Wednesday, October 26, 2011

1st John: Not Burdensome

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/23/2011

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

1 John 5:1-5 NASB

Here’s the plan today:

1. Zero in on one key verse.

2. Unload its baggage.

3. Unpack its meaning for us.

4. Practical tips.

So many themes in 1st John are tangled up: Jesus commands about loving God, loving one another, trusting Jesus as the one-of-a-kind incarnation of God’s love in the world, trusting that we are born of God, that we know God, that he lives in us and we live in him, that we have already overcome evil through Jesus, that God is love, that he loves us and our love is a response to that love, living with confidence in the good news of his love, freedom from fear, the experience of God’s zoe-life that never changes even as our circumstances and perceptions and emotions and bodies change, and so on. John just keeps grabbing one strand after another, wrapping them around us, tying each one together with other strands, weaving them together, letting the colors and textures of one strand play off the colors and textures of the other.

The breathlessness with which he began is still present, even though his pace has slowed. It’s like a freestyle rap rather than a classical hymn.

[rap at Pastor’s Sabbath Retreat…]

The other day I took the Sabbath

It’s kinda like one of my favorite practices

I can go in and I try to do it but

It doesn’t flow right it’s not like fluid I

try to pause

I try to pray I try to play I

try to reflect but

It doesn’t go my way

It’s the way of the culture they surround me

They swoop on me like vultures

And they use busy

I get dizzy

I got a go off into a tizzy

I can’t keep going; I try to stop

But it doesn’t work; it’s like

hip hop to the beat

I don’t stop

I gotta be complete

With new wine and living in the spirit

I try to do the Sabbath I try to rest but

Somehow it doesn’t seem quite blessed but

that’s OK

I’ll rest in him: Jesus

J-e-s-u-s and he is Jesus

He with everything that he showers upon me

And it’s gonna keep going like it’s on me

Hip hop to the beat keep flowing in rest

It’s like alright, C’mon, I’m Sabbath takin’ and I’m


Today, we’ll zero in on one verse in the middle of this freestyle rap we call 1st John. Just one verse that brings this whole section to life.

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

Some comments about language that should help us unload some baggage we often bring to this passage.

We almost never use the word “command” in day to day life, do we? We don’t command waiters or accountants or lawyers or doctors other people who serve us, even for pay. We don’t command employees. We don’t command our kids (unless we’re angry or stressed out, etc. or are named Georg Ludwig Von Trapp).

“Command” used almost exclusively in military and computer settings. A set of orders or instructions. Generally impersonal.

If you’re not a programmer or in the military, the only time you speak about commands on a day to basis is if you are religious, and you talk about being obedient to God’s commands. Which is unfortunate, because it means we come to this kind of text with a whole set of emotions and assumptions that weren’t necessarily present with the people to whom this letter was written.

Two things to note:

First, the language of command permeated the culture in which this text was written. Parents commanded their children. Masters commanded their servants. Employers commanded their employees. Teachers commanded their students. The masses were having to follow the commands of the Roman authorities. Almost everyone was being commanded by someone.

Which means it wouldn’t have felt like exclusively religious or military language to talk about keeping commands. Emotionally, it might have felt more like we feel when we describe someone telling us they “wanted” something. My dad wants me to get my homework done before I go out to play. My teacher wants me to turn in that report on Monday. My boss wants me to go to Atlanta to meet with a client next week. The newlyweds at table 6 want their check now, and from the eyes they keep giving each other, I think the sooner I get it to them, the bigger my tip might be.

And the second thing has to do with the actual Greek words that are translated “keep his commandments.” The word for commands has a range of meanings from “commandment” to “teaching.” And the word for keep, which we spoke about at length several weeks ago, means more literally to keep an eye on, to guard, to pay close attention to.

So perhaps we’ll understand the heart of this part of the passage in a fresh way if we translate it:

For this is the love of God, that we devote our attention and energy to what he is teaching us; and what he is teaching us isn’t burdensome.

That said, let’s get to the unpacking so we can hear what the Spirit of God might be saying to us through this passage.

God’s teachings aren’t burdensome. Remember Jesus’ statement: My yoke is easy and my burden is light.

“Yoke” is a rabbinic phrase referring to a list of rules for living, a way of interpreting the Torah for a particular Rabbi’s talmidin, his disciples.

