Along with all the other clichés used to describe 2020, it has become commonplace to call it a “difficult” year. We all know this to be the case. It seems like everything we do now has become just a little bit harder. If you go to the store and forget your mask, you have to go back to the car and get your mask before going in the store.
I know that’s a trivial example, but even trivial burdens add up. Because life is harder, I think it’s fair to say that most of us feel like we’re in survival mode rather than flourishing mode. This is true in every area of our lives, but I think it’s particularly true in our spiritual lives. Instead of striving to bear fruit for Christ, many of us have fallen into the rut of existing.
This is a problem. Indeed, in Galatians 6, Paul warns us about growing weary in doing good. Other such warnings abound throughout the New Testament. Rather than focusing on the negative, though, this evening I want to look at the positive. I want to look at some reasons why, even in this difficult time, we should cowboy up and be tireless in doing good.
First, we should do so because IT ENCOURAGES OTHERS. Look at Paul’s self-description in 1 Thessalonians 3:6-8. I find this fascinating. We think of Paul as this titan of the first-century church, as indeed he was. By contrast, we don’t even know the names of most of the brethren in Thessalonica.
Nonetheless, the encouragement that those nameless Christians gave to the famous apostle was a life-and-death matter to him. Simply by staying faithful, they brought him through a dark time and gave him the strength he needed to continue his work. Indeed, throughout Paul’s epistles, the encouragement he gains from the faithfulness and labor of other Christians is a constant theme.
Today, things are no different. All Christians need encouragement from one another, and that’s true of even the most prominent leaders in the church. Every member of this congregation matters to the elders here. Every one of you matters to Clay and me, and when we see you working for the Lord or even simply remaining faithful, it brings us great joy.
Of course, the opposite is true too, and there’s something that I want all of you to think about. It’s no secret that since the COVID outbreak, our attendance has been way down, especially on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. I’ve said repeatedly, and I’ll say it again, that Christians need to do whatever is necessary to protect their safety. Nobody is going to judge anybody; nobody is going to start getting phone calls from the elders about forsaking the assembly.
Nonetheless, if you’ve been among the non-attendees, I want each of you to ask yourself a question. Why is that? Is it because you’re concerned about your safety, or is it because 2020 is a hard year, and you’re tired, and it’s easier to stay home?
Again, no judgment. I completely get that. Think for a moment, though, about the effect that you have on your brothers and sisters here simply by the choice to assemble or not. It’s hard to push through, but if we assemble, even if we’re tired, even if school just started, we will bring joy and blessing into the lives of people we love. Think about these things, and what you do with that, I leave to you.
Second, if we are tireless in doing good, WE WILL BEAR FRUIT. Consider the way Jesus ends His explanation of the parable of the sower in Luke 8:14-15. I think both of these explanations are relevant to us. First, we see the problem with being an existence-level Christian. If we allow the coronavirus to choke out the word in us, we will defeat God’s purpose in our salvation, just like crops that don’t bear fruit defeat the purpose of the farmer.
On the other hand, when we bear fruit, the harvest can be many times more significant than we are. However, Jesus here uses a key word to describe what we have to do if we want to bear fruit. We have to endure. We have to persevere. We have to press on through difficulty. If we don’t, there won’t be fruit.
I find this so encouraging because it reminds me that if I do keep going, even when it’s hard, there will be fruit that I can see. This is true in every area of our spiritual lives. If we persevere as godly parents, godly workers, godly friends, and godly neighbors, there will be fruit. It won’t be wasted effort.
I think, though, that most of all, this is relevant with respect to evangelism. There are lots of things that Christians think you have to have in order to be effective at winning souls. They think you have to be eloquent, charismatic, and a Bible expert. None of that is true.
Instead, we only need two things. We have to love people enough to share the truth with them, and we have to be persevering enough to keep doing it. Maybe this person we invite doesn’t come to church. Maybe this other person we invite comes but doesn’t come back. However, if we keep on working through discouragement, sooner or later, someone will be saved because of what we said.
