Saturday, November 1, 2014

I Want to Be One Too

1 John 3:1-3
All Saints Day
November 2, 2014
William G. Carter

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

This is a pleasant little text, often used around here at baptisms. We hold up the beautiful child, brow still wet, and announce, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” I don’t know how many times I have heard those words spoken when they were followed by the collective sound of the word, “Ahh…” As in, “Ahh, isn’t she cute.” Or “Ahh, doesn’t he have his grandfather’s forehead?”

The text is so pleasant that we don’t even notice what comes before. An early church leader named John has just finished wagging his finger. Right before this pleasant text is a warning about sin. Apparently the cute little children of God are prone to corruption. The first letter of John is constantly warning about this:

  • If anyone says, “I have no sin,” they are deceiving themselves (1:8).
  • If anyone says, “I have come to love the Lord,” but does not keep God’s commandments is a liar (2:4).
  • Do not love the things of the world, for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father, but the world. And the world and its desire are passing away (2:15-17).
  • We know we have passed from death to love because we love one another.  Whoever does not love abides in death (3:14).
  • Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (4:9).
  • Little children, keep yourselves from idols (5:21).
It’s just so striking. John speaks to the congregation around him and refers to them as little children. Perhaps he is late in his life offering a final speech, perhaps he is in the great Roman city of Ephesus surrounded by wealth and opulence. John knows the world out there can be a dangerous place, a tempting place. And he knows that little children, despite their innocence, can go off the rails and be twisted out of shape.

Last Friday, there was a steady stream of little children coming to our door. We had a big bag of candy, and sometime between 6:00 and 8:30, they traipsed up our driveway and knocked on the door. “Trick or treat!” I took the first shift, handing out the candy, beginning with the candy I was never going to eat. When my daughter Katie got home from work, she took over for a while.

At one point she comes back to where my wife and I are sitting, and grumbles, “Some of those kids are awfully greedy!” Apparently every blue princess jammed her hand in our candy bowl and grabbed as much as she could. I said, “The goblins and ghosts have been fairly polite.” Katie replied, “Well, these suburban princesses think they are entitled to a lot more.”

I thought about that. I thought a lot about that. In a land of plenty, there seems to be a great deal of corruption, even in our little kids.

My colleague Tina recently recommended a book for me to read. I am chewing on it slowly because it is a hard book. The title is The Price of Privilege,[1] and the subtitle: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. It is a wonderful book – and it is a difficult book – for the same reason: because it’s honest.

Apparently a lot of psychologists are discovering what they already know, what first-century John already knew, that the world is toxic. More stuff doesn’t make anybody happy. Working longer hours to get more stuff is no good for family life. Pushing your kids to get into a Triple A college can nudge them toward greatness or push them over a cliff. That’s frightening. On the first page, psychologist Madeline Levine tells of a kid who has been given everything by her parents and then she takes a blade to carve the word EMPTY on her left forearm.

I was thinking about that on Friday night. I felt the need to take a stand. When it was my turn again to answer the front door with the candy dish, I gave everybody one piece of candy. When a blue princess reached into the bowl to snare a handful, I gently took her hand and said, “I’ll give you one piece.”

Why did I do that? Because of this scripture text. Yes, it affirms you are God’s children now; that is what you are. It is an affirmation of grace. God loves you and claims you. There is no way you could have earned that extraordinary love. It is a complete gift. But if you are ever going to see God, you’re going to have to grow up. That is going to take some discipline.

John’s word for discipline is “purify.” He uses it only once, in verse three of chapter three. He speaks of seeing God, finally, at the last human moment, when our lives are finished and glory is revealed. “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as [God] is pure.” It sounds like something Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:12). That’s the destination; what John mentions is the process: the true children of God “purify themselves.” They know and trust they belong to God, and they continue to work at what that means.

So what does it mean to be pure? To move in the direction of purity?

A lot of people will tell you what they think that means and they are wrong. My great-grandmother was alive when I figured out that God was calling me to be a preacher. This was the mother of my grandmother who is now a hundred years old, and even all those years ago, my great-grandmother was ancient. I went with my parents to tell her the news. “Great-Grandma, I’m going to be a minister.” She looked at me, and then raised a bony finger at my father to say, “Glenn, you’re going to have to shape up.”

That’s what a lot of people think purity is: shaping up. Tending to the outward behaviors. Looking the part. When people say this, they mean well, but they’re wrong. John has already reminded us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” We never outrun our capacity for sin. Sin is always with us. Some of the morally shaped-up people I know are absolutely obnoxious. They preen around and act superior, as if they are putting themselves on display. That’s not purity.

No, purity is a matter of the heart. Jesus was right about that; imagine that! In the context of this letter, purity is honesty; we tell the truth about we are and what we know, never distorting or bending it in our own direction. We know we cannot make it on our own, so we reach for God’s cleansing power every single day. That’s purity.

What’s more, in this letter, purity of the heart is a matter of love. As we love, we show ourselves as offspring of God. God’s character is complete love, self-giving love. When we love the brother and sister around us, our love is perfected in practice. John says, “How can anybody say they love, if they have the world’s goods but refuse to help somebody in need? Little children, love is in truth and action.” (3:17-18)

Purity is a matter of honesty, it’s a matter of generous love, and it’s also a matter of restraint. We don’t chase after everything the world offers. We restrain ourselves from that, as a way of chasing after God.

John’s example is Jesus himself. “The world doesn’t know him,” says John (3:2). Why is that? Because Jesus shows restraint. He doesn’t reveal it all. At least, not yet.

Recall the story of his life: for over thirty years, Jesus blended in. He spent plenty of time in the family carpenter show, cutting lumber to size, catching the occasional splinter. To the neighbors around him, there was no halo over his head; that was painted in hundreds of years later. Even after the day he gave himself to be baptized – and the heavens were torn open, and the big Voice spoke, and the Spirit fluttered down like a dove – a number of people missed who Jesus was, in the same way that many people still miss him – they are looking for the flash and the sparkle and the dazzling light, not for the obscure Carpenter who quietly heals, calmly teaches, and rarely reveals more than a quick glimpse of his glory.

The real Jesus is largely hidden from the world, and in the same way, he will seen only by those who have a hiddenness to their purity. Let’s call them “saints.” They know the truth of who they are, and they know the mercy they need from God, and they know the love they are called to show abundantly to others. But it’s never stated in an attempt to impress or be superior.

That’s why saints will never succeed as television evangelists. That’s why saints will never tell you that bigger is always better. That’s why saints may be really quirky but never flashy. They are too busy purifying their hearts with truth, mercy, and love. They encourage others to do the same.

I sing a song of the saints of God. I have known many. So have you.

·         There’s the school teacher who prays through the list of neighbors in her diary and the retired cop who tutors stuttering kids in math.
·         There’s the widow who wore a yellow dress to her husband’s funeral after nursing him for three years, and the thrift store volunteer who never misses his shift.
·         There’s the single mom who works hard when her kids are at school and does what she can to be with them when they are home.
·         There’s the recovering alcoholic who goes whenever somebody else falls off the wagon, sometimes staying late in the night.
·         There’s the teen who stands up for anybody who is being put down.
·         And there’s the princess in the blue dress who says to her little brother, “I know you were sick and couldn’t go trick or treating; would you like some of my candy?” And then she gives it all to him.

Truth, mercy, love, restraint – these are the real pursuits of purity. Biblically speaking, this is how saints are made. We keep purifying ourselves through truth, mercy, love, and restraint. And the clear promise of scripture is that when Christ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Madeline Levine, Ph.D., The Price of Privilege (New York: Harper, 2006)

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