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Sunday, January 10, 2021
“Beloved” Sermon Series
Scripture: Psalm 1 & 1 John 2:3-14
My in-laws have lived in the same house in the west suburbs of Chicago for most of their adult lives. On the west side of the garage of their house, my mother-in-law has planted hostas. These hostas faithfully come up every year, lining the garage and the path alongside of it. A few years ago, a female mallard duck took up residence in the midst of the hostas, sitting on her eggs faithfully, even with several of the Hauser grandkids regularly sneaking up to take a peek at her. She liked the spot so much that she actually built a nest there two years in a row.
Ducks learn from imprinting, that is imitating what their mother does. An Austrian zoologist named Konrad Lorenz became famous for demonstrating imprinting. He imitated the quacks of a mother Mallard, and he was able to get newly hatched ducklings to follow him as a foster parent.
Now, our family wasn’t trying to take over this flock of ducks. (I actually learned this week that a flock of ducks can also be called a raft of ducks, a team of ducks, or a paddling of ducks.) Their mother was with them, but we knew one day the ducklings would be ready to leave.
During the second summer that moment happened when we were visiting. Mom and her ducklings left the nest and headed towards Lambert Lake which was a good mile away and across the very busy Roosevelt Road. Lined up like the ducklings the kids and adults followed this paddling of ducks as far as they could, keeping their eyes peeled for hawks and cars and anything that might hamper their journey. The crew eventually lost the trail of the ducks, so we’re just going to assume they made I safely to the lake.
The care of the mother duck leads her to sacrifice for her ducklings. She sits for weeks on the eggs. She brings them food. She leads them, single file, to the place where they can be nurtured to growth. How do they learn how to be ducks? By imitating their mother, who has imprinted her image on them.
1 John asks us this, “How do we know God? The answer, in this letter, is not the property of some elite core of spiritual athletes. Its criterion is not intensity of religious experience or better education, even of a theological kind. The acid test for our life in God is conformity with the gospels moral imperatives and their fruition in love….Put metaphorically 1 John asks: Do we bear the imprint of Christ is his stamp on us evident in the way we walk?” Like a mother duck imprints on her ducklings, so we learn what it means to be fully human by following Jesus and letting him imprint his way on us.
Perhaps the turn into 2021 gives us all the space to think seriously about what it means to love Jesus and follow him. How do we learn from Jesus right now? I’m going to suggest three things we can start with. First, we read the stories of Jesus found in the Bible. Of all the books of the Bible, the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – provide a vivid picture of who Jesus is, what he did, and what that means for you and the whole world. Pick any one of them to read in the coming days and weeks. (Actually, I think you’ll find that they read fairly quickly, and you could read through each one in a week or so.) After you’ve read them, read them again because I can guarantee you that there will be things that surprised you, or that challenged you, or that you never understood before. Do you want to learn about Jesus? Dwell on the stories about him first. They’re worth more to your life than you’ll ever know. In the coming weeks we’re going to read through
1 John, which is a short letter in the New Testament. You’ll get to know a lot about Jesus if you read this letter too, although it’s more theology than story like the gospels. Do you want Jesus to imprint on your life? Come to know him through Scripture.
Second, learning about Jesus all by yourself is helpful, but if you only do so by yourself, it’s a mistake. The gift of the church and Christian community is that God has given us others who can encourage us in faith. Faith is personal, but not exclusively so, and it certainly is not a private affair. This step may be a harder one to pull off during this pandemic because we’re trying hard to keep people healthy by staying apart, but I still think this is important right now. Do you have someone or perhaps multiple people in your life with whom you can be honest about your joys and struggles? Is there a new level to which you can go in a friendship where you can talk about substantive issues? Learning about Jesus and how to live like him happens best in community. These groups can support you, but they also need to be able to lovingly redirect you because there’s not one of us who is perfect or who doesn’t need help. “The church is not an assembly of spiritually healthy people. The church is where the sick gathered to be healed from the disease of sin.” Even while the church cannot gather en masse, the possibilities for support and friendship are there through phones, letters, walks, and so on. Don’t try to walk the way of Jesus alone!
