Sunday, May 10, 2015

'The Victory that Conquers the World' (a sermon on 1 John 5:3-5)

I want to talk to you for a few minutes this morning about a strange phrase that appears in our second reading: ‘the victory that conquers the world’. To put it in context, let’s look again at 1 John 5:3-5:
‘For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?’

Now if you’re like me, you might have listened to those verses being read, and found yourself being pulled up short by this idea of ‘conquering the world’. ‘Whatever is born of God conquers the world’. ‘This is the victory that conquers the world, our faith’. What does John mean by ‘conquering the world’?

At first glance, it sounds as if he’s talking about Christian armies going out into the world and conquering it in the name of Jesus. We might think of the crusaders, leaving Europe in the twelfth century to travel to the Holy Land to fight against the Muslim armies and drive them out of Jerusalem, so that the holy places were once again available for Christians to visit on pilgrimage. Perhaps ‘conquering the world’ even reminds us of the forces of ISIS in the middle east right now, rampaging through the land in the name of their hard-line interpretation of Islam and brutally murdering not only Christians, but also other Muslims who see Islam differently.

I want to say right now that this is not what John is talking about here. The idea of Christian armies going out in military conquest in the name of Jesus is totally foreign to the spirit of Jesus himself. And I actually think that the translation in our pew Bibles is a rather unhelpful one. Our New Revised Standard Version is a 1989 revision of the earlier Revised Standard Version, which was first published in 1952. The old RSV does not use the word ‘conquer’ but ‘overcome’. It says,
‘For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?’

The New International Version also uses the word ‘overcome’ rather than ‘conquer’, as do the English Standard Version, the King James Version, the New American Standard Version, and John Wycliffe’s Bible of 1395.

The Message translation, on the other hand, does use the word ‘conquer’, but it adds a slightly different twist to it that maybe clarifies it a little more. It says,
Every God-begotten person conquers the world’s ways. The conquering power that brings the world to its knees is our faith. The person who wins out over the world’s ways is simply the one who believes Jesus is the Son of God.

So we’re not talking about a literal ‘conquest of the world’ here. We’re talking about an inner struggle, in our own hearts, against the ways of the world. ‘Conquering’ or ‘overcoming’ the world, then, would turn out to be referring to overcoming the influence of the unbelieving world on the decisions we make about values and moral actions. The struggle, then, would be against what an earlier generation of Christians used to refer to as ‘worldliness’.

What is ‘worldliness’? To answer that question, we need to flip back a couple of pages to an earlier passage in the first letter of John:
‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love 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 from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever’ (1 John 2:15-17).

The New Living Translation provides us with a helpful paraphrase:
‘Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever’.

So worldliness is here defined as ‘to love this world or the things it offers you’. But wait a minute, you might say: aren’t we supposed to love the world? Isn’t the world the good creation of our loving heavenly Father? Didn’t he make the good things of the world as good gifts for his children? Doesn’t Psalm 24 say ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’? And doesn’t the most famous verse of the Bible say ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son’ (John 3:16)?

Yes, it does, and we need to remind ourselves that in the English language, and other languages too, the same word is often used with different meanings. “He has no fear”, we say admiringly of a brave person who risks their life to go into a burning building to save the life of a child. “He has no fear”, we say, shaking our heads in disapproval, about a person who takes foolish risks, maybe even risking their life, to perform daredevil stunts with a sports car or monster truck. Sometimes “He has no fear” can be a compliment, but sometimes it can be an expression of disapproval, depending on the context. And it’s the same with the idea of loving the world, or even with the phrase ‘the world’ itself.

Let me try to spell it out. When the Bible writers use the phrase, ‘the world’ to mean ‘the physical world that God created’, or ‘the people in the world, who God loves’, they almost always mean it in a positive sense. ‘Loving the world’, in this sense, means valuing the physical creation because it was created by a God who looked on what he had made and said, “It is very good”. Or it means looking at the human beings in the world and seeing them as people made in the image of God and precious in the sight of the God who made them, whatever they may have done. ‘Loving the world’ in this sense is a good thing.

But sometimes the Bible writers, especially John and Paul, use the term ‘the world’ to describe the values of a world that cares nothing for God and its ways. Or perhaps it’s the world as a system of relationships and institutions organized on the assumption that there is no God, so we’re all free to value whatever we choose and do whatever we like, and the best thing for us to do is look out for ourselves. ‘The world’ in this sense, in the Bible, is always a bad thing, and this is what John means when he says ‘Do not love the world or the things in the world’. To love the world, in this sense, is worldliness, and worldliness is not a good thing for a Christian.

Paul has a helpful way of looking at it in Romans, where he says,
‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:2).
Or, as J.B. Phillips’ translation of the New Testament puts it:
‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within’.

