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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Born…A Second Time?

A Sermon Based Upon John 3: 1-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018

A sociologist visiting a tribal village raised her camera to take pictures of some children at play.  Suddenly the children began yelling and waving their arms in protest.  Seeing their antics, the freshly minted Ph.D. lowered her camera in embarrassment.  She had forgotten, she explained to the chief, that certain tribes believe the soul is lost if one’s picture is taken.  She then launched into a long-winded explanation of the camera’s operation. Several times the chief tried to interrupt, but to no avail.
Finally, after putting all the primitive man’s fears to rest, the savvy sociologist allowed him to speak. Sporting a wide, toothy grin, he told her, “The children are trying to tell you to take the lens cap off.” (King Duncan).
In today’s text about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, we see the master teacher trying to get this super-serious Pharisee to take the lens cap off.   The Pharisees were the most devout Jewish group.  They insured that the Jewish faith would continue through some very dark times. 
The times were still dark.  We are told that Nicodemus comes to Jesus ‘by night’.  In John’s Gospel, darkness is typically a sign of doubt or unbelief (cp. 1:5, 9-11). As smart and educated as he is, Nicodemus is “in the dark” when it comes to Jesus.  Who is this man? Where does he come from? What’s he trying to do?
Still, there is something about Jesus that gnaws at him. He doesn’t know exactly what it is. Jesus is not like other rabbis. There’s something unusual about him. So Nicodemus takes a risk and goes to Jesus ‘by night’ to question him.  He states respectfully and politely, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (v 2).  Nicodemus appears as an honorable man.  Even if he doesn’t understand Jesus, he shows him respect and calls him “Rabbi”—Teacher! 
But what has caught Nicodemus’ attention is not simply that Jesus is a ‘teacher come from God’, it’s also these ‘signs’ (NRSV), ‘miracles’ (KJV), or ‘miraculous signs’ (NET) which imply that ‘God is (really) with him.’ Like so many, Nicodemus is captivated and motivated by the ‘signs’ that point to something being very different about Jesus.
Jesus sees through this fascination with ‘signs’,  confronting Nicodemus with God’s call to conversion: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ (or born again, [KJV]. Either way is correct).  Jesus does not seem to be interested in compliments, but moves straight to the heart of the matter.  Jesus demands thought, response and action.  Instead of getting lost in theological musings, Jesus calls for a complete ‘make-over’ of the heart---an actual spiritual transformation which points to genuine change.

Immediately, Nicodemus answers with an honest question: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the Mother's womb and be born?” (v. 4).  This call for ‘radical change’ goes against the normal way of thinking and observation, both then and now.  People still have questions about what ‘born again’ means.  In the 1970’s, when Jimmy Carter, a southern Baptist, was running for president of the United States, and declared himself to be a ‘born again Christian’, the press went scrambling for their dictionaries to decipher what he meant.  ( 

Nicodemus raises questions, but we need to understand that he is not doubting the power of God.  Nicodemus clearly understands that "no one can do these signs...apart from…God" (3:2b).  Perhaps he had heard about the Wedding in Cana, where Jesus turned to wine (2:1ff.).  Maybe he saw with his own eyes how Jesus ran some of those ‘dirty dealers’ out of the temple (2:16). Of course, God can change things.

As we’ve already pointed out, Nicodemus is also not questioning the identity of Jesus as a good ‘teacher’ or legitimate ‘Rabbi’.  He recognizes that Jesus has ‘come from God’(v.2a).  The reason he comes to Jesus at all is because he has witnessed something uniquely different and important about Jesus.  He realizes that these miracles were not shallow, isolated events.  They run deep.  He couldn’t separate these ‘signs’ from Jesus himself.  These miracles made him, and others too, feel that when they were standing in the presence of this man Jesus it was as if they were standing in God’s presence too. 

Nicodemus’ encounter reminds us that Jesus provoked, and still provokes, all kinds of reaction and response.  Jesus made some people love him enough to want to follow him their whole life long, while others hated everything he stood for, and they hated him enough to murder him.
If you remember, in the Bible that King Herod was so disturbed by Jesus’
birth that he slaughtered thousands of innocent children trying to keep Jesus from growing up (Matt. 2:16).  John the Baptizer, who called for repentance and baptized anyone who came to him, felt unworthy to baptize him (Matt. 3:14).  Unlearned Fishermen, became willing learners and his followers (Mark 1:18).  A brother of one of the disciples; a man named Nathanael, at first said that ‘nothing good could come out of Nazareth’, later named Jesus ‘the Son of God’ (Jn. 1:49).  Now, in our text, an educated Pharisee breaks from the others, seeking answers too. 
The Scottish Bible Scholar, William Barclay, reminds of one more thing Nicodemus does not doubt:  Nicodemus does not doubt God’s power, nor does he doubt that Jesus is from God,  but just as importantly, as Barclay wrote, "Nicodemus is not doubting that humanity needs to be changed nor is he doubting that people need a new beginning in life."   Nicodemus is realistic about the human condition.  He knows that there is something that goes wrong with the human race.  Nicodemus also knows that something about us must change, or he would not have put his religious career at risk and come secretly to Jesus.  He knows, that even being good or being religious is not enough.  Our human need to ‘change’ as this is exactly why he comes to Jesus ‘by night’.     

After the fall of the communistic grip over East Germany an Evangelical Pastor shared the joys of release and freedom with his congregation.  However, this wise pastor knew that the excitement would be only be temporary.  Difficult days were to come after the celebration had ended.  The message he gave to his congregation the Sunday after opening of the Berlin Wall was one we all need to take to heart.  His message in one sentence was, after the freedom party was over: "We are still not
free!"  That pastor knew the truth.  The real enemy was not communism.  The real enemy is still here.  The real enemy is in us!  It is not something out there that needs to change to bring us the freedom we need, it is something within us.  

So, the question Nicodemus poses that is most important in this whole encounter and conversation is, simply "How?"  Nicodemus was asking the curious, honest, most practical question of all: "How can anyone be born when they are old?  Can anyone enter a second time into the mother’s womb (v. 4)…?"  “How can these things be” (v. 9)? 

Have we not all, at some time or other, been at least a little negative about our ability to change?  We have a popular saying: "The more things change, the more things remain the same." Maybe the negativity of Nicodemus was similar to that which was experienced by the prophet Jeremiah over 600 years earlier.  With society crumbling around him, the weeping prophet looked over the decadence and degeneration of his own people and asked:  "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard its spots.  Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil...Woe to you, O Jerusalem, How long will you be unclean (Jer. 13:23,27).  This same pessimism may have been what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes felt when he also said, “That which is crooked cannot be made straight”(1:5). Such pessimism about human change not only predates Jesus, it also continues today, even into our world, as when the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire who once rather sharply said: "The better I get to know people, the better I like dogs."  That's strong language, but doesn’t it still resonate with us?  In another moment Voltaire wrote even more dramatically: 'Show me one real Christian and I'll become one.'
When Teresa and I were beginning our language study in West Germany, we arranged to have a private tutor during a holiday period.  The young lady who came to help us was a very warm and delightful person.  She was working on her teaching certification and agreed to help us for a few weeks.  She was an easy person to get to know.  As we talked, I found out that she was registered as a Protestant, but really was not a professing Christian at all.  She was agnostic and was well read in the writings of the French atheistic philosopher, Jean Paul Sarte.  But she was still very interested in my being in Germany as a missionary. She asked us the normal questions I was used to being asked: Why would one leave America and come here

I spoke to her as best I could about who Baptists are and why I answered God’s call to come to Germany.  Then I asked her why she was not interested in the church, since there was a church on almost every street corner in Germany.  Her answer was honest and open. She told how she grew up in a family that registered Protestant in a predominately Catholic neighborhood.  There was not supposed to be religious persecution any more.  That was supposed to be past.  Instead, her Catholic neighbors looked down upon her.  Her family was often talked about and treated unfairly.  The Catholic Church in her neighborhood would not allow her to attend their school nearby.   The Church, as she observed it, was filled with people who would come to show their religion on Holy Days but it did not affect daily life.  She saw religion spoken with the lips, but their hearts were not in in.  Through the years, her attitude had become like that of Voltaire: "Show me a true Christian, and I will become one."

