Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Victory That Overcomes the World

Texts: Jeremiah 17:5-14; 1 John 5:1-6

THESE PAST FEW DAYS I'VE been digging in my garden, getting some things planted. You'd think it wouldn't be much of a project in the vegetable garden. I've been turning over the soil there the past five or six years; I live close to the river and the soil is very sandy; it should be nice and loose. But it takes hours of work every spring.

You see, I have a couple of big maple trees in my back yard, and their roots creep under the ground right into my garden beds. It takes a lot of labor with the hoe and the spade and the tree branch loppers to get them out of the way.

If my trees could talk, they'd likely say something like this: "Sure, you want us to stop our roots just at the border of your vegetable garden and flower beds and go somewhere else-- like under the neighbors' lawns. Not happening. Of course we're putting our roots where you plant things! That's where all the loose dirt and the fertilizer and the water is!"

Trees as trees are not dummies. They go where the water and nutrients are. It only makes sense.

So why, then, do we human beings not do the same? But our natural tendency is to seek out the very conditions that bring us death. Here's how the prophet Jeremiah puts it in the 17th chapter of his book:

This is what the LORD says:
"Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who depends on flesh for his strength
and whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He will be like a bush in the wastelands;
he will not see prosperity when it comes.
He will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.

Can any bush survive in conditions like that? But we're like that when we turn away from faith in the Lord. We trust instead in ourselves. We rely on what other people can do for us. We run after money or power or anything other than God. The Lord Almighty is a river that never runs dry, but we send out our roots into the wastelands of our own self-sufficiency and self-deification.

How different it is when we trust in the Lord! The Scripture says:

"But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit."

Even when external conditions aren't good, God causes those who trust Him to prosper and bear fruit. He nourishes us into becoming the kind of people He wants us to be, people who love Him and our brothers and sisters the way He created us to do.

So why do we turn away from Him?

We do it because as Jeremiah says, "The heart is deceitful above all things." We lie-- even to ourselves. We convince ourselves that we really are trusting God when we're really depending on ourselves. We claim to be doing what He commands, but we're doing what we want to do when we want to do it. It's the same with every person who has ever lived. We don't trust and obey God and if somebody points that out, we deny the problem in any number of ways.

Only the Lord can search our hearts and examine our minds, to reward us according to what our deeds deserve. A lot of people think that's good news. They say, "I'm not a particularly religious person, but God will look at my heart." But if your faith is in anything or anyone other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you don't want Him examining your heart; you want to run and hide. For the human heart is not only deceitful above all things, as it says in verse 9, it is also "beyond cure."

So what are we to do? The glorious throne of God is our sanctuary and refuge, but how do we get there? The Lord Almighty is our spring of living water, but how can we drink from it? We keep on turning away; we keep forsaking the Lord, and it seems our names are written in the dust, to blow away with the next wind.

Anyway, how can a dry bush reach out its roots to the living God? The world has us in its dusty grip and gives us only defeat and death.

Jeremiah and the Jews of his time couldn't answer that question. They knew it was up to God-- if we go down to verse 14, we read, "Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise." But how could God heal a deceitful heart that was beyond cure? How could He revive a dead shrub in the desert, that was ready for the fire?

The good news is that God does accomplish all this, through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ. He cures us, He revives us, and better still, as the Apostle John tells us in the fifth chapter of his first letter, He makes us to be children of God.

God didn't have to do this. But He took what was dead and out of His own will and in His good pleasure He begat us as His spiritual children, giving us faith to believe that Jesus of Nazareth really was and is the Christ sent from God. Our trust in Christ is evidence that we have been born of God already, not something we did to make it happen.

