Abide in Love

Read 1 John 3.3-24

Love is much more than a feeling of attraction. It is more than just strong affection. Love is deep sense of commitment that we have in our relationship with God. God loves us so much that He sent Jesus Christ, His only son, to endure death for our sake. Love is demonstrated by a willingness to sacrifice.

We come to know love in our relationships. Love is present where there is a mutual desire that the other be blessed. Love is demonstrated not just with words but with actions. Like in “The Gift of the Magi, the story of a couple, very much in love, but also very poor. It is approaching Christmas, and they have no money to give gifts to each other. The only thing of value he has is a gold pocket watch given to him by his grandfather. The only thing she has is her beautiful hair.

Separately, they come up with a plan. He sells his gold watch to by her a brush set to comb her beautiful hair. She cuts off her hair and sells it to buy him a gold chain to go with his pocket watch.

It is a sad ending, but it demonstrates something remarkable about love. When we love, we care so deeply about another that we lose sight of ourselves. We become deeply involved with the needs of the other, we want what is best for them so much that we are willing to sacrifice, even something of great value. We are willing to let go of ourselves; to give out of love.

This is the love God has for us. When God is asked, “How much do you love us?” God in Christ stretches out his arms on a cross and dies. God gives up life, endures death, for our sake. There is no greater love than this.

In giving up his own life, Christ sets the supreme example of love for us to follow. We must be willing to let go of ourselves — our comforts, our desires, or power — in order to love God and each other. 1 John poses this question of us: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

Each of us must ask ourselves this difficult question. When we have more than enough to live and others have so little, how can we say that God’s love abides in us? God gave up everything, even life, and we have trouble giving from our own abundance.

How can we do give of ourselves?  Sometimes simple things go a long way. Spending time listening to a neighbor in need. Fixing a neighbor’s furnace, or preparing a meal when there is an illness in the family. Leading a Bible study or caring for children so others may worship.

Little children, says 1 John, let us love, not only in word or speech, but in truth and action. Think of one thing you can sacrifice for the good of another and do it. Spend your time, your money, your talents making someone’s life a little better. In doing this you will reap a great reward. God’s love will abide in you.

One of the tragic things I have seen in life and ministry are relationships that become distorted by an unbalanced view of love. One person in the relationship is expected to do all the sacrificing, while the other reaps all the benefits. I’ve seen this in families where children expect their parents to go in debt providing for them. I’ve seen it in couples where the wife is expected to sacrifice her happiness, her goals and dreams, while the husband preserves his. I’ve seen it in friendships where one friend always gets to set the terms of the relationship while the other goes along.

It is not love when the sacrifice is not mutual. It becomes a distortion of love and it eats away at the core of the relationship. This is why it is a terrible thing when we fail to respond to God’s love. God has already given so much to us. Christ has already sacrificed his life for us. It is now our turn to give back, to love in truth and action, to reflect the love of God in our own relationships — encouraging one another, building up one another, searching for each other.

Love that flows from virtual sacrifice is a wonderful thing that gives life to everything around. It is contagious, like the laughter of a child. Little children, let us love, as God in Christ loves us.


Children of God

Read 1 John 3.1-7

You are children of God. You do not belong to the world. You belong to God. In Jesus Christ, God has claimed you as His own. God claims you not as a master to a slave, but as a parent to a child. God loves us so much in Christ, that we have become God’s children.

It is an amazing thing to be a child of the Creator of the universe. Many people today have lost sight of this claim. Many say they believe in God, in some divine order of the universe, and yet they don’t see themselves in such a relationship with God.

Through Christ, we have become children of God. As God’s children, we have a responsibility to love as God has loved us. We have a responsibility to claim our inheritance by living and loving as Jesus lived and loved. The Spirit of Christ purifies us as we respond in love.

This is our inheritance as children of God. We inherit both the ability and the responsibility to love as God has loved us. We love not because we expect some reward, or fear some punishment, but because God has first loved us.

Still, we are human. We are prone to sin. Even when we attempt to love, we can become distracted by sin.

I think of the movie. “Schindler’s List.” It was about a man who attempted to save Jews who were being killed under Hitler’s regime. Schindler was no saint. He was unfaithful in his marriage. He took advantage of others to gain wealth. This sinful man, however, refused to go along with Hitler and his crowd as they were taking away the humanity of Jews. Schindler was able to step out of his sin and do the right thing, even though it was unpopular, even at the risk of his career, his life.

