Friday, January 6, 2006

Promises, Promises

Good Morning. It was very kind of you to ask me back – especially considering that the last time I was here I preached on the wrong passage of scripture! I think I have the right passage this morning: John…chapter 14. But before we focus on that scripture, please permit me to tell you a true story.

When my children were young, one of the things that I tried to do was to create a sense of order in the house. And, in order to have order, you need to have orders – or commands – or rules. And one of the rules that I tried to impose on my children was one of the rules that I had grown up with as a child: no food in the living room. The last thing Mom wanted was to find months-old cookies slowly turning green under the sofa cushions.

So imagine how I felt one day after dinner. As I was shuttling between the kitchen and the dining room, putting things away and preparing the dishes for washing, I walked into the dining room, and there in the living room was my youngest daughter and her little brother Nathanael in a bout of no-holds-barred wrestling. Now Nathanael, even though he is younger, was a bit of a brute, and sure enough, he was on top.

“Nathanael!” I barked, “Get off your sister right away.”
Well, I’m sure he didn’t obey me “right away” but we can pretend he did for this story. So up jumped Nathanael, eyes blazing, little fist extended toward his father in triumph.
And as he opened his fist, he explained the incident with a sense of supreme (and sincere) justification:
“Meg had a cookie in the living room!”
And there, falling between his fingers was the jam-covered, cream-filled evidence. As my gaze traveled from my son to my guilt-stricken daughter, I could see a trail of more such evidence ground into the carpet.

Let me highlight a few salient points. First, the reason behind – in fact the whole point of – the no-cookies-in-the-living-room rule was precisely to avoid jam and cream ground into the carpet. I wonder if we, as Christians, in our self-righteous enthusiasm to enforce some rules, sometimes defeat the reason behind those very rules… What is the reason for the rules of scripture? Well, the Bible doesn’t always tell us what the reasons for the rules are, but it is possible that a hint of that reason is found in Ephesians 4:3 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if the very reason for some of the rules that we fight about was actually so that we wouldn’t fight at all!

But there is a second, perhaps even more important point to the story: you see, the no-food-in-the-living-room rule was reinforced oh, maybe once every few weeks. There was another rule, one that was so important that it was reinforced daily, sometimes even hourly. Unfortunately, Nathanael once again conveniently forgot the don’t-beat-on-your-sister rule.

I wonder if we ever feel that the maintenance and enforcement of lesser rules is sufficient grounds to break the important rules… Actually, I find it amazing how people, even well-meaning people, and especially well-meaning Christian people, can and do take rules, set one against the other without noticing, and in so doing manage to both defeat the reason for the rules in the first place and break the more important rule?

So which are the important rules? Well, Jesus was asked that question, wasn’t he? And how did he answer?
• Love the Lord, your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (and the second was like it:)
• Love your neighbor as yourself.
I wonder how often God must be heart-broken to see these important rules get overlooked in favor of the enforcement of lesser rules? God does not ask us to be responsible for other people’s obedience. This is a principle that modern Christianity struggles with. Just because there is a command in scripture does not mean that Christians should prosecute those who break that command. He simply asks obedience of us. He asks us to love each other – to love our neighbor; to love our family; to love our co-workers. And even to love our sisters. 

Please turn with me in your Bibles to the fourteenth chapter of John. Let’s pray…

As many of you have noticed, the gospel of John is written quite a bit differently than the other gospels – there are many layers to this gospel. But this morning, I’d like to avoid the common preacher strategy… and rather than peeling back as many layers as possible, digging deep, and focusing in, I’d like to consider the big picture this morning. In science, we often talk about analysis and synthesis. Sunday mornings are often analysis, and while analysis has its place, and is good and proper, this morning I’d like to attempt to do a little synthesis. So with the gospel of John, in order to get to today’s message, I’m going to skip over some verses. I apologize in advance if I am going to skip over your favorite verse. In fact, feel free to read the verses that I skip, just to make sure that I’m being honest. But the idea is that rather than go down layer after layer, I’d like to skim the surface, getting the essence of the passage. John 14... Jesus says:

1"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2There is plenty of room in my Father's house ... and I am going to furnish one of those rooms for you. 3 ... I will then come back and take you to be with me.
6... "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 10... The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
15"If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever… 17the Spirit of truth. know him, for he lives with you and is in you. 18...Because I live, you also will live. 21Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him."
23Jesus reiterated, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.

