(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 25, 2014)
1 John is a frustrating book if you are very precise and want to lock things down.
Throughout the book, you have these binary statements, these statements that put two things into a relationship where they are either the same or they are opposites. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” Light yes, darkness no.
If we claim we are one of God’s people yet walk in darkness, we’re lying. Yet if we claim to be without sin, without darkness, we’re deceiving ourselves. Yet if I claim to live in Jesus, I must live as Jesus did.
When you read the dualities on their own, it seems simple and clear. But when you try to compare the various comparisons, then it gets a little confusing. Sometimes, it even seems like in one place A = B, but in another place A cannot equal B.
Then there are other things that frustrate preciseness.
1:5: “This is the message…God is light. 2:1: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.” 3:11: “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” Wait, why is he writing? What’s the most important thing? Is it that the character of God is totally good? Or is it keeping myself from bad actions? Or choosing good actions, ie. loving others? Hmm…
Or take this example: how do we know if we are in right relationship with God?
2:5-6: “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” I guess our actions must prove it.
3:19-20: “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts…” Wait, I guess our actions don’t matter and our feelings don’t matter. God is greater than that.
4:13: “This is how we know that we live in him and he is in us: He has given us of his Spirit.” I think that’s like the last one, that it all is settled by God’s gift. But what if that means I should see evidence of the Spirit’s gifting in me to prove I live in Christ?
Why am I bringing these frustrations and sort of contradictions to the surface?
Well, I’m NOT doing it because I want to shoot holes in the bible and make us not trust it. I have found the bible to be trustworthy in my life, and I think knowing and obeying the bible is a central part of life with God.
I’m bringing all this up to challenge the original presumption I brought to the text at the beginning. Does anyone remember what it was I said initially? Did anyone catch the presumption I was bringing to the text that led to all these frustrating examples? [ASK]
My presumption was, “if you are very precise and want to lock things down.” If we bring our worldview to the bible…our way of thinking that is shaped by the Enlightenment and rationality and so many other invisible assumptions that came over a thousand years after the bible was written…if we do that, we will often find ourselves in a bit of a pickle.
Our modern world view is usually looking to boil things down to the principle that will make everything work. Whether we ever studied him or not, we are influenced greatly by Descartes, the 17th century philosopher who doubted everything, threw out everything in order to find the one undoubtable thing, the one thing that made his own existence make sense: “I think, therefore I am.” He could deny almost everything, but he could not deny that he was thinking…and therefore he must exist.
We inherit that same desire to “get to the bottom of things”. To lock it down. To explain it clearly and succinctly, preferably in a tweetable slogan or a nice clear graph or a definitive equation.
The beauty and the frustration is that 1 John doesn’t seem to have that same desire.
I won’t claim that all of you are the same as me. But I have found that some of my most anxious and difficult and frustrating times in my life with God are when I am trying to lock it up and pin my faith down. When I think there must be one foundational thing to figure out, and then I read something like 1 John where love and light and God and faithfulness and obedience are all seen as “the one thing”, I get overwhelmed.
I’m focusing today on verses 1 through 5 in chapter 5, as we finish our journey through 1 John. The beautiful phrase in that section that has leaped off the page and grabbed my heart and is soothing me through the anxiety and the frustration is this, from verse 3: “And his commands are not burdensome.”
I have often felt that God’s commands are burdensome. Sometimes it’s burdensome just figuring out what’s the main thing, like I’ve been saying. Sometimes it’s burdensome because I don’t want to sacrifice or love around a particular issue or person.
That’s where I embrace the multi-layered weaving of 1 John. Believing in Jesus goes hand in hand with being changed by God which goes hand in hand with loving others which goes hand in hand with living as God does which goes hand in hand with loving God. It’s all working together.
Listen again to these verses. Imagine instead of giving you a to-do list or a nailed-down definitive answer about the essentials of life with God…imagine that this is trying to remind you that as you walk and live and love with God, the burden is lessened and victory is in sight.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God:by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God:to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5:1-5, TNIV)
Let me give an extended word picture. Last summer, Elaine did a lot of research before our family went on the trip of a lifetime to Europe.
She was the voice who kept saying, “Pack light! Pack light! Let’s do carry ons only. If we pack light, the whole trip will be better.” And she was so right! I’m an over packer. My tendency is to try and cover every contingency, and I almost always have clean stuff to put away when I return home from any trip. But I did what she said, and it was a lot better!
So two Sundays ago, when I was leaving for Guatemala to join 1o other pastors to see the work of Compassion International, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. [put pack on] I felt like Mr. Experienced International Traveler. I had everything in my carryon backpack, and my little daypack as my personal item. No waiting in baggage claim! No help needed! Self contained and mobile!
