Idol Chatter–1 John 5:21

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.–1 John 5:21

We’ve, at long last, arrived at the end of 1 John. Some ninety entries and eighteen weeks separate us from the first verse. Presumably John didn’t take quite so long in composing his epistle. Still, he undoubtedly put some time and thought into the piece. The literary student in me appreciates greatly the various structures that John employed to make his message more memorable and powerful. Yesterday’s verse struck me as a marvelous capstone to the intricate and elegant structure of John’s letter. Then we get to today’s verse, the last in the letter.

“Oh yeah,” John seems to tack on, as if in an afterthought. “Stay away from idols.” I almost hear an aged uncle shouting “Don’t take any wooden nickels” as we head out the door. Is this really how a fine theologian, pastoral minister, and Greek stylist wants to end his epistle? Did that monk who probably added the trinitarian language back in 1 John 5:8 also append this verse?

Of course that isn’t the case. Indeed, this verse serves as the logical capstone to the entire book, but only when we understand the logic behind the entire book. What is John trying to say here? Certainly he spent a great deal of time telling us to love each other. If you don’t love your brother, then you don’t love God. Anyone who loves God loves his brother, and so forth. There’s a lot of love going on in 1 John.

John, however, didn’t want us to get the cart before the horse. Lots of people in our society think that love is a great thing. We’re supposed to be inclusive, celebrate diversity, give to charity, and a lot of other loving things. These are, for the most part, very good things, things that seem to fit nicely with John’s message. What I notice, however, is that people sometimes take the next logical step, making the human–the object of our love–an end in itself.

Let’s think that through. If the purpose of life is to love other people, whose purpose is to love other people, whose purpose is to love other people, ad infinitum, then aren’t we missing something? It seems like sort of a backwards Ponzi scheme. In reality, such focus on humans as the end of our attention takes us into idol worship.

An idol needn’t stand like Zeus or Anubis. Human hands need not have crafted it. It can be a tree or Nature or the Sun. In short, an idol is any created thing that is worshiped in place of the Creator of things. Lest we forget, John began his letter with a reference to “That which was from the beginning,” and he ends it by cautioning us against those things that might distract us from “That which was from the beginning.”

As we bring this study to a close, we do well to inspect our lives for idols. Probably you have neither a Buddha nor an Ashereh pole in your home. That does not absolve you of the guilt of idolatry. Perhaps your idol is your house, your car, your family, your career, your position in an organization, music, movies, or sports. I must constantly remain vigilant against an idolatry of books. For you, it’s probably different. Regardless, remember John’s final words and “stay away from idols.”

Babel Fish–1 John 5:20

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—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.–1 John 5:20

In Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the reader is introduced to an amazing creature, familiar to space travelers around the cosmos: the Babel fish. This remarkable fish, when placed in a person’s ear, will translate any language into one that the listener can understand. Adams included a lengthy explanation of how this might function biologically, but clearly he was taking a swipe at one of the conventions of science fiction.

After all, how did Captain Kirk and Captain Picard manage to speak with all of those various aliens on Star Trek. How did the Klingons speak with the humans, who then spoke with the Romulans, who then spoke with the Cardassians? (And why do I remember all of these names?) In the TV mindset, the solution was simple. Star Trek people had a universal translator, which rendered all language into English for and English-speaking user. (Somehow, despite the presence of the translator, various people could still manage to speak untranslated Klingon, but that’s a different matter.)

The reality that makes the Babel fish and the universal translator necessary is that people on far-flung planets will probably struggle to speak with one another should they ever meet. When you can’t speak with another party, the dramatic possibilities remain distinctly limited. What’s a sci-fi writer to do? Invent a translating device.

It is just as absurd to believe that we could speak intelligibly to the inhabitants of Betelgeuse 9, should we meet them, as it is to believe we can converse meaningfully with dogs and cats. While my dog, Kate, understands a few words–“go to bed,” “go outside,” “go downstairs”–I have noticed a distinct lack of comprehension when the conversation goes to relative merits of musical styles or my haircut. Intelligent “people” from different planets might well learn to speak to each other, but I’m never going to have a converation with Kate.

Isn’t it nearly that ridiculous to believe that I can truly converse with God on God’s level? Sure, I can understand a few things. Kate thinks she understands me pretty well, I’m sure, but she doesn’t. Barring some sort of divine help, I’m never going to really understand God.

But, happy day, such divine help is at hand. John tells us that Jesus has come and “given us understanding.” We like to think we understand on our own, but we don’t. Had Christ not come and given us God’s version of the Babel fish, we’d be just as clueless as Kate, wagging our tails and responding to whistles, but never truly “getting it.”

