Today is the fourth in a 7-part summer sermon series called “Going Deeper.” This series is intended to inspire worshipers to proactively go one step deeper in their walk with Jesus Christ.
Read: 1 John 2:12-17
If you could be guaranteed to have one thing abundantly from today to the day you die, and the way to get it was to give up the possibility of having everything else, what would it be? It could be material, emotional, experiential, or even something existential in nature. Is there anything important enough to you that you’d be willing to give up everything else for to have it?
I know there are clergy who’ve forfeited their marriage for the sake of their job; they literally chose ministry over marriage. How about those who want a great big house so bad that they they’re willing to pay the great big mortgage but can’t afford any furniture to fill it! I’ve heard of instances where people have saved and scrimped and sacrificed for years and years in order to go on a particular trip or vacation. For many of us, there are things in life we’re willing to sacrifice for because they’re important to us. But is there one thing that’s so important that you’d be willing to sacrifice the possibility of having everything else in order to have that one thing?
Here’s a partial answer to my own question: there’s nothing this world can offer that would be worth giving up everything else for. For as much pleasure and enjoyment we get out of the things of this world, to gain them at the cost of other important aspects of life would be a true loss. In a conversation Jesus had with his disciples about this very topic, he asked this rhetorical question: “How does it benefit a person to gain the whole world with all its pleasures, and forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) His question implies the perspective that there’s no benefit to such a choice. To gain the world—that is, all the things and experiences of this world—at the cost of losing your soul is simply not worth it!
What if we flipped that question on its head and reworded it this way: “How does it benefit a person to gain their soul, and forfeit the whole world with all its pleasures?” What’s the implication of that question? From the perspective of eternity, I’d say there’s a tremendous benefit.
It’s been estimated that to-date more than 108 billion members of our human species have ever been born into this world. And every single one of them – all 108 billion – have forfeited, or someday will forfeit, the world. We all die to this world, and none of us will take single part of it with us into the next world. No matter how hard we work to gain whatever we can in this life, eventually we all give up and lose it all. The soul, on the other hand, is eternal. And Jesus’ original question seems to suggest that our earthly choices can lead to the eternal forfeiture of the well-being of our souls?
So, If you had to make a choice between the two, which would you choose, having all the stuff of this world, or your eternal well-being?
As far as I can tell, God hasn’t made this a requirement, but for the sake of discussion, what if God told us that the one condition for receiving the gift of eternal life was by renouncing all worldly possessions, including family, home, job, friends, money, influence, stability, health, peace of mind, even earthly happiness? Do you think would you’d renounce it all?
I realize this is a difficult question and, to a degree, an unfair question. Fortunately, we’re not required to renounce all the things of this world in order to obtain the gift of eternal life. In fact, many if not most of the things of this world are good, and considered a blessing of God.
The problem comes when we take what’s good and a blessing of God’s an make them into idols. Idols are anything that are more important to us that God; idols are things that disproportionately consume our thoughts, actions, and resources. The truth is, we’re surrounded by and live among idols of all sorts and kinds.
Of course, there are the typical idols we’re all aware of: money, power, position, stuff, and these days, social media. But on the weekend during which we honor our Vets, what if I said that it’s possible to make rights and freedoms into idols? One blogger puts it this way: “As Americans, we have enjoyed rights and certain freedom that a huge number of people in other parts of the world don’t even consider possible. But when our demands for freedom outweigh our surrender to the cross, our arrogant expectations of rights keep our eyes from the freedom that only Christ can bring.”
Or how about our human challenges? I bet you’ve never thought about that as a possible idol. If there’s one thing that can almost always take our eyes off of God, it’s life’s challenges. When life gets really, really difficult, it’s really, really east to give all of our attention and thinking to that difficulty; to dwell on it, obsess over it.
When John wrote what we now call 1 John, I think he had this very real human struggle in mind. And he knew that it’s a struggle common to people at all phases of their spiritual development. Starting at chapter 2:12 he addresses his audience, which is three different groups of people within his congregation. They are the little children, the young people, and the parents.
What’s significant about these three divisions of people? Each one represents a different level of maturity. He addresses each of them twice, revealing his motivation for writing to them specifically. And as you’ll see, each purpose/motivation reflects an appropriate level of spiritual maturity.
First, he address the newest Christians, the “little children” (those who are ankle to knee-deep in the ‘spiritual waters’). He addresses them specifically because they know the Father, and their sins have been forgiven through Jesus’ name. They know who God is and are beginning to experience him as their heavenly Father. And they know the foundational belief that through Jesus Christ they’ve been forgiven of their sins.
Second, he address those showing sincere spiritual growth, the “young people” (those in waist-deep water) because they’re strong and the Word of God lives in them, and because of that they’ve overcome or conquered the evil one (Satan). They’re gaining victory over their temptations on account of their deepening faith in the power of God’s Word.