When we believe that "Jesus is the Christ" we're agreeing with God about His mission on earth. We say, "Yes, Lord," to all the prophecies of Old Testament history that told what this unique prophet, priest, king, and suffering servant would someday do. We're saying, "I believe that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled all that and is the one and only Messiah who was to come." He is the arm of the Lord who brings us salvation; He is the sinless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

We could never make this confession on our own. God first had to give us new birth from above.
But in His love God did reach down and makes this happen in our lives. Through His Son Jesus Christ He takes dry bushes out of the wasteland and remakes us as tall, healthy, fruitful trees planted by a river that freely flows. He gives us the right to love Him and call Him "our Father," not as His creatures, but really and truly, as His born-again daughters and sons. At the same time, He opens our hearts to love all our brothers and sisters who, like us, have been born anew as members of His worldwide family, the Church.

Faith in God is linked inseparably with love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. God says, "Love Me, love My children." But it can be is so hard to love other people, especially other people in the church! Does St. John mean we have to go around feeling gooshy emotions towards each other all the time?

But John says nothing about feelings. He says, "This is how we know we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands." You want to love others? Love God first and obey His law, and that will put you in the right heart for loving your neighbor.

It's popular for people to say, "Jesus only gave one command, for us to love one another." That isn't quite true, but suppose it were. Would that mean we could do we want in life, provided we were nice to other people whenever we felt like it? Absolutely not! In the first place, what we call love is nothing close to the self-sacrificial, purifying, unquenchable love that the Holy Spirit calls us to in this letter. In the second place, all the Law of God: the Ten Commandments, all the ordinances, even the ceremonial law-- it's all a picture and prescription of what love for God and man looks like in practical terms. True, some the parts of it were destined to expire with the coming of Christ, things like animal sacrifices and the kosher laws. But even they told supremely of God's loving desire to preserve a people for Himself and through them to bring salvation to the world. The commands of God revealed in the Law teach us what it means to love Him and His children.

And, John says, His commands are not burdensome.

What a minute. Does he think it's easy to love other people? we ask. He must not have known characters like the ones we have to deal with!

That's our old sinful nature is still in us, getting in the way of who we are in Christ. The a problem is not with the commands, the problem is with that still-sinful part of ourselves.
No, when we are living by the river of water that is trust in our Lord Jesus Christ, God's commands become for us more and more a privilege and a joy.

This is true for you only if you've already been born of God and you already believe faithfully on our Lord Jesus Christ. If that's foreign to you, don't waste your time trying to obey God's commands. Rather, throw yourself immediately on the mercy of the God who made you and pray He will remake you as a child of His own.

As in the days of Jeremiah, the world is always at us. We're constantly bombarded with forces that stand opposed to Jesus Christ and to us as His younger brothers and sisters. But, John says, anyone who is born of God overcomes the world.

How do we do that? By our faith in the saving work of our Lord Jesus, who is the Christ. This is the victory that overcomes the world. This is the rolling stream we keep our roots in and so we live and thrive. Do you want to have confidence in this life and solid hope for the life of the world to come? Believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Trust that He was more than just another great teacher-- rely on Him as God from all eternity, come to earth in human flesh to die for you on a cross and to rise from the grave to give you new life with God.

John writes, "This is the one who came by water and blood-- Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood." Theologians don't agree on exactly what this means. But John Calvin has a suggestion, which commends itself to my spirit, and I hope it does to yours. Jesus Christ came to us with the testimony of water and blood, and those elements speak to us of the Old Testament system of washings and animal sacrifices. Before Him those rites and rituals looked forward to what Jesus would do once for all to cleanse us from the filth of sin and to make blood atonement for it. When Jesus died on the Cross He fulfilled everything those old Covenant rites pointed towards. And in evidence, when He had died, His Father and ours allowed a Roman soldier to pierce His side so that blood and water poured out of it.

There's nothing miraculous in that of itself. That's what happens when the blood separates due to the kind of death Jesus died. But by the grace of God it serves as a sign to us who believe that Jesus is the one who washes and makes clean, and whose blood provides expiation for all our sins. John certainly took it that way; in his gospel at chapter 19, verses 34 and 35 he says, "One of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it [that is, John himself] has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe."