The late Ben Johnson, who taught at Columbia Seminary in Georgia, told the story of a young man who came to the door of a monastery with a large duck in his arms.  He asked for his uncle, one of the monks, and said he wanted to give his uncle and the other monks the duck as a gift for all they had done for him.  Eat it in good health, he said.
A few days later another knock came on the monastery door. I am a friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. I’ve been a little down on my luck lately and I was wondering if I could impose on you for a bite to eat and a place to stay. The monks welcomed him happily and served him some leftover duck.
A few days later, there was another knock on the door. I am a friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck. Could I impose on your hospitality for a day or so? He too was welcomed and given a steaming hot bowl of duck soup. And then, you can imagine, a knock came and it was a friend of the friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck. That night at dinner he was presented with a steaming hot bowl of water. He was surprised but they explained that this was soup from the soup of the soup of the duck the nephew brought.
Now that is a silly story, but it says something profound about how distant we can become from true faith.  Too many people are content to live with a watered-down Christianity. Perhaps their mother or father or their grandparents had a profound faith in God, but they have been making-do with something that is weak, tasteless, and certainly without nutrition.  Is it any wonder that so many say religion does more harm than good, or that there isn’t anything to it?  Maybe this is what Jesus saw in religion too.
But I definitely don’t want to leave this here.  Jesus surely doesn’t.  Do you see again how Jesus answers this negativism of Nicodemus?  Jesus explains how this is change is not only possible, but it ‘must’ happen.   Jesus answers from the heart of God: “Do not be astonished that I
said to you. 'You must be born from above..." (v.6-7). In a world that says we can't change things, we don't really change, or the
more things change, the more they remain the same, the words of Jesus challenge us, stirr us, and awaken us a greater truth.  “Don't be so amazed” says Jesus.  Don't let it surprise you.  Not only can people and societies change, it is a necessary and change is unavoidable, if... you want to see the future…, and if you want to see God’s kingdom come (v. 3). 

When you hear Jesus' words over against the negativism of Nicodemus, and against the pessimism and skepticism of our world too, they shine like a lights in our darkness.  Jesus is the one who remained optimistic about our humanity.   But to believe in this kind of optimism is never easy, because as Jesus implies, most of the things Jesus teaches us to believe seem impossible on our own terms.  

Long before I first went to Europe, the first European I ever came to know was my roommate in college.  His name was a Frenchman, named Pierre.  Pierre was loud.  He was proud.  He was vulgar.  He drank too much.  He thought he knew everything. It was not a good first impression.  I knew that if our relationship was going to amount to anything something would have to change.  They told me I was going to get a football player for a roommate, but I ended up with a French, Karate, kicking catholic.  I tried to change him.  I tried to witness to him.  All the talking I did was like talking to a wall.  So, after a couple of months past, I decided to give up and move out.  I was losing my concentration for my studies.   I went to talk to the college administrator and he found me another room in another dorm.  Finally I was finished with Pierre.

Then, a year or so later, while I was eating dinner in the college cafeteria, someone came into the hall calling my name with a certain French accent.  "Joey! Joey!"   I turned and felt him touch my shoulder.  "I've got some news that you will be glad to hear."  "What is it?"  I replied.  "Last week I became a real Christian. I am going to be Baptized this Sunday night and I thought you would like to know." 

What I learned in that moment, impacted me so much, that later on in my life I went to Europe as a missionary.  Pierre made me realize that even against all the negatives in this world, Jesus can still change people.  And it’s not a truth about Jesus that changes us, but it’s the living, eternal Christ, who ascended to the Father, returns to us in the Spirit, who is present with and in people who can and will to be changed. It is this living Christ, who still touches, challenges, and changes the lives of Europeans, Americans, Asians, Africans, and Indians, if we will open our hearts to him.
 “Do not be astonished…, Jesus says.  'You must be born from above."  This is not some fantasy or an option of a religious viewpoint.  This is still the true hope of all the peoples of the earth.  The only way to receive and enter the eternal kingdom is through the human heart.   Jesus does not say you can change, might, or you can change if you want to, but the optimistic Jesus says you ‘must’ change: You must be born again!

With all this talk of change in the human heart, we still need finally reveal the most important part of Jesus’ answer.  Nicodemus was a smart man, but it was still hard for him to ‘understand’ (v. 10).  Jesus explained to him about the very mysterious wind of the Spirit which ‘blows where it chooses’ (v. 8), but since we can’t see it, nor can we control it, how to we discover it.  How do we tap into this Spirit that gives us second birth?   

It is no accident that this discussion ends with a picture of the cross.  It is on this cross, where ‘the Son of man must be lifted up’ (3:14) that people come to ‘believe’ and gain the gift of ‘eternal life’ (15).  It is with this proof of love, that God can change human hearts, from the inside out:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn. 3:17 NRS).
Not long ago, the Reverend John Buchanan retired after 48 years as a Presbyterian pastor in New York City.   Writing an article about his retirement, looking back over his half century of ministry, he remembered one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a little boy. After the child had been baptized with water, John Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy's head and addressed him in Trinitarian language, saying, "You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever." Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, "Uh-oh."

It was an amusing moment, and people in the congregation smiled, of course, but "it was [also] an appropriate response," wrote Buchanan.  It was a stunning theological affirmation ‘from the mouths of babes….’ (Psalm 8.2).  This "uh-oh" was a recognition that not only had everything had changed, and that this boy would never be the same. He was now being called, because of something he could never do for himself or by himself, to live a different way in the world.   No wonder he said, "Uh oh." Life would never be the same. (From in "Beginnings and Endings," The Christian Century, Jan 25, 2012).

What makes you say ‘Uh oh’?  The American Evangelist Billy Graham once asked the German Theologian Karl Barth what was the greatest and most overwhelming theological thought he had ever pondered.  Dr. Barth answered in the simplicity of an American Sunday School song:  "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."  Faith in this unconditional love for you is what can change us from the inside.   This love, so generously displayed in Jesus’ death, is so graciously and freely given by the God who is willing to pay the price of love.  Believe this and you will be born again, and again, and again.  Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

“Come On, Light My Fire!”

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 2: 1-21, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost Sunday, May 20th,  2018 

Perhaps you remember the catchy words of chorus from the 1967 Rock Song by the Doors:  “Come on Baby, Light My Fire…We’re gonna set the night on fire!”  