The third group he writes to are those who are spiritually mature, the “parents” (those neck-deep or in over their heads) because they “know the one who has existed from the beginning,” a reference to the eternal Creator God. These folks are in a deep, loving relationship with God and other people.
So, they had these three groups of people in the first century church. What’s John’s pastoral counsel to these three groups of people under his spiritual care? Simply put, Don’t love the world or the things of the world (v. 15). Be very careful about what matters the most to you. Be very careful about what you most desire in your heart. And for John, loving “the world” and “the things of the world” are a bad thing, and a sure sign that one is not living in the light of God’s love.
It’s important to know what John’s referring to when he talks about “the world” and “the things of the world.” To be sure, he’s not talking about the earth or to the human race, both of which God created and called good in Genesis 1. Rather, John’s use of the Greek word kosmos is a reference to the sinful world, the earthly system of values, beliefs, and behaviors that are in opposition to God and his purposes. So John’s warning his congregation, and now us, to do everything within our power to not align our heart’s desires with anything that would get in the way growing in our relationship with God.
For example, knowing that the love of money is an idol, Jesus tells us that “no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth” (Mt. 6.24). We try to do both all the time, don’t we? But Jesus tells us that in the end it just doesn’t work. It’s like trying to have one foot in a canoe and one foot on the dock. Eventually you have to throw yourself in one direction or the other.
John knows that regardless of where we are in our spiritual development, we do have one foot in this “world,” and we’re always being pulled away from God by the bright, glittery “things of this world,” And in v. 16 he identifies three worldly desires that are characteristic of a worldly way of life. They are: the cravings for whatever the body feels, the craving for whatever the eyes see, and the arrogant pride of one’s possessions. Some commentators call these the desires to DO, to HAVE, and to BE.
The first is the cravings for whatever the body feels. This is the desire to do; it’s the lust of the flesh which, in the broadest sense, means a hyper-desire to do whatever your heart desires – to seek after pleasure in the broadest sense. Food, drink, sex, adventure – in short, pleasure – there’s nothing wrong with any of these in and of themselves. But when we hyper-desire them, they become idols.
The second is the craving for whatever the eyes see. This is the desire to have; it’s the lust of the eyes. This desire not directed toward sensation and experience, but toward material objects. It’s the hyper-desire for possessions.
The third is the arrogant pride of one’s possessions. This is the desire to be; it’s the lust for power, success, achievement, greatness. I want to be somebody great and important. I desire recognition.
- 17 points out the problem with striving after these things. They’re temporary; they don’t last. It’s not that there’s something intrinsically wrong with pleasure, possessions, and healthy pride. It’s that they’re not enough. They don’t last. They can never, and will never, fully satisfy our deepest longings and desires of the heart. When we attempt to find satisfaction in these things, we’re always left wanting, and in our brokenness we continue down this endless path believing that maybe if we just get a little bit more of them, we’ll finally be satisfied. But we never are. This is what will happen when we make the “things of this world” our first love.
I want to return to my opening question. If you could be guaranteed to have one thing abundantly from today to the day you die, and the way to get it was to give up the possibility of having everything else, what would it be? John’s purpose in writing this letter is to help us see that the only answer to this question is LIFE WITH GOD. Life with God above all else.
The book of Revelation opens with Christ addressing seven different congregations. He commended the good folks of the church in Ephesus for the great things they did and the faith they displayed in the face of trouble. But his communique ends with this indictment: “But this is what I have against you: you do not love me now as you did at first.” (Good News Translation) They lost their ‘first love.’ They turned their love toward the things of this world.
In Mt. 6:33 Jesus tells us to “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.” John tells us what to avoid – excessive pleasure, possessions, and pride. Jesus tells us what to desire – the kingdom of God; life with God.
Here’s the million dollar question: How do we get to the place of hungering more for God? My answer: to borrow the well-worn Nike slogan, most of the time it’s just a matter of just doing it. Our desire for God grows when we actively do things that will bring us closer to him, when we add routines or occurrences to our life which foster a deeper relationship with Christ than we currently possess. In other words, going deeper with God is something we have to do on purpose; it’ll never happen by happenstance. But when we consciously take these steps, our faith increases, our relationship with God deepens, and our desire to give him greater prominence grows.
If you’ve ever prayed, “Lord, make me love you more, make me want you more,” or something to that affect, the answer to that prayer will come when you take a proactive step in making it reality. Participate in adult Sunday school. Start a small group. Join a small group. Begin a daily devotional. If you regularly read the Upper Room, transition to reading the Bible and making that your devotional source. Participate in a service project. Read a Christian book. The point is, whatever you’re currently doing as an expression of your faith, figure out what the next deeper step would be, and then just do it!