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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Christmas in Quartet: “Mark’s Melody Line

A sermon based upon Mark: 1: 1-11

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 

Sunday, Nov. 29th, 2020 Christmas in Quartet: 4 Part-Harmony of the Christmas Story


My wife and I still watch American Idol.  


We especially like that most contestants are young---still close to their roots.


We like the Stories they tell, especially how many of the contestants learned to sing in church.   I did too.   The hymns of that mill-town church choir still play in my head.


I sang in both church, high school, and college.  With a Baritone-Bass voice, I seldom sang solos.  Most of the times I sang in a choir, sometimes in a small advanced group, and at church in a small quartet.    In college, I learned that Quartet music goes all the way back to the classical music of the Renaissance, where 4-part music was written, both for voices and for instruments.


During this Advent and Christmas, I want us to consider the Christmas story in Quartet too.  That’s how the gospel has been handed down to us, in 4-part harmony.  Although each gospel has it’s own voice, with a different voice and different parts to sing or play, when put their basic music together, they make some beautiful gospel harmony.


Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we consider Mark’s part.  I can’t decide whether he sings lead, soprano or bass.  He gives us the main part, which makes me think he is singing lead. Which part he actually is singing this metaphor doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that we understand the unique voice and part Mark has in telling us the good news.



When you read Mark’s version of Christmas, the thing you immediately notice is that there is no baby.  There’s no manager, no Shepherds or Angels, nor any other dramatic birth stories like found in both Matthew and Luke.  John doesn’t sing a traditional Christmas carol either, but since he comes last, John has another reason we’ll address later.


Why doesn’t Mark give us any ‘birth story’?   All he tells us that Jesus is from Nazareth.   He says nothing about Bethlehem.


Scholars give us a lot of educated guesses, but I find that Mark’s unique, early, and very brief gospel story is already noticeable in the very first line he uses.   In chapter 1:1, Mark entitles his gospel,  The Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”


 But what does this mean that this gospel is ‘The beginning of the good news’ about Jesus?  Did Mark not know anything about Jesus birth?  Did he not have time nor skill to give more details?   Why is it that the gospels don’t tell us the story in the same way?


This word ‘beginning’ can mean many different things, but what is most important is to realize there was a good reason for this.  And it’s probably the same kind of reason people don’t sing the same part in a quartet.  We each have different kinds of voices, different ranges in our voices, and we have different parts to play and sing.  Isn’t music much more beautiful when it comes to us in different parts.  How dull it would be if everyone sang the same part, or in the gospel’s case, everything said exactly the same way.


So, these 4 gospels come to us in 4 part harmony, with 4 voices, singing 4 ways, seeing from 4 different angles the same kind of truth about Jesus.  While they are all singing the very same song--sharing ‘good news’ about Jesus Christ---they are singing different parts.


And Mark sings the first part, the main part, or we might say Mark sings the lead part.   And the this is about Most crucial key to the gospel isn’t how Jesus was born as a baby, but it was who Jesus was as a man, as the Messiah, the Christ,  which is who all about what Jesus came to say and do.


We, today, must be especially careful not to miss this main, lead part.   

We all love the story of Jesus’ birth and it’s so much fun to tell and to share, especially with our children, that we might overlook that Jesus the baby, became Jesus the man.   Like comedian Will Ferrill’s character in the NASCAR Racing Movie, Ricky Bobby was a stereo-typical southern, religious fellow who prayed, but he prayed only to the ‘Baby Jesus!’.   He could not get passed this childhood, infantile understanding Jesus.  


In a similar way,  we too can get hooked by the sentimental, homogenized, and commercialized part of the Christmas season,  by either only thinking about Jesus as a sweet little Baby, or by getting lost in all the Christmas parties and festivities, so that we fail to consider our own continued commitment to who Jesus was, and how he should be our living Lord today.  


Perhaps this is the great value of putting Mark right up front to sing the lead melody line of Christmas.  While the gospel music wouldn’t  be as beautiful without these added details about Jesus’ birth, this still isn’t the main part. The story of the manager could only be told because of the other part, that is the main part.


It’s this main part that Mark gives us first. 

This isn’t is how Jesus was born as a baby, or what kind of childhood he had, but who Jesus was as a man.   The man Jesus was is the message and music of Christmas which must not be overlooked.


And, like all the other gospels too, we can’t fully understand who Jesus was as a man, until we prepare our hearts to know and understand him.   Each gospel tells us how John the Baptist prepared the way for people to meet this Jesus who was God’s man. It is John who connects the man Jesus with the voice of God in the rest of the Bible, especially as he relates to the rest of the Prophets. John wants us to know that Jesus has come as God’s Prophet too,  but not just as any other prophet.  John prepares us to hear a whole new sound, that this Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, God’s Man with God’s final message.   If we don’t prepare our hearts for him, we’ll be singing the wrong tune.



The preaching of John goes before Jesus, preparing people for Jesus, because people needed to hear that Jesus was a man with a message unlike any other in God’s story. This is the part that Mark is focusing on. What Mark puts right up front is that you only get right man, because your heart is prepared to get the message right.


When I used to sing in choirs and concerts, whether in high school or college, one thing you learn about singing, is that people need to be prepared for the kind of music you are singing, and the kind of message you are singing about. 


If you go out on the street corner and sing, which we sometimes did, you need to sing songs that are upbeat, and get people’s attention.   If you sing a concert, you sing to show your skill, your preparation, as well as to entertain.   Even when you are singing for a church, there’s a certain song that fits an a certain occasion and there’s also songs that don’t.  You certainly don’t normally sing, ‘’Joy to the World’ at a funeral service.  You don’t sing nearer my God to thee on Christmas Eve, or day, even it is about God coming near.  You see the right tune, with the right message, you get the picture.


In the same way, to understand heart of the message of Jesus you need to sing the tune that is closest to God’s heart, to the deepest meaning of Christmas.  According to each of the gospel’s, at the center of John’s preaching, and Jesus’ preaching too, was the call to Repentance and Forgiveness. 


These two acts; what we do, and what God does points to the heart of Christmas.   Everything Jesus did, everything Jesus was, and everything Jesus means, even still today, means nothing unless these two acts become real for us and in us:  God with us, which is the Christmas message of what only God can do for us, but only this becomes real because of what we do for a God, how we draw near to God, and how we respond to what God has done for us.


This is the focus of John’s preaching.  Without preparation to receive what God wants to do in us, the message of what God has done in the world, or for the world, doesn’t actually accomplish what God intended.   John the Baptist’s preaching was a call for people to draw near to God, so that God could become real in them.   Until people are ready and willing for sing God’s tune, and prepare to meet God, here and now, what does the music mean anyway?  A song is only as good as the people who are willing to sing it,  hear it, listen to it, join in and make it their own.



When Mark tells us about John’s preaching, he’s pointing straight to who Jesus is.  And this Jesus will not be fully understood until people are baptized with the Holy Spirit, and with the fire of God’s redeeming truth.   And what is the truth?  What is the most basic truth in the part Mark sings?


Eventually, when you read this entire brief gospel, you’ll notice that Mark is in a hurry.  In fact, he uses the word ‘immediately’ more than any other. 