We might say, then, that a person who loves the world in a good sense is a person who values God’s physical creation, and tries their best to be a blessing to the people around them. A person who loves the world in a bad sense, however, is a person who lets the values of an unbelieving world influence them and form them, so that the world around them squeezes them into its mould, rather than seeking the guidance of God and then doing their best to follow the will of God.

‘Worldliness’ in this sense can take several different forms. It might be a person who loves to be admired and respected, and maybe even envied, by the people around them. Slowly, perhaps without even knowing they’re doing it, this person chooses their actions on the basis of what will be popular with the people around them. They are addicted to the approval of others, and their path of life is formed by the desire to please other people, rather than just being themselves and pleasing the God who made them.

A subtle variation of this can be the desire for success – not because there are good things we want to achieve, but because we want people to admire us for it. We want them to say, ‘Look at what he did with that business – he took it from nothing and made it into a multi-million dollar enterprise’. Or maybe it might be a pastor who wants people to say ‘Look at what she’s done with that church, how she’s turned it around and made it grow. She’s an amazing spiritual leader’. Maybe it’s also a desire for the trappings of success – the bigger house, the power suits, the expensive meals in the best restaurants and so on.

And this leads us to another variation of ‘worldliness’: a desire for possession – the desire to possess greater and greater wealth and riches. This is what John means when he says ‘Do not love this world nor the things it offers you’ (1 John 2:15 NLT). This is all about possession. A person who loves the world in a good sense can hike in the mountains in a national park and enjoy to the full the beauty of the incredible things that God has made. But a ‘worldly’ person in a bad sense finds himself or herself saying deep down inside ‘I must own this park. It must be mine’.

Thinking about these different aspects of worldliness, listen again to John’s statement in 1 John 2:15-17, again in the New Living Translation:
Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.

This is ‘the world’ that we’re supposed to ‘overcome’ or even ‘conquer’. But how do we do this? John tells us the secret, and so we come back to the verses we started from:
‘For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?’ (1 John 5:3-5).

Throughout his first letter, John keeps coming back to the importance of believing in Jesus. Sometimes he means believing certain truths about Jesus: that he is the Messiah or Christ, for instance, or that he is the Son of God. Sometimes he means faith as personal trust in Jesus. And in the gospel of John we read about the metaphor of ‘abiding’ in Jesus – us living in him, and him living in us - and obedience to his commands as the way we abide in him.

I think the important thing here is where we get our basic vision of what life is all about. The worldly person gets that vision from the world around them. The world sets their priorities, tells them what’s important or what’s not important, and so their inner moral compass is formed primarily by the opinions of people who care nothing for God or Jesus. And this is more common than you think. Add up the amount of time you spend each day reading the Bible, or learning about your Christian faith in other ways, and compare it with the amount of time you spend watching TV, or reading a newspaper, or surfing the Internet, reading blog sites or Facebook or things like that. My guess is that time spent with the Bible will come out close to the bottom. Is it any wonder, then, that our values are often formed more by worldly sources than by God?

The person who overcomes the world, John says, does it by their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. It is our basic Christian belief that in Jesus, God has come to live among us and has revealed himself to us. In the gospel of John we read that,
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:1, 14, 18).

What is the consequence of believing this about Jesus – that he is God made flesh who lived among us and revealed God to us? Surely, if we really believe that, we will give our major attention to getting to know him, to listening to his word and putting it into practice in our lives. Instead of allowing the world around us to squeeze us into its mould, we will be wanting Jesus and his word to form our view of life, our priorities and values and so on.

Jesus talks about this in our gospel reading for today. He talks about us ‘abiding’ in him, and his words ‘abiding’ in us, and then he says, “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10). Again we get the idea of the words of Jesus living in us, and forming us into people who obey God’s commandments and shape our lives around God’s will for us.

Let’s go round this one last time. In this passage, John is basically asking us to choose who or what is going to shape our lives. The worldly person allows their life to be shaped by the influence of the world around them – particularly, the world that assumes that God is either irrelevant or non-existent. They shape their lives around the desire to possess things, or to please others, or to win a reputation by their success. All of us who try to follow Jesus recognize this temptation in ourselves. The world around calls out to us to follow its ways, and something inside us wants to answer that call.

John tells us that we need to ‘overcome’ that voice. The victory that conquers or overcomes the call of the world, he tells us, is our faith in Jesus the Son of God. In other words, rather than shaping our lives around the world’s vision of pleasure or success, we’re called to let the word of Jesus live in us: to listen to his teaching, to meditate on it every day, and to ask the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance as we seek to put it into practice in our lives. As a church community we’re called to do this too; we’re called to talk together about the word of Christ, helping each other to understand it and practice it, so that as a community we shape our common life around Jesus and his vision of God’s will for us.


So let me close by asking you this question: which voice has more influence in your life? Is it the voice of the world around that calls you to fit in with its priorities and values? Or is it the voice of Christ, the one who has come to live among us to make God’s will known to us? And if you have come to realize that the voice of the world around has more influence on you than you would like, what are you going to do to change that?

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