Our passage this morning starts with an amazing promise; an expression of God’s grace to us; a beautiful picture of what awaits us in glory. Jesus is making rooms ready for us in his Father’s house! How wonderful! And then, only a few verses later, we are also promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are perhaps the two most wonderful promises in all of scripture. But (and there is often a “but”, isn’t there) as we read through our passage carefully, we see that the fulfillment of this promise seems to depend on us! That’s like conditions! Conditions! Can you imagine?

You see, a promise is not just a logical category; it is not just a unilateral intention. A promise is an expression of the heart. And expressions of the heart are always for the purpose of connecting with another heart. Jesus’ promises this morning are made for you, because God wants to connect with your heart this morning. And expressions of the heart are incomplete without a response from that other heart. This is what Jesus is telling us in our passage this morning. Yes, there is a wonderful promise for us – an incomparable gift for his children. But Yes! There is also an understanding that this gift will be accompanied by an appropriate heart-response.

So how does this morning’s promise depend on us? What is the appropriate heart-response to God’s promises this morning? Well, it is clear from the passage that we read that the sharing of a home with the Father and with Jesus depends on our love for Him! In fact, there seems to be a theme in this morning’s verses. Let me re-read verses 15, 21, 23a and 24: “(1) If you love me, you will obey what I command… (2) Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me…(3) If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. (4) He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.” Wow. Jesus might have thought that this point needed to be emphasized. 

Now the fact that a promise in scripture depends on us in any way should not be a burden to us. We are not spoiled children. Rather, we should accept this truth as adults: ready and willing to accept the challenge of a road that Jesus would have us walk. God does not ask of us things that we are incapable of doing. If He promises something, but needs us to be worthy of that promise, you can rest assured that we are indeed capable of achieving that promise. God does not set His children up for failure.

So the first and most obvious question is…when Jesus says “If you love me, you will obey what I command” well, “What commands is Jesus referring to? What is Jesus’ teaching?” Well, if you like, you could carefully read through the first thirteen chapters of the book of John, and you could write down everything that Jesus says that resembles a command. Then, you might want to set aside things commands that Jesus gives to specific people. For example, when Jesus tells the servants at the wedding “Fill the jars with water,” this is, of course, a command, but it is likely this wasn’t one of the commands that Jesus had in mind in our passage this morning.

So, depending on how you interpret the words, you might get as many as three commands in those thirteen chapters, but exactly one would stand out from among the others. That’s right: In John chapter fourteen, Jesus tells us just how important obeying his commands are, but the previous thirteen chapters of scripture might suggest that Jesus was only have been thinking about one particular command. Now I expect that many of you know what that command is; let me remind you where it is found: in chapter thirteen and verse 34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (repeat)

A few years ago, my dear then-teenage daughter Meg came into the dining room as I doing some work at the table and said, “I love you, Daddy.” And I replied: “thank you, dear Meg! I love you, too!” But then I added: “but you know… If you really loved me, you’d be nicer to your little brother.”
And Meg ever-so-helpful as always, replied, “No, Daddy, if I was nicer to Nathanael, it would mean that I loved him.”
“Well,” I replied, “Nathanael is very precious to me; whenever you are kind to him, you are being kind to me.”

And this is the dynamic that Jesus is presenting to his disciples, isn’t it? If we love God, we must also love one another. But you know, there is something irksome about this command, isn’t there? It isn’t particularly measurable. Managers are continually told to provide their employees goals whose progress and completion are measurable. There is nothing quite so frustrating to an employee as having the goal-posts move just before his performance evaluation. But guess what? Our Heavenly Manager doesn’t provide us with measurable goals!

As convenient and safe as it would be to be judged against other commands… “do not murder…check!” “do not steal… check!” “do not commit adultery… check!”. When we were children, our parents gave us the impression that righteousness is just a matter of doing what you are told: which is what we understand “being obedient” to mean. But that just isn’t the yardstick that we’re being measured against. How come? Scripture makes the shortcomings of rule-keeping explicit in…

Colossians 2:20-23 says “[the] rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!?’ … are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

Interesting, isn’t it: scripture clearly teaches that the failure of rule-following is that, while it appears to be wise it does not and cannot change our hearts: rule-following has no real impact on our sinful nature. What can have such an impact? How do we gain victory over our inclination to sin? What do we need to become the people that God wants us to be? We find the answer to this question in 1 Peter chapter 2: “Jesus’ divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness… so that through his very great and precious promises we may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

That’s right: the promises of Jesus, like the ones we opened with this morning (the promise of a room in our Father’s house, and the promise of a Comforter), challenge us to live in love and obedience. As our hearts respond to the promises of Jesus, God works in us to turn us into the people of His Kingdom and fill our hearts with love. For it is only that true love from God that can conquer the evil within that keeps us from admission into God’s house. It is only that true love from God that we need to exercise among ourselves. And it is that true love from God that enables the divine nature to develop in our lives.