Why?  Because Mark knows that the Spirit of Jesus will enter our hearts, not by singing about the manager, but by singing about the cross. This whole, brief, short and sweet gospel makes a beeline to the cross.


Mark is in a hurry, because it is only at the cross, that the identity of Jesus becomes clear. We don’t receive the Holy Spirit simply by learning about Jesus.  We don’t receive the Holy Spirit only by hearing about his miracles or his teachings. 


And even his Virgin Birth, doesn’t have any meaning all by itself.  There were all kinds of virgin birth claims in the ancient world.  Paul never mentions it.  It wasn’t because it didn’t matter at all, but it didn’t matter unless the cross mattered.  And the cross mattered more.  Paul said he chose to know nothing except ‘Christ and him crucified’.   To Paul this was the heart of the matter and the melody line of the gospel. Mark followed Paul.


The heart of the Bible’s message about Jesus is how God sent Jesus as a baby to be born in a manger, but how God sent Jesus to earth to die on the cross.  Until you’ve come to the cross, until you sing the cross, and until you live the cross too, you’ll never fully understand or sing the true meaning of the music of Christmas.


I doubt that even John the Baptist understood that the cross was coming.  But Mark did.  He wrote his gospel after Jesus died, was raised from the dead and had ascended to heaven.   That’s why he jumps straight into the story about Jesus the man and gets to the cross before any other gospel writer.  Mark knows you can’t understand Christmas until you’ve been to the cross.


This is how the Spirit of Christmas really comes into our hearts too.  This is how we are baptized with the Holy Spirit fire,  John and Mark talk about.  The baptism by fire, was the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. 


Other gospels, following Mark, ultimately get to the cross too.  They even hint about the cross in their birth stories too.  Matthew tells us how Herod tried to kill the baby so that Mary and Joseph had to escape to Egypt.  Luke tells how Jesus was born in a stable and how the poor surrounded him, not the rich.  Even John, who doesn’t follow Mark so closely, tells us that Jesus came unto his own, but his own rejected him.


But it’s Mark who immediately, in the most hurry, takes us straight to the drama of the cross.  And Mark’s gospel melody line is followed by all the other gospel singers, Matthew, Luke, and even  John.  The cross, not the birth, is the gospel melody of the gospel.   Jesus is the Christ, not because he was born in a manager on Christmas, but because he the Christ who died on a cross.


Finally, it’s hard to sell the cross.  It’s easy to commercialize a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.  How can you commercialize a suffering, screaming dying man on a cross? 


Of course, we try that too, by taking him off  and making it jewelry.  But the awful truth and the gospel truth of the cross can’t be put on a pendant and hung around your neck.

The real cross was cruel.  It was a form of execution.  To hang the reality of the cross around your neck is like hanging an image of an electric chair around your neck.   


The real cross is about suffering, sin, and death, which are things we don’t really like to think about at Christmas, in this time of ‘good cheer’.


Still, if we don’t get to this cross, then, all our other celebrating will become empty and useless? You can dress up and go to all the Christmas parties you want, but you are still going to die.  You can get all the Christmas presents you want, but if you miss the gift of Jesus Christ and why he had to suffer and die, you’ll also die without the any real hope.  


And finally, if you go through all the activities of Christmas, and you forget that Jesus came to forgive your sins and make you a better person, then why and what are we celebrating at church any way?  Only the cross takes us to the heart of the matter, or nothing matters much at all.


And when we get to the cross, it’s the real reason we can sing, the reason we can decorate, and it’s the reason we can turn on the lights, share the love, and care for others.   We can do this because Jesus is not just a beautiful decoration or a nice image in our minds, but Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords, who not only came to die for us, but also come to live in us. 


This is why Mark is in a hurry to get us to the cross as the center of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God’s Love and God’s resurrection power make the good news!  And the good news  isn’t that Jesus was a pretty baby or a another person born in history.  No,  Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the true King who rules the hearts of those who take up the cross, following him, wherever he leads.


  This is the melody line of Christmas.  Jesus came and died so that you and I can live now, and then, one day, one that day, to live again.  That’s the gospel melody Mark sings.


Lord Jesus helps us not to miss the main melody of Christmas, which is the song that begins at the cross.   Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Escape...The Corruption

A sermon based upon 2 Peter 1:3-11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday, Nov. 22th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

I Heard You Paint Houses is a non-fiction book written by Defense Attorney Charles Brandt, about the murder of the 1970’s labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa.   As you may remember, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and was declared dead in 1982.  Hoffa’s murder was linked to his involvement with the mob.  Frank Sheeran, the hit man for the Bufalino crime family, confessed to the crime.  Even though the body was never found, he served prison time until he was finally released to spend his final days in a nursing home.   

Sheeran was decorated WWII veteran who went from being a family man and truck driver to becoming a cold, calculated go-to killer for the mob.  The story is an account of his continuing downward spiral of corruption, crime and killing.  The book ends with him finally confessing his sins to a priest in hopes of absolution and with him also desperately trying to restore his broken relationship with his daughter.

You don’t have to ‘paint houses’— code for ‘contract killing’—-to fall into what Peter calls ‘the corruption of this world’.   This ‘corruption is all around us.  It can easily enter our own living rooms through televised or streamed media.  It can also get into our emails and other online activities through phishing or spam.  You used to have to go out into the world to enter the world’s darkness, but now the darkness can come straight into homes and into our most private spaces, which aren’t as private as they once were.   But the truth is, since the very beginning of human life, we have this tendency to be corrupted by what the Bible calls the ‘cosmic forces of this present darkness’ (NRSV, Eph. 6:12).  And I certainly don’t have to tell you that what Peter calls ‘the corruption of this world’ is still with us. 

Today, we come to the final message in this long series on growing in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We started with 1 Peter, and now, we are ending with 2 Peter. Both letters provide fitting bookends for this series.

In today’s text, Peter addresses the ‘corruption of the world’ that is in the world because of human ‘lust’.   Here, lust means any kind of untethered, wayward and harmful human desire, which crosses the boundaries of what is healthy and right for human beings.   Now, of course, the world can’t agree where these right ‘boundary lines’ are.   We human beings often insist that we can make up or live by our own personal ‘rules’ and ‘standards’ as long as we don’t hurt anyone.  We are often like the man that used to be my wife’s childhood neighbor when she was growing up.   Every time they went into the field to work that fellow kept moving the boundary markers. 

We often try the same feat with morality and norms.  We are indeed given a lot of ‘wiggle room.  We need room to grow, develop, and mature, both socially and morally.  But we don’t really move God’s boundary lines, just like that man really wasn’t moving the line either.  He only thought he was.   The lines were written down on deeds in the court house and were firmly established.

Many people want to only fulfill their own ‘desires’ in life, thinking that God has no boundary lines, or that we can move these moral laws anywhere we wish, according to our own desires without having consideration or compassion for others.  This kind of disrespect and destructiveness agrees with the biblical meaning of ‘lust’.   As James says,  “But one is tempted by one's own desire (lust, KJV), being lured and enticed by it;  15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.  16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. (Jas. 1:14-16 NRS).