Now, we all know the “fire” they were referring to.   With all the sex abuse scandals revealed of people in high places last year, causing even the powerful and prominent people to crash and burn, haven’t we had enough of this kind of desire?   The New Testament book of James speaks of this kind of ‘fire’ of desire that ‘gives birth to sin’.   When this kind of ‘sin’ is ‘fully grown’, James says, ‘it gives birth to death’.  By this James means both spiritual and even physical ‘death’(James 1:14-16). 

But in the very next verse, James contrasts the wrong kind of ‘desire’ with the more positive, ‘perfect gift’ which ‘is from above, coming down from the Father of lights’ (James 1:17).   The most visual picture of this ‘perfect gift’ ‘coming down from the Father’ is on display at Pentecost, in Acts, chapter two.   Here, the ‘fire’ of God’s desire sits on the shoulders of the first Christians, whispers into their ears, and puts the words of God’s love on their tongues, so that they share and show God’s desire with the world.   When this kind of ‘perfect gift’ is given to God’s people, nobody gets burned, but God’s loving and saving desire is now turned loose into the world. 

But what kind of ‘perfect gift’ is this?   What kind of ‘desire’ is set loose in the world at Pentecost?   Can we describe it?  Would we accept it?   Do we want it?  Do we really want God to ‘light our fire’?  

Someone told me lately about a nearby church everyone is going to.  “The pastor there is ‘on fire’!”  he said.   What did he mean?  The pastor is on ‘fire’, but what about the church?  What about the people?  Are they on fire, too?   Is this a good ‘fire’?  Is this God’s fire, or is this just another temporary emotional high that will either burn out, or end up with somebody getting ‘burned’?   What does it, should it, must it mean to have the ‘gift’ of God’s fire of desire burning in our hearts?  Would we know it, if we saw it, or if we had it?   Do we really want it?  Do we really want God to ‘light our fire’?  Do we want this ‘gift’ of the Holy Spirit?’

One thing that becomes clear in this text, that everyone who was in that church, at that time, were ‘waiting’ on something to ‘come down’ from God.   I don’t think they all knew what exactly was, that they wanted.   The resurrected, ascending Jesus ordered them ‘not to leave Jerusalem’ and ‘to wait there for the promise of the Father’.  Jesus tried to explain: “John Baptized with water, but you will baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts. 1:4-5).  But even with these strict ‘orders’ and this explanation from Jesus, most of them still didn’t get it or understand.  “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)?   

Jesus is talking about the coming of the ‘Spirit’ but they are still talking about the coming of the ‘kingdom’.   They are stuck in political realities, but Jesus is trying to move them toward spiritual power.   It’s as if Jesus is talking, but nobody is really listening, really hearing, or really understanding, even after all that has happened on the cross, or at the tomb.  

“It is not for you to know the times or periods the Father has set by his own authority (Acts 1:7).”  It’s as if Jesus is admonishing them.   Don’t you get it?   It’s not for you to know exactly what is going to happen, or how, or when?   But people still want to know, speculate about it, or claim to know when, how, or what?  Internet, Radio, and TV are filled with all kinds of preachers still speculating about all this. 

Jesus is talking about receiving spiritual ‘power’ when the Holy Spirit comes, and God’s people becoming witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’, but still too many insist the gospel is about knowing when, how, or what is going to happen next.  Perhaps the ‘better angels’ (Lincoln, Dickens, Shakespeare) are still asking us; we who live on this side of Pentecost, ‘Why do you stand there...?’  “Did you not ‘receive power?  Are you ‘witnesses’…to the ends of the earth?’  ‘What are you still waiting for?’  Do you really want this gift?

Notable Preacher Tom Long, in a sermon, once speaks of receiving a gift from someone, opening it in front of them, and becoming a bit embarrassed because you don’t really know at once what it is, or what it’s for? 
“Is it a meat thermometer, or a tire gage?” 
“Is it a scarf, or a napkin?” 
“Is it earrings, or a fishing lure”?  
“Is it a pencil sharpener or a coffee grinder?” 
As the wrapping paper falls off, is the gift what you think it is, or is will it be what you hope it is?   All this is going on in your head, while the person who gave you the gift is watching for the expression on your face, and wondering what is going on in your heart? (

Certainly Pentecost is something of confusing ‘gift’ to many still today.  What kind of gift are we asking people to open here?  Is it a ‘fire’ that helps, or is it a fire that burns?    Is it a gift of ‘wind’ like a tornado; Will it be destructive or instructive?   The people were ‘all together’, but the tongues are ‘divided’ (v.3).   Is this a gift of tongues in the heart, or are people supposed to start speaking ‘in tongues’ (v.4).  Is this mere foolishness, like getting drunk on ‘new wine’, or are people actually speaking languages (v.13, 4)?   People are said to be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, but the ‘crowd’ that was ‘gathered’ there were ‘bewildered’ (v.6,7).  They were ‘all’ ‘amazed’ and ‘astonished’, but they were also perplexed (v.12).   Some were asking ‘what does this mean’? (v.12), while others were sneering, they are drunk on ‘new wine’ (v.13).      
So, after reviewing all the ‘amazement’ again, even we understand perfectly what the story mean then,  we could still ask ourselves ‘What does this ‘fire’, this ‘wind’, and all these ‘divided tongues’ mean for us, if anything?  Could we get ‘embarrassed’ about unwrapping or opening this kind of gift?   In fact, what does God still want or desire from us, his church today?   What are we waiting for?  What kind of promise do we expect?   And would we really want God to ‘light’ this kind fire among us?  This very dramatic story of Pentecost not only says that they were given ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit’, but it also implies that we’ve given a this ‘gift of the Spirit’ too.   If we have been given this ‘gift’, do we still want it?  Do we want to know what this ‘gift’ is, or what it is for?   

The Ascending Jesus plainly told them, in Acts chapter 1, that this ‘gift’  was ‘to receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you’ (Acts 1:8).  Certainly we still need ‘power’ in the church today, don’t we?   There are just a few of us, like there were just a few of them.  We too are ‘huddled together’ in an ‘upper room’, and we are ‘waiting’ on the ‘power’ or the ‘fire’ to fall.   When will it fall?  How will it fall?  Are we to ‘make it happen’?  Or, are we to ‘pray and wait’, as Jesus told the first Christians?    We certainly need the ‘power’ if it would come, but once again, we must still must ask, what kind of power is it?  Will we see it?  Will we recognize it?  What kind of power is this?

Many interpret this power, the filling of the Holy Spirit, to be the power of renewal, revival, or the ‘gift’ of energy and excitement the church needs to get the job done.   Again, as Presbyterian, mainline preacher Tom Long told a congregation, and I’m paraphrasing him:  “Some say that the power of Pentecost is the power God uses to shake off the dust from our lives, to blow away the cobwebs from our churches, and to allow the spiritual energy we need to reenergize the church. “   Certainly, this is one way of looking at it?  As Dr. Long says: “God knows we need it.” ?     (   

Indeed, this is one way to look at it!   It wouldn’t hurt at all for churches today to have more energy and excitement these days, now would it?  People seem to be drawn to such renewed energy and excitement, aren’t they?  Think of how young people, and others, still flock to those contemporary churches whose singers and musicians,  who shape their worship with emotional energy and rock’in music.  The energy of the ‘beat’ and this renewed ‘approach’ still ‘rock’s the boat’, but should it rock ours.  What kind of power is it?  What kind of ‘gift’ of reenergized ‘power’ should it be for us?

