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12.02.18 1 John 1.4-7 Isaiah 2.2-5 Light Unto Our Path Sermon Summary

by on December 4, 2018

I love Advent, but it can be hard. I love hearing the promises again, like of nations beating their swords into plowshares—that is, of nations dropping food on each other instead of bombs. But it’s hard because even though Christ has come, the promises have yet to be fulfilled. I find this one-or-the-other thinking changes the message of Advent from good news into bad news. Fortunately, there’s a way to hear the good news again.

The John community, which produced the Newer Testament books bearing that name, tends toward binary thinking. Binary thinking offers clarity. It simplifies the world. It expedites decision making. It can provide us a goal. So there are some good uses for binary thinking.

John’s community loved binaries. Some binary terms from books of John include: purity/sinfulness, fellowship/dissent, light/darkness, obedience/disobedience, truth/lie, love/hate.

Jesus used binaries to inspire goal-oriented behavior. He told his disciples to “walk through the narrow gate, not the wide one.”  He also used binaries when teaching. To the would-be disciple who wanted to bury his recently dead father, Jesus said “let the dead bury their own dead.” To the one who wanted to say goodbye to his family, Jesus said no. (see Luke 9) And another time Jesus said, “whoever loves father, mother, son, daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10)

These binaries may sound harsh, and they certainly are hard. But they are effective illustrations of Jesus’ point. They do, however, invite interpretation and discernment.

Perhaps the most pervasive binary today is the political one of left/right. Everything gets sorted according to this binary.

When discerning the best option, it’s helpful to remember Jesus also saw middle ground. In Mark 9:38-41 John rebukes someone casting out demon because they were “not following us.” Jesus responds to let it alone, because “whoever is not against us is for us.” Did you see that? It wasn’t just the binary of either for us or against us. Jesus created a middle ground for folks who were not against us.

So how do we benefit from the binaries in scripture without losing sight of the middle ground? How can binaries inspire us to “the pursuit of holiness” without causing despair of our falling short? Because we can give up on serving others, on prayer, on generosity, on forgiveness, even other people if we don’t recognize some middle ground.

Here’s how I do it. First, we have to acknowledge that the binaries exist. But we can also look for that middle ground. If we’re open to the Spirit’s leading, we may find it. The prophet Isaiah encouraged the wandering Israelites, “Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” (Isaiah 30:20-21)

Second, within the binary, accentuate the positive independent of the negative. So, for example, when Christ calls us to love him more than family members, I find a way forward by recognizing my need to always grow in my love for Christ, but not to decrease my love for family. I think that’s the spirit of his teaching.

We say Gospel is Good News, but we often forget it looking for bad news. We say, “God is a Savior. That means you are a sinner. Let me tell show you how bad of a sinner you are . . .” Why not say, “God is Savior, and this is Good News because we need a savior” and leave it at that?

We say, “God is Light, and you are hopelessly lost in darkness. Let me show you all the darkness in your life . . .” Why not say, “God is Light, and that’s Good News because we need light. God lights our path”?

I was recently asked if, because I’m Presbyterian, I preach fire and brimstone. “Not too often,” I replied. On the contrary, I get criticized for not doing so often enough. I figure most people know the bad news, and my job is to proclaim the good news and let the Spirit do the convicting.

So I preach forgiveness, love, and generosity, and the Spirit bears these fruits in your lives. Or she doesn’t. And if she doesn’t, is it because I should have berated you with bad news first? Hopefully I find the faithful middle ground.

That’s what I invite you to do, too. “Let us go to the Mountain,” Isaiah says, “to receive instruction and guidance.” This Advent, listen to the binaries. There’s good news and there’s bad news, and often there’s a middle ground. And if you get discouraged, emphasize the good news without dwelling on the bad news.

If you can’t walk in the light, walk towards the light. We can’t stop the nations from waging war, but we can move ourselves towards peace with someone. Make your way towards the mountain. Eventually we’ll get there, step by step, with God’s help.

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