So, where is the ‘line to far’, between was is healthy and unhealthy human desire?  Again,  God gives humans a lot of wiggle room, just like he gave Adam and we’ve the whole garden, except for one tree.  God still gives us all the goodness of life with the basic boundaries of the 10 commandments, which draw some very healthy boundaries, both spiritual and social.  But as Jesus and Paul rightly interpret God’s laws as also inward and spiritual,  God’s moral laws are also written ‘on our hearts’, not simply on paper or in legislative courts.  When we go against these common-sense moral principles of life, and especially when we go against the relational principles of love which are found in the intent of God’s law and the gospel, we cross a boundary and corrupt the very gift of life God has given us.  Even modern psychology and literature often reminds us of the dangers of valueless and self-centered living.

I recently was recommended to watch a movie by a pastor friend entitled ‘The Fortunate Man’.  It was a story written about a 19th century Genius in Sweden, who had a tremendous vision and plan for an engineering project that would change his world.  He went to the University and proved to be a star student, captivating the engineering minds of Europe.  But his intellectual genius, gave him an over-sized ego at a young age,  and he rebelled against his simple and strict Father, who was also a pastor.  Indeed, some rebellion was understandable, as the men were more alike in their respective egos than different.  However, even as a self-made and successful man, he never once attempted to reconcile with his father.  Even when his Father tried to make  contact him, before he died, and also when he learned his father had died, he refused to go back to the funeral or be with his mother. 

This ‘fortunate man’ also fell in love with a young woman, who was very wealthy.  Indeed, it her position and wealth that helped him get where he wanted to go, but even though she loved him dearly, his life continued to be only about his genius, his dream, and his work, not making or having any loving space for another person.  

In the end, he died, as he had lived, all alone.  His wife traveled to come to him him before he died with cancer, but he still died, as this ‘fortunate man’ who most ‘unfortunate’ because he was unable truly love anyone but himself.  His own great genius had corrupted him and robbed him of being able to love.  It’s a fitting picture of what wayward desire can still do to corrupt the human soul—-to rob us of what matters most to us all; to love and be loved. 

It is in a world of such human, moral, social, and spiritual ‘corruptibility’’, Peter reminds Christians to ‘confirm’ their ‘call and election’.    If you do this, he says, ‘you will never stumble’.   If you do this, you will enter ‘the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’

But this is an confusing word, ‘election’, isn’t it?   What does it mean that God ‘elects’ us to be his people to ‘call’ away from the ‘corruption’ of this world?   Does it mean that God elects only certain people to be saved?   Does it means, as some insist, that God also elects in a two-fold way, called ‘double predestination’; saying that while God elects certain people to be saved, he elects other people to be eternally lost.   What does Peter mean to ‘confirm your call and election’?  

Comedian Garry Shandling once commented on the phenomenon of wake-up calls in hotels. He says: “Here’s a little tip from me to you as an experienced traveler: Wake-up calls--one of the worst ways to wake up. The phone rings; it’s loud; you can’t turn it down.” Then with impeccable timing Shandling adds, “I leave the number of the room next to me, and then it just rings kind of quiet, and you hear a guy yell, ‘What are you calling me for?’ Then you get up and take a shower. It’s great.”

God’s call is a ‘call’ about which there should be no confusion.  Peter answers for all of us what God’s it means   We don’t have to speculate.  It’s a call that comes to all who will answer.  Peter reminds his readers for those who are ‘called’ and ‘elected’ God’s ‘divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness’ (v8).  And what God has ‘given us’ comes ‘through the knowledge of him who called by his own glory and goodness’.  

Here we can clearly see God’s call and election isn’t based on God calling certain people and condemning others.  We don’t have to wonder or worry about who’s in or who’s out?  No, the call and election of God is based upon those who will and do answer God’s call and are then elected to receive ‘everything needed for life and godliness’.   As Peter goes on to say again, ‘he has given us, through these things his precious and very great promises, so we can escape from the corruption that is in the world...’, and become ‘participants of the divine nature.’   Anyone can receive this call and election in many different and varied ways that answers God’s ‘glory’ and ‘goodness’.  

Those of you who saw the film Amazing Grace, remember the story of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a British politician who, after his conversion to Christianity, became England’s greatest anti-slavery advocate. It was through his tireless efforts that England eventually outlawed slavery, paving the way for the end of the slave trade in the Western world.

But William Wilberforce almost missed his calling. He almost didn’t answer it.  After his conversion, Wilberforce considered leaving politics for the ministry.  He wasn’t sure how a Christian could live out his faith in “the world.” 

Fortunately, Wilberforce turned to a man named John Newton for guidance. Newton, of course, was the author of the much-loved tune, “Amazing Grace.” Newton was a former slave trader who had renounced the trade after his conversion. Newton convinced Wilberforce that God had called him to remain in politics and exert a Christian influence there.  It was John Newton who physically ‘voiced’ the call for William Wilberforce to champion the cause of freedom for Britain’s slaves.  Newton reinforced the calling, but Wilberforce still had to personally answer and confirm the call to ‘participate’ in who God was calling him to be and what God was electing him to do.

There is certainly nothing that goes against anyone’s own free will when God calls.  Peter says we still have to answer and choose to how we will live our lives, saying in the most simple terms, ‘for this very reason’,SUPPORT your faith with goodness, your goodness with self-control, your self-control with endurance, your endurance with godliness, and godliness with  mutual affection and love.   Peter gives God’s people a unmistakable list of things they, and we too, are called to ‘MAKE EVERY EFFORT’ to support within ourselves. 

God’s call and election can be sure and firm, but even the clarity of God’s call doesn’t mean this ‘election’ is automatic, and it’s certainly not realized or fulfilled in us unless, or until, we choose to make these answer with virtues and behaviors that become realized and real in our own lives.  God chooses us, but we also have to choose God.    God calls and elects us as we are willing to receive his divine power’  while we are making every effort to live into his own ‘divine nature’ he has revealed to us throughJesus Christ   Again, we don’t escape the ‘corruption of this world’ only by God choosing us, but we also must answer choose God, and choose to answer God’s call to live in the ‘knowledge’ given to us as Jesus has called us to live.

In a true story, a man had fallen away and gotten out of the habit of being in  church.  A friend of his decided to give him a call about a tennis match they were scheduling later that week.  He made the telephone call from a phone at his church, which was ‘Christ the Lord Lutheran Church’ where he was, at the time,  attending a meeting.   The man who had fallen away from church,  looked at his Caller I.D. When the call came through.  The I.D. came across his phone in big letters:, “Christ the Lord.” His repressed guilt made him think that Christ himself was calling for him. This turned out to be a clear and specific wake-up call to him in his own personal life.  It’s amazing the things God can use to call us too, that is, ‘If’ we want to and are willing to answer.

This brings us to how Peter concludes this whole discussion with a big ‘IF’.  IF” these things are yours...,  that is, if God’s ‘goodness’ and ‘glory’ are  being realized in you, this will ‘confirm’ that you are ‘increasing’ and maturing in Christ, and it will, he says,  keep you from being an ‘ineffective’ and ‘unfruitful’ Christian.  It will also affirm that you haven’t become ‘blinded’ by this world, and ‘forgetful of the cleansing’ of your own sins, by his precious blood on the cross.