Finally, if we are tireless in doing good, OUR WORK WILL NOT BE VAIN. Look at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:56-58. Even though if you only look at v. 58, it sounds like this is making the same point as the parable of the sower, a look at the context reveals something different. We can be sure that our toil is not in vain in the Lord not because God will bless our efforts. Instead, Paul says our toil is not in vain because God through Christ has given us victory over sin and death. This isn’t about earthly success. It’s about eternal success.
It is certainly true that the ceaseless toil that God expects from us as Christians can get to us. I spent last week writing and preaching sermons, but I know that for as long as I remain a gospel preacher, I’ll be spending most weeks that way. I work to save souls and keep brethren from falling away, and that won’t change for as long as my life in Christ continues. There always will be people in need to be cared for, ruffled feathers to smooth, and special events to plan. Like Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. We keep doing the same thing until we die.
What’s the point, then? Why do it? Why keep trying to roll that boulder up the hill? The real reason is not the earthly effect of our labors. It’s the spiritual effect.
If you think you have a hard life, consider the life of Jeremiah. He spent his whole life prophesying, and hardly anybody ever listened to him. He told people the truth, and they hated and persecuted him for his pains.
And yet, Jeremiah’s labor was not in vain because it found favor with God. No matter what, we can be sure that He will regard our labor for Him in the same way, and nobody who inherits eternal life ever says it wasn’t worth it!
Luke 14:15-23 is commonly known as “The Parable of the Banquet”, but it might equally well be called “The Parable of Excuses”. In the parable, a man gives a banquet and invites a number of people. However, the invitees all have excuses for why they will not come. In response, the host becomes angry, instructs his servants to find absolutely anybody to fill the places at the table, and vows that none of the original invitees will be allowed in.
In the context of Jesus’ ministry, this obviously is a parable about the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were the ones originally invited to the spiritual feast of fellowship with God, but for various reasons, they declined the invitation. Consequently, God invited the Gentiles into His kingdom in their place.
However, it’s also valuable for us to apply the parable to ourselves today in a more direct sense. It is sad but true that people will lose their souls because of the excuses they used to justify their disobedience.
These excuses begin with respect to obeying the gospel in the first place. Some say that they would be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, except that their family always has held to a denominational tradition. Others say that they’re too wicked to become a Christian, so they need to get their lives straightened out first. Still others say that they are “not ready yet” for unspecified reasons. All of these excuses, though, allow the sinner to put off their salvation indefinitely, to their ultimate ruin.
The same applies to the justifications that Christians offer for prolonged disobedience to one of God’s commandments. Yes, they know that Christian husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and that Christian wives are commanded to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
However, they tell themselves that these commandments were written with a generic inoffensive spouse in mind, not with their particular obnoxious spouse. “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my wife is a shrew!” “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my husband is an idiot!” Thus, they feel free to return evil for evil rather than obeying the commandment. Their lives are marked by decade after decade of disobedience in a dysfunctional marriage.
Excuses also often emerge when a Christian fails to assemble regularly. Of course, there are legitimate reasons not to assemble—illness, work (though the Christian whose work schedule often keeps them from assembling is well advised to look for another job), or, these days, vulnerability to COVID-19. Other excuses (the preacher is boring, nobody there likes me, etc.) are less legitimate.
It is worth asking, though, whether the obstacles that keep us from assembling also keep us from worldly activities we enjoy. Work schedules can be frustrating, but one wonders about the man who never is able to assemble on Sunday morning but somehow manages to reserve his Saturday mornings for fishing trips. Likewise, if we avoid worship services because we’re afraid of the coronavirus, but we don’t seem to be afraid of vacationing in crowded tourist traps, perhaps it is time to examine our motivations more closely.
Whatever our excuses, we must acknowledge that we have far less reason to disobey than Jesus did. In heaven, He was equal with God. He was guiltless and did not deserve to die, and we were guilty and did not deserve to be saved. Nonetheless, rather than offering excuses, He offered Himself in obedience to His Father. As His disciples, is our call to do anything less?