Third, we learn from Jesus by following his lead of praying and then acting. As you read the gospels, you’ll see that Jesus takes significant time to be in prayer. His life is completely supported by the need to be with the One he called, Abba Father. We’re an action-oriented people. There are things to be done, and we have the abilities to do those things, so why wait until we’ve prayed? Because not every impulse we have is good and not every effort we make will succeed. Especially in these times where so much is wrong with the world – unrest in the capital, pandemic in our communities, anger and frustration in almost every situation (I heard this week that people have been rage honking at Starbucks because it’s taking too long!) – I think that slowing down and seeking God’s will in prayer before acting is so essential and is part of following the example of Jesus.
1 John tells us, “Now by this we be sure that we know [Jesus], if we obey his commandments….By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” Those who first received this letter were in a situation like ours. They lived after the ministry of Jesus. They never laid their eyes on him. They lived in a community that was divided. Still, the encouragement is this: knowing Jesus means learning to live like him and obey him.
The book of Psalms starts out with a wonderful image. Those who delight in God’s ways “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” I know I want my life and the lives of the people in our church to be like that tree – deep-rooted, in fertile soil that gets the water it needs because it’s in the right place, and fruitful. All of the sudden in verse four the psalm pivots. “Not so the wicked!” it proclaims. I can still vividly remember Dr. Seow, my Hebrew professor at Princeton spending an entire class lecturing on the first letter of that verse. It begins with the Hebrew letter “waw,” which to my eye looks like a cane. “This is a disjunctive ‘waw’,” Seow called out. “Your English translations soft-pedal it. They read ‘The wicked are not so,’ but it really means “NOT SO THE WICKED!” It’s meant to disrupt, to startle the reader. There are two ways to be. One obeys God’s plan for life; that way is like a tree planted by a stream. Doesn’t that sound nice? Wouldn’t you want to live like….NOT SO THE WICKED! They’re like dust in the wind. They blow here and there. They’re of no substance and account. Be the tree not the chaff.” Man, sometimes I miss seminary and hearing a profound teacher talk for a full hour on one Hebrew letter…
If we are to be like a tree planted by a stream of water, then we must learn how to be with Jesus and walk in obedience to him. That’s really the point our passage from 1 John. When I think of obedience, it’s easy to turn to the threat of punishment. As a kid, I followed the classroom rules out of the fear of a punishment. I’m guessing you did the same. It was the same for parents. I could get grounded if I did something way out of line, and I feared that, so generally I stayed in line. Yet, John takes things to a new level. Obedience isn’t about fear. It’s about love. Those who are obedient to Jesus are shaped by love not fear.
This short letter is shaped by the love of God we have come to know in Jesus Christ. The world love – agape – appears 52 times in this letter. The love of God has reached perfection in those who obey, John says. You are beloved, John says. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, John says. Obedience is defined by love. God’s love for the world. Our love for God. Our love for others. Sadly, this singular marker of obedience is often lacking in churches and among those who call themselves Christians. Yet, it’s what John points to as the defining characteristic of the Christian community – love. This community is founded on the new commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples in his final night with them. It’s found in John 13, shortly after Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet. “I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In John’s day it is clear that there is brokenness among the people who claim to bear the name of Jesus. “Whoever hates another…is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.” The same holds true today. Do we find ourselves hating people who are not like us? Who don’t vote the way we vote, view the economy and taxes like we do, who disagree with us on fill-in-the-blank issue? Hate has no room in the life of the Christ-follower, John tells us. Our command is to love. Even those whom we find hard to love. Even our enemies. “1 John asserts that love is an aggressive expression of Christian faith, symptomatic of life that is renewed not by our own power but by God’s.” This kind of love is a love that comes from God and only from God.
It’s a harsh world out there. We are living in a time that the most natural thing to do is to become angry at others for what they’re doing. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we mark in a little over a week, clearly knew the message of 1 John. In 1958 he said, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” Five years later he continued beating the same drumbeat of love: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It’s a refrain followers of Jesus are still singing today. As we seek to follow Jesus, we are shaped by love. To be shaped by that love, we must abide – be with – Jesus, in the Word, in community, and in prayer. Doing so imprints his way onto us, and like a mother duck leading her ducklings home, so Jesus will bring us safely home, all the while shaping us with love.