Sunday, February 26, 2012

Life Signs - #7 A Cross-Shaped Life

The greatest movies are usually about love.  No, I'm not talking about passionate desire and romance - though that stuff definitely has its place. I'm talking about the power of redemptive, self-giving love. Take this year's academy award nominees for example.  In The Descendents, George Clooney plays a father who must stop being the “back up parent” and start being a real father to his two daughters in the wake of a family tragedy. In The Artist, a washed up silent movie star is saved from ruin by the very woman who he helped to make famous. In The Help, a white woman sacrifices her her standing in the community as well as her boyfriend in order to write about the racist treatment of black maids in early 1960's Mississippi. Of course the sacrifice that these housekeepers make in order to speak the truth is even greater. Redemptive love and self-sacrifice is not just a popular movie theme…it’s the most powerful theme in human history.  We’ve been looking at John’s signs of genuine Christian faith in his first letter; and the seventh of these life signs from 1 John 3: 11-24 is a cross-shaped life…because our love for others should reflect the humility and sacrificial love of Christ.

What is the attitude of a cross-shaped life?  11This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.   12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous.”  

In order to help us see the love of Christ more clearly, John begins by showing us its opposite.  We can’t fully appreciate love, or how much we need love, or how we exist only because of love, until we see how destructive its absence can be. To illustrate the power of hate, John takes us back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4: 1-8.  Here we read about a time when Adam’s two sons, Cain and Abel brought to the LORD an offering.  We read that “the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (5).  Why is this? 

Though we are not told directly, there is one difference between the two offerings.  Cain, who works the soil, brings an offering of the fruit of the ground, but Abel who is a shepherd brings “the firstlings of his flock.”  In other words, it appears that Abel brought the first and most precious gift he had…the firstborn of his flock.  It does not appear that Cain brought the first fruits of his harvest. We know from Deut. 18:4 that God desires the first fruits from his people…the best that they have to give as an offering to him.  Out of jealousy and hatred, then, Cain decides to kill his brother.  Before he does so, however, God asks.  “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you [i.e., your gift] not be accepted  And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). 

This is a key verse because God is reminding us that anger…which leads ultimately to death, is something which can be and must be mastered. We can read the story of Cain  & Abel and easily excuse ourselves by saying, “Well, I have never murdered, so this doesn’t apply to me.”  But God shows Cain that the root of murder is anger; which can and must be mastered.  Jesus says exactly the same thing in Matthew 5: 21-24. Murder begins in the heart, with an attitude of contempt or disrespect.  But…the hopeful side is that (as God told Cain) hatred and anger can be mastered.  Jesus says we can begin to master our anger by practicing reconciliation, repentance, and forgiveness. 

One more insight into this passage which I believe is important.  When John speaks of boiling anger and hatred, he speaks of something of which he had firsthand experience.  John and his brother had anger management issues!  When John saw someone healing in Jesus’ name he tried to stop him because he was not part of Jesus’ band of disciples; and when a Samaritan town refused to welcome Jesus,  they asked Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Mark 9: 38-39; Luke 9:54).  On both occasions Jesus rebuked them for their quick tempers.  It’s no surprise that Jesus nicknamed them, “sons of thunder.” 

John learned from experience that growth is possible; that our personalities are not fixed forever, but can be changed for the better by the grace of God. Some of us have a “fixed” mindset.  We assume that what has been is what will be; that we can’t really change; that others can’t fundamentally change. Someone with a fixed mindset tends not to try new things because of the fear of failure. But someone with a “growth” mindset embraces the possibility of change in themselves and in others, takes risks, and expects to fail, because failure is a part of growth (see Chip & Dan Heath; Switch: How to Change things When Change is Hard).  Changing from an angry person to a forgiving person doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes small steps, it takes practice.  There will be failures, but God has already told us that we can master those parts of ourselves that need to change by his grace, that we can become the children of God that he has told us we are.

The actions of a cross-shaped life.  The attitude which John wants to talk about is not hatred but love, but that “word” then as now needs redefining.   In the Greek speaking world, John knew that the most popular word for love was erosthat is, the erotic love of sensual intoxication, of physical attraction and romance. The least popular word for love in the Greek world was agape, the love which gives (for further reading, see  agapaw, "The Words for Love in Pre-Biblical Greek," G. Kittel, TDNT, Vol. I, p. 35).  It was the word that most closely reflected the Hebrew idea of hesed, of steadfast, committed love; and so when Jesus’ disciples wanted to express this idea of committed, self-giving love in Greek…they used agape.  The love expressed in action; the love that gives, the love that is most like God.  