As the movie develops, we see Schindler becoming less distracted by sin and more capable of greater acts of love. Through he was not a man of great faith, by loving his neighbor, he gains faith. He is purified.

Love is a discipline, an action. The more we love the more loving we become. The more

 we serve each other, the more we look out for the needs of the vulnerable, the more we give of ourselves to build up someone else, the more we are purified. The more like Christ we become, the more of God’s seed, planted in us by the Spirit of Christ, bears fruit in our lives. As children of God, we grow up in love. The more we love, the more we resemble God in Christ.
Even though we are children of God, our lives are not yet complete. We still make mistakes. We are still prone to sin. We still become distracted, even when we try to love.

Our hope in Christ is that even though we don’t know fully what we will become, we know that it is in God’s hands. In God’s own time, our true selves will be revealed and we will see God. The image of God planted in us at creation will blossom into something more beautiful than we can image. We who are born of God will no longer be stained by sin. We will be pure, just as Christ is pure.


Light Walking

Read 1 John 1.1-2.2

1 John is a letter which reads like a sermon. It begins with a strong statement of purpose. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”

This word of life is much more than an abstract concept, it is something lived, something heard, seen, touched. This word of life is the gospel shared by Jesus of Nazareth. It is a quality of life, abundant and eternal, lived by those who believe and follow. The author is speaking from experience. This word of life has been revealed in Jesus. We’ve heard it, seen it, and touched it.

 Experience can be a potent teacher. Terry Waite, who survived years in captivity as a political hostage, had not been a man of great faith. But he turned to God in this awful experience and found the strength to survive. His captors would not let him read, so he recited the few Bible verses he had memorized as a child. When they allowed him books & paper, he poured over the Bible and wrote beautiful prayers that read like Psalms. When they allowed a visitor, he requested a fellow Christian with whom he shared his sins. Terry Waite found in his captivity of darkness the word of life that freed him.

1 John continues. “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us…”

The purpose of this word of life is not to gain personal wealth, health or happiness. The purpose of the gospel is to create a community. It is not merely to benefit an individual. Christ did not come into the world for the benefit of a chosen few, but that all who believe might be saved. Jesus gathered around himself people from all walks of life and shared the good news about God’s kingdom. This kingdom has come to earth, and is lived out in our

relationships, not in isolation.
Then John begins to explore the theme of light and darkness. “If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.”
It is our goal as Christians to walk in the light of God’s truth. We are to be light walkers. This does not mean we are without sin. It only means that we shouldn’t try to hide our sin, but offer it freely to God to be forgiven. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” If, however, we confess it, God will forgive us and cleanse us from unrighteousness.
Being Christian does not make us perfect; neither does it give us a license to sin. A while back, I read a book about the Oneida community. You may have heard of Oneida silverware. Oneida began as a Christian community. A small group of devout Christians moved to upstate New York and attempted to live in harmony with God and each other. For a while, it was very successful. People sacrificed for the good of others and through prayer and hard work, they built a strong community.

But this strong community unraveled when the leaders began to see themselves as perfected, above sin. They created “open marriages” where any member could be physically intimate with any other, without being in a committed relationship. They did away with worship services, thinking they were already perfected and had no need of them. They began to think of themselves as without sin, and in doing so, they deceived themselves. Gradually, the members lost Christian unity, became angry and distrustful of one another, and the community folded.

As Christians, we are not without sin. We are also not with forgiveness. The good news is that we have an advocate, Jesus Christ, God’s holy one, who was willing to make a sacrifice for our sins, for the sins of the whole world. With Christ as our advocate, nothing we do or fail to do can separate us from the love of God. God is always ready and willing to welcome us home as we confess our sin. God waits for us to come out of the darkness and walk in the light.

As Christians, we are light walkers. Walking in the light means stepping out of the darkness of shame and self doubt, receiving God’s forgiveness and living joyfully for one another. It means stepping out of the cold, damp basement of our selfabsorption, into the warm light of fellowship with one another.


The Agony of Jesus

Read Mark 14.32-50

A garden is often a pleasant place. There is joy to be found in digging the earth, cultivating the soil, and reaping the harvest. Gardens are places where people go to commune with God and nature.

