Monday, March 26, 2012

Life Signs #11 - A Life-Giving Life

Katniss volunteers her life in The Hunger Games.
It's the biggest movie of the season based on the bestseller by Suzanne Collins: In The Hunger Games the author envisions a world in which an elite ruling class have walled themselves off from the rest of North America in "The Capital," while they force selected young people from the impoverished outlying districts to fight one another for survival on National TV. What’s most powerful about this bizarre story is not the premise that youth must fight to the death in a gladiator-like competition, but the truth that this world is literally saved from insanity by acts of self-sacrifice and self-giving love...which is what the heroine Katniss demonstrates when she voluntarily trades places with her defenseless younger sister in the games. Two thousand years ago, Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."  He gave his life that we might have life and, as we learn in 1 John 5: 13-21,  he also came that we might give life, his life…to others. This kind of "life-giving life" is what this world truly needs; and we need to understand why....

(i) Our Lord is life-giving.  A life-giving life begins with faith in the One who has eternal life in himself… Jesus Christ.  John calls him, “the word of life” (1:1); the one we have seen with our eyes…[who] we have looked at and touched with our hands…this life was revealed and we have seen it and testify to it and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us” (1: 2). 

I was dialoging with a group of pastors from my denomination the other day, the details of which I will not share here.  We were acknowledging our theological differences and our desire to work together as much as possible.  But at one point we were trying to come up with the short list…what we needed to believe in order to have a common sense of mission. One colleague suggested that our confession about Jesus Christ is central.  Yet in an effort not to leave anyone out, he acknowledged that some of us in the room believe that Jesus is the only way, others that he is at least a way, or one way.  I simply said this.  I’ve been preaching through 1John and one particular sentence really grabs me.  “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5: 12).  “I believe this,” I said, “and it has an enormous impact on my understanding of what the mission is and what truly binds us together as his followers."  If we have come to believe that Jesus is Eternal Life, then we will naturally want to pattern our lives after his Life; and share that Life with others...not arrogantly but humbly and passionately.  And, if Jesus is Eternal Life and his Life is in us, then we too can be Life-giving; we too can give Life in his name. That gives us hope in several ways which John which will now explain...

(ii) Our prayers are life-giving.  John says two things about prayer in this paragraph.  First, that God hears our prayers; and second, that God gives life through our prayers.  "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us--whatever we ask--we know that we have what we asked of him (14-15). God really does hear our prayers…so be encouraged!    

John says we can be confident in approaching God through his Son; that we can ask anything from him according to his will, and know that he hears us, and that we have what we have asked from him. And yet, John does not tell us that we can have whatever we want from God, but that if we ask anything according to his will, he not only hears us but acts.  Asking according to his will means that we are asking that his will be done; that in our hearts our desire is to reflect the priorities of Jesus’ own prayers, to extend God’s kingdom rule and reign, to provide for our families and those in need, to reconcile with and forgive those who have hurt us, to stand against temptation and evil, to help others do the same, to love others and glorify God with our gifts and talents.  “Father, not my will by yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42).

God does hear our prayers, and through our prayers he also gives life. For, "If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life" (16). Let’s marvel at this promise that through our prayers God chooses to give life to another; that through our prayers someone may be strengthened against temptation or led to a place of repentance; that through our prayers bodies may be healed, and hearts may be put at rest. 

Our prayers are life-giving!  I wonder how seriously we take this promise?  Jesus commands his disciples to, Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons!”  Can we really raise the dead with our prayers?  If God wants to bring someone dead back to life, he can and will…and usually through our prayers, and prayer-inspired deeds… whether it is a dead marriage, a dead church, a dead dream, or even a dead body, God loves to bring things back to life. 

I’m thinking of a boy by the name of Daniel Bridge, whose family attended my home church.  He was declared brain dead by his doctors.  The following Sunday morning, an elder prayed, “Lord does it even matter if we pray?  Our hearts are breaking.”  The same day I opened my devotional Bible and read the words from John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life” and I thanked God for his promise to Daniel.  But later that day, Daniel’s brain suddenly and inexplicably lit up the monitor. Christ’s promise was resurrected in my heart; and assured me that even when he does not spare loved ones from death, he has given them life in his name.

