A sermon on 1 John 5:13-21 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 16 May 2021

Final instructions are meant to be concise, clear and relevant. As you’re walking out the door, or boarding the plane, or whatever it is you are doing, and someone stops you to say that last thing they think that you need to hear before you go, you don’t want them to be long-winded or ambiguous or irrelevant. You have things to do. You’ve got your mind on other things. You’ve got a thousand things to think about. Whatever someone has to say to you, they need to be short and to the point. Like that day in December a few years ago. I was setting off to drive up to the main street of town to do some last minute Christmas shopping. And my son Ben says, “Make sure you don’t run into mum.” Like I said. Concise. Clear. And relevant. Because you don’t want to run into the person you are Christmas shopping for.

That’s why until recently I’ve always had a problem with the last verse of 1 John. Verse 21.

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

At least it’s concise. It’s only six words in English and none of them are more than two syllables. And it is kind of clear. Dear means expensive. Children are small humans. A keep is a kind of castle. Yourselves is you. From is a preposition meaning away. And an idol is a statue of a god. “Expensive small humans castle you away statues of gods.” Except that “dear children” is probably John’s fatherly way of referring to the people reading his letter. They are his precious friends. He cares for them because they are precious to him. “Keep yourselves from” means to make sure that you don’t get close to something or involved with it. And an idol is more than just a statue of a god. An idol can be anything or anyone that you love more than God. It can be your family. It can be your town or country. It can be your bank balance or your home or your pet dog or your love of fishing or your television or your favourite movie star or singer or book or sport. I mean, sometimes it’s hard not to think that the dominant religion in Australia is not the Roman Catholic or the Anglican Church but Australian Rules Football. And by “sometimes” I mean all the time.

John means, “My precious friends, do not get involved with things that people love more than God.” So John’s final instructions start to make sense. It is clear. And it is concise.

And it is good advice. The first commandment says,

You shall have no other god before me.

The second commandment says,

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down and worship them for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.

Now the Lord only gave ten commandments and that’s two of them. And not just any two but the first two. And they are clear in saying that the Lord will not tolerate any rival for the love of the people he has chosen and that he will not become the slave of our imagination or of what we think God should be, but that he demands to be accepted as he reveals himself to be, to be approached in the way that he himself has made possible and to be served in the way that he himself has commanded.

It’s a good reminder that the biggest problem with idols is not that they are false. It is not that they cannot give you what you need. It is not that they are not worthy of your love or of your trust. It is not that they will betray you when you need them most. But the biggest problem with idols is that the Lord hates them. And that to love them, to trust them, to submit yourselves to them instead of him is the surest way to offend the God who made you.

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

It is clear. It is concise. The only trouble I have had in the past is to see how that is relevant. I knew what John meant and I was happy to do it. I just couldn’t see the connection between these final words and the great theme of his letter.

John has written this letter to a group of believers who feel like they are just the cigarette butt left behind from their former glory. This church, we don’t know who they are or what city or town they lived in, but they had broken in half over different beliefs about Jesus Christ and over different ways of understanding the gospel. John wrote to the ones left behind who stayed true to what they had been taught. But they were feeling hurt and lost. So John wrote his letter to them to clarify their thinking about who Jesus is and about what he came to do so they would stay true to him and receive the countless blessings that he gave his life to give them.

But what does this great theme have to do with John’s final words?

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

I keep labouring the point because I think that answering that question will help settle a second question. You see the problem with being told, “Keep away from idols” is having the discernment to see the idols that we are clinging to and that we have to give up. We can sometimes see them in the choices we make. We can sometimes see them in the things we really trust when times are tough. But the truth remains that it is easier to see the idols that other people are clinging to than it is to see our own.

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

It is concise. It is clear. But I couldn’t see how it was relevant. The problem comes from reading this verse of the Bible on its own, separated from the sentences before it. We call it the context. Every sentence of the Bible is connected to the other sentences around that mean something only when they are read and understood together. So the problem is easily solved when you read them together like this:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

The Son of God has come. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. Not just the birth of a great baby. Not just the birthday of a great man. But the coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is what we celebrate every Sunday. God with us. When we were lost, when we were hurt and hurting each other, when we were confused, he came to give us understanding, so that we might know the God who made us. The God who is our heavenly Father. So that we might know him who is true. Who alone is real. Who alone can be trusted. Who alone can save.

Compared to him our idols, the lies we believe about God, the lies we believe instead of God, are as useless as training wheels on a semi trailer. But through Jesus Christ we know the true God. The eternal God. The one from whom we have come. The one before whom we must give an account of our lives. We know him through Jesus Christ. Not just by what he said about him, but also by what he did for us. In his cross. In his resurrection. In his ascension to the right hand of the Father. And in his gift of the Holy Spirit. When we confess our sins and we trust in Christ we receive his Spirit so that he might live in us and so that we might live in him. Yes, us in Christ. For he is our hope. His life is ours. His present is our future. And his Spirit is our guiding light that exposes all the lies and reveals the truth. We are in him who is true, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

He is the true God and eternal life. To know Christ is to begin to live for the first time in our lives. To love Christ and to serve him is the fulfilment of our life’s purpose. To be with Christ is our heart’s deepest longing. To have Jesus Christ as first in our lives is our soul’s greatest need.

This then is John’s final instruction. It is concise. It is clear. And it is relevant. Jesus Christ is the true God. All other so-called gods are lies and illusions. To trust them with your life is like trusting the dog with your sausage. And Jesus Christ is eternal life. To know him is to know life. Without him there is only death and ruin and despair. So my dear children, keep yourselves from idols. Lock your heart away from all fakes and phonies and counterfeit Jesuses. The nationalist Jesus who wants you to put your country first, right or wrong. The capitalist Jesus who tells you to work hard and make a lot of money. The institutional Jesus who wants you to trust the church and do what you’re told. The miracle Jesus who wants to heal all your diseases if you have enough faith.

Botched Restoration of Ecce Homo Fresco Shocks Spain - The New York Times

They are “new and improved” Jesuses that are just as fake as the botched restoration of this fresco in Spain. This image of Jesus was painted over a hundred years ago on the wall of a church near Zaragosa. As you can see, it needed a bit of touching up. Eighty year old Cecilia Gomez claims that the local priest asked her to try to renovate the painting. So the first thing she did was to scrape away some of the paint. Before adding her own finishing touches. What she produced has been described as a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey. It has even been called Beast Jesus. But this is what we do when we think we can improve on the original Jesus. Instead of serving him, and aligning our hopes and aspirations on his words and deeds, we turn him into the servant of our plans and purposes. We may think that we are renovating him. We may convince ourselves that we are bringing him up to date with the latest and best modern thinking. But in the end we rob him of his divinity or of his humanity and create in our own mind a Beast Jesus. An idol, worshiping our idea of Jesus instead of submitting all our ideas to the real Jesus.

The original and the best. Jesus Christ is not who we imagine he is any more than he is a picture wrapped in a stained glass window or painted on a fresco in Spain. He is who he really is, the true God and eternal life. Keep yourselves from all these counterfeits. Know the real Jesus, revealed in the Scriptures and proclaimed in the gospel. Let us not make him serve our purposes, but let us truly, with all our heart, serve him.