One way to determine the heart of a particular Rabbi’s yoke was to ask, “What is the greatest mitzvah, or commandment?” To which Jesus replied, essentially, Love God and love your neighbor. All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments…

So, for example, when it came to the command about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy, there was a conflict between Jesus’ yoke and the Pharisaic Rabbis’ yokes. The Pharisees had a strict, legalistic view of what that mitzvah meant. So strict and legalistic that they considered healing somebody on the Sabbath to be a violation of God’s commands or teaching.

That’s a hard and burdensome yoke.

Jesus’ yoke said every other mitzvah should be interpreted through the lens of loving God and loving neighbors as one loved oneself. So his disciples could see that the Sabbath was meant to be a day rooted in creation, and rooted in deliverance, and therefore to love God and love one’s neighbors meant that one would only be obedient to the Sabbath command if one cooperated with God’s love by healing on the Sabbath when one was led by God to do so.

That’s an easy yoke. It’s not burdensome; it lifts burdens.

Which isn’t to say life in pursuit of God isn’t burdensome, of course. Life in this world is burdensome. There is the burden of suffering. Of hard work with sometimes little immediate reward. The burden of broken, sinful, wounded selves. The burden of only being able to see God’s good future through a glass darkly. The burden of so many lies and falseness permeating our thoughts. The burdens of loss and conflict and physical illness and injury and shalom-shattered relationships. The burden of seeing the suffering of others and not always being able to alleviate it. The burden of regret and guilt and shame and emotional pain.

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “All you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest…” All of us who come to Jesus start out with heavy burdens, and even though his promise is rest, we know that we will not fully enter that rest until our new creation is complete in Christ, and that is still some time coming.

Yes, there are burdens to bear.

But God’s teachings aren’t one of them.

God’s teaching, God’s commands, point us to a way of life and love that cooperates with him in lifting burdens off the heavy burdened, and in which we experience increasing freedom and joy and lightness of being. We may have to join him in the fight for it. But better to join him in the fight for our freedom than to unwittingly join the enemy in the fight for our destruction, eh?

[fighting for rest at the PSR: arranging to go, not doing work there, etc. God’s invitation / teaching / command was not burdensome. But wading through everything that stood between me and obedience, between me and accepting the invitation, between me and devoting myself and my energy to his teaching presented itself as burden until I was on the other side of it. And then I could see the difference – burdens crush you. Responsiveness to God gives you life.]

For the thirsty in the desert, it may be a burden to get to water, but the sign pointing to the oasis is no burden, and the invitation to drink is no burden. Conversely, sitting in the sun and dying may feel like no burden compared to summoning one’s remaining strength and pressing on, but the truth is that resignation to hopeless death is the heaviest burden of all. And exhausting one’s strength to drink the water doesn’t leave you weary, but refreshed.

Jesus in Gethsemane…

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22)

The burden isn’t God’s commands to Jesus; the burden is the weight of sin, the brokenness of creation that Jesus carries to the cross…but God’s commands lead to resurrection life and new creation, the lifting of all burdens.

God’s teachings, his commands to love him with the whole of our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren’t burdensome. They are the way to life. They are his love present to us as signs pointing to the oasis; his love present to us as invitations to drink. To drink freedom and joy and true rest from his stream of living water.

You don’t experience it that way? Perhaps you are obeying not God’s commands, but something else’s commands in the guise of God’s. Guilt’s commands, perhaps. Or shame’s.

If God’s teaching is burdensome to anyone, it’s not because they aren’t cut out for following God. It’s not because they are extra messed up. It’s because it’s not God’s teaching. Somewhere, somehow, their perception of God’s teaching has gotten twisted along the way.


Consider the way a child experiences a good parent’s teaching. Burdensome? If it is good teaching, if it is the parent’s love expressed in sign pointing to life, in invitation to drink from a stream the parent knows of that the child knows nothing of, and not something else, then it is truly not burdensome. No matter how much it looks like it before it is embraced, engaged, entered into, experienced, guarded, kept, followed…. [cleaning room example.]