Now as I said, there’s a puzzle in this passage.  John tells us in v. 16 that we should pray for those “whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that.”  What does John mean?! Let me begin by saying that our God is a just and merciful God, but that not even God can take us back when we refuse to go back.  Jesus warned that there are those who refuse to come to God or receive the grace offered to them by him, which Jesus called the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, an unforgivable sin (cf. Mark 3: 22-30). What we need to pray for, then, is not that God will forgive (because he will) but that the one we are praying for will turn back to God and seek his mercy. It’s not that this person’s sin is unforgivable, but that it has not yet been forgiven. We have the opportunity to be life-giving, to pray for and encourage others to turn back to God and receive his grace and forgiveness,  because that's what his Son promises he will do.

(iii) Our moral example is life-giving. "We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them" (18). By now, we know that John does not mean by this that Christians never ever sin.  After all, John says in 1:8 that “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  So what John must mean is that a believer does not live in conscious and continuous rebellion against God.   

Pope Benedict visited Mexico this past week.  The LA Times headline said, “In Mexico, Pope Benedict decries ‘evil’ behind drug violence.”  The Pope called the church to “unmask the evil…the idolatry of money” that drives the drug trade and destroys lives; because apparently many drug cartel leaders claim to be Christians!  What is key is that Benedict called the drug trade ‘evil.’  It’s not that it is sociopathic or criminal…but that it is a moral evil.  Evil is not a social construct, evil is real, evil is personal, and it’s desire is to destroy human lives and disconnect us from God, removing us from his protection. God is calling us to be a moral example to the world, to unmask evil…to be a living model of the way of Christ that others might see him through our deeds and be drawn to him, and know his protection and power.  

Jesus also teaches us to pray, “Father, deliver us from evil.”  I prayed that prayer as we walked through La Cienega Heights two years ago in a neighborhood oppressed by gang violence.  It was a warning to those perpetrating these things upon the innocent.  Thus, many of us joined together to walk the streets and shout, “No!” to drugs and gangs and guns along with the police and fire departments. I encourage you to pray with David from Psalm 3: 1-3:  O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, "God will not deliver him." But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head!  This does not mean that we will never experience the attacks of the Enemy, suffering or sickness or discouragement…but that like Christ, “we shall be more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8: 37).

(iv)  Our compassion for the world is life-giving. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one (19). We need to read this verse in the context of everything which John has been telling us in this letter.  Taken in isolation, we might conclude that we who are “children of God” are supposed to live our lives in a ‘Christian bubble’ of detachment from the real world.  But our charge as God’s children is to join Christ in his redeeming work, not run from it. 

I’m thinking of a conversation between Elaine and her boyfriend on an old episode of Seinfield.  Elaine asks, "Do you believe in God?"  "Yes," he replies.  "Is it a problem that I'm not religious?" she asks. "Not for me," her boyfriend answers. "How's that?" she asks. "I'm not the one going to hell. he quips. Now there is an uncomfortable truth in that comic exchange; because there are a whole lot of people in the grip of hell right here on earth, without hope, without faith, without life or the love of God and, if we were honest, we’re not all that worked up about it.  I was talking to a man at the gym the other day who was distressed about all the conflict in the world today.  “What can anyone really do?”  he said.  "Just live in the moment, I guess,"  he concluded.  I suggested that the Bible calls us to do more than that… to love our enemies, and treat others as we would want to be treated.  I tried to give him some hope that there is a way of looking at the world that is life-giving, instead of life despairing.  You should use that in your next sermon, he said, so I did!  If we know that the whole world is under the control of the evil one, we will be moved with compassion and catapulted into mission. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3: 17). 

(v) Our knowledge of the Truth is life-giving. "We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true--even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols" (20-21).  Notice that John reminds us again that truth is not just a proposition, it is a Person…that our understanding is of “him who is true, even...Jesus Christ.”  We are invited not only to know truth objectively, but to know the Truth intimately and personally, and to make him known.  Therefore, he warns, "keep yourselves from idols," an idol being a piece of dead wood or stone used as the focus of worship.  Steer clear of all cheap imitations and other forms of dead religion, he warns, whether the false idols of materialism, popularity, power or pleasure.  You have the real thing…Truth in person, Truth incarnate, Truth that can set us free.  “Accept no substitutes!”  

