I grew up in the era when MTV was new and exciting and when many adults viewed it as dangerous and corrupting of America’s youth. My parents did not want us watching MTV, but since it was part of the cable package and it was a time when you couldn’t block channels, it was possible to put it on the TV when they were out. Which is precisely what the three Brydon boys did when our parents were off for a church bowling league or out with friends. From the moment the car left the driveway, we’d grab the remote, turn straight to MTV and drink it all in. We generally had a sense of how long our parents would be away, so we would take turns keeping watch out the front windows, so that we could race back into the living room. “They’re back! Change the channel. Now.” But we had a system down that worked well. The remote had a last channel viewed button. We made sure that the last channel viewed gave wide berth to MTV. After hitting that button, we’d go up or down a channel to eliminate MTV from the last channel viewed. We were geniuses who had a perfect system worked out – or at least that’s what we thought. To my knowledge, our parents never figured out we were doing that, but, of course, now that I have kids of my own, I’ve discovered we parents are pretty good at picking up on signals. The deceptions just aren’t that hard to figure out, so I suspect my parents knew what we were up to and just didn’t want to make a big deal about it!
Our way of sneaking MTV was this. “Mom and dad are coming. Change the channel!” It was a way of hiding what we weren’t supposed to do from our parents. Our passage today is about how our behavior as Christians is supposed to reflect the belief that Jesus is coming back, as we see in 2:28, “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears, we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” Or, to put it another way, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” Well, what John is writing is more positive than that attitude, but you get the point. John is telling that church and its people that they have good work to do while Jesus is not physically present with them. This work is directed by who God says they are and what God has called them to do. Unlike the shortsighted “Our parents are coming. Change the channel!” or “Jesus is coming. Look busy,” this is saying, “You already know you’re God’s beloved children, so live into God’s beautiful calling for your life. When Jesus comes again, may he find you doing what you are already supposed to be doing – not scrambling to do better because he showed up!”
Our passage today begins with the assertion that Jesus will come again, but then it moves into who we are because of what God is doing in the world. “See what love the Father has given us,” John writes, “that we should be called children of God.” God’s love is revealed in our identity. Who we are is determined by who God says we are, and we are God’s children. God is our heavenly parent, who out of gracious love for us has adopted us all into one big, diverse, wild heavenly family. Yes, we bear many identities – where we were born, how we were raised, what we do for a living, and so much more – but all of those identities stand under God’s gracious claim that we are the children of God, no matter where we were born, how we were raised, what we do for a living, or what others say about us. This side of glory – that is, the coming again of Christ, there will be a struggle to understand fully what it means to be the children of God, but we must strive to live into that identity.
Beyond being God’s children, it’s amazing what else the Bible has to say about the kind of people God has called us to be. The words from 1 Peter 2 are simply staggering. What is our identity according Peter? “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Could you imagine if you and I were having a one-on-one conversation and you said to me, “Pastor Troy, I am really struggling to know who I am right now,” and I responded, “Well, friend, you’re chosen, a royal priest, part of a holy people, one of God’s own”? You’d probably stare at me for a while that then say, “What?!? I was just expecting you to say that I’m a decent person, that people love me, that I will grow into my work.” Friends, I am convinced that part of our struggle is that we accept lesser versions of ourselves rather than believing that we are who God says we are. You – you’re chosen! God loves you and chooses you to be one of God’s family. You – you’re part of a royal priesthood! You have work to do in the world as part of God’s family that helps others recognize that God loves them too. You – you’re holy! God has set you apart for a wonderful purpose, calling you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. This is who God says you are, and nothing and no one can take away your beloved identity.
Going back to John now, he takes us even deeper into God’s love revealed in us. “Beloved,” John writes, “we are God’s children now.” Not some day. Now. This is a present reality. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” It’s like those Ronco infomercials – but wait, there’s more! Some day, when Christ returns, we’re going to be more than we are now. We’ll be better versions of ourselves, better than merely God’s children, as though that identity wasn’t enough. We’ll be like Jesus. How amazing is that?
