1 John 5:13-21 – We Know

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray, and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (New International Version)

In a world of constant change, the need for people to experience meaning and stability in their lives is more pronounced than ever. 

COVID-19 currently grips the world in a terrible reality of disease, death, and disruption. Just when we think there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, new strains of the virus arise. Meanwhile, life goes on with all it’s typical changes, losses, and devastating natural disasters.

There are people wondering if they will have a job tomorrow – or if they will ever get called back to one. Many parents are anxious about what kind of world their kids will have when they become adults. Others feel adrift in a fast-paced society, glutted with so much news and information that they have little sense of what is real or true. Discouragement and/or depression may seem to never end.

Whenever there are uncertainties all around us, it’s necessary to return to the knowable, to hang our hat on some solid bedrock certainties we are convinced are always there. That’s why the Apostle John wrote his letter, to remind the church of the known and the knowable:

  • “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
  • “If we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
  • “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.”
  • “We know that we are children of God.”
  • “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.” 

In English, we have only one word for “know.” Yet, in the ancient Greek of the New Testament there are two different words for “know.” Throughout today’s lesson, the Apostle consistently uses one of those words, then shifts to another at the end. 

All of the “knows” John used refer to an objective knowledge – an information-based understanding which anyone could discover, learn, or know. Then, the Apostle switched to a different word at the end – to know him (Christ) who is true. That particular word has to do with a subjective or experiential knowledge. In other words, it is an inner witness and knowing of objective knowledge.

In American society, we frame the distinction between the two words by saying we need to know something in our heart (subjective knowledge) and not only in our head (objective knowledge).

Cerebral understanding, combined with heartfelt experience, results in a new confidence in prayer, a new attitude toward the world, and a new awareness of God. These are the impact of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again.

Knowing God takes both the head and the heart. Only being concerned for sound doctrine creates theological eggheads who dispassionately connect with God and others as if they were merely brains on a stick figure. Conversely, only being concerned for how religion makes us feel causes a kind of spiritual schizophrenia which is unstable and constantly seeks for a new or better experience in worship.

Love and obedience are the sacred pathways to personal and corporate knowledge and peace. Whenever the supreme ethic of love takes place in the believer’s life, through receiving it from God and giving it to others, it brings a sense of divine assurance in a sea of worldly uncertainty. 

Security in God will always outdo the insecurities of life.

Loving God, I know that you listen to me. I pray your love and assurance will fill me to such a place that I have peace amidst the vicissitudes of this life. May I rest in Jesus Christ through the work of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nehemiah 9:26-31 – Judgment and Grace

“Repentance of the People” by German painter Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

But despite all this [God’s blessings] they were disobedient and rebelled against you. They turned their backs on your Law, they killed your prophets who warned them to return to you, and they committed terrible blasphemies. So, you handed them over to their enemies, who made them suffer. But in their time of trouble, they cried to you, and you heard them from heaven. In your great mercy, you sent them liberators who rescued them from their enemies.

But as soon as they were at peace, your people again committed evil in your sight, and once more you let their enemies conquer them. Yet whenever your people turned and cried to you again for help, you listened once more from heaven. In your wonderful mercy, you rescued them many times!

You warned them to return to your Law, but they became proud and obstinate and disobeyed your commands. They did not follow your regulations, by which people will find life if only they obey. They stubbornly turned their backs on you and refused to listen. In your love, you were patient with them for many years. You sent your Spirit, who warned them through the prophets. But still, they wouldn’t listen! So once again you allowed the peoples of the land to conquer them. But in your great mercy, you did not destroy them completely or abandon them forever. What a gracious and merciful God you are! (New Living Translation)

Much of the Old Testament is a rhythmic pattern of God’s judgment and grace. The storyline often goes something like this: 

God makes promises and gives commands. 

People get stubborn, refuse to listen, and disobey. 

God responds with judgment. 

People cry out in their distress.

God gives grace and fulfills divine promises. 

People enjoy, then get stubborn again…. 

The promise of God always involves judgment and grace. Proclaiming only a message of judgment without grace brings despair, death, and hell; there is no hope. Speaking only of grace apart from judgment is oxymoronic – it doesn’t exist because there is no need for grace if there is no judgment; grace is an undeserved mercy given freely by God in the face of our stubborn obstinate selves.

