Clock Watchers–1 John 2:18-19

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. –1 John 2:18-19

Years ago, I walked through China Town in San Francisco. Across the street from a particularly scary-looking Chinese Restaurant, I saw a particularly tacky-looking gift emporium, one of those places with a lot of very thin T-shirts and assorted souvenirs to amaze and delight you. Stretched across the front of this joint was a large vinyl sign reading, “Going Out of Business Sale.”

There’s nothing all that unusual about a business going under. There was nothing very unwelcome in this particular place going under. What struck me as unusual, however, was the condition of that sign. Faded and frayed despite hanging in a relatively sheltered place, it looked as if it had been marking that spot for several years.

The proprietor, conceivably, might have argued that his sign was not deceptive. “After all,” I can imagine him claiming, “someday we will go out of business and we are having a sale, so . . .” Despite such a protest, I couldn’t help but laugh at the transparency of this little ruse. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that this same store still has such a sign hanging over the front door, although I’m fairly certain that the sign I saw has long ago disintegrated.

I’m reminded of this today as I read John’s words: “this is the last hour.” If this is the last hour, in the normal sense of the words, then I’d really like to inspect John’s watch. Rather like the alarmists who correctly predict five of the last three economic downturns, John seems to be either casting a very big net or missing the prediction altogether.

What do we make of that? Did John miss it? Or are we in the midst of an exceptionally long “last hour”? Perhaps we were in the midst of the last hour but then somebody hit the pause button on the VCR.  I don’t find any of those interpretations very convincing, but on the other hand I struggle to consider John’s writing authoritative and reliable if he can manage to be so far afield on this matter.

Perhaps when we get to heaven, we can ask John what he meant by “the last hour.” Until then, though, we should consider the importance of this notion to our lives today. The question I would ask is this: Would you behave differently if you knew that Jesus would return this afternoon? I’m guessing that you might; I’m sure I would. Although I am planning for retirement, at least a dozen years away according to the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System, I should be living each day as if I am in the last hour, as if Jesus could return at any time.

Unfortunately, we all too often live our lives in a strange sort of middle ground, without the urgency of the last hour or the foresight of the long-term retirement plan. Instead, we should attempt to live with both of these forces, the long term and the short, simultaneously in our minds.

Context is Everything–1 John 2:17

The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. –1 John 2:17

In Isaiah 40:7 we read that the things of this world are impermanent, a sentiment echoed exactly in 1 Peter 1:24 and in a variety of other texts. The things of the world, the flowers and grass, “the world and its desires,” pass away. That much is clear, but what lasts. In the Isaiah text, it is the “Word of God” that endures, but here in John’s letter, we read, “the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

What does that mean? Has John suddenly slipped over to the camp of works-based salvation. Apparently, if this verse is any indication, the key to eternal life is not believing in Jesus, as John 3:16 had us believe, or by grace through faith, as we learn from Ephesians 2:8 or Romans 5:1.  Is this one of those examples of the Bible contradicting itself. In fact, is this a case of John undermining his own position? Maybe we ought to just chuck this whole Word of God into the ditch since it is so far from enduring forever as to be apparently expiring before nightfall.

Of course this isn’t the case. If we read this verse in the entire context of the 1 John letter, then we can see the folly of thinking John has suddenly shifted his theology. In fact, if you’ve been with me through these two chapters, you’ll already see how the context of 1 John makes this idea of a works-based salvation sound ridiculous.

Good works are like good Bible verses. They only have meaning in the proper context. Many of the people you and I will pass by today have done things God would approve of. Does that mean they’ll be granted eternal life for their trouble? No. There’s a difference between stumbling into the right action and truly doing God’s will. John has made it abundantly clear that obedience to God is an indicator of walking in the light; therefore, doing God’s will in this verse simply marks a person as redeemed, a bearer of the Word of God and thus someone destined to live forever. It’s all clear when you take it in context.

Gallery of the World–1 John 2:15-16

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. –1 John 2:15-16

Tonight was the eleventh annual Johnson County Community College Night at the Nelson, a big gathering at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  With a score of professors stationed around the museum presenting twenty-minute lectures on selected works, groups of students and others mill about gawking and listening to the flow of information.

As much as I enjoy visual art, I sometimes wonder at the utter obsession that many people pour into the media. Millions of dollars are invested in art in even a relatively art-poor city such as Kansas City. Just this year, my own school opened the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, which sports perhaps the largest art collection of any two-year school in America. Focused entirely on very recent work, the JCCC collection has none of the “Madonna and Child” or “Martyrdom of St. Sebastien” paintings one finds familiar in older collections. Contemporary art, while sometimes political in nature, is often motivated by the ars gratia artis or “art for the sake of art” mentality. It is secular, literally worldly from the Latin word saecula or “world.”

