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.

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