1 John 1:1-2:2 New International Version (NIV)
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Our children finally went back to school this past Tuesday after a long spring break. They had six days scheduled off, and the week before they had a couple of snow days and late starts. Yeah, I’m glad they got a break. All that is to say that it feels good to be back on schedule again.
When we began considering what we might do during spring break, we decided to take a trip to the mountains. We scheduled one day at Massanutten Water Park, where we were joined by every other family in the tristate area. After that, we planned to do some hiking in the National Forrest, drive along Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway. But it was cold and rainy, so we were left trying to find something else to do as a family (we sure weren’t going back to the Water Park!). After much deliberation, we decided that we would come back to Staunton at go to the movies.
The new theater at the mall is perfect for families. They show second-run movies at $3 per ticket, so for $12 we all got to see a movie in a theater, where it was warm and dry. Next challenge, of course, is what do you go to see with two young children that won’t be totally excruciating for adults?
We went to see Paddington 2. Not because we saw Paddington 1 and loved it, and I really didn’t get into the books growing up, though I do know that I share an appreciation for orange marmalade with Paddington. At one point, Paddington 2 had the highest ranking of all movies on the website “Rotten Tomatoes.” So we gave it a shot.
If you get the chance, I encourage you to see this movie. I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone, but this film is filled with humor, decent acting, and a great message. One of my favorite scenes in the movie comes toward the end when Mr. Curry, the head of the neighborhood watch program, squares off with Mr. Brown, who is kind of a foster parent to Paddington in London. Mr. Curry has never trusted Paddington, presumably because he is different. He is, after all, a bear…who talks and wears human clothes. Mr. Curry is constantly trying to turn other people against Paddington, but it is nearly impossible to not like a polite bear with a British accent.
In this scene, Mr. Curry yells into his megaphone, “We don’t want him here!”
Mr. Brown replies, “Of course you don’t. You never have! As soon as you set eyes on that bear you made up your mind about him. Well Paddington’s not like that. He looks for the good in all of us and somehow, he finds it!”
Our scripture for this morning comes from the first epistle of John. This letter would have been written right around the turn of the century, close to 70 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. By this time the church has grown, been persecuted by Rome, scattered, and grown some more. And among the challenges the early church faces is the question of orthodoxy. Who gets to choose what is right and what is wrong, especially when it comes to abstract concepts like the nature of Jesus. What was he, a man, God, a spirit? Well John is ready to claim some authority on the matter. In verse 1 he writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
It is debatable whether or not this is the same John who was the disciple of Jesus. But this John is at least claiming to be a part of the tradition that traces back to those who walked with Jesus. He is essentially saying, We have experienced Jesus firsthand. We have all the good stories. Pay attention, because this is about to get real.
John then launches into a metaphor about God which he will later use to explain the role of Jesus, which we really won’t get to this morning. John’s metaphor here is the lesser-known “God is…” statements in this epistle. He writes in verse 5b, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”
Light is good, darkness is bad.
Before we push this metaphor out further, I want to offer a warning. We need to be careful how we present this metaphor in the church and the broader world. We talk about light being good and darkness being bad, and the Bible even talks about whiteness being pure and clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
The warning I offer is something that I had never even considered until I studied with African-American theologians and scholars. When whiteness becomes clean and pure, the symbol if innocence, does that necessarily imply that blackness or darkness is bad? I say absolutely not! But I also want to be aware of how people of other races and nationalities hear our witness. And people like me of European descent need to remember that Jesus was a lot darker skinned than us.
So what is John getting at with this metaphor? Clearly God isn’t light, God is the inventor of light. So what aspects of light are we to assume are aspects of God?
First I would say that without light, there would be no life. Our sun is nothing more than a giant ball of burning gas. Radiating off that ball of gas is heat that helps regulate our body temperature, the body temperatures of animals, and the temperature of planet earth itself. Light provides heat, and without that heat, you would freeze to death. If you didn’t freeze, you would starve, because plants need light to synthesize their photos and grow and develop.
Sunlight is the sustainer of all life on earth. Likewise, God is the sustainer, and maker, of all life. So far, the metaphor holds up!
Furthermore, what John seems to be suggesting in this passage is that God is like light in that without him we cannot truly see. Light is necessary to see, even for animals and people with night-vision goggles. Animal eyes and night-vision goggles are simply more efficient at utilizing smaller amounts of light.