Home Team–1 John 5:19

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.–1 John 5:19

Last night, the Boston Celtics won their seventeenth NBA championship, going in a single season from one of the poorest teams in the league to the pinnacle of success. I’ve been a Celtics fan since the days of Larry Bird. Last night’s win struck me as especially sweet since it came at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers, a team I have never liked, especially since their star, Kobe Bryant, showed himself to be–how shall I say it–something less than a role model for the world.

As the Celtics mugged each other on the floor of their arena and thousands upon thousands of Boston fans fell into utter pandemonium, my mind found itself fixed on a singular image: Kobe Bryant making his way off the floor, to where he could disappear into the locker room and lick his wounds. As much as Kobe irritates me, my sympathy went out to the guy as he bore the heckling and hilarity of the Celtic faithful.

We’ve all had those moments when we recognize ourselves to be in unfamiliar and unfriendly territory. A couple of years back, Southwest Airlines made an entire ad campaign out of this idea.

As children of God, we dwell away from home, in territory familiar but decidedly unfriendly. When I find myself fitting in to the present situation, like a Laker comfortable in the Celtics home, then something must be wrong. The day will come when I leave this place, when I walk off the court for the last time. That day will come, but when I leave the court, I do not intend to stroll off in defeat like Kobe Bryant. I will be a champion, heading home to a rousing welcome from the home fans.

A Burrito of Hope–1 John 5:18

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.–1 John 5:18

I walked into Chipotle tonight. Scooting up to the counter, I considered my options. The vegetarian fajita burrito is a reasonably healthy, although still wonderful option. No, it’s not a “BGB” (big greasy burrito), the sort of thing I’m fond of asking Penny for around bedtime, but it still fills the void nicely.

“I’ll have a steak burrito, please,” I replied when asked for my order. The steak burrito, while hardly a heart-attack bomb and still not a BGB, certainly cannot be filed in the “healthy” department. Did I sin when I ordered that burrito? Although it won’t find the Prophet Nathan at my door, pointing at me and saying, “You are the man!” I’m pretty sure that my supper tonight was a sin. I know my struggle with weight and my tendency toward high blood pressure. I should have actually opted against any form of burrito and hit Subway for a veggie sandwich.

While I’m no logician, I can perform a deduction from this verse. If people who are born of God don’t sin, and I do sin, then, apparently, I am not born of God. Should I sign off now and collapse in despair? Perhaps not.

Like so many words, the Greek verb translated as “sin” here possesses multiple meanings. It could mean “commit any sin,” but that doesn’t make much sense given the context of the whole book. It can also mean, “be without a share in” or “miss the mark.”

The Chipotle worker who made my burrito tonight burst the first shell she used, leaving the burrito as an oozing, uneatable mess. Did that make her a burrito failure? Did she “miss the mark”? On that burrito she did fail and miss the mark, but ultimately, she made a good burrito that stays with me.

Perhaps that’s the lesson of this verse. Our lives in Christ are not pristine things. They’re like burritos, well stuffed, not quite perfect, but finally held together for good things.

The Late Laptop–1 John 5:16-17

If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him 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 he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. –1 John 5:16-17

Alas! I mourn for Penny’s laptop for it died last night on the operating table. The surgeon, Dr. Me, recognized his fatal errors only too late and didn’t even bother closing the patient. The various body parts reside now in a Wal-Mart bag in my office.

For quite some time, that computer had been less than wonderful. In fact, it was less than wonderful when we bought it, a couple of years back. Some six months ago, the CD drive ceased to function, which meant that installing most new software became nearly impossible. Surely, I surmised, the illness was a simple one, perhaps a loose connection. I determined to open up the patient to have a look. How far wrong could that go?

Opening up a laptop, I discovered, is far more challenging than opening up a desktop computer. I’ve been the sort to pop the hood and play with the innards of computers for years. At one point, I did it so often that I only left one screw in to hold the cover on. In all those years, I only did one really stupid thing.

Now, I have opened up exactly one laptop and done exactly one stupid thing. You might be tempted to laugh at me or to believe that such folly deserves whatever consequences it yielded. If you’re a technical type, you could scoff at my clumsy handling of the affair. You could.

Or you could have sympathy. You could pray for me, although I’d be quite shocked at a miraculous re-assembly of the computer.

John’s words in today’s verses seem to me to simply elaborate on the entire theme of love that he’s been working on for several chapters. If we truly love people, we do not laugh or quietly celebrate their failures. We pray for them. We ask the best for them. If you’ve never tacitly been pleased at the fall of another, then this doesn’t really apply to you, but I believe that such feelings, fed by envy and pride, crop up often among us. They must have done the same thing in John’s day for him to mention the problem in this letter.