Now, I want to quote another story here, as an example of how, on one particular Pentecost Sunday, one church tried to ‘receive’ the power again.  Here, I’m quoting Tom Long again, (to whom I must thank for much in this sermon today):   Tom Long says:
I never will forget the Pentecost Sunday years ago when my family and I were at worship. My children were very small then; and on this particular Pentecost Sunday, the minister had decided to infuse a little drama into the reading of the Pentecost story in the Book of Acts.

When he got to that part of the story about the wind blowing with a great sound, this was the secret cue for someone in the choir loft to turn on a tape recorder at top volume with the sound of a hurricane wind.  My children were already a little bored by that point in the service, lazily coloring on their bulletins with crayons, but when the loud sound of that wind kicked up, they snapped to attention and began looking around the sanctuary.

When the minister read that part of the story about tongues of fire landing on people's heads, there were people planted in the congregation who had hidden in their purses and coat pockets little red, flashy pom-poms, which they now pulled out and started waving above their heads.   As the minister got to the part about the apostles speaking in other languages some people in the congregation, some of them from Europe, some from Asia, some from Africa, stood up and began to speak in their own native tongues. “  Now, don’t miss this: People were really speaking in other languages.   

“At this point”, Tom Long says, his “children were practically standing on the pew and looking around. When the minister finished reading the passage, the choir began to lead us in a gentle rendition of "Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew." And then we settled in (or so we thought) to hear the sermon, when suddenly a man stood up in the balcony and laughed rudely and raucously at the congregation, saying, "They must be drunk on new wine!"

Finally, Long concludes:  “My children, now far from being bored, were beside themselves with excitement. When we left worship that day, my son David, who was just a little boy then, turned to me and said, "Wow, Dad! That was really church!"

I repeat this story to you, because I do think the main question of the ‘gift’ and of ‘Pentecost’ is really this point that leads to this very question:  “What does it mean to ‘really’ be church?”  What does it really mean for us to have the gift and the power to accomplish and do what we are supposed to do and accomplish.  But what is this?  What is this story finally about?  What was all the fire, wind, and tongues really all about?   Was it about the drama, the feelings, the confusion, and the amazing excitement? 

Several years, when Baptist, during the 1980’s when some church leaders ‘feared’ that their church might just get a little too spiritual for their own good, there was a church in our own neighborhood around here that I heard about.  The church was going through a bit of spiritual confusion of its own.  They were growing, yes!   But they were growing, as some people who were sitting in the back of the church, were raising their hands, expressing their feelings, sometimes even praying in ‘unknown tongues’ and now feeling empowered to move to the front of the church, bring more people like them into the sanctuary.   The church was growing, so some were saying, ‘Wow!”  This is really church?   When the Spirit shows up, they said,  when you can feel free to show your feelings, wave your arms, shout or say, Amen, then, the Church isn’t boring anymore!   You receive the power, when you feel it!  Is this what it being ‘filled with the Spirit’ means?   Is what was happening, that everyone was really ‘feeling’ it, being ‘moved by it’ or found a way to ‘expressed’ what they felt in their hearts? 

I recall, something of the ‘spirit’ that happened, when I was a missionary pastor in a church in eastern Germany.   Now, the Baptist churches in Germany are very much a minority in their world.  Then, we were told that less than 5% of the people in Germany, an most of Europe too, for that matter, actually go to a church on a given Sunday.  Europe, a place filled with many nations that still name themselves “Christian” and have “State” churches, can be a very unreligious place.   In a country like Germany, there was a population of over 80 million people, but there were only about 80,000 Baptists.  You could fit every Baptist Christian, on the church rolls of that country, in one single Soccer Stadium.  Can you imagine how unreligious that is?  The weight of the spiritual darkness of that world, even when it became more open, after the decline of atheistic communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, can be a feel like a very oppressive place.

The local churches there, most all churches are all really small, even the one with the big cathedrals.   Sometimes they come together and do things together; like Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, and other groups might get together and pray together, especially at holiday times, like Easter and Christmas.   On a particular holiday season in our city, where I was pastor, the Lutherans and we Baptists, as well as some Seventh Day Adventists, were planning to get together and have an ecumenical worship service.   It was right after Christmas, when the established churches celebrate Repentance Day.  Can you imagine have a day after Christmas and New Years, to celebrate and invite Repentance?  What would need to repent from after the Holiday Season?  Well, there might be something, right?

As me, my church leader (like a Chairman of Deacons), and the Lutheran Pastor sat down together to discuss the service,  before he invited me to preach in that 700 year old sanctuary, which I was dying for a chance to get to preach in,  he looked at me and asked, “Now, tell me, what does it mean to be a Baptist?”   You, see in Germany most everyone is labeled either a Catholic or a Lutheran, and he hardly knew what a Baptist was.  So, he made a suggestion to me:  “Are you guys charismatics!”   If you don’t know what a ‘Charismatic’ is, this comes from the Greek word ‘charismata’, which means ‘gift’.  When he asked that question, he was asking me about whether or not we prayed in tongues, raised our hands, or jump up and shouted, as he thought all charismatics did, which he imagined that all Baptists did.

Hearing him suggest that I, or we Baptist, might be a bunch of charismatics, I immediately answered, “No way, we are not Charismatics!”  Then, my church leader, sitting beside me politely contradicted me, as he told the Lutheran pastor, “Yes, I am a charismatic!”  It shocked me.  I couldn’t believe what this stern, Prussian, Baptist was saying.  “You are?”, I asked.  He answered, “Yes, I prayer in tongues quietly to myself during worship!   “You do?”  I felt a bit embarrassed in front the ‘state’ Lutheran preacher.  I didn’t know whether he would allow me still to speak in his church, but he did.  
When the day came for me to preach, the power failed in the sanctuary.  I couldn’t hardly even see my notes.  I had to bend close to the Christmas tree lit by real candles.  I didn’t deliver it well.   Then, I wished I had been a little ‘charismatic’.  

Later, when I was back in our Baptist leadership meeting, and now that the charismatic ‘cat was out of the bag,’ the Church leader brought up the so called ‘Toronto Blessing’ that had been in the news.   He explained how a church in Canada had been ‘blessed’ with the charismatic spirit and were ‘dancing in the isles’ to the organ music.   “What should we think or say about this” he asked me and the group.  I looked at him as ‘confused’ as the first disciples must have been.  "What does this mean!”  Is this what this what “Pentecost” is supposed to be about?  I thought to myself:  “I wondered how this direction might damage my mission work with the youth.   I had lost a few of them when I showed them the “Jesus Film” depicting Christ’s resurrection.   I wondered how they might take it, if this kind of  ‘fire’, the ‘wind’, and ‘tongues’ is what we try to be about (

But wait a moment!  How does this story about Pentecost end up?  Have you looked at the end of the story?  Yes, there is a lot of ‘smoke’ ‘wind’ and ‘fire’, and tongues too, but do you see what was really supposed to be happening, and what the actual final result of that day turned out to be?  After all the ‘bewilderment’ and ‘amazement’ when all kinds of ‘devout Jews’ from many ‘nations’ heard Jesus’ followers speaking in their own ‘native languages’ (Acts. 2:6), and after a few others people too, we are told, ‘Cretans and Arabs’ also hear about ‘God’s deeds of power’ in their own language, can we finally see what the final result was?   