If you want to see where you are going, where you are walking, what you are doing, or who you are talking to, you need a little light. (This makes me think of Amazing Grace, and the line, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.)
John also teases out the properties of light a bit. He first presents light and darkness as complete opposites. And there is some truth to this. I challenge you to go outside on a sunny day and try to find some darkness. You can maybe find some shade, but that is simply light to a lesser degree, not darkness. There is no darkness in the fullness of the light. And even when you try to block the light, a little often still gets through.
And I remember as a kid making hay tunnels in the barn, where we would have bales of hay stacked in hay mows twenty feet high, twenty feet wide, and fifty feet long. When you tunnel all the way into the middle of the hay mow with twists and turns, there is no light getting in. I remember going deep into the hay tunnels, getting into what seemed like absolute darkness, and just turning on the light on my watch. This little light cut through the darkness, illuminating everyone’s face to a point where it normally wouldn’t have been able to.
Light and darkness are complete opposites. In direct light, there can be no darkness. In complete darkness, there can be no light. Yet, most of the time, light and darkness don’t exist as complete opposites. Instead, we find differing quantities of each, but almost always, some of each is present.
In the middle of the day, I can go into our root cellar, which has no windows, and it is pretty dark, but not completely absent of light. I can wake up in the middle of the night, the sun having been down for hours, the lights all turned off, and I can still read the clock by my bed, or go outside and see the stars.
So on one hand, John is right. God is light, in Him there is no darkness. But what about us? I would say that on the other hand, John is still right. We are neither light nor darkness.
Let’s look at verse 8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
To claim to be without sin would be to be to claim to be in the complete light, no darkness at all. How many people here want to claim to be without flaw or sin? If you claim to be without sin, you are a liar, and lying is a sin. So by virtue of that vicious cycle, you have just confirmed your sinfulness.
But I don’t hear many people claiming to be perfect, at least not seriously. What I do hear is the opposite. I hear talk about people being complete darkness, void of any light, completely evil. And unfortunately, it is always Christians who want to point out the complete absence of goodness in people. These Christians call this position “Total depravity.”
I found this definition of Total Depravity this week: “Total depravity does not mean that all men will display evil to the fullest extent possible, or that one man may never be good relative to another, or “in the right” when it comes to a particular situation; yet it does mean that no man can ever do anything whatsoever that is completely acceptable in the sight of God. The very best acts of fallen man are tainted and imperfect, and thus loathsome before the altogether holy God of creation.”
Christians can be the biggest downers sometimes. Who doesn’t want to hang out with that guy at a party? And why is it always men who are totally depraved?
As I’ve said before, and has been said many times before me, why do we start our theological anthropology in Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1? Why do we start our assessment of human beings with the Fall of humanity, rather than the creation of humanity? Because if we go back two more chapters, God created the heavens and the earth, and said, “It is good.” God created human beings and said, “It is very good.” God created man and woman in his own image, and scripture reminds us that even after the fall, human beings still bear the image of God.
In God there is no darkness, but there is light and there is darkness in varying amounts in each of us.
I think that our assessment of the human condition could use some help from an imaginary, talking bear who wears an oversized hat and coat, and loves to eat orange marmalade. Paddington looks for the good in all people, and somehow, he finds it. Maybe we should, too.
Here’s my proposal. There is darkness and there is light. We see what is good in God, and we see that through Jesus. No one is all good, and nobody is all bad. And for 2,000 years, we Christians have made a priority out of pointing out what is bad, we point out the darkness. And indeed, there is a place for that. But maybe, just maybe, we’ve focused too much on the bad and not on the good.
And let’s be honest, how has pointing out nothing but the darkness worked for the church the last fifty years or so? At least here in North America, I would say it hasn’t worked out well.
What if we Christians became more like Paddington, and looked for the good? If the image of God is still present in every person, then what would change if we focused on the light rather than the darkness?
I believe that we only know what is good and is “in the light” because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is our perfect example of what is good. I want to be the kind of person who looks for Jesus in each person, and let them know when I find it. In doing so, I won’t only be changing the way I see that person, but perhaps I can help them see their selves differently as well. Perhaps I can show people that they are beloved individuals, people God loves, and people that I love.