Living in Tennessee is a very different cultural experience from living in Illinois. One of the contrasts I have noticed is the frequent appearance of “Lord willing” in conversation. When you’re talking with some folks, every expression of intent or hope for the future is punctuated with “Lord willing”.
This comes from James 4:15, where James urges us to frame our plans with the statement, “if the Lord wills”. However, the context is not about saying magic words to make sure bad things don’t happen to us. It’s about having the right spirit. In fact, people who use “Lord willing” can become entrapped in many of the same pitfalls that await people who say, “O my God!”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with uttering those three words. They appear in the Psalms and in many hymns that we sing. However, problems arise when we say, “O my God!” flippantly or thoughtlessly. I am not among those who believe that saying it constitutes taking the Lord’s name in vain as per Exodus 20:7 (which I believe is about swearing false oaths), but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
Invoking the name of the Holy One of Israel is a solemn thing. One of the greatest privileges we have, one purchased with the blood of Christ, is the right to call upon the name of the LORD. When we do so carelessly, we display irreverence toward the One whom we are commanded to revere. It is dangerous to treat the Almighty in such a cavalier fashion!
So too, we must make sure that we speak reverently of the purposes of God. In James 4:13-16, James condemns the arrogance of those who make confident plans about the future. He points out that none of us can guarantee that we will survive even tomorrow. Before the awesome, unchanging God, all of us are nothing more than a passing vapor.
“Lord willing,” then, is supposed to be more than a verbal good-luck charm. Instead, James is urging us, every time we talk about the future, to think long and hard about how uncertain our place in that future is.
We don’t like doing that. We want to believe that we are the ones in control, that everything will shape up according to our desires. If nothing else, 2020 should have highlighted the foolishness of that conviction. When we believe we’re in the driver’s seat of our own lives and speak accordingly, we’re boasting, whether the phrase “Lord willing” passes our lips or not.
Instead, we should use “Lord willing” as an opportunity to humble ourselves before our Maker. We should remind ourselves of how foolish and feeble we are, especially when compared to the wisdom and power of God. We also should view it as an acknowledgment of our subjection before His will. Someone who says “Lord willing” and then goes out and sins clearly does not mean it!
We must mean it, whether we say it or not. “Lord willing” ought to call us to fix our minds upon the sovereignty of God, each day and each hour. May we live accordingly!
People do things for reasons. Well, unless they’re morons, they do. As a rule, the larger the change is, the more compelling the reason behind it.
As Proverbs 4:23 observes, these reasons proceed from the heart. This is not the Western heart, as in “the seat of the emotions”, but rather the Eastern mind-and-heart, the place where reason and emotion intersect. In fact, I think that one of the great weaknesses of Western thought is its failure to acknowledge the interplay of the two in the human mind.
In consequence, whenever I hear someone announce that they have changed their mind about something purely through disinterested logical consideration, I become suspicious. This is particularly true when something else in their lives is providing powerful motivation for them to change their minds.
Here, consider the man who “restudies” Matthew 19 after his daughter gets divorced and—surprise!—reaches a different conclusion on the text, or the church that “reconsiders” 1 Timothy 2 in a feminist age and decides that women in the pulpit are OK after all. In both cases, the restudiers will loudly insist that they were motivated only by the love of truth, despite the circumstances that make their new beliefs convenient. Nonetheless, I raise a skeptical eyebrow.
I will confess that I feel a similar upward tugging in my forehead whenever a Christian, typically a young Christian, proclaims that they have become an atheist. In such cases, the rhetoric doesn’t vary much. The newly minted unbeliever will talk at length about how hard this was for them, how they are acting against their own interests, and how only their determination to follow reason wherever it goes has led them to this point. At times I wonder if there’s a “How to Come Out as an Atheist” script online.