We’ve been talking about genuine signs of living faith from First John… because our faith is in the One who is Eternal Life – Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. The very life of the Creator raised him up, and that same life can be ours today.  Last week, I was at a special forum on science and faith in which Darrel Falk, president of BioLogos gave a presentation entitled, Biology & Faith: Friend or Foe?   Biologos was founded by geneticist Francis Collins, the Dir. of the Human Genome Project and now Dir. of the National Institutes of Health. The name of the organization combines the Greek word for life (bios) and John's favorite symbol for Christ (the Logos or Word of God, made flesh).  Collins expertise is biology, the study of physical life…a quest that ultimately led him to the source of both physical and spiritual life.  Here is an excerpt from his 2007 CNN interview,
         “As a graduate student in physical chemistry in the 1970s, I was an atheist, finding no reason to postulate the existence of any truths outside of mathematics, physics and chemistry. But then I went to medical school, and encountered life and death issues at the bedsides of my patients…I began searching for answers. I had to admit that the science I loved so much was powerless to answer questions such as "What is the meaning of life?" "Why am I here?" "Why do humans have a moral sense?" "What happens after we die?"   I had always assumed that faith was based on purely emotional and irrational arguments, and was astounded to discover… that one could build a very strong case for the…existence of God on purely rational grounds…. But reason alone cannot prove the existence of God. Faith is reason plus revelation, and the revelation part requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind… Ultimately, a leap of faith is required.
        For me, that leap came in my 27th year, after a search to learn more about God's character led me to the person of Jesus Christ. Here was a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus" (Collins: Why this scientist believes in God, by Dr. Francis Collins, CNN U.S. April 3, 2007).

We cannot be life-giving if we are not connected to the Life-Giver.  Like Collins as a graduate student, many of us have studied extensively about life, but do not yet know the author of life.  We’re pursuing the good life, but haven’t learned how to give life to those weighed down by fear and discouragement.  As we abide in His word and Spirit, may we be a life-giving people, a prayerful people, a moral people, a compassionate people, a people who know Christ intimately and make him known, to the glory of God the Father.  That's what this world needs, and that's what this world truly hungers for.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Life Signs #10 - A Life of Victorious Faith

Everyone has heard of Nike running shoes, and no doubt there will be many pairs crossing the finish line at today's LA Marathon.  But did you know that Nike is the Greek word for victory? In 1 John 5:4, we read, "This is the victory - the nike -  that conquers the world, our faith."  What does victory in this life look like to you?  Is it winning a foot race?  Is it acing a final exam?  Is it landing a good job?  Is it the gift of family or friends?  On the other hand, what does defeat look like to you?

I’ve been following the story of the demise of the Crystal Cathedral.  At one time, the church that was launched by Robert H. Schuller at the Orange Drive-In Theater was one of the most well known evangelical ministries in the country.  Schuller had his critics, but The Hour of Power was the most widely televised church service in the world and many found Christ through his ministry.  Yet in the past year the church has filed for bankruptcy and the property has been sold to the Catholic Diocese…a saving grace.  Schuller once wisely said that, "The real minister's name that we honor is Jesus, not Robert Schuller.”  Something every pastor would be wise to remember in the face of inevitable disappointment.  The gospels never promise unending victories in this life. John himself spent many years exiled on the Island of Patmos as punishment by the Romans for his subversive missionary work.  Even so, he assures us that we can have victory in this world. Yet the power we have over this world -- rather than being a force we control -- is a life of faith in Christ who has won the victory, the 10th sign of genuine Christianity from 1 John 5: 1-12.

(i) Faith in God’s Son is a faith that conquers this world (1-4)  4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

What does John mean, exactly, when he says that faith in Jesus is the victory that conquers the world?   He means faith in the God who took on human flesh in Christ, who knows intimately our trials and weaknesses and who therefore gives us power to overcome our own.  He means faith in the One whom the powers of this world tried their best to destroy, and failed.  He means that even when there is nothing to celebrate right before our eyes, there is a larger victory in which we have a share through faith in Christ our King. 

I was reading about an unusual football game back in 1982 at Badger Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. More than 60,000 die-hard University of Wisconsin supporters were watching their football team take on the Michigan State Spartans; but it soon became obvious that MSU had the better team. What seemed odd, though, was that as the score became more lopsided, there were cheers and bursts of applause from the Wisconsin fans!  It turns out that 70 miles away the Milwaukee Brewers were beating the Cardinals in game three of the World Series. Many fans were listening to portable radios--and reacting to something other than their immediate circumstances. I thought that was a great picture of our life with Christ.  Regardless of what losses we may be experiencing right now, we have a reason to hope and even rejoice because of Christ’s victory. 

