IF WE WALK IN THE LIGHT
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You’ll sometimes hear in church circles something like “We don’t talk about sin enough” or “We never talk about sin anymore.” If you’re feeling like this at all you won’t be feeling like it when you leave here today. We’re going through the letters of John and looking at what right belief and right action meant for John and the people to whom he was writing and by extension us.
Of course, we must always start with our subject. Our subject is always God. Our starting point. Our foundation. Two weeks ago we heard about what we declare. This week we look very pointedly at the message. So let’s get right into it.
We’re bombarded with messages these days. It used to be simply the 24-hour news cycle and TV stations reporting on news as it happens. Now we don’t need to be around a TV to have access to messaging. I think one of the most important things we can do and model and try to teach our young people is how to filter out messages. How to pay attention to the messages we need to be paying attention to. The message that John has for us this morning is all about light and forgiveness. This is the good news!
We’re talking about what we believe and what we do. What we believe is where John starts. “This is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him, there is no darkness at all.” God is light. We are getting down to basics here. Back to basics, you might say, though the basics are never something we should get away from. This image of light vs. dark is common to many religions and ways of thinking. Light is good, darkness is bad. Light is life. Darkness is death. Light is being able to see, darkness is fumbling around, groping around. Light as goodness. John is saying something essential about the nature of God here, and making this his starting point. The Psalmist put it like this – “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!’”
This is the message. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God’s very nature is light. God’s very nature is love. There is no darkness in God. There is no envy, malice, jealousy, self-aggrandizement, etc. etc. God’s nature is light, and the nature of light is to reveal. God’s nature has been revealed in the person of Christ. The way that we are to walk has been revealed in the person of Christ. The Psalmist sang, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path.” In Christ, we can truly say – “This is the life!” This is the message.
For now, though the message is still a little bit abstract. It’s still a little bit up here. John takes it very quickly into the practical by talking about our walk. Again this image goes back to Judaism where it’s called the path – the halakha. The way. We could be saying to one another “How’s your halakha?” These things that we are proclaiming and holding to about God are not just to be left up here in the realm of the theoretical.
So John quickly brings this into the realm of the practical with the first of 3 “if” statements – each one exposing how the walk with God is not done. “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.” In other words, to walk in the light of Christ means to be reflecting Christ’s ways. Remember that these words were being written in the middle of a lot of upheaval and schism in the churches to which John is writing. May the things we disagree about be dealt with in love. Someone has said don’t preach the good news and be the bad news. We know what kind of damage that can do. Walking in darkness means being alienated from God. Being alienated from one another. Walking in the light means that we have fellowship with one another. It means that we are doing what is true. Note how John puts that at the end of verse 6. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.
There’s a lot of talk about truth in our world today. Some people are saying things like truth isn’t truth. Some people say things like there is no objective truth and everyone has their own truth and there are reasons for this – mainly that there have been and are times in human history when truth has been imposed on people. Jesus called himself the truth. He didn’t answer Pilate in John’s gospel when Pilate asked him “What is truth?” He showed him in a demonstration of God’s love on the cross. Irreducible truth is what the message is. God is love. God is light. God is life. We’re invited to claim this truth, the truth of God as light.
This truth is not just out there. It’s something we’re called to live. To do the truth. One commentator put it like this – “Truth is not so much a set of propositions to be believed and confessed, as it is a way of life to be lived and put into practice. The standard for this truth is God’s revelation in Jesus Christ,” who said I am the way and the truth and the life. This is our message.
This is the one through whom we’re able to walk in the light at all. The one who has restored us to fellowship with God and with one another. The initiative is always God’s. Living in fellowship and being forgiven is not a precondition to walking in the light of Christ – it’s been made possible through Christ’s death – what John here calls the blood of Christ, by which we are cleansed, by which we are forgiven.
I said this was fundamental stuff. You might think obvious stuff, but sometimes it’s good to come back to the fundamentals. If you play a sport you practice the fundamentals over and over again. Keep them sharp. It’s been said of tennis that sometimes the best shot is the most obvious shot. The blood of Christ by which we are forgiven is our message, our need for forgiveness.
This is how we’re called or invited to respond to this forgiveness. To recognize our need for this forgiveness. To accept it with grateful hearts. You’ve heard me quote the poet before who said that religion is grace and ethics is gratitude. These are the two things we’re looking at over these weeks. To recognize our need for God.
The polar opposite of this, of course, is to not recognize our need for God. To think that humanity is making a pretty good go of things and can go along quite nicely without God. At the same time though, I think you see a general sense that we need to be doing better, that something is missing or that something has gone horribly wrong. We need only look at the news. We need only stop and look inside ourselves honestly to think that we are coming up short or missing the mark. Sin is individual. Sin is structural. What are the systems we are holding up that are contributing to creation’s alienation from God and one another? There’s a giant mass of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean. We are surrounded by millions of people and yet so many feel utterly
alone, without support, without compassion or understanding.
If we say that we have no sin, if we say that we have no need of God then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. This is not just for those outside of the Christian thing though. I don’t believe it is. I think there’s a message for those who are following Christ here too. If we think that we have “made it” as far as sin is concerned, if we act as if we do before God, if we never or rarely come before God confessing our need for forgiveness, then we are deceiving ourselves.
Part of the thing about light is that it makes things clearer. To walk in the light of God, the light of life will show us where we are coming up short in light of a God in whom there is only goodness. We don’t do this to beat ourselves up or for the sake of self-flagellation. We do this because of this wonderful promise – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We come in confession holding fast to a God who is faithful – who does what he says he will do. We come in confession holding fast to a God who can brook no sinfulness and who makes us righteous through the sacrifice of the one who was wholly righteous and whose death on the cross makes us at one with God.
If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not with us. We deny our need for God. We deny that God loves us and has made the way for us to come back to him. And so we throw ourselves on the mercy of God knowing that God is faithful and just and will cleanse.
This doesn’t give us any sort of license to sin of course. When Paul wrote to the Romans about God’s grace and forgiveness he made sure to tell them that this didn’t mean that people should sin all the more so that there could be all the more grace! This would be missing the point. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. This is another one of those tensions in the Christian faith. A little later in the letter John will write “Those who have been born of God do not sin.” He’s just said “If we confess our sins…” assuming seemingly that we are going to sin. We need to hold these two statements in tension. John Stott describes the failure to do so like this – “Too great a lenience would seem almost to encourage sin in the Christian by stressing God’s provision for the sinner. An exaggerated severity, on the other hand, would either deny the possibility of a Christian sinning or refuse him forgiveness and restoration if he falls. Both extreme positions are contradicted by John. The follower of Christ should not be living in habitual darkness. The follower of Christ should not be living with hate or a self-centredness or an apathy that alienates him or her from God and humanity (and creation) through the things he or she does or the things he or she does not do (because apathy or closing off one’s heart is in direct opposition to walking with Christ). On the other hand John recognizes that we miss the mark.
The final bit of good news is this. We have an advocate with the Father. We have someone to come alongside us. To plead for us. The righteous one. The only one able to do so. The atoning sacrifice for our sins. The answer. The way, the truth, the life. The one who died so that we might have life. Life of the ages. Life lived in fellowship and communion and joy and peace with God and with one another. He’s pleading for us with the Father, the righteous one. The just one pleads for us. Someone has said it’s like justice pleading with love. This news is not just for us, it’s for the whole world.
May God help us to show what it means to walk in the light, knowing that we have an advocate. This is our message. This is our walk. May God help us to show it to others and invite them along in it.