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.

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