The garden at Gethsemane was located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus and his disciples had shared the Passover feast. It was just outside the temple walls, likely a place where people prepared themselves for worship at the temple. It was a place of prayer. Jesus goes to the garden at Gethsemane to pray. The disciples go with him. He asks Peter, James and John to stand watch over him as he prays. It is late. They were tired from the day’s travel. Their stomachs were full from the Passover feast. As Jesus prays, slowly they drift off to sleep.

The quiet of the disciples is in painful contrast to the agony of Jesus. Jesus knows that his entry into Jerusalem will not be a victory celebration, but a time of suffering. Jesus is fully human. He prays what’s on his heart. His heart is filled with anxiety. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me.”

This first part of his prayer is his desire. He does not want to face the rejection of his friends, the painful death on a cross. He prays, “If anything can be changed, Lord change it.”  Before he can accept suffering, Jesus prays that he might avoid it. He prays what is in his heart, for what he most wants. This is a model for our own prayers. Ask God for what you want. Don’t stop first to wonder if it is appropriate, if it’s fair, even if it is part of God’s will. First, pray what’s on your heart. God will listen and respond.

Jesus teaches us to share our needs, our desires with God. The biggest trouble we get into in prayer is not in demanding too much, but asking for too little. We edit our prayers before we pray them. “I can’t ask for that, it’s too petty. I can’t ask God to change things, I’m suppose to accept them.” If we are to live abundantly with God and each other, we must develop the ability to share our whole selves, even those needs and desires we want to hide. God already knows our needs and yet, as we pray them, we invite God into our hearts. Not so much to change our situation, as to change us.

Jesus continues in prayer. “…yet, not what I want, but what you want.” First he shares his need, his desire and then he accepts that God is in control. . As we approach God in prayer, we make room for a new thing to happen. It may not be the thing we want or even think we need. God’s response may not be what we expect or hope for. Still, prayer makes a difference both in giving as power over things within our control and helping us let go of things beyond us.

It is both disturbing and comforting to see Jesus in the garden struggling. It is disturbing to think that even someone with such great power, someone so holy, would struggle with suffering. It is disturbing to see that suffering is part of being human. None of us escape it. All of us, in our own way, must struggle. It is disturbing to see his closest followers fall asleep and leave him alone in his suffering.

It is comforting, however, to see him rise above his fears. Jesus faces suffering, even to his death, so that we are never alone. Nothing separates us from the love of God, not even death. Knowing this, we can cope with all that life has to offer, confident that God will bring something good even out of our worst suffering.

All of us face suffering. Many of you have stood beside loved ones who battled terminal illnesses. Some have faced the painful decisions of whether to extend life or allow the illness to run its course. It is never easy. Often you must face doubts within yourself, or in others. Should I keep fighting back or let go? When does the quality of life become so reduced that death becomes a more peaceful and comforting option?

The lesson we learn from Jesus and how he faces suffering is that death is not our worst enemy. We are not obligated by faith only to cling to life at all costs. There are times it is appropriate, even the best decision to let go. Our hope in faith is that death is not the final enemy. In Christ, we have the hope that death is only a passageway. We believe that in God’s own time, we will be reunited with friends and loved ones and that the suffering they faced will be long gone. There will be no more tears, no more struggle, no more dark nights at Gethsemane alone.

Jesus faces the certainty of his death and does not turn away. Though he struggles with doubt and the desire to have the suffering removed, he comes to accept it and to trust that God’s mercy is big enough to bring something good out of something so painful. He is able to endure the agony because of his hope in a better life.



Read Genesis 18.1-15

I used to think the older you were, the less you were surprised by life. I thought that with age came wisdom, and that with wisdom, you could figure life out so that nothing would catch you off guard. You develop the capacity to anticipate, to plan ahead, to prepare for the best and worst life has to offer.

It is true that wisdom comes with life experience. We can learn from our mistakes. We can be prepared. Still, life surprises us in wonderful and sometimes frightening ways. It is wonderful when God blesses us more than we could have possibly expected. It is frightening when something catches us off guard, when we aren’t prepared. It is particularly difficult as we grow older, to adapt to the rapid changes around us and within us.