But we also have the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing to our souls that Jesus Christ really is the Son of God, that He really did come in the flesh and that through faith in Him we really can overcome the world. The Spirit confirms in our souls that we truly have been born of God and that we can joyfully love Him and the brethren despite all the onslaughts of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

As Jeremiah said, a glorious throne, exalted from the beginning, is the place of our sanctuary. We have entered into that sanctuary by the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for us. His blood is a river deep and pure, flowing forever so you can put down your roots and thrive. Faith in Him is your victory; love for God and your brothers and sisters is your battle plan and the name of Jesus is your shout of triumphant praise.

Give God thanks that He has brought you out of the dry and waterless places of life without Him and planted you by His streams of living water. Rejoice that He is your Father and you are His child. Serve Him in reverence and love, in the name of Jesus Christ who died and rose again for you. Alleluia, amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fear, Love, and the Salvation of God

Texts: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21

THERE'S A LOT TO BE fearful about these days. The economy's going down the sewer. There's a strange new kind of flu going around. The Middle East is blowing up worse than ever. And the politicians in Washington seem to spend all their time thinking up new ways to take away our rights and liberties, not to mention our money.

The world is filled with Fear, and to paraphrase a certain poem, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, maybe you haven't grasped the situation!"

With all this, the Apostle John comes along with His First Letter and says, "Perfect love drives out fear." He commands us to love one another, and that will prove whether we have perfect love, as in, "The one who does not love does not know God."

That's putting a big burden on Love! Maybe you remember the hippie days of the late 1960s, early '70s. A lot of us were running around babbling about Love, Peace, and Flower Power. It was all "Make love, not war." The idea was that if we would all just bliss out and love everybody, all the nasty, scary things in the world could be magically overcome or ignored into oblivion. I was just young enough during that time to be skeptical about how that was going to work. And in the end, it didn't. My Baby Boomer generation turned out to be just as greedy, hateful, and rapacious as any other, we were just more sneaky and sanctimonious about it.

Is this the kind of love the Apostle John is talking? The warm-fuzzy, head-in-the-sand, self-seeking human love that fades out when the situation gets scary or just inconvenient?

No, John is speaking of the tough-as-nails, purifying, self-giving, fear-defying, eternal agape love of Almighty God. He begins our passage with this command: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God." This love of God is what we're to do our loving with, not some feeling we've imagined or felt or come up with on our own.

In the Greek this passage actually begins with "agapetoi ," which means "Beloved," or, "You who are loved with the love of God." So verse 7 could well read, "You who are right now already loved with the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God, love one another with the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God, for purifying, selfless, fear-defying love comes only from God." In other words, you've already got what you need right now to obey this command and stand up to fear, because you've received it from God Himself.

In the same vein, verse 8 would read, "Whoever does not love with this purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God does not know God." Obviously not, because God Himself is this sort of love, and only those who know Him can love this way.

Moreover, the love of God will certainly show itself in anyone who has it. Not all at once, but if someone claims to know God and never, ever shows any sign of Christian love, you have every right to doubt his or her salvation.

But this agape love of God: how do we know it can face down all our fears and make it possible for us to love one another?

We know it, as John writes in verse 9, because God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that through Jesus Christ we might have-- not just bios-- physical life-- but zoe-- the eternal life of God. Think of what Jesus Christ did for you and me on the cross! He faced down all the terrors of sin, death, and hell. He defeated every last thing that we should ever be afraid of.

Verse 10 gives us a true picture of God's purifying, selfless, fear-defying love: It's not that we came up with this kind of love towards God and He rewarded us by loving us back. That's putting it the wrong way around. No, God initiated this love. He embodied it in His Son and His sacrifice for us. When Jesus shed His blood, beyond all else He dealt with the most fearsome thing you or I would ever have to face. Not disease, not death, not even all the devils of hell: Jesus turned aside or propitiated the wrath of God. He, the innocent Lamb of God, died in the place of us guilty sinners. And why? Because God so loved the world, as John writes in his Gospel. Because, as Paul writes in Romans, God was demonstrating His love for us, even while we were still rebellious sinners.