This is how we know what love (agape) is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (16)!  The greatest act of self-giving love imaginable is the love that Christ showed us when he laid down his life for us on the cross.  This is the definition of true love; which is why John continues, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another (16b).”  If hatred reveals itself in the taking of someone else’s life; true love reveals itself in the act of giving of one’s own life for someone else.  Love does not destroy another’s life, love lays down its life so that another may live.  Love is not just a feeling or a sentiment or nice sounding words…love is an event, love is an action.

I heard about a Christian bible school built by Franklin Graham's charity Samaritan's Purse that was actually bombed in Northern Sudan last Friday. It was the first day of school, and the campus was full of students, teachers, and families.  In an interview with Fox News, Graham explained that eight bombs were dropped on the Heiban Bible College near the border with South Sudan. Two school buildings were destroyed in the attack.  It is a miracle that no one was injured. They heard the planes coming and ran from the buildings.  The Sudanese gov’t has bombed hospitals and even human food drops…Christians and Muslims are being attacked.  I thought about the courage of those relief workers and bible school teachers, I thought about their courage and their incredible love for these children.   Pray that the leaders of the Sudan would sit down in a Camp David like meeting and work out a peace agreement.

Now when we read about such examples of selfless love, it’s hard for us in the West to relate to. It’s true, we may never be called upon to risk our lives for another ….But John does not define Christ-like love only as the risking of one’s life for another: it is also the willingness to give of our time and talents, our energy and our possessions for the sake of those in need:  17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Dr. Scott Kurtzman, chief of surgery at Waterbury Hospital was on his way to deliver an 8am lecture when he witnessed one of the worst crashes in Connecticut history, involving 20 vehicles and killing four people. Thanks to years of emergency room experience he stopped and gave assistance.  He worked his way through the mangled mess of people and metal and called out, “Who needs help?”  90 minutes later, after all 16 victims had been triaged and taken to area hospitals, Dr. Kurtzman climbed into his car and drove on to the medical school where he gave his lecture – two hours late.  This was not the first time this has happened to Dr. Kurtzman.  “A person with my skills simply can’t drive by someone who’s injured.  I refuse to live my life that way.”  Dr. Kurtzman has received the Maimonides Award for his many selfless life-saving efforts.  What skills has God given you that could be used to show the love of God to someone in a practical way?  What if we had that attitude of that doctor, and refused to be a "drive-by" man or woman of God?

We've talked about the attitude and the actions that characterize a cross-shaped life, but the blessings of a cross-shaped life are simply this: 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love one another. Anyone who does not love remains in death….19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us.  For God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.”

Notice that John does not say that we pass from death to life as a reward for our selfless love but rather that our selfless love is the evidence that we have passed from death to life; that we are truly God’s children, and disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When we are loving other people out of a sense of gratitude for what we have received from Him, not simply because we want to be good citizens or outstanding people in the community but because God has been so good to us… we know that we are God’s beloved children.  

Not long before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church: “If any of you are around when I have to meet my day…And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize; that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards; that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.”  

Try to love you give someone encouragement this week; as you cook somebody dinner this week; as you help a child with her homework this you open your pocket book this week to help somebody in need; as you put aside hatred or prejudice this week; as you put somebody else's interests before your own this week; as you show somebody the love of Christ in a practical way!  Bottom line, it's easy to love when we're being loved and applauded; like those couples on the red carpet, light bulbs flashing, the crowds cheering and romance is in the air.  Even so, God calls them and us to the love that gives even when the carpet is not red, and the cameras are not flashing; to the sacrificial love that gives when it is not popular or easy.  God calls us to imitate that cross-shaped love, the love that we received through Christ; the love that has brought healing to this world, and is healing it still.  So let's get out there this week and, in the name of the Savior, try to love somebody like he loved us.