Sarah is one older adult who experiences both a wonderful and frightening surprise. She and Abraham had spent much of their lives together hoping for a child. They longed for an heir, someone to on whom to pass their legacy. They desperately hoped and planned for a birth, and none came. As they grew older, they no doubt lost hope, and adapted to life without children. Over time they adapted quite well. They became the kind of couple who welcomed strangers, who spent their love on the community.

This must have been particularly difficult for Sarah. To be barren in Biblical times meant to be cursed, looked down upon, scorned. Sarah bore the pain of this ridicule.  Abraham and Sarah had given up the hope of bearing a child. They were going about their business, serving the needs of others, when suddenly three strangers announce that Sarah will conceive and have a child. Sarah laughs at such a notion. What an idea! Who could have expected this?

Sarah laughs at the crazy ways of God, that God makes possible what seems to us impossible. God surprises us, even when we are older and think we have it all figured out. Sarah laughs at the wonderful surprise God has in store for her. We can laugh with her, knowing that God blesses us even after we’ve given up and gone on with our lives. God interrupts our busy lives with a hope so wonderful we could not have imagined it. Once they laughed at Sarah, when she was barren. Now God and Sarah have the last laugh, one filled with joy that wipes away scorn and tears.

Still, God’s promise was not all a bed of roses for Sarah. She still had to endure nine months of pregnancy, the pain of labor, the sleepless nights, the constant care. At an age when she could have been a grandmother, Sarah became a mother. Think of all the hard work ahead of her. I can’t help but think that with her laughter there was mixed a few tears, wondering if she were up to the task, thinking about the tremendous changes ahead.

Sarah laughs out of sheer joy that God has not forgotten her. This joy has been nurtured through hard times, through difficult and painful struggles. This joy of Sarah gave her the strength to endure and the courage to adapt when the world around her and within her changed. Sarah is one older adult who has maintained her ability to laugh and her laughter gives birth to new life.

You see, we never retire from God. God never puts us out to pasture, no matter how old we become. As long as we live God has something in store for us. Our lives have meaning and purpose. The challenge for us is to determine what this is and to live it out, even if it seems crazy at first.

For Sarah, if was to become a mother, even in her old age. Just imagine what the people at Wal-mart would say when Sarah uses her Senior Citizen card to get a discount on diapers!

God isn’t finished with us yet. No matter how young or old us are, no matter what we’ve done failed to do, no matter how experienced or inexperienced, God has something in store for us bigger than we can imagine. Surprise!


Chosen People

Read 1 Peter 2.2-10

What does it mean to be a chosen people? People have argued about this for ages. In an effort to explain this, John Calvin came up with a doctrine we now call “The Doctrine of Election” or as some refer to it, “The Doctrine of Predestination.” This is a difficult and complex doctrine. Much confusion has developed as people have tried to understand it. Presbyterians have gotten bad name because of misunderstandings about the doctrine of election, or predestination.

This was certainly the case for me when I met my first real live Presbyterian. At least the first Presbyterian I knew about. It was my high school basketball coach. Our team had a tradition of taking a moment of silence in the locker room before stepping out on the floor. Most of us used this time for silent prayer. I’ll never forget, the night we were playing in the sectionals, with thousands of screaming fans just outside, our coach said a prayer of his own. It went something like this…

Oh Lord, we know this game has already been decided. We just pray for the strength to accept the outcome. Amen.

I thought “No way.” If you’re going to pray before a game, pray something about conquering evil forces or doing battle with the enemy. Not for acceptance.

Sure enough, we lost that game. I refuse to believe God set us up to lose. How could God have determined our defeat? Why would God even bother to mess with a high school basketball game?

There is no way I was going to believe in a God who would determine the outcome of a basketball game before it had even been played. Especially if that outcome meant we lost.

Fortunately, this isn’t what the doctrine of election is about. It is not about God manipulating human events to determine every outcome. God’s election does not restrict our ability to choose or decide. God’s will does not overcome our will. We are not puppets God plays with on a string.

So what does it mean to be a chosen people? If we look to the history of Israel, we can find out. God chooses Abraham and Sarah and establishes a covenant with them to last for generations. God agrees to be the God of Israel and Israel agrees to be God’s people. The ground on which this covenant stands is God’s faithfulness. Even when Israel fails to live up to their end of the covenant, God remains faithful. God delivers them from enemies. God feeds them manna in the wilderness. God raises up leaders to guide them. Even when the people rebel and their leaders turn away from God, God remains faithful. God promises through prophets a new age where God’s peace and justice reigns.