So just what does John warn us away from when he says that we are not to love the world or anything in it. Should I not love Wildwood Lake or my bride? Should I turn my back on Fun House Pizza and Mozart? It seems that this would spread the net a bit too widely, for John illustrates the things of this world with cravings, lusts, and boastings. Surely that does not include Wildwood or Penny. I would also argue that John cannot be condemning all the arts of man, the artifices that we employ in literature, music, visual arts, and other creative outlets. After all, John has just used an artistic motif in the poetry of the  preceding several verses.

What, then, are the things of the world? Clearly, I think, they are the temporary, the transitory things. They include Fun House Pizza, which I may, I believe, enjoy, but I cannot love in the same way that I should the permanent and important things of the world. The things of the world would include art, which I need not utterly reject but which I cannot put on a level with the Word of God. Isaiah 40:8 reminds us that the flower fades but the Word of God endures forever. It does not suggest that the flower is somehow less beautiful because of its temporary nature, but it warns us against investing ourselves in the flower.

How many of us can claim not to spend time loving the things of the world. I will confess too much grief last Monday when I thought the Kansas Jayhawks were about to lose their championship game. I probably took a bit too much enjoyment when Mario Chalmers sunk the game-saving three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left. The fact that I remember these details without looking them up suggests that I love that aspect of the world.

Each of us has an art gallery, a collection of icons depicting the world, that we love a bit too much. This is what John warns us against. It provides an unending opportunity for self-purification.

Worn Out Work Out–1 John 2:14

I write to you, fathers,
because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
–1 John 2:14

I’m completely tuckered out tonight. Over the last week, my sinuses have been in open rebellion, laying me low a good bit of the time. Tuesday I felt well enough to accompany Tom to Tae Kwon Do class, an hour of exercise that saw me leaning against the wall as much of the time as I could manage. Tonight, we went again, and our instructor decided to wring it out of us. Rather than taking turns practicing kicks on the heavy bag, we lined up and kicked the air, moving through each kick on the list once, twice, and then three times in rapid succession. After the first half dozen kicks, the sweat was pouring off my face. Those weren’t even the demanding ones. The Mule Kick, which has us drop our hands to the ground in front of us and kick backward with one leg, about knocked me down. Each time I stood back up, I knew I couldn’t do it again.

Eventually we came to the last kick, the Switchfoot. It had me huffing and puffing after the third repetition, but I managed.  Had I sat out, I’d have gotten the evil from the black belts, including my son. They believe you have to have the warrior spirit within you. I guess I believe that, but with the sinuses still not fully back on the reservation, breathing seemed to trump the warrior spirit.

It aggravates me, but I’m not nineteen years old any more. My body doesn’t heal like it used to. I can’t stay up until all hours without outcome. It’s not like I’m getting old, but I am getting older.

This realization is why I’m encouraged by todays’ verse. While the strength of my lungs and my legs isn’t quite what it used to be, my strength through the spirit of God is not diminished one bit, and that strength far exceeds any warrior spirit or physical strength a person might possess. Perhaps that’s why John aims these words at the young man. He assures them that they are strong, but then makes it clear why they are strong, not through their own strength but through the strength of the Holy Spirit within them.

When I feel flushed with money, talent, or power–I’m not sure when that’s ever going to happen, but I’m speaking hypothetically here–then I can run the risk of believing that strength comes from my efforts. It does not. I must remember that today, tomorrow, and beyond. Otherwise, the next Switchfoot kick is likely to leave me sprawled out on my back.

Terms of Engagement –1 John 2:13

I write to you, fathers,
because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children,
because you have known the Father.
–1 John 2:13

As you read over these several verses of John’s letter, only a very inattentive mind could fail to see the poetic structure that the apostle uses. “I write to you,” he says, first to children, then to fathers, and then to young men before repeating the sequence. His reasons in each case are different, or they’re sort of different. He repeats his reasons to fathers. The reasons for young men are similar, but they do change. So what are we to make of this whole thing? Are there messages for children that do not apply to fathers? And what about the young men who are also fathers?

In 2:1, John addresses everything to “my little children,” so perhaps all of these audience designations refer to the same people. John simply refers to them as children, fathers, and young men, just as someone might refer to me as grandfather, father, and son.

While this claim is not terribly remarkable or helpful–after all, none of us were among the original audience John had in mind when he penned these words–I believe there is another blurring of distinctions with much more import for us. If the recipients are truly all the same, then might the reasons for writing not overlap as well?

Obviously knowing “the Father” and knowing “him who is from the beginning” are the same thing. Just as obviously, overcoming the evil one is something different . . . or is it? How does one come to know the Father? I would suggest that happens only by overcoming the evil one. And that very overcoming, we are assured in Romans, can only take place through grace and faith, a gift of God. In other words, you can’t overcome the evil one without knowing the Father. All of this, of course, hinges on the forgiveness of sins that we read about the first verse of this cadence, forgiveness through Christ’s name.

In “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Martin Luther writes about Satan, “One little word will fell him.” That word, the powerful name of Jesus, is the key to all, the key to our relationship with the Father, the key to our freedom from our adversary, and our key to eternity. What better thing could John think to write about?

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.