King Jesus, we have heard again today the message which we have heard from the beginning: “Love one another!”  Forgive us when we have behaved contrary to that message, allowing death-dealing anger and stubborn unforgiveness to rule over us and bring harm to our relationships.  Thank you for showing us the true meaning of love when you sacrificed your life for us on the cross. We turn now from everything we know is wrong as we pray for the power to love others with that same cross-shaped love.  When we see a brother or sister in need, may we not turn a cold shoulder, but practice love by taking decisive action.  As we walk in love and not just talk about love, may we be assured that we belong to you and that we have crossed over with you from death to life.  Amen!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Life Signs - #6 A Life of Boundless Hope

A "Defiant Garden" in Afghanistan (
Do you remember playing with a "View-Master" as a kid?  I loved mine. It's a device used for viewing 3D images that transported me to Carlsbad Caverns or Disneyland or to undersea worlds whenever I wanted to go for a visit. One day, Kenneth Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon decided to purchase an old stereopticon at a flea market, the original "View-Master."  What he saw was a picture that surprised him: a scene of shelters in French military trenches surrounded by gardens. After a great deal of research, Helphand found out that gardens have often been created in times of war. Gardens flanked the Western front during World War I, Jewish ghettos during World War II, German POW camps, Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S., and war-torn areas of Sarajevo. Today, gardens have sprouted up in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The gardens symbolize a refusal to give in to the darkness of present circumstances.  In fact, Helphand calls them “Defiant Gardens”  (see also Kenneth Helphand, Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime).  These gardens are a clear expression of invincible hope. As we have seen, John’s letter was written to help us recognize some clear signs of true Christian faith; and the sixth of these “life signs,” explored in 1 John 3: 1-3 is a life of boundless hope.  
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure (1 John 1: 1-3).
What does John say to his reader about the power of hope in this passage?  The first thing I believe is this: Our hope as Christians is not defined by genetics or genealogy, but by the love of our heavenly Father. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.  And that is what we are!”  One of the biggest hope crushers is the idea that heredity is destiny; that because certain traits are passed on from one generation to the next, our nature must also be fixed and our future predetermined.  This is simply not the case biologically, and it is certainly not the case biblically.   

The Bible affirms that our lives are not defined by inherited family traits or by the type of family we were born into or raised in.  In fact, God delights in taking those who might consider themselves disadvantaged in some way because of genetics or geneology…and using them for his glory. And, frirends, that’s all of us!               A brief look at the geneology of Jesus reminds us that Jesus not only came for sinners…but, as Dale Bruner points out, he came through sinners.  Matthew reminds us in the first chapter of his gospel that Jesus was a son of Abraham, the father of Isaac, the father of Jacob, the father of Judah and his brothers…

Now if anyone deserved the prize for “most dysfunctional family” it was Jacob’s family.  Jacob had 12 sons and one daughter with two wives, and two female servants, all living for many years under one roof.  It would have been the perfect reality TV show.  As the story goes, Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son (see Genesis 37), which is why his jealous brothers planned to get rid of him (and that amazing technicolored dream coat which his father gave him).  So they decided to throw him in a well, amd then sat down and had lunch. After they finished eating, Jacob’s fourth son, Judah had a bright idea.  “Let’s not kill the kid.  After all, he is a member of our family.  Let’s sell the brat into slavery, and make some money in the process.”  That’s a loose paraphrase. So they sell him to a band of Ishmaelite traders. In the end, they dip Joseph’s robe in the blood of a freshly killed goat, and tell Jacob that his favorite son was killed by an animal.  But the best part of the story is how God uses Joseph, despite his own youthful arrogance and his brother’s cruel plans, to plant gardens in the desert (literally); to grow and store precious food reserves and save many lives during a regional famine…including his own dysfunctional family.   

The story of Joseph teaches that heredity cannot trump the sovereign plan of our heavenly Father.  The New Testament makes the same point again and again. “Consider your own call my brothers and sisters,” writes Paul to the Corinthians, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…” (1 Cor. 1: 26-29).  John says it is because of God’s love alone, that we have been called “children of God, and that is what we are!”  We can have hope because despite the dysfunction and sin in our own family history, God has adopted us as his children!  (Rom.8: 14-17).    

If our hope as Christians is not limited by our personal history, it is not limited by our mental capacity either,  by what we can know or figure out.  Instead, it is defined by what Christ will make known when he appears.  “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (2)

John begins by reminding us that there are many who do not know the most important fact in the universe.  “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” he says.  There is something more important than math; more important than history; more important than science  – not because these are unimportant, but because it is God who makes all these things possible.  As his children, we know the most important Fact in and beyond the universe… the living God who actually took on human flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.   