Israel is chosen not because they’ve done something special, not because they are uniquely qualified. Being chosen by God is not a status symbol.

Being God’s chosen ones doesn’t come with special privileges, but responsibilities. Israel does not receive favor from other nations because of their special relationship with God. The thanks they get is no thanks at all. Because they refuse to bow down to other gods and authorities, they are persecuted. Loyalty to God comes at a cost.

This is the same dilemma facing the community of believers in Asia Minor which Peter addressed. 1 Peter says you, too, are part of this covenant God has made with Israel. Christ has opened the door that all who believe might come to know God. The temple curtain has been torn. No longer are we born into God’s family, we are adopted when we receive Christ.

In Christ, the boundary lines have been changed. Our community is not determined by who’s in and who’s out. Our community is formed around a central figure, Christ. The boundary lines have fallen and everyone is called to follow Christ.

When the church and believers within the church refuse to work together because we disagree, we have a problem. It is a problem that cuts the core of who we are as a community. A problem like this can damage our ability to follow Christ. We become little more than a social group of people who think and act alike.

Instead, Christ calls us to move forward. In Christ, we are chosen for a new way of life. We don’t have to agree on all things. We don’t have to do all the same things. We don’t even have to like each other. We do have to work together, for the sake of the community, for the health of the body, the church.

God’s election, God’s calling to us is not a comfortable one. If we follow Christ in our lives we are bound to have to do things we would never do on our own. The promise of God is that we never act alone.


Jesus Wept

Read John 11.32-44

Christians throughout the ages have affirmed that Jesus is fully God and fully human. Not one and then the other. Both at the same time. 

Yet, many people have struggled to hold together these paradox. Some lean too heavily on the human side of Jesus, claiming he was only a great moral teacher, a model for our lives, a human example for us to follow. They fail to respect the power of God in him. Others lean too heavily on the divine side of Christ, pointing to his miracles, his healing touch, his victory over sin and death. They overlook his pain, his joy, his laughter and his tears. Still others claim Jesus took the divine form on some occasions and at other times, the human. 

But Christians still affirm that Jesus was and is fully human and fully divine.

Our Gospel lesson provides a wonderful illustration of this.

Jesus is sent a message that his friend, Lazarus, has dying. At first he seems to dismiss it, and goes about his healing ministry for others. When he arrives at Bethany, he discovers that Lazarus has died. His sister, Martha goes to meet Jesus and, with a rage born of grief, yells at him.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Still, she has clings desperately to faith, “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha professes her faith in Jesus, her absolute trust that the power of God in him can conquer anything, even death.

Jesus continues towards the village. Mary greets him with the same words as her sister, only with more sad disappointment than rage, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus sees her crying, along with others. Our text reads, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”

The grief of Jesus is first grief over the lack of faith demonstrated by the people gathered at the tomb of Lazarus. It’s not so much that he is bothered by them being upset with him. It is natural for us to be troubled when God, in Christ, disappoints us. But even then, God wants us to have the faith that He will set things straight.

“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks. They lead him there. The sight of the sealed tomb with the body of his friend laid out was too much for him. Jesus, fully God and fully human, wept.

It is not difficult to understand how Jesus, as a human being, would cry tears of grief over the loss of a close friend. It’s another thing to accept that God, who is immutable, would be affected in this way. People tend to think of the divine God as beyond human emotion, untouched by human concerns such as grief and sorrow.

This has been the view of some philosophies, but it is not Biblical. As we look at the whole of Scripture, we discover that God is deeply affected by how we experience life. God does not just sit back and observe. God fully enters into our lives.

The tears of Jesus are an expression of care, the compassion he felt for a friend. In spite of his divine nature, or said better, because of it, Jesus enters most fully into our human experience, including the depth of our emotions. In Christ, God rejoices with us in our gladness and weeps with us in our sadness.

These tears are the place where the human and the divine meet. The human and divine Jesus is overcome with sorrow over the loss of a friend, enters the cave and restores life to Lazarus. Our Heavenly Father is not immune from emotion. At the same time, God exercises divine authority to rescue us from the darkness of our suffering, to bring victory out of defeat.

Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, leads us through the darkness of despair, into the light of life.