Making Our Way Through Mixed Messages: The Incarnation of God and Human Flourishing

This message was originally preached in Edmonton, Alberta, at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church on Mother’s Day 2017, and again, in a revised fashion in Brandon, Manitoba on July 30th, 2017.  It is based on 1 John 4.


Good morning! And Happy Mother’s Day! I can’t really describe how nervous I am in preaching today.  I have spent the last week in a balancing act between my neurotic awareness of my lay understanding of scripture, and my confidence in the present day meanings of the passage I have chosen.  I was encouraged by Jonathon’s sermon last week and the emphasis to understand scripture simply.  That presented a unique challenge in attempting a passage that deals specifically with false prophets and teachings.

When this passage was written, the apostle John was addressing a real need to distinguish between authentic teachers of the Word and those who were preaching that Jesus was not really a man.  According to teachers under Gnostic influences, Jesus appeared as a man but was really DIVINE.  The humanity of Jesus was merely a show.  The need to establish who was delivering teachings in the spirit of truth was pressing.  It could have possibly led to the halting of the growth of the spread of the gospel in the Gentile world. (PAUSE) I believe the urgency of recognizing God at work in our world is a pressing concern now. The notable decline in human flourishing in what has been called the developed world brings a kind of tangible reality that I don’t believe any of us here today are all-too-comfortable with.  The mixed messages that were being sent then have a strong analogous relationship to the messages we now receive.

If we are to believe the market forces and stream of steady news, the world does not seem to care whether we are flourishing or not.  It sends us messages that fall short of what it means to live a good life.  Instead of abundance, the pursuit of being ‘rich and famous’ is preached. Instead of meeting needs, advertisers attempt to modify our basic needs by co-opting things that were given to humanity freely, like water, food, air, and love. Instead of loving partnerships, the messages are fault-finding and more sex. Instead of friendship, Facebook and Twitter connections are valued. Instead of affordable basic housing, property as an investment is the status quo.  Instead of a balance of rest and work, working to exhaustion is extolled.

The state of affairs leads us to a basic question: How does our relationship to God as a living reality focus us on living well in a contemporary world that has little real commitment to human flourishing?  The fact that Harvard University has done a 75-year study on the very question, “What is the Good Life?”, perhaps indicates the central place it has in the our lives. The answer Harvard has come up with is “stable and healthy relationships lead to longer life and reduced emotional and physical suffering.”

Personal Story

I want to begin addressing this hornet’s nest of issues by telling you a personal story that may serve to introduce me a little to some of you who I have never spoken with, and may also shed some light on how this has worked out in a real way.  My parents had very different conceptions of what a good life was, and they worked very hard through their entire marriage to maintain a functional balance between their differing views of the good life.

It being Mother’s Day, I will begin with my Mom.  Now 87 years, she has her whole life been a woman of passion.  She is very emotional, caring, and always dreamed (and, in a way, still dreams) of traveling the world.  That was difficult with eight kids at home.  Coming six years after the seventh child, I was always conscious how children stifled her dreams.  By the time I could remember, her desire to travel the world had reached a fevered pitch.  Needless to say, I spent a lot of time with my oldest sister and her husband.  My mom was always concerned with getting to her destination, and not so much how she got there.  Typically this resulted in some rather unconscious behavior.  Backing into a parking stall with our large motor home as we traveled throughout the States was the responsibility of my father.  My mother would patiently wave him back.  “Keep it coming! Keep it coming! Keep it coming! (BANG!) OK! STOP!”  Mom didn’t worry too much about the details.  She just wanted to get there.

Dad, who passed away more than 13 years ago, hated traveling.  He was the kind of guy who needed to know what’s next.  Being the Associate Dean of Education at Brandon University, he didn’t have the luxury of doing anything on a whim.  I am sure part of that character was necessitated by balancing the lives of eight kids and a passionate wife, the church congregation where he was a lay leader. On that same trip around the United States I remember my parents arguing in the front seat of the motor home of whether the sign that pointed to San Francisco was telling the truth.  My Dad was sure it wasn’t. We had a wonderful weekend in San Diego.

For my Mom, the good life required a focusing on experience, often to the neglect of other more pressing concerns like how we could manage our commitments to church, school, sports teams, and music lessons, while going to Brazil for the Mennonite World Conference, going to the Passion Play in Zurich Switzerland, or traveling to New York.  For my Dad, his good life had a lot of ducks in it, and they were all in a row.  As an aside, as my wife Air points out, my siblings and I had a great balance with a love for God, for traveling, for education, and for believing in the road signs. My parents found a great way to transmit their values with a healthy amount of balance, but not without its share of conflict.