Near the end of this very confusing day, we will read Simon Peter, the rock, stood up with the remaining 11 disciples, and ‘raised his voice’ (v.14), quoting Scripture, that this is all the fulfillment of the hope of the prophet  Joel who said that ‘in the last days’ God would  ‘pour out his Spirit upon all flesh’, that is, upon all people without distinction, whether they be sons, daughters, old or young, even slaves, men and women…, so that, when this day comes,  ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (1:21).   And it was then that Peter keeps standing, and preaches about Jesus to the crowd, about his death and his resurrection, and about human sin and the need to repent of our sins  ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’ so our ‘sins may be forgiven’ you can ‘receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (1:38).  “This promise is for you….”  This is what the gift is about, Peter implies.  “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation!”  were the last words on the preachers lips, and then we read how ‘three thousand persons were added to the church of about 50, as they ‘welcomed the message and were baptized’ (1:41). 

So, now, with all this review in our minds, let’s ask once more, both with the text and with all those first very confused Christians:  “What does this mean?”   Now, I know it means that they were ‘filled with the Spirit’ and they spoke in other languages, and the spiritual result was an energized preacher was preaching,  and an empowered people were repenting and being forgiven, so that many were being ‘added’ to the church.   We know that’s what happened, and we still know that is what we still want to see happen, have happened, especially in our own time of church decline and spiritual darkness.  We’d loved to find a way to repeat the miracle.   So, if we want this ‘Pentecostal power’ what is it that we should do, right now, to turn all this power and promise loose in us, and in our church, for our own day.  Is this something we can wish, should wish, or expect?  How should we ‘wait’ ‘pray’ and invite this ‘gift of the Spirit’ today?  What is the ‘gift’ the church most desperately needs?
When it is all is said and done, the gift that we still need from Pentecost is not the superficial gift of energy and excitement, ‘some miraculous injection of artificial adrenaline’, to quote Tom Long once again.   It’s not even the kind of ‘power’ that the world thinks is ‘power’. “Strangely enough,”  Long says, “the gift of Pentecost is the gift of something to say, a Word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world that is unlike any other word.
Notice again what happened in the church when the Spirit was given?  It stood up and it spoke.  It moved from waiting in silence to moving with language. It talked and the whole world heard the good news in its own languages.  Again, As the prophet Joel said, "In the latter days, I will pour out my Spirit on all of everyone. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy!   That means that not just the preacher, but everyone will have a Word to speak.   And what the church spoke, ‘the deeds of power’ that they were hearing about was that they had discovered in Jesus Christ, that life is stronger than death, that hope is deeper than despair, and that any and every sin can be forgiven.   That word is simple that one day, some day, every tear will be wiped away, in the power of Christ's love and resurrection, when sin and death will be no more.  That is the Word, which is our ‘gift’ to speak.
When Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was writing her famous book on death and dying, part of her research involved interviewing dying patients in the hospital, trying to find out how they felt and thought as they faced death.  As she went from room to room in the hospital, she began to notice a remarkable pattern. Sometimes she would go into a dying person's room and the person would be calm, at peace, and tranquil.  She also began to notice that often this was after the patient's room had been cleaned by a certain hospital orderly.
One day, Dr. Ross happened to run into this orderly in the hospital corridor, and she said to her, "What are you doing with my patients?" The orderly thought she was being reprimanded by the doctor, and she said, "I'm not doing anything with your patients."
"No, no," responded Dr. Ross. "It's a good thing. After you go into their rooms, they seem at peace. What are you doing with my patients?"
"I just talk to them," the orderly said. "You know, I've had two babies of my own die on my lap. But God never abandoned me. I tell them that. I tell them that they aren't alone, that God is with them, and that they don't have to be afraid."

Right there it is,  with this story, I show you, what Tom Long showed me.  Right here, in that orderly’s gift of the Word, is the Spirit gift of Pentecost: It is the Word God has given us to speak over against the brokenness and tragedy of this world, a word of good news and of hope that is unlike any other word.

One final story, I can’t omit, which may be the most important of all.  Many years ago, Tom Long says, when he was the brand new pastor of a small church, he announced to his congregation one Sunday, "Next Sunday morning at ten o'clock, I'm going to start a pastor's church school class on the basics of the Christian faith. If you are new to the faith, or if you would like a refresher course in the faith, I invite you to join me next Sunday at ten."
The next week, Pastor Long went to his classroom expecting to greet a large group, but was immediately disappointed. There were only three elementary school children, three little girls, waiting on me for the class. He tried to hide his disappointment and over the next few weeks, and do the best he could to teach them about the Christian faith.  It was the week just before Pentecost Sunday, and he said to them, "Do you girls know what Pentecost is?"
They didn't. So, he explained,  "Well, Pentecost was when the church was seated in a circle and tongues of fire came down from heaven and landed on their heads and they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world."  Two of the little girls took that rather calmly, but one of them got her eyes as big as saucers. And when she could finally speak, she said, "Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday!"

The beautiful thing about that, he says, is not that she misunderstood.  The beautiful thing is that she thought it could have happened even in our little church; that God's Spirit could have come even that small congregation and given us a Word to speak to those who desperately needs to hear what only the church can say.  Now, when the people in the church understand what they should say, and they actually say it, well, there are no other words for it, but that this is what it still means when we say, Pentecost.  Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

This is the Testimony!”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 John 5: 9-15, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
6th Sunday of Easter, May 13th,  2018, Mother’s Day 
(6-6)   Sermon Series: 1 John

Today is Mother’s Day, a very special day in the life of our churches when we honor and remember our mothers.  Of course, our Mothers are special for many reasons, but the main reason mothers are special isn’t really about our mother, but it’s about us.  We love our mothers because most of all, they are ‘our’ mothers.  They are the mothers who loved us more than anything else in this world.  Our mothers taught us, by actions more than words, what love means.  We know how to love through the love of our mothers.  To put it in the vernacular of this Letter of John we have been studying; We love our mother’s, because our mothers first loved us and taught us what is love.

As come to this final message from John’s epistle, John tells us exactly why he wrote this letter: “ I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (13).  It shouldn’t be surprising that this letter, which has so much to say about God’s love for us and our love for each other, is really a letter to help believers ‘know’ they have eternal life.  Just as our mothers love is a gift to us, this love also actually gives life to us.

In much the same way, it is also God’s desire is to give us eternal life.  Just as our mothers try to teach us to live the best kind of life we can live and should live, God wants us to overcome our human tendency to live in sin that leads to death, both a premature physical death, or a spiritual, second or eternal death.  And just like our mothers made us get along with our brothers and sisters, God also wants us to love each other, as God loves us.  When you think about it, God and mothers have similar concerns: to give us life and to give us love.  To be a mother, is to be like God, and to be God is life-giving love of mothers.

Today, we want to compare closely how our mothers are like God, and how God is like our mothers.  But first, follow John’s discussion, we should consider what John says about ‘God’s testimony’  being greater than human testimony” (9). This ‘testimony’ that is greater, which John alludes to throughout this letter, is clearly the ‘testimony of life and love given by God through the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.  “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts” (10).  The Son, is God’s testimony to God’s life and love.