I was feeling pretty proud of myself about something else. Guatemala, they told us several times, is number 8 on the world list of most dangerous countries. But I’ve walked through scary parts of Mumbai, India. We didn’t get pickpocketed in Europe. I wasn’t going to be afraid.
Then I got off the plane, entered the airport with my stuff. And there are 19 year olds with automatic rifles all over the place: sometimes military, sometimes police, sometimes private security. But guns, big guns, are everywhere. It all started to sink in-this is a place where there is lots of crime. The pride started to fade and the hyper awareness kicked in. Who bumped me? Where’s my passport? Don’t let them slit my day pack and have my iPad fall out and get stolen!
Even with my minimalist packing, a huge focus now was protecting the things which I did have.
Imagine if I had to go to the Compassion sites with all the children, and didn’t have anywhere safe to store my big pack.
How in the world could I have loved and played with those kids if I was burdened by the weight of this big pack and the worry of who might steal something out of it? The first two days, it was so good to have a hotel room where I could lock this thing in, knowing it was safe, and be able to just take the day pack with me and hug and laugh and play with the kids.
It got even easier the third day when I relaxed and left my day pack in the van, trusting the driver to take care of it. Even then, I found I was still aware of the passport around my neck, worrying about that…until I locked it in the safe in the hotel room too. Then I was truly free, truly unencumbered. I could love with abandon!
Here’s the application I want to make to 1 John today. I may be wrong; it may have flaws. But here’s where I stand today.
Sometimes I see life with God like rules and commands and beliefs that I have to stuff in my backpack, carry around with me everywhere, and guard with my life. It gets heavy. It causes me to view others with suspicion, wondering what they are trying to take from me. It makes me want to find safe places with people who think and believe like me so that I don’t have to be afraid that something is going to get lost or broken or taken.
I’m constantly packing and repacking, making sure I’ve got the right things in, throwing out the wrong things. My focus is my beliefs. I forget that the reason I was given those beliefs and commands was so that I would be equipped to go into the world and love as Jesus loved.
I forget that God isn’t judging me on the contents of my pack, nor on how strong I am to carry it, nor on how well I have it organized.
“This is how we know that we live in him and he is in us: He has given us of his Spirit.” (4:13) It’s in the past tense. God has done this, and 1 John isn’t the only place we are taught this. Paul says we are given the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. We’ve been purchased by God’s love, and it’s God’s job to bring the transaction to completion…not my packing job.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for another.” (3:16)
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (4:10)
The harder I study, the more I see it everywhere in the bible and the more I see it in the lives of people who know Jesus: love is given to us as a free gift by God, and it is given in order to be shared with the world.
Not dissected and pinned down and made into an equation. Not to be packed up and defended and held safe so it doesn’t get used up.
God’s love is given to be experienced and to share. How do we love God? By loving others. How do we know we are loving others? “By loving God and carrying out his commands.” (4:2). This isn’t confusing doublespeak designed to frustrate perfectionists like myself who want to get it all nailed down and accomplished correctly. It’s the beauty of the never ending love of God! You and I are loved! And love in its essence is shared, shared with others. It all works together toward love.
Am I saying just chuck the pack with all our beliefs and guidelines from God, throw them away as if they don’t matter, and just love? No.
It’s important to pack well. It’s important to have the beliefs and guidelines, but it is absolutely essential to remember why we have them. We have them so that we can live and love in this world. They are not the ultimate goal of our faith, but a means to the end of loving God and loving others. Jesus said it. 1 John says it. Getting wrapped up in beliefs and guidelines is the mistake Jesus consistently criticized the Pharisees for.
“His commands are not burdensome.”
We don’t need to throw away all the beliefs and guidelines. What we need is a safe place to put them so we can go into the world and love with abandon.
Christ himself is that safe place. Christ is the one who will defend all beliefs and righteousness, not us. Christ can and will carry it all…we do not have to carry and defend it all.
I know this is a provocative and scary thought in the world we live in. We want to get things right. We don’t want to get deceived and accept things that God disapproves of. But everyone born of God overcomes the world! These words are not designed to provoke fear in us, like “I guess I’m not born of God if I mess up and act like the world.” Exactly the opposite.
God has already broken all evil power through Jesus Christ. The world has been overcome by God’s redeeming love! Live in that love.
It’s not just one thing.
It’s not follow God’s commands OR love. It is follow God’s commands by loving…it is love God by following God’s commands. “His commands are not burdensome…” God is a safe keeper for all our anxiety about getting it right. God will defend God’s truth in the world. And God’s love and truth are freely given to us, equipping us to love.