to is that John is proclaiming to us what he sees as reality. And to the snarky skeptic who fires back that John’s reality is good for him but doesn’t apply to anyone else, I answer: John is thoroughly convinced that he is not merely presenting a reality among many good options, but rather that he is presenting the reality and all else is fantasy.

The next question to ask is naturally: why is John telling us about this Jesus? Because this is the Bible, duh. The whole thing is about Jesus. No, actually, this question hits on an area with a fairly complex answer that I hope to make clear to you over the course of the next few weeks. John offers several reasons throughout this letter for writing it, three of which come in the verses we will look at this morning. And the first of these we’ve already encountered. In the middle of v. 3 John declares that he is proclaiming these things so that his readers might have fellowship with him and the others like him who have personal fellowship with Jesus. So is this saying that people who don’t subscribe to the reality of Christ can’t have fellowship with those who do? There’s a dangerous question if ever I’ve heard one. The answer is no…and yes. If as believers we only have fellowship (a relationship that goes beyond mere acquaintance and involves the sharing of life together) with other believers then the message of God’s kingdom is never going to be spread to those who don’t currently know it. For not many embrace the Gospel on the word of a stranger. But, the fellowship available to those who share in the all-encompassing reality of that kingdom isn’t available to those who don’t. Now, this is not to say that believers should avoid friendships with nonbelievers because then the light of God will never be brought to the darkness. This is to say that living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness. And the reality of the darkness is that folks who are living in the darkness, while needing the message of the light, come at life from a totally different perspective than those who are living in the light. These folks answer the basic questions about the nature of the universe differently from believers and these differences are significant enough that deep, soul-level fellowship with them is neither possible nor healthy. If you have friends and neighbors who are living in the darkness (and I hope you do) with whom you want the deeper, more fulfilling relationship that God designed His children to have with each other, work hard to bring them into the light with the Spirit’s help. But recognize that until they walk in the light as you do, there will be a level of intimacy in relationship that you will not and in fact should not reach with them. Will not because they answer fundamental questions about the nature of life differently than you do. Should not because our natural state is to walk in the darkness and without the Spirit’s constant and abiding help we will more likely be pulled into the darkness than we will pull them into the light. Again, I’m not necessarily saying you should change anything about your friends or neighbors or the way you relate to the people in your lives, I’m just addressing reality. Living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness. And the reality of the darkness is that it prevents the fellowship available to those in the light. There is great joy in this fellowship and from v. 4 we see that increasing and perfecting this joy is one of John’s very reasons for writing: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

Moving from here, John focuses in even more on the reality of the light and the dark in the rest of chapter 1. He begins by establishing the reality of the light and then offers a series of conditional statements aimed at helping us understand more fully the nature of life in the light. And the first reality of the light is that God is the light. And this reality isn’t just something he came upon. It is the very word of Him who is the Word, who was preexistent with the Father in the beginning. From v. 5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” So in this battle, really, between reality and fantasy, light and darkness, God defines the light, the reality. If you want to know the full extent of reality, what it entails, and where its limits are, look no further than God. In this world of fantasies and trips of imagination and mirages that offer “guaranteed” glimpses into reality (which quickly vanish into thin air when we get too close), in this world in which we long day after day for something stable and permanent, we can find this place of stability in God. With God there is no fantasy. There are no mirages. Nothing looks better than it actually is. We never interact with Him and discover Him in any way other than He actually is. In a world that swirls around us with a thousand different “realities,” none of which present us with a picture of things as they actually are, that we can find stability with God is an incredibly encouraging fact. God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. This is the reality of the darkness: there isn’t any with God. Living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness.

After laying the foundation of reality, John offers a few pictures of some ways we can interact with it. The first way some of us interact with reality, with the light, is that we claim to live in it, but in fact we walk in the darkness. “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” The problem here is fairly obvious. We cannot simultaneously claim to have fellowship with God and be walking in the darkness. If there is no darkness at all in God, then if we have any of the darkness in us, we can’t really be with God. Now, does this mean that if we commit one sin as a follower of God then we are living a lie? No, it doesn’t. What John is talking about here is a life characterized by darkness versus a life characterized by light. If we claim to be followers of God, if we claim to have fellowship with Him, and we live lives that consistently don’t reflect this claim then the evidence points to the fact that we are living a lie. We are not living within the bounds of reality. The truth is not in us. This is the reality of the darkness. It cannot coexist with the light. And living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness. The other side of this comes in the next opportunity to interact with reality John offers. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” If we live lives that are characterized by the light—which is the nature of the life lived by Jesus Himself—then we can have fellowship with one another and Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all sin. Look at the power of the light here. Check out the glory of reality. If we live in the light, if we consistently seek to model the life of Christ as we interact with the world around us, we can have fellowship with each other. In other words, it’s not possible to have active, healthy fellowship with God through Jesus Christ unless we also have active, healthy fellowship with other believers. The two go hand-in-hand. If we are living within the bounds of reality then it is only natural that we are actively interacting with the other people who are also there. Put a bit more directly we can’t be healthy, practicing followers of Christ without the church. If we are not actively engaging with people who live in the reality of God’s light, perhaps the reason is that we’re not actually living in such a reality. Living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness.

In the last three verses of the chapter John drives this point home further. From vv. 8-10: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” So the first person here claims to have no sin. This is probably a person who is not a follower of Christ and is claiming he doesn’t need Jesus because he’s not a sinner. Now, for those of us who have been in the church long and are familiar with Paul’s declaration that all have sinned, we may not believe this could be a real person, but the fact is that there are folks out in the world who don’t know Christ and have no concept of their sinful nature. They are, in other words, “unlost.” John says about these folks that they are deceiving themselves. Another way to put this would be that they are living apart from reality. They are unaware of the contrast of light and dark. Verse 10 seems to describe a person in an awfully similar state, but this is someone who has at least gone through the motions of giving her life to Christ. Since that time, though, she claims to have not sinned. These folks claim that the power of the Spirit is successfully keeping them from all sin. The reality of our sinful natures, though, is that this isn’t the case. We all still sin as followers of Christ. The key, however, is what characterizes your life. Is it characterized by darkness or by the light? By fantasy or by reality? To live according to the former and yet claim the latter is to spit in the face of reality. Such a person is living under a deception and makes a liar not only of himself, but of God. If God says, “Everyone has sinned,” and we say, “I haven’t sinned,” both parties can’t be right. Someone isn’t telling the truth. If we confess our sins, however, He is faithful and just to forgive us and make us totally clean. Faithful because He said He would do it and just because the penalty of our sin has been paid by Christ. He can and will cleanse us so that we can live completely within the bounds of reality. We don’t have to settle for anymore lies. We don’t have to worry about what will happen when our fragile frameworks bump up against the way things really are. We don’t have to trudge around in filth any longer, merely pretending that we are clean. We can enjoy the spacious bounds of reality; the wide open lands of the kingdom of God. Living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness. And the reality of the darkness is that there is no actual reality found there. The darkness of this world offers only a blend of fantasies intended to keep us from discovering the true light of God’s kingdom.

What we must do, then, is to live every day, with the Spirit’s help, according to the ways of the light. “What are those ways?” you ask. Well, that’s what we are going to discover over the course of our journey through this marvelous little book. What we will come to find is that these ways define the reality that is the light. They set clearly established boundaries on reality. They make it very obvious whether or not we are living in the darkness or the light. For in the darkness there is neither life nor light. Living in God’s light means embracing the reality of the darkness. Let us live fully in the reality of God’s light.