John does claim to know the most important Fact...but notice that he doesn't claim to know it all. On the contrary, there are many things about our future, to say nothing of our present, life with Christ that we do not fully understand. Therefore John says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, [but] what we will be has not yet been made known” (2).  I find John’s humility refreshing…especially when considering how generally confident he is.  I’m thinking of Moses in Deut. 3:24 who says, “O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your might….” And there is Paul who says, “Now we know in part, then we shall know fully even as we are fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12).

The limited knowledge John does claim, however, is this: “But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” There are three things John says that we know by faith: First, we know that he will appear.  Christ is coming again to take us to himself!  Second, we know that we will see him.  The life beyond this life is one in which we shall see beauty…and the most beautiful thing of all will be the face of Christ.  Finally, we know that in seeing him we shall be like him.  In other words, the person we are becoming right now by his grace…is a person very much like Christ, and what hope that brings us in the face of the darkest moments of this life.

This past week, I spoke briefly at a service for a dear friend from a church I served when my wife and I were first married.  This woman and her husband along with several others from that church, came alongside us in our first year of marriage.  When we heard that she was very sick, Lisa and I visited her in the hospital.   We wished that we could have spoken with her, but she was not able to respond at the time, and so we wrote a long letter to her and left it after we prayed together with her husband.  Judy was a woman of deep faith…she was someone that used to go with me to visit others in the hospital.  It was very hard to understand or accept her death, and at her memorial service tears were streaming down my face.  Yet I want to testify that I came away from that memorial service with what I can only describe as a deep and abiding hope…a hope and joy that I can only explain as a gift from God.  Paul was right... we grieve like anyone else, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). 

It’s been said that there are three kinds of facts.  There are those things I know that I know.  There are those things I know that I don’t know.  And finally, there are those things that I don’t even know that I don’t know.  That’s the biggest category of all! Friends, when you have come to the end of your knowledge and understanding… that is the time to trust in the One who knows the beginning from the end, who rose from the dead, and who will let no one snatch us out of his hand. 

Even so, John wants us to know that Christian hope is not only hope in the glory of eternal life, our hope as Christians is the future certainty that’s shaping our daily decisions and actions.  For "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 John 3:3ff.) One criticism of Christian faith is that it is simply “wishful thinking, pie in the sky by and by” and has little to do with this world. Lewis argued exactly the opposite:  "If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next" (Mere Christianity). Human beings are designed to thrive on hope.  Negative emotions like fear have their place…like when we’re walking through a dark alley and our body tenses and prepares for self-defense.  Chip and Dan Heath in their book on "Change" point out what we all know intuitively to be true: that it is the positive emotions that "broaden and build", opening us up to new possibilities; that joy prepares us to play; that the feeling of interest moves us to investigate; that feelings of accomplishment make us want to try something new; that to solve bigger and more ambiguous problems we need "open minds, creativity, and hope" (Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard).

I had a conversation with a man the other day who personally knows a Chinese dissident in his country under house arrest.  As we were talking, I realized that this was the same man on whose behalf I wrote a letter for Amnesty International.  Incredible!  I asked him if he considered himself a Christian.  “Not yet,” he said!  But he did have hope that things will change in his country and for his people; and though he was not yet a believer, he spoke first hand of the underground church that is flourishing beyond government control; and let me tell you that his hope filled me with hope as well. Hope empowers us to write letters on behalf of those wrongly accused; to speak in the face of threats, to love in the face of hate, to share the gospel of Christ despite fears of rejection.  When our hearts are truly filled with the boundless hope of Christ and his resurrection life…we are moved to action, to live and serve and love one another in light of that future.  When we know that one day we shall be like him, we are moved to live lives of purity and power that are more and more like his, each day.  When we know in our hearts that we are children of God, we begin to live like we belong at the Father's table.

Let me ask you today to think about the most difficult things you are going through right now…the biggest challenges, the greatest fears.  How would hope in Christ change the way you look at that reality and respond to it?
  • Consider a family relationship that has soured or is in danger of disintegration.  How would hope in Christ help you to look at that situation with the eyes of Jesus, to respond to that person with the words of Jesus; to pray for that person with the heart of Jesus?  Hatred and resentment and unforgiveness crush the possibility of reconciliation; but the gift of hope enables us to persevere, to seek reconciliation, to write a note or make a phone call, to believe that all things are possible.
  • Perhaps you are facing financial hardships, mounting debt that seems overwhelming.  Fear paralyzes us into inaction or just unending analysis.  Hope brings calm and a new resolve to act.  The hope we have in Christ can help us to act with intention… to begin tackling one bill at a time, perhaps the smallest one first as Dave Ramsey suggests, and with each payment to feel a sense of increasing confidence as we trust in the one who is our Provider and calls us to be wise stewards of his gifts.
  • There are not many things more unsettling than health problems.  The power of hope is well known when it comes to healing.  There is a reason why they call it “The City of Hope” and not “The City of Wishful Thinking.”  Our hope is more than just “wishful thinking,” it is faith in the one who is our Great Physician…the one who has the last word on our diagnosis, who has our life in his hands from beginning to end, and who has already given us the promise of eternal life.  In him we can also find new resolve to eat right, exercise and continue to manage our condition even after experiencing set backs.
  • This year I am filled with hope as we enter a season of vision casting in our church.  We are asking three big questions:  (1) What are the unique needs and opportunities where God has placed us as a church?  (2) What are the unique resources and gifts that God has given us as a church?  (3) What focus most energizes our staff and leadership?  These are hopeful questions!  They say to me, “Let’s step back and see what God wants to do through us in this new season!”  

What does God want to do through you in this new season?  What boundless "garden of hope" does he want you to plant this year despite the apparent challenges of your family background, your finances, your education or your accomplishments?  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13)!

Gracious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we seek more than wishful thinking and pipe dreams.  We ask for the gift of biblical hope…a hope that is not limited by our family history, the size of our bank account, our intellectual ability, the list of our accomplishments, or any other cause for human boasting, but upon your infinite wisdom and unshakeable love for us in Christ.  May this hope be a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:19), nourished daily by your Word, purifying our speech, guiding the decisions we make and the actions we take; and showing others that indeed “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).  For the hope which awakens in us both holiness and thankfulness is this: “When Christ appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  Amen!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Life Signs - #5 A Life of Confidence (to the End)

I read a “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” that explains how to survive various life or death situations.  How to escape from quicksand. How to survive a gunshot wound. How to escape a submerged car.  How to survive a shark or bear get the idea.  A few weeks ago I was on a study leave at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena with several pastors who I've known for years. We were crossing the street after returning from a late dinner.  Suddenly a car came into view, making a left turn and heading right for me.  The car screeched to a halt not more than five feet in front of me.  The first word out of my mouth was "Holy" but unfortunately the next word was not! As I think back, I had no time to review my "Survival Handbook" but I'm quite sure there was no chapter on "How to Survive Death" which is what I was anticipating at the moment. There are, however, several chapters on that subject in the Good Book. In 1 John 2: 18-28John reveals why we can have confidence to the end of our lives; that Day when Christ returns or calls us home.  It's another "life sign" of genuine Christian faith...

To begin with, we can be confident because we know God is in control from first to last.  John begins by telling us what time it is! “Children, it is the last hour! (18) The New Testament refers to Jesus' first coming as the beginning of “the last days” or the “last hour” of this age, and that when Christ returns this age will end.  We live between the times: “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” says John (2: 8).  Think of it this way: if all of world history could be compressed into a single day, we are in the last hour of that day.  This does not mean there will be no more days to come (there will be)…only that this day is coming to an end. 

Now Jesus told his disciples that in this last hour they should expect opposition: “I’m sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16).  John describes this as the coming of the “antichristos" - a word which appears only here and in Johns other letters.  Who or what is the antichrist?  Not surprisingly, the antichrist is “anti” or “against” Christ, his people, and all Christ stands for!  Jesus spoke about the coming of "false messiahs" (Matthew 24) and Paul of "the man of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:1ff.) before Jesus' return, but more about this "spirit of the antichrist" in a moment…because Jesus also said we should expect tribulation.  In Matt. 24: 6, Jesus says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…famines and earthquakes,” nevertheless “do not be alarmed…..” In other words, when the crisis comes, Jesus says that we who follow him should be the calmest people on the block! 

