Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"out of darkness, into His light"

my sermon from youth sunday (10/31):



good morning, family, and happy reformation day. in paul’s first letter to timothy, he commands the young pastor to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” and that’s what we plan on doing today. in a few moments, a few of us will be reading through the first letter from john, because it’s a lot better than what you’d hear from me (though that may be an unfair comparison). but before we do, a little background.
when we were planning for this morning, the youth decided today’s theme should be light. now light is a prominent theme in the Scriptures. in the beginning, God said “let there be light,” and it was so. during the exodus, God led the israelites as a pillar of fire by night, giving them light. in the psalms, God’s Word is called “a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path.” in Isaiah and the Gospel according to john, Jesus is often called the Light. we see this theme all the way to the last chapter of Revelation, where we are told that in the new jerusalem the people of God will “need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.” so from beginning to end, the Bible is filled with light, especially as a metaphor for God and His glory.
as we talked about this, my mind was immediately taken to 1 John. the apostle john, who wrote this letter toward the end of the first century, wrote it to various churches in the middle east, many of which had been long-established by this point. but as the case has been throughout every age, certain people were trying to lead the church astray through false teaching, and some of the followers of the Way (as Christians were called back then) had their faith shaken by these men. so john is writing for three main reasons. first, at the beginning of the letter, he says he is writing “so that our joy may be complete,” that is, so that he may rejoice in Christ in us. at the beginning of chapter 2, he states his purpose as “so that you may not sin.” then toward the end of the letter he says, “i write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” the original recipients would have first heard these words, as most of them couldn’t read. so as this letter is read to you, as it was to them, keep the apostle’s purpose in mind.
there are a few ancient traditions in the church that i’d like us to follow today, done out of respect for the Scriptures. first, when the last reader is done, she will say “this is the Word of the Lord,” and we will respond, “thanks be to God,” because this is truly God-breathed, and because we are grateful for it. second, if you are able stand a while, please stand with us for the reading of God’s Word.