Nehemiah chapter nine is a beautiful prayer of confession. Having heard the Word of God proclaimed, the people released their obstinacy; they realized exile occurred because of their own stubborn refusal to listen to God. So, they repented. 

“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

C.S. Lewis

The ancient Jewish people acknowledged their checkered past of ignoring God’s prophets, and they bellied-up and took ownership of their past choices. And God was faithful. Even though the city of Jerusalem had been overtaken and the people sent into exile, God brought them back and the broken wall was rebuilt.

It’s never too late to turn from a past filled with poor decisions, broken relationships, and spiritual disobedience. The time of confession is available, and the time is now. God’s grace always overwhelms our dubious past. 

The appropriate response to today’s Old Testament lesson is to spend some time in confession to God. This chapter, along with Nehemiah chapter one, are good places to begin with understanding just what to say to God. 

For the Christian, confession ought always to conclude with accepting the grace available to us in Christ. 

Today is a new day and a new Christian Year. Let it be a life with the love of Jesus implanted in your heart. As we enter the Advent season, allow that love of Christ to gestate within your soul. Anticipate the birth. Look forward to the Nativity. Long for Christmas and the inbreaking of God to this earth.

Holy Lord, in this time of Advent, we confess we often are distracted by the season’s busyness, by the stress of commitment, and even by putting our own traditions ahead of the true meaning of Christmas. We confess we also often prefer being sentimental to being sacrificial.

Forgive us for all the times we have missed seeing You in our midst, for all the times we have doubted Your presence, and for all the times we have failed to hold the holidays as holy days. Pour peace into our lives and let us be bearers of Your peace to others. Remind us that this is a season of waiting and preparation for the greatest Gift of all. In the holy Name of our Savior, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

2 Kings 22:11-20 – Humble Yourself

The Scribe Shaphan Reading The Book Of Law To King Josiah by Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674)

When Josiah heard what was in The Book of God’s Law, he tore his clothes in sorrow. At once he called together Hilkiah, Shaphan, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, and his own servant Asaiah. He said, “The Lord must be furious with me and everyone else in Judah, because our ancestors did not obey the laws written in this book. Go find out what the Lord wants us to do.”

The five men left right away and went to talk with Huldah the prophet. Her husband was Shallum, who was in charge of the king’s clothes. Huldah lived in the northern part of Jerusalem, and when they met in her home, she said:

You were sent here by King Josiah, and this is what the Lord God of Israel says to him: “Josiah, I am the Lord! And I will see to it that this country and everyone living in it will be destroyed. It will happen just as this book says. The people of Judah have rejected me. They have offered sacrifices to foreign gods and have worshiped their own idols. I cannot stand it any longer. I am furious.

“Josiah, listen to what I am going to do. I noticed how sad you were when you read that this country and its people would be completely wiped out. You even tore your clothes in sorrow, and I heard you cry. So, I will let you die in peace before I destroy this place.”

The men left and took Huldah’s answer back to Josiah. (Contemporary English Version)

It is hard to fathom that things spiritually degenerated so much in the kingdom of Judah that the Book of Law, God’s Word to Israel, was completely lost. The Law was tucked so far back in the temple, and had gathered so much dust, that everyone simply forgot it existed. 

Maybe we in the Western world can relate to this more than we think. When a plethora of Bibles and translations exist, yet they gather dust on the shelf, and we have not cracked it open since….?

We are approaching the end of the Christian Year which annually culminates in Christ the King Sunday. As we journey with Jesus and ascend his holy hill, we anticipate corporately acknowledging Christ’s lordship. A good and biblical way to do so is through penitent humility. 

King Josiah’s officials found the Book of the Law and brought it to him. After they read the words, which had not been uttered for a very long time, the king was completely undone with humble repentance. He realized the life of the nation did not revolve around the majesty and kingship of God, and it cut him to the core of his being.  

An appropriate response to the realization of God’s sovereignty and Christ’s lordship is humility. Without humility, there is no going forward; there is only the ghastly state of remaining stuck in one place with ancient dust accumulating on our static hearts. However, with humility there is repentance; and with repentance there opens up the grand vistas of hope, new life, and fresh beginnings.

“It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”

St. Augustine

I (humbly) ask that you try something quite different from your regular experience today. Put on some old clothes then carefully read the words of today’s Old Testament Scripture lesson. Take the time to acknowledge a sin of omission in your life. Then, tear your clothes; yes, rip your shirt. 