In the past ten years there have been several “doomsday” predictions beginning with Y2K – Jan. 1, 2000, followed by June 6, 2006 (666); May 21, 2011 (Harold Camping's latest prediction of Christ's return date), and now Dec. 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends and, in the minds of some, the earth runs out of time.  I saw one billboard that read: “2012: It’s Your Last Year On Earth: Eat More Ice Cream.” Now I like the calmness of that message, even if it is a little shallow.  David has the right idea when he says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation….Though a host encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.” (Psalm 27: 3) – so "don't be alarmed" ...and pass the ice cream.
Secondly, we can be confident because we know where we belong: in the community of Jesus’ people.  John says that one of the distinguishing marks of the antichrists is that “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us” (19; cf. Matt. 24: 11-13).  I’m thinking of Judas who walked with Jesus…but in the end chose his own path, and left the circle of Jesus’ followers with devastating results. I’m thinking of the communist dictator Joseph Stalin who attended Sunday School and orthodox seminary; and of Adolph Hitler who actually contemplated the priesthood as a young man! I’m also thinking of a woman who was deeply wounded as a child when her parents joined a pseudo-Christian “cult” in which she was emotionally and physically abused. Jesus warns us in Matthew 24 that many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (11-13).

The point is that we can have confidence before God to the end of our lives as we persevere with our Lord's people!  Here’s a sure sign that we belong to him: we’re still here; and that we intend to be here…to the end of our days!  That’s not to say that Christians will never drift from the church for a time, never go through periods of doubt, never have disagreements, or never join others congregations. What it means is that our life speaks of a commitment to Christ and his Body…that we have kept the faith and stayed together to the end of our days! There is a funny notion going around that Jesus is essential but his Church is optional.  Friends, we can’t opt out of the Church because we are the Church!  Jesus prayed that we might be one.  He called us to love and serve him together, and he blesses those who stick it out with this motley crew of sinners and saints! 

Thirdly, we can be confident because we know who we are “for” despite opposition: Christ, the Son of God. John speaks with piercing clarity: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also…and this is what he has promised us, eternal life” (22-23; cf. Matt.16:16; Romans 10:9). Again, “The liar is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ.”  This is the great untruth, the great lie....that Jesus is simply a man, and not the Christ the Son of God; fully human and fully divine, this world’s true Savior.  John speaks with the clarity of a Giants or Patriots fan with front row seats on the 50 yard line of last Sunday's game.  He knows who he is for, and he knows who he is against.  Don’t tell him that he should cheer for the Giants and for the Patriots.  What a laugh!  He’s made his choice…and you have to make yours.  Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12: 30).

Make no mistake, says John, “No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also.”  Some thought they could have God without this Jesus…that Jesus was simply one way to the Father.  No, says John.  He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14: 6).  All who come to God will pass through him.  How can John speak with such intensity of conviction?  "How can John be so narrow minded?!!" some will inevitably ask.  We must return to the beginning of John's letter, where he talks about how he was not only on the 50 yard line, or writing about it for ESPN, he was in the game: “We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1:1).  John heard Jesus with his own ears, touched him with his own hands… saw him call the plays, speak the words of God, sacrifice it all on the cross, and witnessed his resurrection on the third day.  This Jesus turned his despair into confidence!  The good news is that we can stand with him in confidence too.  We can abide in what we have heard from the beginning (24). We can confess him as Lord and know that in the end…his promise to us is not the end, but eternal life.

We’ve been talking about that spirit which is against Christ…which is unnerving when we realize that all of us at some point have been against Christ, have failed him, have not spoken up for him.  How can we have confidence to the end knowing that?!!  We can have confidence only because of the table at which he broke bread and poured out wine…We can have confidence to the end of our days, because Peter who denied the Lord three times sat at that table.  We can have confidence because Thomas who doubted the Lord sat at that table.  We can have confidence because Judas who betrayed him sat at that table.  We can have confidence because at that table, men and women from every tongue, tribe and nation who were once against Christ, including you and me, are now invited to receive his grace and forgiveness, to eat with him, learn from him, and confidently join him in his saving work.  As we come to him humbly today, we can be confident that we will also be ready to celebrate when who he has survived it all - even death - comes again. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Crucified and Risen Savior, we want to be your faithful witnesses to the last hour, confident that we are anointed with your Spirit, grateful to be counted among the generations of your followers; entrusted with your mission to the lost and hurting of this world and, yes, even to those who stand against you! At your table, we are reminded that you are for us, that you took on human flesh for us, lived and died on the cross for us, rose from the dead for us, and are coming again for us. Please feed us with the grace and courage to stand for you and against every evil, to represent you well despite opposition, to meet each crisis with calm assurance, to join sadness with hope, to follow you even when it is unpopular; to abide with you and with your people until you return or call us home.  Amen.