When I was growing up you often heard that nothing could stop a mother’s love.  In recent years, we have all learned that even the greatest human love can still be limited, whether it came from our mothers or anyone else.  As we grow up, we might also begin to realize that even our mothers were not perfect in their love either.  What makes a mothers’ great, however, is not that our mothers were perfect, but that they, our own mothers, are perfected by the love they had, and have for us.   It is not we who are perfect in loving, but is in our loving that love perfects us.

Love perfects us because all love comes from God because, as John reminds us, God is love.  This is why God’s testimony is ‘greater’.  This ‘greater’ is not necessarily because God’s love is better than ours, as love is love and is always the greatest, but God’s love is greater because God’s love is the source and example of what love means.  This ‘testimony’ comes to us direct from the source, because God’s love has been perfectly revealed in the life of Jesus, God’s son.  John says that when we believe in God’s son, we have the ‘testimony’ of God’s love for us that  leads us to and gives us God’s life.

I don’t think any of will doubt what it means to have had a mother, and parents, who loved unconditionally loved us.  The first years of a child’s life determines most of the capacities and capabilities that we will have for the rest of our lives.  Our successes and our failures, can be reduced to whether or not we are able to experience and know love in the first days, weeks, and years of our lives.  In other words, whether we are loved, cared for, and are bonded to love in those earliest moments of life, days that we now cannot remember, determine most everything about who we become and how we live the rest of our lives.

So, now, as we live our lives, everything we do, can achieve, might accomplish, or will obtain in our lives, points back to the ‘testimony’ of love that we have been given.  As a mother, perfected by love, points us back to the love of God revealed in Jesus, we have yet another testimony to God’s love that nourishes us for living or life and for knowing God’s love.

This ‘testimony’ of love, given to us either from our mothers, our parents, or from God, is a testimony that aims to give us life, not just now, but forever.  John says: “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 of God does not have life (11-12).

We live in a world where we are free to be and become whatever we desire to be or become, and this is a great blessing.  The blessing of freedom only becomes a curse when we forget where our freedom and the blessing comes from.  Freedom becomes a curse for a child when the child forgets who loved and raised them.   In much the same way, freedom becomes a curse for God’s children, when we forget the source of love that gives us life.  To fail to acknowledge the source of love and life, is to loose life itself.  If you fail to acknowledge the gift of life given to us through God’s Son, we cut ourselves off from God’s life giving source, who is Jesus Christ. As John says plainly, “The one who has the Son has life.  The one who does not have the Son does not have life.”  When you cut yourself off from God’s love, you also cut yourself off from God’s life giving source.

There is nothing more tragic in life, than a thankless child.  What John is telling us here is that will be no thankless children in heaven.   Eternal life is only given to those who acknowledge God’s love and who have God’s Son.   Since God gives life and love only through the Son, eternal life is a gift only given through this Son who gives life.

Now, this sounds restrictive and narrow to say that God only gives life through the Son.  But the gift of God’s son is not to restrict, but to release God’s love into the world.  In much the same way that a mother loves us to release us, God’s love isn’t restrictive, but redemptive.  As John 3:16-18 says , God so loved the world.., not to condemn the world.  The world is condemned already, the gospel says.   The gospel is a call to salvation, not condemnation.

So if we are called in this gospel of love to commend people to Jesus, but we don’t condemn people with Jesus, how are we to take John’s statement of faith which says those who don’t have the a Son, don’t have life?  How do we approach the exclusive claim of the gospel with the exclusive message of Jesus Christ as the only way to have eternal life?

I believe that we preach God’s life giving love in Jesus without having to play God, that is, without trying to determine who has the son and who doesn’t, who is in or who is out. Would a mother teach her child who not to love, or does she teach the child how and who to love?  In the same way, God’s selective Love is to commend, not to condemn.  The life and death of Jesus is meant to commend God’s Love to the world.

As the church of Jesus Christ, our own life is in the love of the God who loves through the Son.  We only preach salvation through Jesus because Jesus is how God revealed His love that gives us our life.  In exactly this way, the love and life God gives us, now and forever, is like the life and love my mother gave and still gives me, because I forever carry her love in my heart.  For as long as I listen to, obey, and live in harmony with the heart and love of my mother, I have, keep, and continue to receive the her love and her life.  But if I go against the life and love she gave me, I not only go against her, but I also lose all the love and life she gave to me.  In other words, echoing John, when I remain in her love, I remain in the love that gives me life.  If I don’t remain in her love, I don’t have the life only her life can give.

In the moving and powerful story of the Russian Jewish literature professor there is a testimony to the enduring, even eternal, spiritual life, God gives, even in the darkest night of the soul.  Evgenia Ginsberg was falsely accused of conspiring against Stalin’s regime, simply because she told the truth Stalin did not want to hear.  Even her friends, colleagues, and her husband turned against the truth she held on to.  They tried to get her to tell and teach the lie, but she would not go against the truth.  Even when tortured her, convicted her, and sentenced her to 10 years hard labor in Siberia, she stayed true to her heart.  During the torture and darkest night she quoted great lines of the most honest literature in head and heart to overcome the pain she had to endure. She would quote over and over to herself a Russian poem of determination and defiance saying something like, “I have a body…who should I be thankful to…. I will leave a mark that I was here.”    Those who lied about her, and lied to Stalin, including her husband who divorced her, where eventually murdered by Stalin, but she, the one who told the truth and suffered for the truth, survived.  Perhaps Stalin eventually felt he could isolate and allow those who believed and told the truth to survive,  better than he could stand those who lied to him.

Ginesburg legacy to live for the truth, against Stalin’s lie, reminds us that the only truth worth living and dying for is the saving and promising power of the kind of love that gives life.  This is the kind of love John’s letter assures can be found in the life and Love of God’s Son.  The love of the world can only promise death, but God’s Love promises eternal, enduring, love and life.

Given that we preach Jesus, without having to play God, means that I can be bold in who and how I preach and live God’s love.  Since God is love, and Jesus reveals God’s love, there is really no other choice for me, or for you, other than the offer  Jesus offers of the love and life  which Jesus reveals.  A mother’s love can give us life and love now, but only God’s Love can assure us of life to come.  This is the boldness of God’s Love, which alone promises eternal life in God’s Love and God’s life. 