Allow yourself to feel, like Josiah, the realization of missing the mark. Yet do not remain in this condition. Drink in the grace of God in Christ and receive the forgiveness that is yours in Christ. The trajectory of our Christian lives is determined by the depth of humility we experience and filling the hole with mercy.

It’s difficult to be submissive. To acknowledge, without denial, that we are in a bad place and will reorient our lives takes a lot of courage and humility. If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is a meek and obedient spirit. 

No matter who we are, people are meant and designed by their Creator to live a humble life of submission to the moral and ethical will of God.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3, 5 NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility. The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow his Master Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human relations are to be firmly grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is based in humility. We live with the confidence of the psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right, and he teaches them his way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, we are to bow to the God of the Word, for the Word is life.

Awesome God, although I might not always perceive your majesty and sovereignty, you stand above all creation as the Lord whom I am to submit to in all things.  I come to you in great humility of heart and vow to obey everything I read in your Holy Word through Jesus Christ, my King. Amen.

Hebrews 6:1-12 – Don’t Give Up

Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (New International Version)

Whenever things get tough and really hard, it is inevitable that there will be people who drop out. It happens in every arena of life, including the Christian life. Sometimes life becomes so overwhelming that we feel like we’re just not making a dent in any of our issues or responsibilities. It is tempting to simply give up and leave it all behind.

Today’s New Testament lesson addresses a group of people who were considering leaving the Christian faith. Some folks had already left, causing confusion with the people still around about how to think about this and what to do going forward.

Who is the author talking about?

He’s talking about those who made a profession of Christ. Are they actual Christians? This gets at the heart of what makes a Christian a Christian. And the answer is that a Christian exhibits both faith and obedience, both trust and perseverance. Real Christians profess the name of Christ with their mouths and demonstrate faith with their actions by obeying the words and ways of Jesus.

What are they in danger of?

Apostasy is a deliberate and intentional renouncing of faith with no intention of ever going back to Christ. An apostate is a person who once professed faith, then rescinded it. This is the author’s point for crafting his message to the struggling Christians. In their hardship, they were seriously toying with the notion of leaving Christianity altogether.

Why would they ever renounce their faith?

Because of hard circumstances, spiritual overwhelm, and grinding tiredness. Adverse situations never leave us the same. They either make us bitter or better, depending upon our response to them. If Christians believe that the Christian life should be an unending journey of victory and glory in this life, disappointment will settle in rather quickly. Missed expectations are typically the manure which fertilizes the field of apostasy.

How can they be restored?

The author of Hebrews makes it clear that they cannot – not because God never gives second chances to people but because the hardness of heart in the apostate is such that they have no intention or desire to live for Jesus. In fact, they now have a hatred of Christ and show contempt for him. We are not talking about flaky or fickle people. We are talking about folks who, with their full faculties intact, put as much energy into resisting, rejecting, and renouncing Christ as they can. This isn’t a momentary lapse in judgment. Rather, it is a calculated decision to hate all that is Christian, after having once loved it.

Where does this happen?

It happens in the heart. When Jesus told his parable of the soils, he was not talking about four different kinds of Christians. The point of Christ’s parable is that there is only one kind of Christian – the other three simply demonstrated they were not the genuine article to begin with. All four professed faith but only one proved it through growth, maturity, and harvest. (Matthew 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15)

According to Jesus, there is either no response, a superficial response, a temporary response, or a genuine response. The person who does God’s will is the real deal.

Some people make a dichotomy between faith and obedience, as if they are separate things. Yet, in truth, they are a package deal and cannot be separated. The following all belong together and are not to have any division between them. It is a matter of “and,” not “or.”

Faith and works.

Past and future.

Grace and merit.

Event and process.

People fall away from their faith commitments when they are unable or unwilling to hold the “and’s” together. Whenever the rocks and thorns of life hit them and stick them in ways they don’t like, it is crucial to respond in a way which doesn’t compromise staying on a path of spiritual maturity.

So, where are you on the journey of faith? How do you handle missed expectations and grave disappointments? Are you okay? What do you need? Are there ways others can help?

There are other options besides giving up. Go ahead and explore them.

Grant, O God, that I may never lose the way through self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that I may never abandon the struggle, but endure to the end; that I may never drop out of the race, but ever press forward to the goal of my calling; that I may never choose cheap and passing things, and embrace the eternal; that I may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that I may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So, keep your people and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen