Sunday, March 18, 2012

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.

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