you may be seated. now if none of you had any plans for the next few weeks, then perhaps i could treat this letter as it deserves. unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time, so i’ll summarize, and leave the rest to the Spirit and your own study. this letter constantly splits the world into two groups, and i think of all the ways that it describes these two, the best is in the middle of chapter 1, where they’re called darkness and light. john defines light for us: “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Who God is, His nature and character, are the definition of spiritual light.
darkness is also pretty easy to point out: it’s where light isn’t. in this letter, john often describes it as the absence of something; that those in darkness do not have the truth, are not of God, do not know God, do not love Him or have His love, and have no life in them. these are not pleasant things. and yet this is the world around us, and indeed, it is even in parts of us, where the light of God has not yet shined. i don’t know how much you follow pop culture, but have you noticed that it’s become cool to be “dark” and “edgy”? have you seen how many movies come out that are praised for their dark tone and their themes of darkness and death? our world seems to love darkness, to promote it. and this is fitting, for it says in john’s Gospel, “the Light [that is, Jesus] has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their works were evil.”
now if i took a poll, i imagine most of you would be with me in feeling some conviction as this letter was read. every time i’ve read through it, the Holy Spirit presses upon me how i’m not living up to the fullness of our calling. it makes statements like “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” and, “whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” now i must admit, i’ve failed at these things, regularly. i find myself at times looking like the rest of the world, loving the things of this world. i’ve done things, in secret and in public, that are neither righteous, nor loving to my brothers and sisters, and ultimately not honoring or loving to God. i’ve acted out of pride and lust and jealousy and greed. and now i’m reading this letter, which is supposed to assure me that i have been born of God and know Him, and i’m feeling ripped apart by it! and if we could be honest, i don’t think i’m alone here. i know there are those of you sitting out there who feel like i do in the reading of this letter. so has john failed? has the Spirit missed His mark in writing this?
the answer, brothers and sisters, is a resounding “no”. this book holds us to a high standard indeed. but don’t lose its main thrust. this letter, like the rest of the Bible is about one thing: the glory of the saving work of God in Christ on the cross, and all that that means for us. that’s why it says in chapter 1, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” and in chapter 2, “i am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. but if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” yes, he’s writing and instructing and exhorting so that we may not sin, for God will have no part with sinners. but that’s why Christ came! as john says in chapter 4, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” that is, Jesus is the wrath-bearing, righteousness-providing, God-appeasing sacrifice for where we’ve fallen short.
again, i say to you, that john writes these things to give us assurance of salvation, and for our joy to be full, and so we may not sin. and these three ends are one for the Christian. if you continue in sin, if you walk in darkness, then you will not have fullness of joy, which can be found only in God, and you will not be saved from judgment but prove that you are not of God. you will fall away from God, for sin is powerful in darkness, and like mold or germs it kills and spreads. so too sin, when left unconfessed, unrepented, will slowly kill you from the inside out. and “little” sins, hidden sins, will lead to “bigger” and public ones, ‘til one day the person you see in the mirror will reflect the devil more than Jesus. c.s. lewis said it better than i could, that each of us “may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet if at all only in a nightmare. All day long we are in some degree [moving to and] helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.” in every little act and thought, you are either growing in godliness, or feeding your sinful nature; becoming more like Jesus or like satan.
but Christ, the true light of the world, has come. in Him is the power to kill sin. so we are urged, and so i plead with you now, come into the light. walk with God. take the areas of your life that you’ve left in darkness, the ones that you’ve refused to let God in, and bring them into His wonderful light.
i’m not saying this is going to be easy. it’s going to hurt. there have been times, in confession to both God and man, where i have felt agony over the guilt and shame of what i’ve done. but Christ took away our guilt by nailing it to the cross. and we can’t let our shame win out over our pursuit of joy in God. we must imitate Jesus, “who…endured the cross, despising the shame,” as Hebrews tells us. why did He do it, and why should we? “for the joy set before Him.” Christ looked ahead to the new creation, with the throngs of the saved rejoicing around Him, and He said “that is worth this.” so we must say to shame, “i despise you. i will not obey you. i will confess and repent in spite of you, because my joy in God will be greater than anything you can do to me.”
i’m not expecting you to walk out of here perfect, never to sin again. God isn’t either. that’s why chapter three doesn’t say “no one born of God sins,” because even a good tree will bear a few bad apples. but what does it say? “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning.” it’s not talking about one time, even though that one instance would be enough to condemn us. it’s talking about those who sin over and over without remorse, without regret, without confession or apology. those who have not been born of God do not love Him, indeed they cannot, and so they make no effort to live for Him. but we who do love God seek to do as He commands, to trust Him and love our brothers. this is not only out of a sense of duty or obligation, but out of delighting in Him, wanting to know Him more. and when we fail, we feel awful, because we have offended Him about Whom we care most.
as i said earlier, today is reformation day. almost 500 years ago today, a young monk named martin luther nailed into a church door 95 statements about the Christian faith and our walk with Jesus. and the first of them is this: the whole of the Christian life is one of repentance. this means that until we see Jesus face to face, until He comes back or calls us home, we strive against sin. even the apostle paul confessed “not that i … am already perfect, but … one thing i do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, i press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” paul, and luther, and untold numbers of our brothers and sisters who have come before us got this: that in this life we fight, we make war on sin, that we may increase our joy in God and have closer fellowship with Him, now and into eternity.
so i invite you, come into the light. as james wrote, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.” if you want to talk to someone afterward, look around you: we are brothers and sisters in Christ, here to love and do life with one another. it may be difficult, but it’s worth it.
one last thought: most of you are familiar with Christ’s saying, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” i would argue that one of the clearest ways to reflect the light of Christ in your life is to be open and honest about your sins, your failures, your screw-ups. i encourage you to ask for forgiveness from those you’ve wronged, and give it to those who have wronged you, and to let people see your sorrow and witness your turning from your mistakes and to Jesus. that’s part of walking in the light, and reflecting it to the world. let us encourage each other in these things, that God may smile upon us, and work among us, and that the world may know we follow King Jesus.

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