As I pass through my day, I see people involved in gambling, driving infractions, substance abuse, immodesty, and other sins. Do I wag my head and feel quietly superior to them? Do you? If you follow John’s admonition and pray for them first, I’m pretty sure that you’ll avoid those feelings of self-righteousness.

Cornerstone Quest–1 John 5:14

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.–1 John 5:14

Ten years ago, when Emily stood some fourteen years into this life, I did one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. She came to me one day and asked if I would take her and Andy, her boyfriend, to a four-day music festival, Cornerstone, held in the great metropolis of Bushnell, Illinois. Every year, Cornerstone packs in 15,000 to 20,000 mostly Christian music lovers and fellow sufferers to hear all manner of bands perform. No, you won’t find the Gaithers performing at Cornerstone. Most of the acts that civilized people enjoy wouldn’t be found on the bill.

Had you asked me on that day in 1998 to name the ten things I might do that summer, sweating for ten days in rural Illinois in the midst of a collection of weird-looking, exceptionally noisy, and sometimes unpleasant young people would not have made the list. It wouldn’t have made the top twenty, fifty or one hundred. Why then, the week of July 4, did I find myself driving into the grounds with not only Emily and Andy but two other boys and Alyson? Why indeed.

Had Emily asked me to drive her downtown to buy crack cocaine, a briefer and cheaper task, I would have said no. Similarly, I would not have agreed to a trip to the tattoo parlor or a marathon session on the Magic Teacups at Disneyland. I am perfectly capable of saying “no,” as my children can attest, but Cornerstone fit into my desires for my daughter. I hoped to grow her into a Christian adult with a personality. Happily, I think, I succeeded.

Scoffers look at John 5:14 and say, “Yeah, God will do whatever you want as long as it’s what he wants, too!” While this verse can be read in that manner, I like to think of it as the Cornerstone verse. God won’t give us what does not fit into his will, but he’s not necessarily rigid about what his will is. He might take us to Cornerstone or a mission trip. He might bless us as employees or business owners. As it turns out, Emily met Christian, her husband, at Cornerstone, the year after I stopped going.

This summer, I’m going back to the festival, accompanying Emily and Christian as well as my two younger kids, Thomas and Olivia. Who knows what wonders he has in store for us this time

I Just Want You To Know–1 John 5:13

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.–1 John 5:13

In 2004, author Marilynne Robinson published[amazonify]0374153892::text:ploughshare::: Gilead,[/amazonify] which took the form of a journal written by an aging father for the benefit of his young son, whom he new would never understand these things during the father’s life. The account begins with a poignant exchange:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.

My children were born while I was young. Barring some unexpected illness, I expect my four grandkids to be in their forties by the time I’m considering checking out, so I can’t really relate to this man who married quite late in life, had a son, and then learned that he was dying. I can, however, believe that there are things that a parent might get into a panic wanting to ensure that their child knows before some fateful step. It’s like Polonius in Hamlet. As he prepares Laertes to leave home, Polonius rolls off a litany of advice, largely very sound advice for such an otherwise clownish character. Polonius concludes with an admonition: “To thine own self be true.”

Neither the Apostle John nor John Ames, the narrator of Gilead, urges their reader to trust in self. Each, instead, points the reader to confidence in salvation. Why? We live differently when we needn’t worry. I live my best when I am most assured of my salvation. I live fearlessly and boldly, thankfully and triumphantly. In those moments, I am not tempted to try to impress God or earn his favor. I don’t try to rely on my own strength or cleverness.

What if each of us–every day–woke up absolutely assured and confident of the eternal life already guaranteed for us? I’m not talking about the sort of Sunday School assurance, where you answer the question correctly when asked. I’m talking about the assurance that does not admit of any vestige of doubt. Would we live differently? I know I would. That’s what John wants for us. That’s what God wants for us.

The Final Exam–1 John 5:11-12

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.–1 John 5:11-12

When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, we had a simple rule for Composition I. If a student failed the final exam, that student failed the course. You could have made A++’s on every paper, all semester long, but if you failed the final, you failed the course. This was, I suppose, their way of ensuring quality after letting a yahoo like me teach a composition course all semester.

One of my students, David, had limped through the course with Cs and Ds on his papers. He also quite nobly failed the final, so he received the required F. Understandably he wasn’t happy, so he blessed me with a visit. After I explained things to him, he continued to protest

“But there were some points for journal entries that you didn’t give me,” he argued.

I was perplexed. “But that doesn’t really matter. You failed because of failing the final.”