I want to emphasize that Christian faith is not faith in the victory of my faith; it is faith in the victory of Christ.  It is faith in the victory of his sacrificial love, faith in the victory of his grace, faith in the victory of his death; and faith in the victory of his death conquering life. Such faith in God's Son must necessarily transcend our human reasoning, but this is not to say that it is irrational.  Victorious faith must be based on evidence.

(ii) Faith in God’s Son is a faith not without testimony (5-10).  To show us that our faith in Christ is not a leap of blind faith, but one that is based on legitimate testimony, John begins with two images whose meaning may be unclear to us even if they would have been obvious to his readers:

There is, first of all, the testimony of the water and the blood.  For This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood(6). Most likely, water and blood refer to Jesus’ baptism and death - symbols for the beginning and end of his earthly ministry.  The key to understanding this phrase is that John says Jesus came not by (or "through" / διὰ) water only, but through water and blood.  The water of Jesus’ baptism recalls the testimony of the Father, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” and of John the Baptist who said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  The moment of Jesus' baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry.  Thousands witnessed Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and healing; and began to follow him.  Josephus writes: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. He worked surprising deeds and was a teacher…He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks…and the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has not disappeared to this day.” 

The days following Jesus’ baptism were exciting and hope filled.  But then came the cross and the blood -  a stumbling block for many.  How could Jesus’ shed blood be the will of God?  How could the Messiah die on a cross?  There were of course some who responded to the cross by saying that Jesus was just another man, another failed messiah assigned to the ash heap of history.  Then there were those with a really unusual gnostic idea: they believed Jesus was indeed a special man who was possessed by God's Spirit at his baptism, and right up to that point before he shed his blood on the cross.  That’s when the Spirit left him, they claimed, since God - in their way of thinking - would never allow himself to be soiled by human suffering and death. 

John’s point here is that “These false teachers had missed the point!”  This Jesus was the incarnate Word made flesh, from birth to baptism to death (see John 1).  It was God’s plan from beginning to end.  God did not swoop in and spend three great years with us, and then leave just before things got ugly.  NO!  He came through water and blood!  He shared our joy and our sorrow.  He was born like us…he walked among us for 33 years…and then took upon himself the pain of our human sin and darkness on the cross.  If Jesus was just a man, his death would have meant nothing.  He would have joined the thousands of other false messiahs and deluded revolutionaries who have failed to move the world, but because he was God in the flesh, it meant that the Creator had now won the victory over our sin and suffering.  In fact, it was as he shed his blood on the cross that the power of his matchless life was most stunningly revealed.   

So, there was the testimony of Jesus’ own life…from birth to baptism to death, the testimony of water and blood which he and others saw with their own eyes; but there was a third witness John knew he must mention, the testimony of God’s Spirit.  “And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify:  the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree” (6-8). John is no doubt thinking of the witness of the Holy Spirit, the Counselor whom Jesus promised; the spiritual presence of the Risen Christ at work in his disciples, helping them to carry on his message despite persecution and the threat of death.  Today that same Spirit continues to speak to us through the Bible, prayer, the counsel of the saints, our conscience and our life circumstances.

In addition to this historical and spiritual testimony to Jesus, there is yet one more implied here, the personal: The testimony in our hearts.  For Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts” (10).  In a Jewish court there had to be at least two or three witnesses to substantiate a charge. The water, and the blood and the Spirit are in agreement, says John; but are we?  What will we say about Jesus Christ?   What will we say about these testimonies to his soul-cleansing life (e.g., the water); his death-conquering sacrifice (e.g., the blood); and his abiding presence here and now (through the power of his Spirit)?  Do we agree with this testimony in our hearts?  Faith in God’s victorious Son is a faith based on testimony that each one of us must answer.

(iii) The stakes are high as we consider that testimony, because faith in God’s Son means victory over death and eternal life (11-12). And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life. Whoever does not have the Son does not have life” (11).            

