(Photo: Window reflections at All Saints, Kilmalooda.)
Sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, 22/4/12. Text: 1 John 3:1-7
When you were a child did you ever wish that you had different parents? Perhaps your friend was allowed to stay up late to watch T.V. and you weren’t and you wished you could swap parents with them! We might also be tempted to wish we looked different from them, that our nose had a better shape that our ears were more ‘normal’ and didn’t stick out like two radar dishes, and that we weren’t so short, balding or tubby! But as we get older, so long as everything was O.K. with our parents, we realise that things could have been worse and in fact they were actually a blessing to us in so many ways. One thing that often comes to us as a bit of a shock is when we realise just how like our parents we actually are, but of course our likeness to them is the proof of the relationship we have. We are like our parents because we are their children. Even children with step-parents or those who are adopted develop a likeness to their parents, even if genetically speaking they are different. My step-father and I always found it funny when people who thought he was my natural father said that I looked like him!
In our reading today from the first letter of John, the Apostle takes the concept of parents being like their children and applies it to our relationship with God. He says:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
We are a ‘rags to riches’ story; it is as if we are an orphaned child living in the gutter, covered in muck and wearing tattered rags. We look up from the filth we are in and we see the King! Our eyes can hardly believe what we are seeing, but the King comes over to us, He reaches down into the gutter and he grabs hold of us and He lifts us out of the darkness and holds us up in the air against the light. He knows our name and He speaks to us softly and He says, ‘Now if you are willing you will be my child. I am not forcing you, you can stay here in the gutter if you wish, but I would much rather you came with me back to the palace – I will carry you there and I will wash you clean and give you new clothes and you will be my own child and live with me for ever…’
The love that God has for us is a love beyond all measure, that He, Almighty God, Creator of the Universe should not only know I even exist but have actually created me and made me to be His child, this is a wonder beyond all wonders and a joy above all joys. Why would He do such a thing? The answer is beautiful and simple: God is love and love by its very nature gives. Because God loves so much He gives so much. He gave us His one and only Son, that we might not die in the gutter but have everlasting life with Him.
Many of us find this unconditional and limitless love hard to accept. Perhaps a reason for this is that with our parents it always felt like we had to earn their love and approval. Maybe that still is the case for us even if our parents are old or have died, we are still trying to please them but they just never seem (either in reality or in our imagination) to be happy with our achievements and we never feel totally accepted by them. It is of course all to easy then to see our Heavenly Father like this. Let us lie back and bask in the fact that God loves us, yes He really really does. We do not need to rush around doing things trying to please Him, He already is pleased with us! We must not fall into the trap of making our relationship with God one that is based on our works or achievements. God’s love and grace is not conditional on whether we have scored a B+ in our Christian life this week, He loves us perfectly, unconditionally all of the time.
Once we have accepted God’s offer to become one of His children, we will start to develop the family likeness. We will start to become more and more like Him and less and less like our old selves that we left behind in the gutter. We don’t do good works because we think they will make God love us more, He cannot love us more than He does already! We serve God and do all we can in His guidance and strength because we love Him and want to show Him that we love Him and how grateful we are to Him for the fact that He loves us.
John then goes on to say:
The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
Maybe when you gave your life to Christ (and if you have not yet done so, what are you waiting for?), you soon realised that some people were overjoyed for you and others just didn’t get it at all, they might even have been hostile towards you. Well, we are in good company; many people did not ‘get’ the Lord Jesus at all and even though at times He was followed around by great crowds, many people just wanted what they could get from Him so that in the end His followers were very few. Thousands were with Him on the grassy slopes sitting in the sunshine, listening to His teaching and getting their fill of loaves and fishes, but only a very small number of them stood around Him when the sky turned black and He was dying upon the cross.
If we were to take a good long look at ourselves in the mirror and saw who we really were we would be astonished. John tells us:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.
As we look in the mirror and notice all the physical blemishes, we are wowed by the fact that we will not always look like this. John continues:
What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
One day we shall be like Jesus, as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly so shall we be changed into His likeness. To bring us back down to earth for a moment, think of Charles, the Prince of Wales. He is heir to the throne of Great Britain and his whole life has been lived in the light of what he will be one day. He does not yet possess his full inheritance, but his whole life has been, and is shaped by it. In a much greater way, one day we shall be like Jesus, changed into His likeness. In the meantime however, with the help and grace that God gives us, we need to live up to what we shall one day become.
So John says:
And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
I don’t know about you, but I feel very much more like the caterpillar than the butterfly; I despair at my lack of progress and find it all too easy to look at my many weaknesses and failings. I turn around and the gutter from where I have come from does not seem very far away… But we have a sure hope don’t we? We have a sure hope that we shall be changed, we really will one day become how God meant us to be all along, we will no longer be human becomings, we will be like Christ. John says that in the meantime we must ‘purify ourselves’. This means cutting out of our lives all the bad stuff that is there. Of course we need help to do this, we need God’s help and we need the help of those to whom we are closest and who we can trust. But as you look back on your Christian life can you not at least see some small victories, so that things you used to do you do no longer? Perhaps you no longer cheat on your tax return, perhaps you have given up destructive habits or addictions, perhaps you are much more generous, thoughtful and kind. Maybe people have even commented on how you have changed. Slowly but surely, with the help of the Holy Spirit who works in us like a gardener getting rid of weeds and planting that which is good, we are being changed, the old is falling away and what we shall become is slowly (very slowly we might say) being revealed.
So let us be encouraged and blessed, especially in those times when we despair, when we are all to aware of our sin and failures. Let us live now in the light of what we will one day become, let us remember the wonderful and beautiful truth that God has called us His children because that is what we are. Amen.
(Numerous thoughts and ideas in this sermon are taken from David Jackman’s book: The Message of John’s Letters, The Bible Speaks Today, I.V.P., 2nd ed. 1996. In particular the idea of wanting to change our parents in the opening paragraph and then the reference to Prince Charles’ heirship to the throne.)