So, John continues in verse 11, "Beloved, since this is how God loved us, we also ought to love one another."

Let that sink in for a moment . . . God loved us when we were wretched, wrong, and undeserving. In response, we are to love one another with purifying, selfless, fear-defying love . . . even when the other person is wretched, wrong, and undeserving.

Oh. So we're supposed to let others walk all over us? After all, Jesus put up with cruel insults and dehumanizing treatment! Is that the love God demands that we show others?

But look at Jesus. No one victimized Him, not even when they nailed Him to the cross. The Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus humbled Himself and laid down His life willingly. When He submitted to humanity's scorn and cruelty, He did it on purpose so humanity might be redeemed from sins like scorn and cruelty. The love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ always triumphs over the evils thrown against it, and raises us up to new life. The love of God can never condone sin, or promote it, or give up against it. The love of God wants nothing but the best for the object of His love, and that best is Jesus Christ and everything He gives.

Make no mistake: The purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God working in us will call us to endure pain and insult from the unredeemed world. If you are persecuted for Jesus' sake, you follow in His steps. You exhibit Jesus Christ and His salvation to the world, that more and more people might be saved.

John says in verse 12, "No one has beheld God at any time"-- not with the physical eyes, that is. But as we love others as God loves us, with the same purifying, selfless, fear-defying love, the world will see in us an image of God working in love. As we grow more and more like His Son, that image is being perfected in us. How can you know if you're really saved? You know it by the presence of the Holy Spirit in you, bringing you along, conforming you to the image of Jesus Christ, assuring you of God's gracious love for you, encouraging you to show His love, helping you to repent when you fall short, and never, ever giving up on you.

Again, what's the primary way we show the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God? As verse 14 says, it's by bearing witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.

Notice what John says. For many years, "Christian witnessing" has meant "telling people how Jesus has improved my life/made me a better mother/made me a nicer person," etc. What I'm about to say may go against everything you've ever heard on the subject, but hear me: That is not Christian witnessing. Yes, Jesus may well have done all that for you. But our true witness to Christ is telling the old, old story of how God's only Son came in love to take on our flesh and hung on a cross to take away our sins and rose from the dead to bring us new life. We testify with John in verse 15, that if anyone confesses that this risen Jesus is the Son of God, God will make His home in that person and that person will forever be at home in God. That wouldn't be possible without the cross. And the cross was possible only through the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God that we have come to believe.

This is the loving witness we see in Acts, in the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip the deacon could have had every reason to be afraid in this situation. An angel speaks to you, that's frightening enough. But then the Spirit directed Philip to speak to a total stranger who by his clothes and jewelry and the style of his carriage was obviously a high government official. Philip's fellow-deacon, Stephen, had been martyred not long before. How could he know this official wouldn't turn him over to the Jewish authorities? And then, the man was a foreigner. And he was a eunuch-- pretty much all courtiers were in those days-- and the Law of Moses forbade any man with damaged genitals to be admitted to full fellowship with the people of God. What if Philip were doing something, well, unkosher in offering the Gospel to him?

The striking thing is, fear is the last emotion you'd attribute to Philip. There's simply no question of it. He's so full of the love of Jesus Christ that he comes right up to that man in his chariot and strikes up a conversation. He preaches Jesus Christ to him out of the Scriptures, just as we are commanded to do, and the Holy Spirit confirms the love of God towards that Ethiopian and moves him to believe and be baptised and go on his way with joy.

That is what our attitude will be when we love with the love of God. John says it again in verse 16: God is love. The world says, "Love is god," by which they mean unbridled sex and selfishness and emotional highs that don't last. That kind of love is cheap and shabby compared to the everlasting love that God is. God gives us His glorious, strong, fear-defying love to live in. It's like a castle He builds for us. It's fortified against all assault, and that castle of love is God Himself. He keeps us and defends us and perfects us in His love. He shields us from everything that could make us afraid.