So instead of simple, convenient and measurable rules, we’ve been commanded to love each other, and if we are honest with God and honest with ourselves, we know deep in our hearts that we don’t really do a very good job loving each other. Of course, this should keep us humble… and that isn’t such a bad thing, either. Sure, we might do ok loving those who love us, but let’s remember that Jesus also says, “If you love those who love you, how are you any different from the people on the street? Instead, love your enemies…” and then, as it says in Luke, our reward will be great indeed. Remember what Paul writes in Galatians: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

You see, if we have acrimony in our churches, if we have gossip, if we have back-biting, it really doesn’t matter what our excuses are for those things. Folks who participate in such things are no better than Nathanael beating on Meg because she had a cookie in the living room. The more important rule was “no beating on your sister”, and the most important command is to “love your neighbor.” Backstabbing is not loving. Period. Gossip is not loving. Period. Acrimony is not loving. No ifs ands or buts. And according to Jesus, love is the ticket into heaven. This is the key to that room that he is preparing for you: love one another.

I have another story about my children this morning that illustrates the dynamic between love and obedience that Jesus was saying is necessary for our fellowship with God.

In the fall of the year Nathanael turned five, I went outside to rake the leaves. At the time, our yard wasn’t very large, but it was in a lovely neighborhood with lots of big trees, so the leaf-raking task was going to take a while. I wasn’t outside for more than five minutes when Nathanael, with bright eyes, joined me outside to rake the leaves with his plastic rake. “I wonder how long this will last,” I thought! But as we raked, and raked, and raked, I became exceedingly proud of him, as he kept with the task until all the leaves were raked, and bagged, and against the curb. It took almost three hours – impressive commitment for a five-year-old.

But at about the two-hour mark, Nathanael's older sister opened the front door and disdainfully called out to her little brother:
"You're doing it wrong!"
And, indeed, she was right. In spite of gentle recommendation, Nathanael had both palms facing the same way on the broom handle. What’s more, she could have claimed, with reasonable accuracy, that her brother was actually slowing the task rather than contributing to the leaf-gathering. He was, in fact, sometimes in my way and sometimes spreading more than collecting the leaves. On occasion, he was even raking the leaves the wrong way. But instead, in mid-sentence of her harangue, she chirped,
"Oh, it is cold out here!"
Upon which she promptly slammed the door and went to watch television in the warm basement.

When we were all done, we came inside, and Nathanael’s Mom, my wife Sharon, had made us some hot chocolate. Without any prompting, Nathanael announced to his mother, “Daddy and I raked all the leaves.” And here is the important lesson: of course I gave full credit to my dear son! Doing it wrong or not, at occasional cross-purposes or not, almost certainly not speeding up the task completion… those things really didn’t matter to me. I wouldn't have traded his precious company and “help” for an army of mechanical rakers “doing it right.” Nathanael, by his enthusiasm for his father’s work, demonstrated his love for me. And my heart’s response to that love was (of course!) – as any sensible father would – to give that dear son credit for his effort.

Similarly, I suspect that our Heavenly Father, in his great mercy, will be gracious to his children attempting to help him with his work even when we might be “doing it wrong.” What’s more, I have to underline the obvious point. I had two children in this story: the one who knew how to help me in my work, but preferred the warm basement… and then there was the one who wanted to help me in my work even though he hadn’t had formal training, he hadn’t passed a course, he hadn’t even read a book on raking. And you can just imagine which of those children I was most pleased with. Of course, the same is also true with God. Don’t think for a moment that knowing the rules is enough. Remember, the wise man who builds his house on the rock is the one who hears the words and puts them into practice.

Hear the new command that Jesus has for us this morning: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This is the command that takes precedence over all those other lesser rules. This is the one that God cares about far more than the one that might be causing a fight. Listen to this new command: “Love one another.” This is also the command for which knowing how to “do it right” simply isn’t enough: we need to put on our boots, get out in the cold, and enthusiastically participate in God’s work. Listen to this new command one more time: “Love one another.” But don’t just listen: Go! And put it into practice.