Take something simple in the realm of God’s teaching/commands about loving one another. Not judging one another, for example. The prospect of not judging could seem quite burdensome, especially if it’s a way of life for you and yours. The vigilance about your own speech and thoughts. The way it seems to distance you from others around you who are participating in it. The guilt you feel for all the judgmental thoughts you never paid attention to before. And so on…

But begin to devote yourself and your energies to God’s invitation, and what do you actually discover? You discover that judging others is the source of the truly heavy burden.

Of having to weigh the actions and motives of every other human being on planet earth. And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts.

Of having to make the right call, all the time, and figure out how you are going to respond. Which usually involves pushing them out of your heart in one way or another. And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts.

Of having to choose between one person and another in conflict after conflict. And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts.

And then you notice that what you thought was intimacy between you and others who shared your judgments wasn’t intimacy at all, but in fact a false intimacy with its own excruciating double burden. The burden of making sure you never got on the wrong side of their judgments, and your own, which you’ve come to know so well. And the burden of isolation in a crowd, of not having any true friendships, because no one will let themselves be truly known by others when they know judgment is in the air.

And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts. Because they start to come to you with their real selves, safe in the awareness that you don’t judge like the others they know. And because you are free to reveal your true self to them, because there is no hypocrisy in your brokenness.

And eventually, your only concern for others is discovering what ways the Spirit might be leading you to love them, and that – even though it is filled with effort - is adventure and life. And the only actions and motives you are weighing are your own – and even that you are doing not out of fear, but out of anticipation that if the Lord has something to teach and correct in you, it is because he wants you to have more life, not because he wants to judge you. And although that is filled with effort, it always leads to a greater lightness of being, not the heaviness of guilt.

And you will find yourself welcoming others into your life who you might previously have kept out because of judgments. And you will discover that although relationships with them take effort, the payoff is that you become more than you were before, and not less, and there is no burden in that.

And you will find that as you are no longer choosing sides between people in conflict, you begin to experience God’s love in a new way and with a fresh perspective, as a love that he gives freely to you; not because he has chosen your side, but because he has chosen you.

It is this way with all of God’s teaching. All of it. Everything he says to us. Every invitation he makes to us. God’s commands are not burdensome. They are the love of God in signs pointing the way to life, the love of God in invitations to drink from streams of living water.

Which is why John links it all up, bookends it all, with trusting Jesus. With believing in Jesus. Jesus is the one who invites us to follow him. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. He invites those of us who are heavy- burdened to come to him so that he can give us rest. Rest for our souls. Which means so, so much more than simply not worrying about death because we are going to heaven. It means knowing fullness of life because in him heaven has come rushing to meet us right in the middle of our heavily burdened lives and is beginning to work its way through everything as we cooperate with him.

For this is the love of God, that we devote our attention and energy to what he is teaching us; and what he is teaching us isn’t burdensome.

Practical Tips:

1. Examen yourself. Try out the spiritual discipline of the Examen (consolations and desolations) to identify something God might be teaching you. (notes posted online at the end of the sermon.)

2. Burdened down? Get help. Talk with your small group or a spiritual mentor about any commands of God that feel burdensome to you. See if you can identify what’s been twisted.

// The Examen

Drawing from Ignatius’s (1491-1556) Spiritual Exercises, in which Ignatius described the Examen, a daily examination of consolations and desolations, Charles Bello outlines 3 simple steps:

TO BEGIN, find a place where you can relax and be quiet. Acknowledge God’s love for you and His involvement in your life.

// STEP ONE: (consolations) Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment today for which you are most grateful, gave you strength, where you felt the most energized and alive, etc.

After you locate the moment or event, step back into it and let yourself relive the joy of that moment. Thank God for the consolation you experienced.

Discernment: Ask God to show you what it was about that event that gave you life. What was said and done that made that moment so life-giving?

Sit still and wait for Him to respond. If you journal, you might want to write your dialogue down.

// STEP TWO: (desolations) Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment today for which you are least grateful, where you experienced sadness, shame, failure, anger, where you felt life and energy being drained, etc.

After you locate that moment or event, step back into it and relive the feelings without trying to change or fix it in anyway.

Discernment: Ask God what is was about the desolation that made you so mad, angry, sad…

Ask God to comfort you and fill you with his love and sit in silence for a few moments. Again, if you journal, you might want to write down your insights and conversation with God.

// STEP THREE: Give thanks for whatever you have experienced during the day.

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