Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 26, 2015)

Easter 4 – Series B (April 26, 2015)
“Reassurance” (1 John 3:16-24)

One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, “Mommy, will you stay with me all night in my room?”  Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, “I can’t dear. I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.”  A long silence followed.  At last it was broken by a shaky voice saying, “The big sissy!”  The little boy received some assurance from his mother that everything was going to be alright … and assumed that dad needed reassurance, too.
            Julie and I needed some reassurance before we drove up to Hurricane Ridge during our stay on the Olympic Peninsula the week after Easter.  We asked the young man at the hotel counter if there were guard rails on the road.  He reassured us that there were plenty of guard rails on the more treacherous spots where the side of the road drops off into the abyss.  There were not “plenty.”  I think I counted three guard rails total the entire way up.  While driving, Julie needed reassurance from me, asking me if I was nervous.  I said, “I’m fine, sweetheart.”  Confession time.  I lied.  The whole time I was nonchalantly trying to wipe my sweaty palms on my legs in those moments the road straightened out for a bit.  Sorry, dear.  I guess that’s the last time we’ll be going up to Hurricane Ridge.
            We all need a little reassurance from time to time.  It is certainly reassuring to know that Jesus is our Good Shepherd.  He cares for us and guards us from the wiles of the satanic wolf who seeks to snatch us away and scatter us from God’s kingdom.  St. John gives us further reassurance today in our reading from his first Epistle.  He knows that our hearts need reassurance because we so often fail to love our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  Our hearts constantly condemn us.  We have a guilty conscience.  And there are many dangers that await us.  We doubt God’s love for us.  We despair over whether he hears our prayers and answers them.  We wonder if he has abandoned us.      
            First and foremost, we are reassured of God’s love.  “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.”  This is how you know God loves you.  Jesus willingly laid down his life for you at the cross.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  This verse is often used when we talk about soldiers who give up their lives for us.  You might hear it used as a text for a Memorial Day sermon, or at a funeral for a soldier who died in battle.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I never want to disparage the bravery of our soldiers nor diminish the ultimate sacrifices that many gave.  Soldiers serve out of a sense of duty, honor, patriotism, serving their country.  But they don’t know me.  They don’t love me.  Their friends are the men in their unit, their friends back home.  Jesus, on the other hand, truly knows all of you and loves you, calls you his friends, and gave up his life for each and every one of you.
            As you may already know, the ancient Greeks had four different words for love.  There’s philia, which is love between friends.  There’s storge, which is love between family members.  There’s eros, which is romantic love.  And there’s agape, which is selfless love.  This is the word John uses in our text.  Jesus' sacrifice embodies God’s definition of agape.  This kind of love is both selfless and sacrificial.  It thinks only about the object of its attention.  It is not concerned about self, but is fully focused on the other person.  The one who loves this way puts his own needs last and the needs of the one being loved first.  It is the kind of love that is willing to go all the way to death, if need be.
            John says that because we know this love of Jesus, and because he laid down his life for us, then we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  God has given us “the world’s goods,” our daily bread, sustenance for our bodies.  We are to be stewards of what God has given us and to share with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but of course, this could apply to anyone who needs our care and concern.  Therefore, when you see someone in need, are you moved in your heart?  Is it like a sock in the gut?  Do you groan with empathy for them?  That’s the sense of the original words here.  The old King James Version comes closest: “But whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”  If you do not feel for your brother or sister, if you have “shutteth" your "bowels of compassion,” John questions whether God’s love abides in you at all.  “Let somebody else take care of it.  I’m a busy person.  I don’t have the resources,” we are tempted to say.
            Once again, the elderly apostle addresses his hearers as “Little children.”  He loves them like a father or perhaps a grandfather.  Yet here, I wonder if there is a rebuke, too.  Little children can be so very selfish.  “MINE!” they yell out when someone tries to take one of their toys.  You and I may not yell out “MINE,” but our heart at times screams with selfishness when it comes to our time and our money.
            At this point, we need some more reassurance, so John proceeds to reassure us of God's mercy and forgiveness.  “By this we know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”  Our hearts continually condemns us.  We know that we have not been moved to the depths of our being – our bowels of compassion – when we see our brother or sister in need.
            But God is greater than our heart.  He knows everything.  Wait.  That’s supposed to be comforting???  God knows exactly why my heart condemns me.  That should lead him to condemn me, too!!!
            On the contrary, it’s the greater heart of God that was so full of compassion for you that he sent his Son to die and rise for you.  Yur heart no longer needs to condemn you because Jesus took the condemnation for you.  You can have a clean conscience by virtue of your Baptism.  St. Peter writes, “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).  Knowing that you are forgiven and cleansed by the shed blood of Christ, and that this has been applied to you personally in the water and Word of Holy Baptism, you can have a clean conscience before God.  The slate has been wiped clean.  God is greater than your heart.  Therefore even though you see your sin, God does not.  It has been removed as far as the east is from the west.  He will remember your sin no more (Is. 43:25).
            This is the reassurance we need.  This gives and strengthens faith.  It gives us confidence before God.  Now, by faith, we know that whatever we ask for in prayer, we will receive.  We will receive what we ask for because by faith we are aligned with his will.  Faith never asks for anything contrary to God’s will.  By faith, we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.  This is not the Ten Commandments here.  Instead, it’s what’s called our Lord’s “Gospel imperatives.”  These are those things he tells us to do and at the same time gives us the very power to carry them out.  What are those commandments?  St. John tells us: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”                                                        
            Reassured of God’s love in Christ who gave his life for us, reassured of forgiveness and a clean conscience so we can have confidence before God, we can also be reassured of God’s abiding presence with us.  “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them. By this we know he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”  Someone may ask, “But how do I know I have the Spirit?  I don’t feel anything.  I’ve never felt any rushing wind come upon me nor seen any tongues of fire hovering over me.”  We do not know God by sense or experience, but by the Word of God.  That is the means by which the Spirit works and by which the Spirit delivers the goods of life and salvation to you.  He works via Word both read and preached.  He works via the Word that is connected to the water that is poured over your head.  He works via the Word that is connected to the bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of your Risen Savior, given for you to eat and drink, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.
            By this we know love …
            By this we know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him …
            By this we know he abides in us …
                        … to give you confidence and faith in the one who laid down his life for you.
                        … to give you faith to know and to trust that your sins are forgiven.
                        … to give you the will to lay down your lives for each other and to love in deed and truth.


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