This claim that Jesus lives and has the power of eternal life in him…is unique among the religions of the world. In the ancient Near East, there were many “dying and rising” gods but nobody in those religions supposed that it had actually happened to a flesh and blood human being. The sacred texts of Buddhism record the great entrance of Buddha into Nirvana, but there is no suggestion that the Buddha continues to be present with his followers after his death.  It is his teaching, the dharma, that will take his place.  Muslims know the exact date of the death of the prophet Muhammad; and it is never claimed that he returned somehow from death.  Yet the assertion that Jesus’ resurrection was an event in time and space is still the best explanation for the abrupt change in his disciples from a beaten and terrified band who saw their leader executed on a cross; into fearless witnesses who faced death in order to proclaim him alive; who transformed the cross, a symbol of darkness and despair, into a symbol of God’s victory over sin and death.  

The victory which Christ has won for us is not only life after death with him, but a new quality of life right now.  Eternal life begins the moment we place our trust in him.  It is a gift received by faith that results in a life changed by his love. In Little Tokyo one day, I received a pamphlet from a Buddhist missionary that said that Christianity, like Islam and Buddhism, pins it eternal hope on “a life on earth spent in worthy and useful pursuits.”  I want to say, first, that I believe in and defend the religious liberty we have in this nation, because when it is lost for one group it will be lost for all of us. So, I’m grateful that a certain Buddhist had the freedom in this country to give me that brochure, and I am grateful for the freedom I had to talk with him about it. I began by asking questions and listening, but eventually I was able to point out that the Christian message is actually the reverse of what was stated in that pamphlet… that eternal life is not something human beings earn by their own "worthy and useful pursuits," or by an accumulation of good lives lived in successive reincarnations – it is received as a free gift by faith in what God has done for us in Christ.  

After sharing that with my Buddhist friend, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that this man had once considered himself a Christian, but had never heard that message of God’s grace in his local church!  I was dumbfounded.  As I said to him, it’s not that Christians don’t believe that good deeds are important.  Every major religion believes that doing good is important, and Christianity is among them.  But our good deeds are a humble response to God’s saving grace, not a means of earning it.  It is not our achievement but Christ’s self-giving love that has won the victory!

Faith in God's Son means victory...but the victory in which we place our faith is not only a past event; it is a present hope in the face of our own triumphs and disappointments. Consider your greatest personal success whether it be a school diploma or a dream job appointment, victory in sport, courage on the battlefield, the reversal of an injustice, the joy of a loving family, a beautiful artistic creation, the special memories you have cherished with friends.  Any of these might be precious victories, high points in any life…but what lasting value do they have apart from the promise of Christ’s victory over death and your faith in him?  Are they not like dust in the wind, like a Crystal Cathedral that is suddenly reduced to ashes and smoke...apart from his love?  

On the other hand, consider how Christ’s victory over death gives new meaning not just to every victory but to all your failures as well.  For many of us, it is all too easy to dwell upon failure and discouragement and disappointment… unfulfilled dreams, missed opportunities, moments of shame and regret which we cannot change.  But in Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, our past is redeemed, our shame is covered, our sins forgiven, and no pain we have suffered or tear we have shed is in vain.  We are a new creation in Christ; and as Paul has said, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

So let's put on his Nike’s, let's put on his victory shoes, and in the words of Hebrews 12, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."

Lord Jesus, I have heard the message that faith in you overcomes the world: that the holiness of your life gives me power to walk in holiness; that your triumph over sin and sorrow, trouble and disappointment means that you can help me when I am going through these things as well; that your victory over death gives me indestructible hope.  The powers of this world -- which did everything they could to eliminate you – failed.  After the cross came the resurrection and after the shame came the glory!  King Jesus, thank you for calling me to be your disciple, cleansing me from my sin, and filling me with your Spirit!  With my lips I confess that you are Lord, and with my heart I believe that you are risen from the grave: therefore, I will share in your death-conquering life, a life which gives meaning to every disappointment and failure I have experienced and apart from which no success or triumph in this world has any lasting value.  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!  Amen.

Life Signs #9 - A Life Beyond Fear

Few of us can honestly claim we have never been afraid! So, what are you afraid of?  Are you afraid of the dark?  Are you afraid of losing a close friend?  Are you afraid of that next big test?  Are you afraid of not having enough?  Are you afraid of the doctor?  Are you afraid of health problems?  Are you afraid of death?  Are you afraid to trust God? Fear is part of the fallen human condition. But a life that is paralyzed by fear is not what God desires for us, which is one reason why the command, “Do not be afraid!” is found 104 times in the Bible.  As we continue our study of life signs from First John, the 9th sign of genuine Christian faith is “a life beyond fear.”  I believe that even if we cannot eliminate fear, we can move through it and beyond it.  In 1 John 4: 13-21, John describes three ways that fear is “cast out” …. by love.      