Notice, here in the conclusion that Peter expresses the most obvious.  If we fail to follow through with our initial faith in Jesus with an openness to keep growing, developing and maturing spiritually, we will either prove that we are becoming an ineffective, unfruitful Christian, or, even worst than that, we may ‘confirm’ that we haven’t sincerely responded to God’s calling, choosing, and electing love.  The question that remains is why?  Why aren’t we growing in our life, our faith and our moral and spiritual maturity? 

There is an interesting story that comes out of the Second World War. England and Germany both had state-of-the-art fighter planes. Germany had the Messerschmitt, which was considered to be the world’s fastest fighter plane. The British had the Supermarine Spitfire. The Spitfire was slower than the Messerschmitt. Nevertheless, German pilots were envious of their British counterparts.

You see, the Messerschmitt had been designed to hold the perfect German. Who was the perfect German? Who else but Der Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. Hitler was little more than five feet tall. However, the German pilots who guided the Messerschmitt were considerably taller than 5 feet. So the Germans had to fly in very cramped quarters. But who was going to tell Adolf Hitler that he was not the perfect German? The Messerschmitts were faster, but their pilots were not happy men. (Leonard & Thelma Spinrad, Speaker’s Lifetime Library (Paramus, NJ: Revised & Expanded, 1997, p. 526).

Why were those big men flying little planes? Because of a big ego in a man with a very little soul.  He was the man who thought he had already ‘arrived’, was already who he wanted to be.  That’s what can happen spiritually, emotionally, and morally, when we don’t ‘make every effort to support’ within ourselves, the good that God has made, called and elected us to receive and develop within.  God wants us to stand tall by humbling ourselves as he humbled himself and by giving our lives as he gave his life to save and to serve the world.

So, if you want to answer God’s call and grow in your life and faith, Jesus is still the blueprint to make you a better person and this world a better place.   Let me conclude with the words one of the greatest people who followed Jesus in our modern world,, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a missionary doctor who lived in the last century.  He once said: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

IF you aren’t ‘increasing’ in your faith growing to be like Christ, this may mean that you never really ever ‘picked’ up the phone to answer to what God has called you too.  
But you can do this starting today.   You can begin to make your ‘calling and election’ sure, and  ‘confirm’ it by affirming and acting God’s great offer of grace and love today.   That’s what today is for: “Today is the day of Salvation!”  Today is the accepted time.  How will we escape, if we neglect this great salvation?”  That’s how another New Testament Writer put it.  This is what Peter means too: How will we escape the corruption of this world that can lead to the destruction of any human soul, unless we answer the call of God’s goodness offered to us, which must continue to grow in us, through the grace of Jesus Christ?  Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Grow Into Salvation?

A sermon based upon 1 Peter 2: 2-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday, Nov. 8th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

A middle-aged man was on a Caribbean cruise enjoying his first real vacation in years.

 On the first day out to sea he noticed an attractive woman about his age who smiled at him in a friendly way as he passed her on the deck. This pleased the man greatly.

 That night he managed to get seated at the same table with her for dinner. As the conversation developed, he commented that he had seen her on the deck that day and he had appreciated her friendly smile.   When she heard this, she smiled and commented, "Well, the reason I smiled was that when I saw you I was immediately struck by your strong resemblance to my third husband."

At this he perked up his ears and said, "Oh, how many times have you been married?"

She looked down at her plate, smiled modestly, and answered, "Twice."

What motivates you to have Hope that tomorrow will be better than today?    As we all know too well, it’s not easy to have hope in a world that is transitory, temporal, and passing away. 

Today’s passage from 1st Peter, comes to us in a letter that describes Jesus Christ as the bringer of a ‘living hope’ through his own ‘resurrection...from the dead’ (1:3). These words were written to a church undergoing great trials and suffering 1:6).  But in spite of all they were going through, Peter says there’s still something to be hopeful about. 

So do we.  We have hope in our difficulties and troubles too, don’t we?.   And the great surprise is that this ‘hope’ begins now.  We don’t have to wait to receive salvation in heaven.  We can receive this ‘indescribable’ hope right now.  We can start to ‘grow’ in our salvation right now, in this world, in our own times of trials and troubles.  Hope can grow as our salvation grows.

Now I bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?   How do we grow in our salvation? That’s certainly not how we normally think about it?  We talk about how we have been saved, not how we are being saved or will be saved or even how we can grow in our salvation.  “Brother, Sister, Have you been saved”.  Yes, Maybe, Not yet!  What kind of answer is that?  What does Peter mean, grow in salvation?   This is the what we want to reflect upon today as we continue to consider what it means to ‘grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which, as we will see, also means growing in our salvation.    

First, let’s take a closer look at where this comes from.  Peter is writing to a people who could have lost all hope.   Their world had been pulled out from under them, like a dinning room tablecloth or like a rug under their feet.   After the Romans completely destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD everybody scattered.  The Jews scattered.  The Jewish Christians scattered too.   That’s who Peter is writing to—-the ‘exiled’ churches of the dispersion (1:1).

Most interestingly, Peter says that these unfortunate people have been ‘chosen’, ‘destined’ and ‘sanctified’ to be ‘obedient to Jesus’ (1:2) through this whole ordeal.
Now, who would want to be the generation ‘chosen’ to go through this?  Well who would have wanted to be chosen to go through the Great Depression?  Who would want to be chosen to go to war in Europe, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan?   And who would want to be chosen to survive a terrible accident, or get cancer?  Who would want to serve a God who would even think of choosing you to grow and to be sanctified and made holy (1:15) through something like this? 

I was visiting our Music Leader’s Father in the Nursing Home recently and his roommate was a 47 year old man who had suffered a double stroke.  As he told me about his ordeal, he pointed up to heaven and thanked God for pulling him through.  Wow, what a testimony to faith.  And it’s understandable.  Who would not be praying when your on the edge of life and death.  He is.  I would.  You would too.  But what I didn’t hear him say specifically, is that he believed God had  chosen’ him to be  destined’ and ‘sanctified’ through something difficult as this. 

But that’s the very strange perspective Peter has in this little book.  Peter believes these scattered, struggling, and suffering believers have been  chosen’ to find a ‘living hope’ that is a salvation they can grow up in, even in difficult times.  

This may sound strange to us,  but this suffering and struggling is the very reason they, and we too, need to grow deeper and stronger in our salvation.   When difficult times come we will hurt, hunger and hope for better days, but at the same time, we need, in those trying times, to learn to hunger for God, and to long for, like a baby does, the spiritual milk (2:2) that can nourish our souls and spirits so that we don’t lose hope.

One thing for sure, when hard times come, you can, and probably will lose hope, if you only have Hope in this life.  The life we have is now is tentative and temporary, no matter how permanent it might feel.  This is why we are encouraged to long for, thirst after, and develop a taste for the spiritual milk, as Peter names it.   We can develop a taste for many things, but only the spiritual is eternal, and can feed and nourish our souls.