In 1922, a marvelous treasure was unearthed in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The tomb of King Tut, a nineteen-year-old pharaoh, was discovered. He lived 1,300 years before Jesus. One of the valued artifacts that was brought out of this ancient tomb was the figure of "The King upon a Leopard." The leopard was black, the shade of death. The pharaoh was clothed in bright, gilded color, riding regally upon the leopard's back. This figure of "The King upon a Leopard" symbolized the belief that King Tut would traverse the darkness of death, emerging into the brightness of a new day. Oil lamps and candles filled the tomb, which was dark as death. These lamps and candles would provide a light for King Tut to see his way through the darkness. There were other treasures also surrounding the mummified remains of the Egyptian monarch, treasures which would assist him on his journey. Of course, King Tut remains mummified, dead as darkness, and his candles are still waiting to be lit.
What a contrast to the simplicity of God’s promise of love and life given to the Life, death and resurrection of Jesus, where only the folded grave clothes were found.  Jesus, of course, was not there. He had risen. The darkness did not hold him captive until some archaeologist unearthed him. God the Father unearthed Jesus on the third day, raising him to glory because of his obedience to love unto death, even death on the cross. The scripture had been fulfilled where it was written, "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you."
What difference  does this promise of eternal life make? This is the question John has been answering since the very beginning of this letter.   To answer what difference the revealing of eternal life in Jesus makes is like answering in our lives what difference does Love makes.  We don’t always recognize or realize this difference until we need it, or live it out in our own children.  I never realized how much my mothered loved me, until I started living that kind of parental love in my own life.  When I had to begin to pay out the Love I had been given, was when I finally realized how much love is worth in life, and to life.
  Without Love there is no life worth living, but with love, even the most difficult becomes not just live able, or survivable, but with love, especially with God’s Love, everything and anything becomes redeemable.  It is redeemable because this God who has enough love to give us all, also gives us eternal life though His enduring, unending, conquering love.   This is the testimony we have to live.   It is this testimony to love that our mothers lived to give us life.   It is testimony to God’s Love, that when we live in it, and we live our lives as testimony to God’s Love that promises us eternal life.  Amen

Sunday, May 6, 2018

“This is the Victory!”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 John 5: 1-9, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
6th Sunday of Easter, May 6th,  2018 
(5-6)   Sermon Series: 1 John

We’ve all heard the warning:  “This show contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”  When you hear that, that’s when everybody is going to pay attention.

“Remember what it used to be like watching Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, David Brinkley and others before dinnertime? This nightly ritual kept many busy parents "current" with current events. But for young children and teenagers, the ritual practice of turning on "the news" was about as interesting as watching paint dry. White-haired talking heads droning on boringly, endlessly, about who knows what!”   “But haven’t you noticed,” asks Leonard Sweet, “how in the past decade, television news has changed”?

“To keep us tuned in, TV newscasters have wedded, even welded themselves to a new journalistic adage: "If it bleeds, it leads." Even more, TV newscasts have focused wide-angle, telephoto, slow-motion, instant-replay cameras on the violence that mars and scars our lives. "Watching the news" is now as terrifyingly mesmerizing for 5-year-olds as it is for 50-year-olds.
Bodies lie splayed out, blood flies and flows across the TV screen. The "news" has become so grisly and graphic both in words and in pictures that many communities have clamored for and received from their local stations specially toned-down "family-rated" versions of the news that are deemed acceptable for viewing by young children.

We are a society saturated in blood.  In the movies and on the news, in our sports and on the screen, blood sells. After a hiatus of many years, where the only books with blood in their titles were books about vampires and witches and horror mysteries, "blood" has now become a hot buzzword. Even the BBC television series on microbiology has now become a book called In the Blood: God, Genes and Destiny by Steve Jones.   Any-more, unless the blood really spills and spurts, we're not too impressed.  We are as fascinated by the sight of all that vital red stuff as were our more primitive forebears.”

The close of our text today is about ‘the one who came by water and blood…. (v 6).   Many mainline denominational hymnbooks, due to the violence of our age, tend to omit songs about the ‘blood’, but the Bible refuses to clean up the ‘messiness’ of God’s redeeming work.   In the Bible, God’s love will always be ‘written in red’.  How many of you remember those Bibles of your childhood, where the words of Jesus were called ‘red-letter editions’?   In recent years, some are attempting to draw our attention these ‘red-letter’ portions of the Bible again.  In a confusing, complicated world, people need figure out, all over again, what really matters most.

In our text for today, John concludes with a reminder of what matters, citing an old formula for testing whether or not Jesus is the Son of God: ‘This is the one who came by water and blood…. Not with the water only but with the water AND THE BLOOD… (v.6). This old ‘faith’ formula represented Christ’s baptism which was by ‘water and blood’.  Jesus’ life and death prove God’s love, because Jesus not only ‘leads’ but he also ‘bleeds’.  

Before John spoke about Christ’s ‘blood’, he made a bold statement about faith: “this is victory that conquers the world, our faith” (1 Jn. 5:4).   Everything that John means when he speaks about ‘water and blood’ is to point us to having a faith that believes ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ (v.5).  It is only faith in Jesus that gives us victory’ over the world.

The idea of gaining ‘victory’ over the world (v.4) can sound strange to us, since John has moved straight from speaking about ‘the love of God’ (v.3)   This, however, shouldn’t be understood as accidental or coincidental, but it is very intentional.  With such ‘battlefield’ imagery, we are reminded once again that God’s love is neither sentimental nor wishy-washy.  God’s love is a positive ‘power’ than conquers the negative of the world around us.  But God’s love doesn’t conquer in the sense of ‘shedding someone else’s blood,’ love conquers by giving one’s own self, as Jesus gave his life and shed his own ‘blood’ both to forgive sins and show God’s love.

Last week, we read how John said, “God is love!”  This is a true statement, but it is also serious and demanding.  The love that God has brought to the world in Jesus Christ is more than just the capacity to love, but it is a love that has the capacity to transform our lives and the lives of others.  This transforming love that changes us begins as faith in Jesus Christ.  “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God….”

The reason John combines loving with believing is because love doesn’t mean only what we want it to mean.   If God is love, then only God can rightly define what love means.   One of the major problems in John’s day was that people wanted to say they ‘loved God’ without ‘believing’ in Jesus.   But John reminded them, that since Jesus is living expression of God’s love, we can’t say we know what God’s love means, without having faith in Jesus.  This kind of ‘belief’ meant more than having a ‘feeling’ about Jesus, but it also meant following and obeying what said and is still saying through him.  

To love God also means to trust or believe in Jesus.  Believing in Jesus means that we also obey God as He is revealed in Jesus Christ.   As the song says: “There is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust (believe) and to obey.”   For the love of God is this,’ John says, ‘that we obey his commandments’ (v.3).  
Obeying commandments seems very out modish in our world doesn’t it?   We live in a world that often thinks that we have passed the need to hang commandments up on public walls.  Who wants to have to ‘obey’ any kind of commandment, even Christ’s commandment of to ‘love one another’?   Who dares say that one set of commandments are more important than others?  This is the mindset of our world.

Recently, I’ve been recently thinking about ‘commandments’ again.  Especially in light of all the revelations of sexual misconduct from high-level officials, prominent people, and even those terrible crimes against children committed by Catholic priests.   When you keep hearing the results of our ‘anything goes’ culture, who still thinks we have, as a society, already moved beyond the need for rules, requirements, and commandments?  Commandments and laws are not the answer to everything, as they were never intended to be, but they are the beginning of finding the right answer.  Unless a culture follows rules of behavior, conduct, and has high standards of living with others, it’s not long until we lose the ability to know what love is.  If love is ever reduced only to what we feel, then it ceases to be love.

How do we know what love is?    Let me give you an example I came across:   A fellow stumbled over the words many times. He'd even practiced in front of a mirror. But when the time came to speak he stuttered again. For months he had been dating the same girl. For the past few weeks he had been building up his courage because he wanted to tell her that he loved her. Those words didn't come easy for him. They especially didn't come easy because he didn't always get his words exactly as he wanted them to be.