Part 1 of Incarnation – Saved by Grace

I tell these stories to illustrate one basic point that I believe each of us faces: we are faced with mixed messages about what “the good life” is.  Not that my parents were false prophets, but certainly, Mr. Trump, the New York Times, Fox and CNN, and the large Canadian Banks have had their shares of false prophecy.  We must make our way through these mixed messages to what our scripture reading calls “the spirit of truth” (in verse 6) if we are to follow God’s respective calls for each of us, and if we are to flourish in our present lives.  I suspect that any sense of lacking you have about your life right now is attached to one of the many mixed messages you’ve heard.  Do you feel poor, but have enough? Do you lack recognition, even when you are embraced? Is the way you consume excessive? Do you work to impress? Or to serve?

That we are saved by grace is beyond doubt for me.  Verse 10 gives us the foundation for the good life by actually spelling out what God’s love is: “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The sacrificial aspect of this is what strikes me, and has, on more than a few occasions, overwhelmed me.  That God gave His Son for us to atone for what we have done wrong should speak to us who have been trying for salvation.  To touch on what has been preached, we don’t need to try.  It is a gift.  While I had lied to conceal my embarrassment about who I was, God loved me for who I was. While I worked 3 jobs and wrote a Master’s Thesis to please others, God only wanted a relationship with the real me. And after relinquishing control of my life to God, God gave me a vocation, time traveling abroad, and most significantly, a wonderful family with great kids and the best spouse and mother I could have imagined. I have been saved by grace.  I, the child of a couple who, taken as sum total, wanted it all,  I have had it all.  AND ALL OF IT WAS GIFTED ME. Christ was and is the atoning sacrifice, and was embodied by my parents, who sacrificed much of their own dreams to pass down that wild combination of mixed messages.  My Mom, who sacrificed her dreams for over 30 years to raise eight kids, to type my Dad’s doctoral thesis on….. A TYPEWRITER! My Dad, who sacrificed his dream of being a pastor to well-support a family who all got their university education.

But this scripture tells us more than the reminder that Christ is the atoning sacrifice.  It offers us a path through the mixed messages.  This path is a process that we can live right now.

 Part 2 of Incarnation – the presence of the Spirit

Starting at verse “12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. (Verse 16) … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.”

Not only has God become part of this world through the historical work of Jesus as the atoning sacrifice, God also graces us with the presence of the Spirit.  (SPEAK SLOWLY) God is not distant, but God is present.

I am astonished by this passage every time I read it! It states facts, causes and effects.  It doesn’t talk about flourishing as something that belongs to a distant utopia – like some perfect world that is far off in both time and space.  It offers us this awareness here!  It offers us this experience now! God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God – and God abides in them! As God is, so we are in this world!

Being the grammar nerd that I am, I take the intentional grammar of texts – whether spoken or written – to be reflective of the real message of the text.  This is written in the present simple tense.  We use this tense when we state facts, and when we discuss routines that we have. This text is expressing a statement of fact, and it expresses it to remind us of a habit.  Loving is a habit; God’s presence among us is a fact. How we live and thrive really is analogous to the nature of God. So I have a question for all of us to consider: Do we experience abiding in God and God’s presence in us as a habitual reality?

I considered for a time to try to specify what God abiding in us means in an explicit way.  Every time I tried to characterize it I fell short, partially because of my weakness with language, but more importantly, because I attempted to make the mysteriousness of that reality not mysterious.  I invite you to contemplate and welcome the mystery that is God’s presence into your life.  I invite you to embrace the mystery of living in love as a routine. I encourage us to be aware of the fact that God’s love is present with us, and is being perfected through us. I invite you to embark, if you haven’t already, the path of flourishing prescribed in this passage.  Step out of the thoughts and explanations that are in our heads, out of the narratives we tell ourselves to explain the mysterious.  I invite you to step into the mysterious presence of God in our midst.

Summary and Conclusion

Here is how this works out. I will refer to the Harvard study that I mentioned earlier. Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to church and community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And so many people report that they are lonely.

And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

Once the Harvard study had followed their subjects all the way into their 80s, they looked back at them at midlife to see if it could be predicted who was going to grow into a happy, healthy person into their 80’s and who wasn’t. And when everything that was known about the subjects of the study at age 50 was gathered together, it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. The most happily partnered women and men reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.

The third big lesson is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship or relationships to others in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.

So this message, that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being, this is wisdom that’s as old as the hills. Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore? As I suggested, we’ve fallen for one of the many “mixed messages.” What we’d really like is a quick fix, something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends. The people in Harvard’s 75-year study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. Just like the millennials in that recent survey, many of the test subjects, when they were starting out as young adults, really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But over and over, we can see with our own eyes that the people who fare the best were the people who invested into relationships, with family, with friends, with community.  In other words, the presence of God abiding in us, as we abide in God.

So what about you? Let’s say you’re 25, or you’re 40, or you’re 60. What might investing into relationships even look like?

Well, the possibilities are practically endless. It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, or reaching out to that family member who you haven’t spoken to in years, because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.  It may just mean eating and serving and worshiping together.

In other words, it very well means the good life is not far off or hard to reach.  It is right here and right now, REQUIRING the neighbour beside you in this room, in your building, or on your street.

Thank you.

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