I was on the phone with a college friend who helps me handle most of my retirement savings.  We were discussing how fast the markets were falling during the Coronavirus threat.   He say, it’s like being a biscuit in the oven, but we have to take the long view and stick it out.  As values fell I wondered was he meaning me or the biscuit.  Then, he said, aren’t you glad we don’t have our trust in money.  Hey, this was my stock-broker and financial advisor talking.

Going back to this idea of growing in salvation, this is what Peter means.  When life turns dark and difficult we had better have something that can and will nourish our spirits.
You and I had better trust in something else, and we’d better learn to grow in our salvation and long for the spiritual milk of God’s eternal, saving truth.

But how do we do this?  Especially when times are difficult, how do we drink from the spiritual milk that can nourish our souls?

Peter says can be nourished when we ‘come to him’, who is ‘a living stone’.   Wow, that’s a change of metaphors, isn’t it?  Peter recommends spiritual milk but then moves to speaking about a ‘living stone’.  

Of course the image of a ‘stone’ brings us Peter’s confident faith in Jesus Christ who is the ‘cornerstone’ (2:6) as the stone who is ‘precious in God’s sight’(2:4).   But is he still precious to them and to us?  As we know, Jesus is the ‘cornerstone’ who was ‘rejected’ by the ‘builders’ of the world then (2:7), and he is still being rejected even now, maybe even more so..  So, how and why should we ‘come to him’?  Why should we, especially in times of trouble and trial, trust that God is also at work through Jesus to bring healing, redemption and to help us find salvation or to grow in our salvation even in difficult times?  Isn’t this the question on our minds during the recent Coronavirus outbreak.  Does God really care?  Does Jesus make any real difference?  Why should we ‘come to him’ as our ‘living stone’?

I don’t think there is any argument I can make to convince anyone that should still ‘come to’ Christ and make him our living hope.  People today do what they want to do.  People think what they want to think.  I can’t make you, convince you, or argue you into coming to Christ, or staying with Jesus to make him your true Lord.  Even the word ‘Lord’ sounds archaic and overbearing in our world.  And as long we are healthy or have other things to do, what does hope in Jesus mean, except when you’re sick or dying?   Why ‘come to him’ when you can do it by your self?

Even though I have no word or argument to convince you, I do want to refer you to something that interesting that Peter writes.   In 1 Peter 1:10–12 (NRSV),  Peter explains that ‘this salvation’ who hoped for by ancient ‘prophets who prophesied’ about the ‘sufferings destined for Christ (the Messiah)’.   He’s referring to that great Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53, where it speaks of the one whose ‘punishment that makes us whole’ (53:5).  This was the great hope of Israel’s prophets, in the midst of Israel’s failure and sufferings that somehow, through someone, God would bring redemption and hope.   

That’s was the hope of the great prophets,  but when Jesus actually came, the Jewish world, for the most part, rejected him.   It was only a very small group who accepted his message.  It’ was only to a much smaller group that he appeared as a true teacher and as the resurrected Lord over death and life.   These were the few who saw Jesus in his full ‘glory’.   The rest of us, even today, can only receive the truth ‘by the Holy Spirit’ (1:12).  Only the ‘Spirit’ can ‘testify’ and ‘convince’ us of this hope they, and now, we all have been given through Jesus Christ.  The ‘angels longed to see this hope’, Peter says, but what about us.   We are made free to receive or to reject him.

The truth is, as Peter says, it was the same Spirit who inspired the prophets to hope for the Christ, who is at work to inspire us to receive this hope.   It is only by and through the Holy Spirit that any of us ever ‘come to him’.  The world of Jesus’ day was given a choice to make, by the Spirit.  Every since that day, up until our own, the world has been given this hope, to either receive or reject.  As the gospel of John says,  He came unto his own, and his own did not receive him, but to as many as did receive him, he gave them the power to become children of God (Jn. 1:12).

We are free to receive, or to reject him!  Why is this so?  Why does God not ‘prove’ himself?  Why does Jesus not speak directly to us?  Why are we given such haunting freedom; so that we can not only known enough to trust, but we also don’t know enough so that we can so freely reject Jesus as the ‘living stone’ and ‘cornerstone’ of our lives?  Why are we allowed to go on living our own way?  Why are we able to see other options?  Why can we seem to get along just fine without him?  

Didn’t Peter answer that early on in this letter, when he wrote that the ‘genuineness’ of our ‘faith’ that is ‘more precious than gold?  It is genuine faith that God is after, because this what really matters; not winning debates, not scoring points, and not proven facts, but faith that is just as good for tomorrow as it is for today.  This is what links the Old Testament to the New and this is what links Faith from tomorrow to faith for today?  It must come from both the need and desires of our hearts.

Popular writer, preacher and teacher, Len Sweet spoke of once preaching at a large church and wearing one of those portable microphones so he could wander about and yet everyone could still hear.   When he started speaking, however, it became clear that the microphone wasn't working. After a few futile adjustment attempts, the pastor finally stood up and shouted to the back of the church, "Will someone please turn on Dr. Sweet?!"

What does it take to turn you on? What gets you going, what keeps you going, what pulls you onward every day?  Studies show that American are working more and more hours at their jobs, but that we are also spending more time participating in leisure-time activities. There are more community baseball, soccer, basketball teams than there have ever been. We flock to fancy, state-of-the-art, workout equipment gyms.  We want more, we do more and we demand more and more to stay engaged and to stay ‘turned on’. 

But it is hard to stay turned on, totally fulfilled, on-fire-for-life, by a baseball game or a new boat.  Looking for that long-range, never-lets-you-down ‘turn-on’ is what leads some of us to abuse alcohol, to turn-on with drugs, to keep moving from lover to lover, to get lost in the dream of a big score at the gambling casinos. As Dr. Sweet comments, ‘Sooner or later each of these turn-ons loses its power and leaves us financially reeling, physically careening, and frantically searching’ for something new to switch us on.

1 Peter acknowledges that there will be times in the lives of all Christians we will experience trials.  You can’t stay turned and tuned into everything, or you’ll experience overload and burnout.  And if you tune into all the wrong, useless things you’ll experience another kind of problem; a malnourished, starving, and unfulfilled soul.  But When you find your hope and joy what brings ‘indescribable joy’, then you find a eternal abundance ‘builds’ you up rather than tears you down.  In verse 8, Peter simply states: "Although you haven’t seen him, You love him, you believe in him (1:8), this the love that brings with it an indescribable and glorious joy.  And do you also see that this joy is brought on by the salvation of your souls, and your growth in this salvation right here and right now.

This joy comes now because Love turns us on, because Forgiveness turns us on.  Because Hope turns us on. Because Compassion turns us on and because Faith turns you on, and the outcome of our faith turns us on, and will not let us down.

Don’t you recall how down and out those disciples on the Emmaus road were, until they realized they were walking with Jesus all alone?  Do you realized how doubtful Thomas was until he realized by touching Jesus it really was Jesus?  And don’t you realize how all those disciples were frightful and confused until Jesus appeared and set them into the world, to preach and even to die.  They went forward, overcoming all there fears, not because they wouldn’t die, but they were ‘turned on’ and ‘tuned in’ to the Spirit of Jesus alive in them. 