Maybe something else would work. If words weren't forthcoming perhaps something else could get the message across. That night he recalled she had mentioned that her car seemed to be running poorly.  She had often said that she didn't know a thing about machines. So he picked up the car, took it to a service station, and had the mechanic look at it. She was right; it needed a tune-up. He didn't say much about it to her. But when he returned the car to her apartment she thanked him.   Later, in that same week, he remembered that she had often mentioned the fact that with all of her work and the demands of her schedule, she didn't have time to visit her mother as often as she wanted. His work was a little slow that week, so he decided that he could carve out an hour for a short visit.   Again, when they next met, he didn't say much. But she thanked him for what he had done.

After two weeks had passed, his words still stuck in his throat. He still wanted to say that he loved her, but he couldn't.  On Monday evening of the third week, after all of his practiced sentences and stuttering attempts; after the automobile tune-up and the afternoon visit with her mother, they went out for dinner.  She appeared to be uncomfortable, like something was on her mind, but she hadn't yet been able to muster the right words or to find the courage to say them.  Finally the moment came. She told him how much she appreciated all that he had done.  She went on to say that she had been wanting to tell him something for quite a while now, but that she'd been afraid to. "You know," she said, "your care and concern have touched me deeply." She paused, and then continued. "This must be what it feels like to be loved. I have known other men who say they love me. But you are the only one who has acted like this." She paused again. After a deep breath she continued, "Your actions have spoken so much more eloquently than anything you could say. Thank you for your love."

When we love God we follow God’s commands, but we must never start to think that this is just about following rules, but following the commands of love is about living for someone, and living to have a relationship of love with someone.   Think about it this way:  Have you ever had someone ask you if you love them and responded, "Yes, I love you" only to have them ask, "Why?  What is it about me that makes you love me?"  We'll usually answer a question like that by coming back with a laundry list. "Well, let's see ... I love you because you're kind, and you're smart, and you make me laugh, and you have the most beautiful eyes...." But do you really love someone for any of those logical reasons? I've come to the conclusion that there is no good reason why we love the people we do. We just love them because we love them.  Sometimes it's even their faults that draw us to them the most.   We love because we love.  

When you think about it, it’s the same way with God too.  God doesn't love us because we're in any way worthy of that love. God loves us because loving us is what God does. God is love.
And since God loves us, just because God loves, we ought to love God, just because he is God.  But what does this mean?   What does it mean to love God and show God that we love Him?
Perhaps the answer comes in a quirky short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a man named Wakefield.  One day, Wakefield wakes up and decides to take a little break from his wife and home in London and rents out a room one block over. He doesn't tell his wife, and he only intends to stay away for a day or two but then the days go on. He watches his wife from a distance for twenty years, never once letting her know where he is or even that he is living at all — for twenty years. The story ends when one day, while Wakefield is out walking down the street, he suddenly decides to return home and we see him entering the door to his home as if he had never left.

How many people have a relationship with God like that, and still call it love? One day we slip away and we think it's just a short break from the relationship, but the years pass and it's as if we're watching God from one street over but our lives don't ever connect. By this, I'm not talking necessarily about people who have strayed away from the church, because the church and God are not the same thing. I'm talking about anyone who has removed themselves from the loving, obedient relationship God offers. It can happen for people in the church as easily as it can for those outside the church.

I don't know about you, but when I'm in a loving relationship with someone and that relationship is in balance, I can feel it.  When it's out of whack, I can feel that, too. I suspect that we know when our relationship is in balance with God or when it's out of whack.
John tells us that one way to tell is if following Christ's commandment to love one another as he has loved us becomes ‘burdensome’ (v. 3), or it just comes naturally.  After all, when you're in a loving relationship with someone, you want what they want, too.  If Christ wants us to love one another as he has loved us, it's what we want, too. It’s shouldn’t be a huge struggle for us; because when the relationship is right, it's something that we willingly do.  We may not be perfect at loving the way Christ does, but there is no question that we're not resisting it.  What Christ wants for us is the same thing we want for ourselves.

It's tempting to become like Wakefield and say, "You know, maybe someday I'll go home. Maybe someday I'll be back in a right relationship with God." Then the days and the years pass. Of course, Wakefield did go home in the end.  We don't know if his wife was like the waiting father in the story of the prodigal son or not, but we do know that that's how our God is. God is waiting for us to come to our senses and find our way back to him.  But in the meanwhile, how much are we missing?  Wakefield missed twenty years of his life because he was a stubborn old fool.

When John says that ‘faith overcomes the world’ he means the specific kind of faith in Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God.   John also means a faith that obeys and desires to be living in a relationship with the God who loves us.   When you have faith in Jesus, and you live that faith with obedience to love, the negative pull of the world doesn’t have a chance to rob you of your life or take your hope from you, whether you live or you die, your hope and your life is in the Lord.   

How many of you know what BASE jumping is? BASE jumping is the very scary sport of jumping off Buildings, Antennae, Spans, and Earth objects. If you want to do it more than once, you jump with a parachute or perhaps a hang glider. Some of you may have seen examples of this daring sport on television.  An example: Austrian extreme sportsman Felix Baumgartner, 30, took a sunrise swan dive off the outstretched hand of the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. BASE jumpers, who parachute from fixed objects, often run afoul of the law. So Baumgartner had to smuggle his chute and kit (including the crossbow and steel cable he used to climb the 100-foot concrete-and-soapstone structure) onto a train carrying tourists up the 2,300-foot mountain, then scale the statue under cover of night. "This was real hardcore," said Baumgartner, who survived the jump and was whisked away in a waiting car. "Now I know why none of my colleagues have tried this before." 

Ray Bradbury once said ... if we listened to our intellect, we'd never love someone, we'd never have friendship, we'd never go into business because we'd be so cynical ... But living like that is nonsense. If you really what to live your life, it’s like getting up the courage to jump off cliffs all the time and then learning to build your wings on the way down.

Sounds risky, doesn’t it?   But isn’t this what John means when he speaks of conquering the world by our faith?   The way to find life is not by building a safe place to live, but the way to give ourselves to conquering the world by faith in the one, who will catch us, if we fall.  
Isn’t this what John means, when he says that ‘by faith’ God gives us ‘eternal life’ (1 John 5:11)?  What does eternal life look like, in the here and now, as we live with a ‘faith’ that conquers the world?  Let me close with this example:  

Two brothers worked together on the family farm. One was married and had a large family. The other was single. At the day's end the brothers shared everything equally, produce and profit. One day the single brother said to himself, "It's not right that we should share equally the produce and the profit. I'm alone, and my needs are simple." So each night he took a sack of grain from his bin and crept across the field between their homes, dumping it into his brother's bin.

Meanwhile, the married brother said to himself, "It's not right that we should share the produce and the profit equally. After all, I'm married, and I have my wife and children to look after me in years to come. My brother has no one, and no one to take care of his future." So each night he took a sack of grain and dumped it into his single brother's bin.   Both men were puzzled for years because their supply of grain never dwindled. Then one dark night the two brothers bumped into each other. Slowly it dawned on them what was happening. They dropped their sacks and embraced one another*.

Those brothers overcame the negativity in the world. Pray that this week you might be led to do some BASE jumping with Jesus, the out of the ordinary, the thing you can only do by God's power, and in the process, conquer all the negatives of this world.   Amen.

(*Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul (Health Communications, Inc., 1995), p. 37.