Again, my time on planet Earth leads me to believe people act because they want to, not because they don’t want to. The problem is, though, that atheism itself doesn’t offer much intrinsic motivation. Christianity does. If you buy into the Christian belief system, you get God, absolute right and wrong, meaning, people who care about you, and the promise of eternal life. I think even atheists would acknowledge that it’s a powerfully attractive set of ideas!
Atheism, though, offers no absolute morality, no meaning, and no hope. Life is a small span of suffering before the universe squishes you into oblivion. Admittedly, atheism might give you the satisfaction of believing that you’re smarter than the believers, but feelings of intellectual superiority only get us so far. You only can join Mensa once.
Instead, in my experience, if you probe a little bit, underneath the intellectual superstructure of atheism, there lurk powerful (if reluctantly acknowledged) motivations behind such a dramatic life change. I’ve seen them include:
- Grief at the loss of a loved one.
- Objection to the moral teaching of the Bible, particularly about homosexuality.
- Resentment of bad treatment by Christians.
- Distaste for the perceived connection between Christianity and political conservatism.
- An unbelieving spouse.
I have no trouble understanding how any of those things would move someone to leave the church and the Lord. The problem is, though, that they don’t provide intellectual cover for such a change. You might not like the God who does such rotten-to-you things, has such rotten-to-you followers, or makes your personal life so inconvenient. However, none of those things justify the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.
They do, though, leave you very receptive to the possibility that He might not exist. If you are of a mind to do so, you can evaluate both creation and the Bible in such a way as to lead to the conclusion that God is not real. In fact, Romans 1 and 2 Thessalonians 2 promise that if you want to reject God, He will give you the rope you need to hang yourself. It is hardly surprising, then, when people who want to leave the faith find the justification they’re seeking.
This process is, to say the least, intensely frustrating to watch. Often, concerned brethren try to restore the atheist to fellowship by attacking their intellectual conclusions. Sadly, that’s about as effective as trying to kill a dandelion by pulling the leaves off. As long as the roots are there, the leaves will be back soon, and somebody who doesn’t want to believe in God never will have any trouble manufacturing reasons not to.
Instead, we must reckon with the underlying motivations. We need to be able to have those discussions about theodicy and to critically examine our society’s conviction that sexual autonomy is the preeminent human value. We need to make sure that our behavior isn’t alienating others.
Sometimes, we simply must acknowledge that the motivation isn’t susceptible to reason. Somebody who goes atheist because of their spouse probably will stay atheist as long as they’re married. Indeed, even attempts to address the reasoned component of a motivation are not certain to succeed. However, atheism that starts with want-to must end there too.
The longer I serve the Lord, the more I gain an appreciation for the cunning of the devil. I don’t like it one little bit, of course, but I have to give him credit for how effectively he works, even in the lives of Christians. His ultimate goal for all of us is to lead us to hell, but short of that, he labors tirelessly to make all of us less effective disciples than we ought to be.
In this effort, one of his primary tools is distraction. He would prefer to distract us with the worries and cares of life, but if he can’t do that, he will use even the smaller commandments of God’s law. This is what he did with the Pharisees. They got so caught up in the details of the law that they forgot justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
This certainly can happen to us, so what I’d like to do this evening is to examine the greatest commandment of all: love. A couple of weeks ago, Landon suggested that I ought to preach on 1 John 5:3, but as I looked at the context, I decided there were things there that I had to tie in too. As part of our yearly focus on living for Jesus, then, let’s consider living God’s love.
In the passage that we’re going to be looking at, which stretches from the end of 1 John 4 through the beginning of 1 John 5, I see three major themes. The first of these is LOVE AND FEAR. Look at 1 John 4:16-18. The first thing that we learn in this context is how essential love is to our spiritual lives. John tells us that if we remain in love, God remains in us, and we remain in God. Here’s what I think this is saying: If we live lives that are filled with love, our actions show God to those around us, and we remain in fellowship with Him. On the other hand, if we do not remain in love, we fail to glorify Him, and we stray from Him.