What Spirit is alive in you? Will you tune into Jesus and let his Spirit turn you on to life in him?   Will come to him and let his joy guide and bless you with life?   A fifteenth century poem points to Christ’s power that comes and invites himself into our lives:
Thou shalt know him when he comes
not by any din of drums –
nor the vantage of airs –
nor by anything he wears.

Neither by his crown – nor his gown.
For his presence known shall be by the holy harmony
that his coming makes in you.    Fifteenth century, anonymous

Peter says this ‘holy harmony’ that brings Christ’s indescribable joy to us, is not only the ‘outcome’ of faith in heaven or in the eternal life that is still to come, but it’s in the quality of life that we are invited into now.  It’s not the ‘turn on’ of eternity, which seems to excite few today, but it’s the promise of who you can be and become today, right now, through faith in Jesus.  As Peter concludes in our text:  
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10 Once you were not a people,  but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:9–10, NRSV).

Here, Peter is reminding them, and us, what growing in faith finally means:  While many come to Jesus to get to heaven, we ‘grow in salvation ‘ when we ‘come to him’ because of what he does for us now, and for what we can do for him now.   
We are chosen, now. 
We are priests to each other, now.
We proclaim him, now. 
We understand that we have received his mercy, grace, and goodness, now!      

Do you understand what he has done for you, now?  Do you understand what you are, and who you are, right now?   This is why you ‘long’ for the Spiritual?  This is why you ‘come to him’ without any proof.  You long for him, and you come to him, because in and through Jesus Christ the loving foundation of life and the entire reason for the universe meets you in ‘cross-shaped’ love.  God calls us with his love, forgive us with his love, and he calls us to be God’s priestly people showing love and shining light in the world.  This is what’s supposed to turn us on, and give us even more hope, as we lead others to find hope and a name in him.

Years ago, a husky, healthy pastor retired at 62. He began to draw his pension and Social Security, but he grew restless and began looking for work. He answered an ad from the zoo. The zookeeper said, "We need a gorilla. Ours just died, and do you know how hard it is to get gorillas these days? We skinned our dead gorilla and made a suit with a zipper. It looks like it would fit you just fine."

The retired pastor liked the idea since he spent a lot of time entertaining children, so he gave it a try. He did well and soon was adept at climbing a tree and even swinging a little from the branches. One day he climbed too high and swung too hard and fell over the fence into the den where a lion was sleeping. The pastor leaped up and ran to the fence screaming for help. The lion said, "Oh, shut up. You're not the only retired pastor around here."

I sure hope I’m not the only one working around here.  That’s what ‘growing in salvation’ must mean, that we’re all ‘dressed up’ in ‘costumes’ of grace and working, showing, and shining our light around here.   We’re all surrounded by God's grace and love, and I hope I’m also surrounded by ‘priests’ in lion suits, trying to show and reflect the love that I want to reflect back to me.   This is what allows us, me, you, and others to continue to ‘grow’ in this wonderful salvation, given to us through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Let us Love...God is Love”

A sermon based upon 1 John 4: 7-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday, October 25thth, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

What makes the world go ’round?  What makes people ‘tick’?   What makes ‘life’ worth living?  

Recently, I watch a movie about the life of Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who became one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad.   Early in the story, Harriet had run away from her cruel master and was being pursued by a posse with dogs.  She was surrounded on a bridge over a rushing river.  She knew that to jump could mean that she would drown and die.  When her Slave Master confronted her,  she looked at him, then the water, and she jumped.   To her, in that moment, to have freedom was worth the risk of dying.    She survived, and she eventually brought almost 900 others to freedom too.   She also became the first woman in American military history to lead an armed militia during the Civil War.   For Harriet, to have freedom ‘made her world go around’.  

In our global economy, many people would say that money is what makes the world go ’round.   During the Coronavirus scar, the number one preoccupation of many was what was happening to the stock value.   In other words, what good is ‘freedom’ if you don’t have money to spend to do what you want?  

Others might also say that power is makes the world go ’round.   This is a political year and there’s been a lot of debate and mud-slinging too.  Both political parties have spent millions trying to gain the office of President.   Why do Billionaires try to get elected, and why do people spend much more money that the job will pay to gain their office?   The hunger for power, status, and recognition and status in human DNA.

Another major headline in recent years has been Sex Abuse and the Me-Too Movement.   What we have known for a long time is that Sex sells.  In an attempt to make even more money from it and to have ‘sex appeal’, the result is more sex crimes, more sexual confusion, more pornography and more degradation and corruption of God’s gift for marriage.    Today, pornography is now multi-billion-dollar business. Porn web sites draws over 100 million people into its trash a month.   For much of the world, Sex is what makes the world go around.

However, by studying the New Testament closely, and especially reading this small this book we call First John, you find a whole different understanding.   Taking his que from the teaching of Jesus, John would say that ‘love makes the world’ go around.   Love for God, and then love of Neighbor and to love yourself too.  

Reading this Bible, especially this book of the Bible,  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote:  This kind of love is the medicine of life, the never failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, and for all the miseries and vices of the human race.  The religion we long to establish in the world, is a religion of love and joy and peace.”  

Makes you almost want to be a Methodist, doesn’t it?   But we already knew this, or should have known it.   For in this very brief New Testament Letter of John written to a very young church, we find some of the most important ‘love’ language in all the New Testament .  We also find one of the most concepts of the entire Bible, repeated twice in today’s text: “God is Love” (4:8,16).

Let’s start out with the first line of our text, which points to everything I want to say and want you to take home with you today: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God”. 

We’ve been talking about Spiritual growth and maturity; growing in the grace of the Lord Jesus.   This is what John is discussing.  His point is that when we are ‘born of God’ and when we ‘know God’ we will want to learn to love like God has loved us.   This is the prospect of God’s love.   It has that kind of impact on us.  As this text draws to a conclusion it will also say:  WE LOVE BECAUSE GOD FIRST LOVED US” (19). 

Love is the goal of all Christian Faith.   We have faith in God so that we can learn to love God, to love others, and to love ourselves.  This is why love is the most important facet of our faith.   This is why John says “God is love”.   But don’t misunderstand.   This doesn’t say ‘Love is God’, as if when you love you can do anything you wish.   No, this text means that ‘God is (like) love’ and true love is God-like. 

John could have also said God is ‘Faith’, or God is ‘Hope’.   Love is what happens when you know God.  Expressing true, faithful, compassionate love is the most important way to understand the nature of God.    The true nature of God is being revealed through the receiving and the giving of love.    

To put it simply: Love points us to God, just as God points us to love.  This is why love is so important in our lives and for the practice of true faith.  If we don’t get love right, then we don’t have the right understanding of God.   Love defines God and God defines love.   And it is so important for us get love right, because when love is missing in a person’s life, all kinds of things can go wrong. 