(i) Receiving the Spirit of Christ who unites the love of God with our human spirits.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit (13).  “He has given us his Spirit.”  The first step toward living a life beyond fear is not taken by us, it is taken by God.  It begins with God, a God who desires to give us a gift, the gift of himself, the gift of his loving presence, his Spirit.  Later on John will say, “We love because He first loved us(4:19).

Alone and without God in the world we have much to fear. Yet David says Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me" (Psalm 23). Or as John puts it, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (4:4).  If the Spirit of God dwells within you, there is no spirit, no adversary, no fearsome obstacle which can come against you that is greater.  

Perhaps you’ve heard about the 640 ton rock that’s been travelling to LACMA this week.  This rock has been getting a lot of attention, paparazzi, parades, TV news spots.  It’s a big rock, by any measure; but it’s smaller than a piece of sand on the seashore compared to the earth. Now the earth is a very big rock too, yet it would take about 30 earths lined up end to end to span the distance of this week’s solar flare.  Can you believe that a million earths could fit inside our sun?!   Yet the awesome greatness of what we see or can barely imagine in the night sky cannot compare with the greatness of its Creator.  Now what John is saying is that this One who is greater than all these things - because he has created all things - loves you, wants to abide in you, wants to live in you!

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ promises to abide with us, to actually take up residence “in us” as John says here - and we in him.  And when that Spirit comes, he pours the love of God right into our human spirits, uniting us with him. It has been shown that a human hug or embrace releases certain chemicals in the brain which help us cope with anxiety and stress.  That’s a scientific explanation for what we all know to be true; that love changes us; that love can travel from the spirit of one human being into the spirit of another.  We can literally pour love into our friends, our family, our loved ones with a hug.  That’s what the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, does when he abides in us…he brings the gift of his fear-conquering love right into us.  We need only receive him by his grace through faith.

So fear is confronted at the heart level…with the very presence of God’s spirit dwelling within us, a new power that enables us to walk through the darkest valleys.  But fear is also confronted at the level of our thoughts.  We need a new way of thinking about God if we are to live beyond fear, which means…

(ii)  Knowing the Risen Christ who replaces the fear of God’s judgment with the assurance of his mercy and love.  John says that “we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (14). As John has already told us, our faith is not based upon myth, but upon the eye-witness testimony of those who walked with Christ on earth, who saw him crucified on a Roman cross, and then rise again (see 2 Peter 1:16)

But what John has come to know about God through the Risen Christ, we also can know, for “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.(15). The reason Jesus came was to make known the truth and love of God.  He told us the truth about our sin and how it has separated us forever from God and each other.  And he told us the truth about God’s love when he laid down his life for us…taking upon himself the penalty of our sins on the cross. 
"God is love,” (16) says John.  No ancient philosopher ever spoke of God like this before.  Plato came nearest to it when he spoke of the existence of an absolute "form" of Goodness; and Aristotle talked about the “First Mover,” but he also reasoned that such a being was unfeeling and unchangeable. The most brilliant minds of the ancient world could not imagine the truth of who God really is.  God is love! “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them(16). To “abide” (menō) means “to remain with” or “dwell with continuously.”  John is describing our new life with God in extraordinarily personal terms – like a household in which there is a feeling of love and safety. We need not be afraid of God, anymore than we would be afraid of a loving father or mother.

Finally, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (18).  When John says that “perfect love casts out fear” he uses two words:  exō ballei, which means, “it throws outside, or turns out of doors.”  As we confess our sin, and receive God’s forgiveness and love, the fear of God and our eternal destiny is thrown out. “For as he is, so are we in the world” (17).  That is, by sheer grace, God considers our standing in the world to be identical with his Christ’s. Does this mean that a person who trust in Christ loses all sense of fear?  John is honest with us:“Whoever fears has not reached perfection, has not yet been fully formed by love” (18).  In other words, for many and perhaps most of us, this is a truth which we need to hear and practice; a message which we must meditate upon daily. 