“Yeah, but what about the points for those journals?”

“It’s the final that matters,” I explained. “The journal points don’t matter.”

“Okay, but you didn’t give me the points for the journals.”

With that I pulled out last semester’s gradebook. “Okay, there’s name. I’ll give you points. You want a million points for journals? You can have a million points. And what does that make your final grade? Still an F, because you still failed the exam.”

What David could not bring himself to accept was that the final made all the difference. That’s rather like what John is saying in today’s verses, using another of his favorite constructions, the two-part opposition. If you have the Son, you have life; if you don’t have the Son, no life.

In a world of various beliefs, we’re inclined to resist this sort of thinking. I know some Muslim’s who are really decent, really moral people. Won’t God take care of them? I know some wonderful atheists. Surely God will give them eternal life as well, right? Surely if we do all the nice things that Jesus talks about doing in the Sermon on the Mount, then we’ll go to heaven. Doesn’t that make sense?

It might make sense to our human intellect, but it is not correct according to John. If simply following all the ethical teachings of Jesus were enough, then there would truly be no need for Jesus. His death and resurrection would be merely interesting historical footnotes. But that’s not what the scripture teaches, as these verses clearly point out. At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker, John says this: No Jesus; no eternal life. Know Jesus; know eternal life. The world might give you a million points for your good deeds, but the final exam will require having Christ.

Urban Legend?–1 John 5:10

Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.–1 John 5:10

A friend of Emily’s passed on a story that went something like this. (I’ve substituted details as the original is even more disgusting than this one.)

I know a woman who got sick last week after eating at the Food Factory on Noland Road. When she went to the emergency room, they asked her if she had any leftovers of the food. She did. When they tested it, they found that there were rat droppings in the food and she had contracted bubonic plague.

Since we had just eaten at “Food Factory,” this story hit us in the gut, but something seemed off about the account. I punched the words “Food Factory” and “rat droppings” into Google, and found this story attributed to a “Food Factory” in Des Moines from several years ago.

Urban legends are intriguing to me, not because some gullible people–me sometimes–spread them, but because somebody, somewhere, at some time told a story they absolutely knew to be false as if it were true.

Emily’s friend did something just as bad by moving the story from several years ago in Des Moines to last week in Independence. Why? What else could we call this sort of a story but a lie and the person that told it but a liar?

One of the truths of human life, it seems, is that people lie. People lie to get your money or to get out of trouble or sometimes just for the fun of it. If you were to tally up all the breakings of Ten Commandments, I have to believe that “bearing false witness” would lead the league.

Despite the fact that we all lie, at least occasionally, most of us bristle if called a “liar,” and well we should. Most of us don’t go around calling others a liar without carefully considering the consequences. Perhaps that’s why John uses these strong words. Do you want to call God a liar?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not the sort of person who would reject that testimony of Christ, but there’s still important truth here for us as believers. John suggests in this passage that the testimony of Christ is so powerful that the only way to reject it is to call God a liar. That should embolden us when it comes to witnessing. All too often, we worry about what somebody will think when presented with the gospel. John, I believe, says that the gospel is so clear, so well supported outside of anything you or I relate, that we needn’t worry about that. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not an urban legend. It will communicate. All we need to do is share the truth.

Pot Roast Testimony–1 John 5:9

We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.–1 John 5:9

How long does it take to cook a pot roast? Four hours? No. This morning, I was watching Rachael Ray, and she made a variation on pot roast that only took the time between two commercial breaks. Amazing, eh? At every juncture, every showing of the wonderful-looking slab of meat, the studio audience broke into “spontaneous” cheering. But who wouldn’t these people all knew they were going to get a bite of that marvelous meat.

Rachael’s pot roast tasted fabulous. How do I know? Does my television have state-of-the-art fragrance emitters? Not exactly. I know that her roast was great because she said it was great, and she is Rachael Ray. The opinion of Rachael Ray is trustworthy because she says that it is. And would they audience have been cheering if the food weren’t delicious (even though they haven’t eaten any)?

I’m indulging in circular reasoning here, but I’m in good company since John is doing the same thing. The testimony of God is trustworthy because it’s the testimony of God. But why? At some point, asking why, we might wind up sounding like a little child who asks “why?” about every answer. Somewhere along the line, when asked “why?” enough times, the adult has to say, “That’s just the way it is.” Similarly, when dealing with testimony, we have to stop doubting at some point or just wallow in endless uncertainty.

When it comes to pot roast, I’m willing to stop my doubting in the kitchen of Rachael Ray. In matters of eternity, I’ll go to a more venerable chef and trust in the testimony of God.