Don’t we know, by now, more than ever, what kind of things can go wrong in a human beings’ psyche when there is a loss and lack of love shown to them?    Aren’t we seeing it being reflected in our age of gender and sexual confusion?  What we need to understand is all that is going on in our culture today is not a result of willful sin and evil.  There is, of course, some of that going on too, but mainly what we see loose in this world is people being confused, broken, hurt because they have not been loved and do not know that God’s love is the foundation of everything.   When people look at themselves in the mirror and can’t stand who they are, and finally can’t feel secure in their own skin, and don’t know what gender they are what we see mostly see is not someone deciding to rebel against God, but we see someone who is broken because of human brokenness now bringing hurt and harm into their own souls.  

We also see this loss of love in in people who don’t know what sex is about.   We see this loss of true love in people who hurt themselves and who hurt others irreparably, which is too dark for us to mention in a polite, family-oriented way.   The point I’m making is not to judge or condemn people for their confusion, but to try to understand what is behind a large part of this.   When love goes wrong, when people don’t feel loved, when families don’t love as they should, when communities don’t create compassionate structures, when churches don’t live and preach love, as they should, then most everything else in life can go wrong  too.  

For when we miss the experience of real, meaningful love something will always go missing in our lives.  Without love, we can wander aimlessly until we find a way to fill that empty void within.  And it is only true, unconditional, compassionate and divinely inspired love that can fill the broken human spirit with what we need most of all.
While we can miss out on a lot of things---we can be poor, we can have physical challenges, or we have other problems.  But we can still recover and have a purposeful and meaningful life in spite of these kinds of problems.   But without love, as Paul said , we are nothing.  Without love, we have nothing, because love is everything.  Love is, as John Lennon wrote, ‘all we really need.’

When I was a teen, I was a late bloomer when it came to liking the Beatles.  And there was only one 45 single that I ever owned by them, and I played it over and over again:  All You Need Is Love!   Love is all you need.”  I really liked the message of that song.  The message matched what I believed, even if the Beatles didn’t mean it exactly that way.   But again, what kind of love do we all really need?   Can we name it?   Can we say what love is and what love looks like?

For sure, love is the most important relational agenda of every person, every family and every church.  I don’t think we’ll find many who disagree.   But again, what is this love that is ‘all we need’?   That’s what need to try to define first.   

Love is most important in life.
The pre-occupation with love in this small letter is not an accident, nor is it incidental.  It’s very intentional.  John explains in his opening how the church is on the front line of what it means to ‘touch’ or experience the truth of Jesus first-hand in some concrete and experiential ways.   We get can reach out and touch Jesus through the genuine, relational, and loving fellowship we have with each other in the body of Christ.

Isn’t that how we all get to know love in our lives?  We don’t learn about love from a book, but through a parent, a family, a friend, a church or a community.    John Powell talks about the importance of receiving love.    In his book Why I’m Afraid Love?,  he spoke of how we all learn about love through our earliest experiences in life.   Most every character trait we will ever have is already formed by the time we are seven years old.  Nothing new really comes to us after that. 

Powell’s point is this:   Everything that turns out (or doesn’t) in our adult lives is shaped by the love we experience in our childhood.  This is why we must not only love and bless the children with love, we must give them love so that love continues to flow throughout all the relationships in our culture.  The rest of their lives is based on the loving experience they have in their young lives and what they do and don’t do later in life will be based upon the love they knew or didn’t know at a very young age.

Love also important for the church.    The one single human institution that is most responsible for both modeling and creating the atmosphere for becoming a loving loving families and relationships is the church.   If we in the church mess up showing and sharing love, how will the world know what love and what love means?  We have to get love right.  This is why John is so emphatic about love as the mark of true knowledge of God.  Whoever loves, knows God.  Whoever doesn’t love, doesn’t know God.  John says that the gospel truth is as simple as that.   

I’m so glad I grew up in a loving home, and in most cases a loving church.  But I’ll have to also admit my family wasn’t perfect, nor was the church or churches I knew.   Both were very human places, full of great potential and sometimes containing problems and challenges.   But in both home and church it was the continuing and constant commitment to love each other, even when we couldn’t do it very well, that got us through even the worst and most difficult times.  

What I learned in those difficult times is that when you have a genuine promise and commitment to love; even when you share misunderstandings and disagreements, you will still get through even the most challenging times.  But if you don’t have a commitment to loving and caring about each other, about listening to each other and trying to understand, even the best of families and the best of churches can fall apart and can be difficult to recover from the hurt and the pain.

I can think of several situations when I was both and or knew about churches struggling to get through a lack of love.   A couple of those churches have never fully recovered from the brokenness and lost of trust they experienced.   And so often, or should I say most often, in those churches the issues were trivial,  but the situations became hurtful, even dire, mostly because people would not stay together and do the challenging, difficult, but also very rewarding work of love.

Love always takes work; in a family, in a marriage, and in a church too.  For you see, the church functions very much like a family.  The difference is, however, that a church family is voluntary, and you can walk away from it when things get tough.   That’s unfortunate too, because the greatest growth and maturity comes when we have to stay together, work together and pray together whether we agree with each other or not.

Do you know why it’s so important for humans to do the challenging, but rewarding work of love?   Our text points to this.   Doing the hard work of love pays off.  It pays great dividends.   John says love makes us complete in everything we have the potential to become.  This is he means he says that ‘love is perfected in us’ (12).  What kind of ‘perfection’ is this?

Self-Assurance comes from love.
Love gives us confidence, makes us sure about who we are, who we belong to, and what matters most in life.   As John writes in this text, when we love, we gain the certainty and the assurance that we need to know that we are indeed, children of God.

We see this same kind of assurance developing in children who grow up in stable, strong, loving families, don’t we?   When a child knows they are loved they come to believe they can be, do, and accomplish most anything.  Great feelings of confidence and self-assurance remain a part of their whole childhood and adult life all because when they were most vulnerable, they knew, beyond any doubt that they were love and are loved, unconditionally, without any hesitation.

Spiritual assurance and maturity come from love too.
In order to love, as John says in this letter, a Christian must receive love.  We love because God first loved us.  And when we know love. We can love and will love others.  Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God’ (7).   We know God because of God’s love, and we know love, because of God’s love for us: “God’s love was revealed in this way…God sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins….God loved us this much (9-10).   It is based on this ‘revelation of love’ in Jesus on the cross, that love can be ‘perfected in us’ (12), John says.  

We can’t see God, but we can and do see what God does for us.  WHAT HAS GOD DONE FOR US?:   God loves us.  Jesus died to reveal that love, so that we can come to trust in God’s love in Jesus and so that God can live in us, and love can grow be ‘perfected’ in us as we love others (12).   And God’s love is about growing up, reaching maturity and being made ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’...John says.   When we love we ‘know that we abide in him and he in us’ (4:13). 

 This is the self-assurance and the spiritual assurance that God’s love gives: ‘God abides in those who confess that Jesus in the Son of God...’ (4:15).   This is where it perfection and maturity in love starts and is headed: 
----We ‘confess Jesus’ so that ‘we believe the love God has for us...God is love (16-17).  
-----When we ‘believe’ and trust in the love God has for us, through Jesus, then we know God abides in us, and we can sure of God’s love and we can abide in that ‘love’ (16).  