Of course, this side of glory, we’re not like Jesus, are we? He’s loving and welcoming to all. We pick our favorites and have our blind spots towards those we struggle to love. He heals those who need it. We are often too busy to stop to help, so we pass on by. His sense of purpose and mission is unwavering. We get distracted by binge-watching Netflix. That’s what’s so interesting about 1 John. We go from these passages with such a beautiful calling – not only are we God’s children, but we’ll someday be like Jesus, God’s one and only Son – and then John interrupts us with the reminder that we aren’t yet what we could be. One interpreter I read this week called these interruptions “an unexpected burp.” I know those happen to me. I’ll be preaching or singing, and I can feel the air gathering and wanting to make its way out. Verses 4-7 are like a burp that interrupt polite conversation.
Yes, our identity is that we’re God’s children. Yes, someday we’ll be even more than that. But now? Who are we? We are sinners claimed by God’s grace living daily in the muddy middle between who we are and who we are becoming. We are living in the present future. In this life we will always be in the process of becoming. To go back to my example that I started with. My parents have always loved me and been proud of me. I am a child of John and Claudia. That will never change, but being their child does not mean that I always lived up to who I was supposed to be. I still was willing to go against their rule about MTV and practice deception. I said or did things that hurt others. I needed their correction and forgiveness, for sure, but despite my imperfections – my sin, if you will – I never stopped being their child and being loved by them. There were times of accountability, for sure. There were times where I needed to seek forgiveness, and it was there. It’s helpful, sometimes, to think about our identity and brokenness in terms of our own relationships.
We are still becoming who we are. C. S. Lewis puts it this way. “We think becoming disciples after baptism is like God coming into the house of hearts and putting up some new drapes and slapping on a few new coats of paint on the same old walls.” God spruces us up a little bit. “In reality God comes in, knocks down most of the walls, and starts to build something brand new.” This is where being honest about our sin and brokenness is so helpful in creating the space for us to become who God says we are.
We are tempted not to take sin very seriously. Yes, we know we’re forgiven. Yes, we’re decent people who try to do the right thing. We read verses like 4-10 in 1 John 3 and are tempted to think, “What’s all this business about lawlessness, deception, and the Devil?” It’s pretty easy to believe that being a decent, law-abiding, generally nice person should be plenty. But, to get back to C. S. Lewis’ image, living in that way is like slapping on a coat of paint to our shabby walls and assuming we’re brand new. It doesn’t work that way.
Sin is serious business. This is why we pray to confess our sins in our worship every single Sunday. It’s an acknowledgement that we have not arrived yet. There’s work to be done. The Holy Spirit is still renovating our lives, and while the Spirit is taking lunch, we sneak in and add back some of the old life that we’re supposed to let go of. We confess because we know there is work to be done in our lives as God’s children. We confess because we have a heavenly parent who loves us as children and chooses us to be more than we are. We confess because, Lord willing and working, we’re going to live into this greater capacity for good – to be God’s children bringing health and grace and healing into our lives, our homes, our church, our community, and our nation. We confess because it makes space for the Spirit to work in us.
So, maybe this section isn’t so much like an unwelcome burp as it is that niggling feeling that urges us to be more than we’re settling for. We are God’s children becoming more Christ-like day by day. Still, there’s the matter of the coming again of Jesus. John’s letter is almost 2000 years old at this point in time. We generally don’t live every day thinking, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” If it’s taken almost 2000 years, why should we bother living now as though he could show up? There does seem to be a fluid chronology to the mystery of our faith – Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. The Bible tells us that we measure time in a way that God does not. 2 Peter uses Psalm 90 when it tells us, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” It continues, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” If Christ had already come back, you would never have existed, so be thankful for God’s patience. It means that your life and the lives of all you love are a part of God’s plan.
We live in the present future. We know who we are. We know who we are becoming. “If Christians know that they are growing into a future whose form resembles him in whom they dwell, then they can withstand uncertainty and loss…with vigor and hope, continually replenished by God.” We can live these days, secure in God’s love, knowing the ongoing forgiveness that we need, and pointing us to a future that is better than today because God’s Holy Spirit is welcome to work in our lives and our world and our church, going through a full renovation to make us into who we are becoming.