John then goes on to point to two consequences of remaining in love: confidence in the day of judgment and casting out fear. The first calls us to a global let’s-be-honest check. Right now, considering my life as a whole, does my life express God’s love, or does it express selfishness? If the former, we can be easy in our minds about the state of our souls. If the latter, we desperately need to change!
Finally, let’s consider the interplay between love and fear, not only at the judgment, but throughout our lives as well. Often, we think of love and hatred as opposites, but John wants us to understand that love and fear are too. Love values others, but fear values the self. As a result, the devil is able to use fear to lead us to harm others in ways that we think protect us. I think this is evident in the news right now. As fear increases, evildoing does too. In God, though, we don’t have to be afraid. He will protect us, so His love frees us to love others.
This takes us to our second main theme, the relationship between LOVE AND THE BRETHREN. Here, let’s read 1 John 4:19-5:1. I said that the previous section had a let’s-be-honest check. I think this one is a check on our honesty. It’s very easy to blithely say that we live a life filled with love, but actually living that love-filled life is not easy!
John zeroes in on one litmus test: our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Sad to say, the relationships between brethren are not always marked by unfailing love. All of us who have been Christians for very long have seen brethren get into it. Maybe we’ve been the brethren who have gotten into it!
Regardless, all of us need to pay attention here. All of us claim to love God. That’s why we’re here tonight. However, John tells us that if we make that claim but don’t love our brother, we are lying, we are making loving God impossible, we are breaking God’s commandments, and we are rejecting His spiritual family. Basically, failing to love other Christians is a spiritual train wreck.
This tells us, then, that if we want to go to heaven, we have to get down there in the mud and do the backbreaking, heartbreaking work of loving one another. The problems don’t come when we’re dealing with Christians who are lovable. As Jesus said, even the sinners and tax collectors love people who treat them well.
Instead, this gets difficult when we are faced with Christians who do not behave well and are not particularly lovable. Because the devil is hard at work, this happens all the time. Our brothers and sisters frequently say offensive things, gossip, behave rudely, and generally make nuisances of themselves!
Even then, we still are called to love them. We must not become angry or hateful ourselves. We must not return evil for evil. We must put on a heart of patience, compassion, and kindness. By our willingness to imitate the perfect love of God, we show our love for Him.
Finally, let’s contemplate LOVE AND OBEDIENCE. Our reading for the day concludes in 1 John 5:2-3. We see 1 John 5:3 quoted by itself a lot as a way of emphasizing the importance of obedience. I don’t think that’s a misuse of the passage, exactly. Indeed, I think it generally is true that love for God and commandment-keeping go together. You don’t have commandment-keeping without love for God, and you don’t have love for God without commandment-keeping.
However, contextually, there’s more going on than simply that. V. 3 isn’t just an unconnected proverb floating in space. Instead, when we look at v. 2, we see that it ties back to the discussion of loving God’s children. This is another honesty check. Just as we show that we love God by loving His children, we show that we love His children by keeping His commandments, especially with respect to them.
Here too, it’s easy to see how we go astray. Plenty of Christians duck the force of the end of chapter 4 by insisting that they do love other Christians, really they do! However, once you start comparing what they’re doing to other Christians to their claim of love, a different picture emerges.
They say that they love other Christians, but they get in arguments with other Christians all the time. They say that they love other Christians, but they are rude and abrasive in what they say to them. They say that they love other Christians, but they insist on getting their own way instead of allowing other Christians to have theirs.
It may be that at this point in the sermon, we’ve got this little smile on our faces, and we’re thinking of names of brethren who were like that. Let me tell you what, brethren: we need to be thinking of our own name. I think it’s fair to conclude from John’s words here that godliness is most difficult within our own family and within our own congregation. If we will struggle with anything, we will struggle with this. We need to be vigilant against the appearance of sin in our hearts and our lives, and we need to dedicate ourselves to living out the love of God with respect to one another.