Here’s again is the full progression of emotional, spiritual, and relational growth and maturity:  God loves. 
We see that love revealed in Jesus. 
We receive that love and abide in that love,
and then this love abides in us, so that we love God and we love those we are with.  
This is how we grow in love and this is how love makes us grow as people and in God.  Without love there is no perfection, no maturity, and no growth.

The retired Presbyterian pastor, Ernest Campbell, told about a Woman who went to a pet store to purchase a parrot. She took her new pet home but returned the next day complaining that the parrot has not said a word.

"Does it have a mirror?" asked the storekeeper. "Parrots are more talkative when they can see themselves." So, she bought a mirror.

The next day she was back, announcing that the bird still wasn't speaking. "What about a ladder?" the storekeeper. "Parrots like to walk up and down ladders." She bought the bird a ladder and went home. Next day, she was back. Still no talk.

The storekeeper suggested a little swing for the cage. She bought one of those, but still no talk.

The next day she returned to the store to announce that the bird had died. The storekeeper said, "I'm terribly sorry to hear that. Did the bird every say anything before it died?"

"Yes," said the lady. "It said, “Don't they sell any food down there at the pet store?"'

Love is our human soul food.  If we don’t have love.  We don’t grow and we die spiritually, emotionally, and perhaps physically too.   That’s why love makes life go around.  That’s the merry-go-round of love.  Don’t try to live or leave home without it?   Without love, you’ll become nothing.  Life will be worth nothing.  You will have no hope, no faith, and of course, no love.   Without love you will be eternally, finally, and fully lost.  Without love, you have kinds of stuff, but you will still die.

The best line, outside of ‘God is Love’, is what John concludes about growing in love, when he says, “THERE IS NO FEAR IN LOVE…BUT PERFECT LOVE CASTS OUT FEAR...WHOEVER FEARS HAS NOT REACHED PERFECTION.”

When it comes to spiritual growth, growing in grace, and maturing in both body, spirit and soul, you have to ‘overcome fear’ and the way you overcome ‘fear’ is to mature, grow, and develop life through love.   Love gives us the power to realize our full potential; Life’s prospect is realized with love.   Love also gives us the power to reach our perfection and maturity in love.   And finally, love’s power is what gives us the power to overcome out greatest ‘fear’.   When we are loved, we don’t have to fear God, we don’t have to fear others, and we don’t have to fear ‘fear itself’.  Perfect love casts out fear!  

How does love give us the power to ‘cast out fear’?   Again it goes back to this word ‘perfect’ and ‘perfection’.  It’s not just any kind of love that casts out fear.  It’s perfect love   What does perfect love mean?  It’s doesn’t mean love that doesn’t have struggles, flaws, or problems.  Three times in this text he speaks of the ‘perfection’ of love (12, 17, 18), but this word ‘perfection’ doesn’t mean what we might think it means.   The word in Greek simple means to be ‘complete’.   The power of love is what enables you to grow spiritually, grow emotionally.  To be ‘perfect’ means you are becoming the mature as the person God gave you the potential to be.

So, understanding what this word ‘perfect’ means, we can now fully understand what John is saying about ‘perfect love’.   We could also say, ‘perfecting love’.   What John means in all this passage is that we only show growth, maturity and progress in life, when we are growing and becoming complete in love.  

Thus, growing up in life is not simply about knowing stuff, doing stuff, experiencing stuff, or having stuff; but growing up and maturing in life is about reaching ‘perfection in love’ (18).   And the biggest step is emotional maturity is to overcome our fears; about life, about others, about death, and about God.   It is growing, perfecting love that is the power in our life that ‘casts out’ our fear’.   Without love you can’t move forward in life, in love, or in faith.   Without love you get stuck and you can have nothing.  But with love, you can become everything God has given you life to become.

But remember, as we conclude, John is especially challenging the young church with this message about becoming mature in and through love.   He is reminding them that  God’s love is only being ‘perfected’ in us when we ‘love one another’ as God loves us.   We, who have received love, must show love, so that love can be made mature in us, and God’s love can be known and received by others.  

I mentioned John Powell’s book,  Why I Am Afraid to Love?”  Near the end of the book he tells the story of an American Jewish and Communist Philosopher, Mike Gold.  When Communistic hopes came into disrepute in this country, he wrote a book, “A Jew Without Knowing It”.   In that book, Gold described his childhood in New York City.

He tells how his mother always gave him clear instructions never to wander beyond four certain streets.  She could not tell him it was a Jewish ghetto.  She could not tell him he had the wrong kind of blood in his veins.  Children do not understand prejudice.  Prejudice is a poison that must gradually seep into a person’s blood stream and heart.

In telling his story, Mike Gold told how one day, his curiosity got to him and lured him beyond the four streets, outside his ghetto.  And like his mother feared he was accosted by a group of older boys who asked him a puzzling question:  “Hey, kid, are you a kike?” 
“I don’t know.”  He had never heard the word before.   The older boys came back with a paraphrase of their question.
“Are you a Christ-killer?”  
Again, the small boy responded, “I don’t know.”  He had never heard that word either.
So the older boys asked him where he lived, and trained like most small boys to recite their address in the case of being lost, Mike Gold told them where he lived.
“So you are a Christ-killer.  Well, you’re in Christian territory and we are Christians.  We’re going to teach you a lesson.  We’re going to teach you to stay where you belong!”

And so they beat the little boy, bloodied his face, tore his clothes and sent him home with this jeering litany:  “We are Christians and you killed Christ!  Stay where you belong!   We are Christians, and you killed Christ… Stay…!

When he arrived home, Mike Gold was asked by his frightened mother: “What happened to you, Mike?”
Again, he could only answer, “I don’t know.”
And so the mother washed the blood from his face of her little boy and put him into fresh clothes and took him into her lap as she sat in a rocker, and tried to soothe him.  Mike Gold recalled much later in life that he raised his small battered lips to the ear of his mother and asked:  “Mama, who is Christ?”

Mike Gold died in 1967.  His last meals were taken at a Catholic Charity house in New York City, run by Catholic worker, Dorothy Day.   She once said of him: “Mike Gold eats every day at the table of Christ, but he will probably never accept him because of the day he first heard his name.”  And so he died. (Why Am I Afraid to Love, Powell, p. 115-117).

One thing the story of Mike Gold constantly says to me is that the only way to share, preach and live the true gospel; the good news of Jesus is to be Christ-like through being God’s love to another person.  When ‘love’ isn’t real, or love is practiced, and when ‘hate’ is practiced instead of love,  the real ‘Christ-killer’ isn’t the person who doesn’t know, or doesn’t believe in God or in Jesus, the real ‘Christ-killer’ is the person who does not have or show love.  

The only good news in this story about Mike Gold, is that about 100 years ago, Christians were hating Jews.   Now, I hope we’ve moved beyond this.  But there are still come other people who need love too.   We need to exchange our hate for love for them too, and overcome fear, so that we love.   For it’s not just John who commands love, it’s also Jesus, the Lord of Love himself, who says: “By this, shall people know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”     Amen.