Especially, His love for us in Jesus Christ shields us from the fear we would otherwise have on the Day of Judgement. We don't think much about the wrath of God against our sins. We don't spend time fearing it. But in the end-- literally-- it's the only thing we should really, truly be afraid of. Financial hardship, illness, starvation, grief, frightening as they are, they all come and go. Even if they end in death, people will say, "Well, now he (or she) is at peace." But the righteous wrath of God says No, for after this comes the judgement. His verdict will be final and those who have rejected Christ and His love will bear the horror and fear of their decision into eternity.

But if truly we have received the love of God shown us in Jesus Christ, we have no need to fear the Day of Judgement. We can be confident in that dreadful day, because already in this world God is working out His love in us, making us into models of Himself. There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.

Yes, but how do we get this perfect love? I used to think it was up to me, and knew I would never succeed. But the Holy Spirit helped me understand what John is saying here. You and I cannot gin up this perfect love. Rather, this perfect love is the purifying, selfless, fear-defying agape love of Almighty God. It's the love He puts in us by faith in the death and resurrection of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

In verse 18 it says that "fear has to do with punishment." Wait a minute: Aren't we afraid for a lot of other reasons as well? But when you think about it, the root of fear really is dread of punishment or retribution. Have you ever noticed how physical pain or sadness or uncertainty is worse when it's tied up with the feeling that you're alienated from other people and from God? Suffering is more fearful and harder to bear when you feel it might somehow be your fault.

I'm thinking of a situation in my own life. I won't go into detail, but members of my family and I find ourselves deeply concerned about a certain relative of ours. I've been very afraid and worried for her. And I find myself saying to myself, "Of course I'm afraid and worried for her! I love her, don't I?" But I have to admit that what I'm encouraging in myself really isn't love. Love is warm and expansive and open, even when it's full of sadness and pity. What I'm feeling over my relative is tight and cramped and closed. It has to do with me trying to atone for my own guilt in not doing more to prevent the situation. It's about me not quite trusting God to take care of her when I can't, so I make myself sick over the situation and imagine that means I'm in control.

I admit it: I am not yet perfected in love. And, I'm willing to guess, neither are you. We still fear. We still wallow in our guilt instead of giving it up and accepting the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross. We still try to make our faulty human love do when we could love with the saving love of God. Nevertheless, bit by bit, more and more, we love, because He first loved us.

And in case we should think this is all just a bunch of nice-sounding religious philosophy, John brings us down to everyday specifics in verses 20 and 21. Church member, do you consider yourself to be a lover of God? All right, how do you treat your brothers and sisters in Christ? How do you treat your pastor? Do you encourage them, build them up, support them, work in harmony with them, and always seek their highest good? Or are you always looking out for that juicy bit of gossip to spread? Does it give you a charge whenever you can undermine your opponent, so he or she won't look good? Do you keep a list of grievances and refuse to forgive, especially people in the church?

The Holy Spirit has a word for people who behave like that, and it is "Liar." For how can anyone love the unseen God as his Father if he hates someone who is his brother in Jesus Christ, whom he sees face to face?

No, the end and object of God's love for us is very practical. We must obey the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and love one another, as He has loved us.

And let us rejoice in that! God has loved us and does love us, with a love that is pure, selfless, and fear-defying. He proves it to us by the salvation He gives us in His Son Jesus Christ. Down with fear and let us stand firm in His love. This world throws many fearsome things at us, but what's the worst it can do? We and those we love could die, true. But for us who are God's beloved, to die is gain, for it means forever being with our loving Lord. In this encouragement, beloved, let us love one another with a purifying, selfless, fear-defying love, for purifying, selfless, fear-defying love is from God.

Alleluia, amen!