On Wednesday, Heather Bunn, a professor of English Literature at nearby Pepperdine, told the powerful story of her father’s recent illness.  Afflicted with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Bob Thomson was told by his doctor that he had one more bullet in his gun, one more treatment possibility; and that was a bone marrow transplant.  Before Heather’s dad went up north for the medical procedure, he shared with many who were praying for him at his church these words from Daniel before being throne into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3: 17-18).  Whether or not God delivered him from this illness, Bob’s desire was to trust in him, and that was his testimony.  I’m happy to report that Bob has completely recovered from his lymphoma and is cancer free, but even if he had not been delivered, he knew that he was loved by his heavenly Father, and safe in his capable hands. There is a love that casts out fear, and that is the love of Christ. 

(iii) John tells us that living a life beyond fear means actively Loving others just as God in Christ has loved us.  We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (19-21).  We love because he first loved us!

God’s love empowers us to love others and in so doing to live beyond fear. Last week Lisa and I attended a lecture by the President of Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw. During his address on “Christian Civility” he shared about a recent trip to N. Korea which he took with Don Chang, a deeply committed Christian who is founder and CEO of the clothing chain Forever 21. Born in South Korea, Don is a leader in a Christian Reformed congregation right here in Los Angeles.

When Don became aware of the starvation caused by flooding and landslides that had devastated villages in N. Korea, he arranged to give 4,000 tons of food supplies—corn, flour, and cooking oil—to several of those villages.In negotiating the gift with the N. Korean gov’t, he insisted on two things. First, that he be allowed to visit the villages to confirm that the supplies were being distributed to the desperately needy inhabitants.  The second was that each bag of flour and corn had to have a large cross on it, along with the words, in Korean, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The gov’t agreed on both counts. 

Dr. Mouw said that “The emotional part was when we arrived at gathering points where villagers—50 or more, mostly women with small children—were waiting to greet us.  They held out their children for us to hug. Then they began to sing and dance, taking our hands and encouraging us to join in the movements—going from tears to joyful celebration. This would last for 10 or 15 minutes, and the pattern was the same at each of the stopping points.” See "Richard Mouw recounts trip to North Korea".

Many with good reason fear N. Korea, but Don Chang has chosen to embrace them with the love of Christ.  What if we met every one of our fears with a decision to love like that?  What if we responded to our fear of not having enough by showing loving kindness or generosity to someone in greater need that we are?  What if we met our fear of loneliness with the decision to reach out to someone who is isolated and who needs friendship?  What if we met our own health problems with a decision to encourage someone else who is sick and hurting?  What if we met our fear of under-achievement in school by encouraging others who worry about their less than perfect grades.  What if we loved our neighbor, including our enemy, as our own self…that is, loved someone else as we would want to be loved?  What would become of our fears then?

I began by asking you “What are you afraid of?” But what we’ve been learning today is that when it comes to living beyond fear the question is not “What are you afraid of?” but (to quote Telly Savalas from Kojak) “Who loves ya baby?” Because when you know who loves you, you can start living beyond fear!

Let me ask you this: Is God is calling you to begin practicing the Law of Love, treating others as you would want to be treated, spending your time showing the loving kindness and compassion of Christ rather than focusing on fear?  Is your mind growing in the knowledge of the Risen Christ who revealed God’s mercy and love when he laid down his life for you on the cross…casting out the fear of God’s judgment and replacing it with the assurance of his love?  We need to hear these words from a brother or sister in Christ in whom we can confide and honestly share our fears.  Have you received the assurance of Christ’s love for you? And most importantly, have you received the Spirit of Christ who has the power to bring God’s love right into your heart?  If you have never committed your life to Christ, and received the gift of his Spirit, this is the day to do so, and it can begin with the prayer found below...

Savior and Lord, I confess my many fears; the fear of dark places, the fear of looking foolish, the fear of being without friends, the fear of failure, the fear of not having enough, the fear of losing control, the fear of sickness and death, the fear that my secrets will be exposed, the fear of punishment for my many sins. I have heard the promise of your gracious love, a love which is stronger than my fears.  I believe that you proved that love for me when you bore in my place the penalty of my sins.  I believe that you will show me how to live a life that is no longer defined by fear, a life defined by grace and truth and self-giving love. Therefore I invite you, King Jesus, to cast out my sin and fear, and occupy my heart with your invincible, loving presence.  Come in as my Savior to cleanse and renew me. Come in as my Lord to take control of me.  Fill me now with your Holy Spirit so that I may serve you faithfully, in fellowship with your other disciples, forever!  Amen.