The Pathway to Joy

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

To move toward the first half of the verse “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” is to begin to rest on the love of Jesus. That is a safe haven, and there is a lot to commend it. We begin to understand that “I will go to heaven because Jesus died on the cross for me and rose again from the dead. My obedience adds not one ounce to his merit. And my lack of obedience requires no more blood for it’s atonement.” This we embrace with relish.

But it becomes a hollow relish over time if we are not concerned with obedience. God in his gentle care knows that holiness and happiness go together. So, as a good father, he lets us walk down paths haunted by pain. Trouble creeps in, the supports fall away, and he re-directs us back to himself. That path back to him involves many things, and some of those we have addressed. But among them is obedience.

I understand the urge to close our hearts to obedience. But I also understand that God loves us too much to leave us there. If this passage teaches us anything, it teaches us that love for Jesus will incline us, will pull us, will move us, in the direction of wanting to obey.

There is a deep desire in each of you who truly love Jesus to obey. That desire is mingled with fear – with doubt – with uncertainty. I understand that. But since obedience is the fruit that those who love Jesus long to bear, Christians peer into Scripture seeking the next step in the path to joy.

The Mistress of Despair

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

Pride is not the only danger when obedience becomes our mistress. When we put too much weight on the second half of this ‘equation’, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” the word ‘commandments’ will loom large to us. Next to the standard of obedience that represents, we will see the countless ways in which we do not measure up, and we will despair.

We will conclude that we have nothing to be proud of except our consciousness of failure. And we despair. Reformed and Presbyterian churches tend to foster this response. We will emphasize how unworthy we are of Christ’s favor, and that emphasis finds a resonant chamber in the heart of the sensitive conscience.

This leads to what I have called the Linda Ronstadt Effect. All the music of our heart is drowned out by the constantly looping refrain:

“You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, Baby, you’re no good.”

It is a song we can’t turn off, and the longer it plays, the more we despair. We come to the Bible, and all we can see is the Law, and the Law exposes our sin, and we despair. We’re no good.

And the more we despair, the more we avoid others. The more we despair, the more distant and elusive becomes joy. We become somber and dull (oops!) and our testimony disappears into negativity. Who wants to become a Christian if it means the weight of despair? We become the Eeyore’s of the Christian menagerie, when we should have the exuberance of Tigger.

Eventually the despair can become so great that we give up. Grateful for the grace of the gospel, we move slowly and slyly to put the weight on the first half of the equation. “Jesus loves me; I love Jesus.” Anything more, we conclude, is just TOO hard to figure out, and so we don’t. I can’t keep the commandments and so I’m not even going to try.

Such is the path of pride and despair. But somewhere, somehow, we know there must be something better.

The Danger of Pride

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

There is a clear correlation between being a Christian, loving Jesus, and having a desire to obey him. But we can be confused about how obedience fits in the Christian life.

There are Christians for whom obedience defines Christianity. For those, in the implied equation of

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (15)

the second half of that equation is doing the heavy lifting. Keeping commandments becomes the focus. This seems good, but it inevitably leads to either great pride or great sorrow.

That is, one either thinks he is living a life of obedience, and is proud of that, and a bit (or a lot) judgmental of others who aren’t, or he realizes that he is NOT living a life of obedience, and is deeply pained by that.

The proud often will not be able to see their pride. We never think ourselves proud. But if we emphasize obedience, it will arise subtly in a series of several predictable steps.

1) We will see success in obedience in an area where we do not struggle. So, we may have no problem with discipline and self-control, and so we will see ourselves obedient to God in those things reflecting self-control.

2) We will then come to know someone who, say, is overweight or who sleeps late or whatever. These will be evidences in our mind of someone who lacks self-control.

3) We will quietly, privately perhaps, judge that person for his obvious lack of self-control.

4) We will be friendly, but condescending toward him, feeling innately superior. We will perhaps feel pity for the person, if not disdain, though we may outwardly maintain a friendly façade.

5) We will not even consider the possibility that the one we judge as lacking self control may have a medical condition effecting weight gain. Or he may be on medication, leading him to oversleep. And for sure we will ignore the fact that the one we judge as lacking self-control is wildly generous with his income, and we, inclined to fastidious greed.

Pride is an awful companion, but if we weigh-in too heavily on the second half of this equation, it is an easy path to follow and a hard path to escape.

The Music of the Heart

I want us to return to the passage we looked at last week. There we saw that the path from brokenhearted disappointment and fear to peace and rest, passes through a conscious grasp of the love Jesus has for us, and our response in love for him.

But just as Jesus’ love for us is not mere sentiment, but is evidenced through his actions, specifically his death, so, our love for Jesus is more than mere appreciative sentiment. Love for Jesus is evidenced by more than fervent emotion and vibrant singing. It is evidenced by obedience

Which simply begs the question: “What is obedience?” And the consequent query, “Do I love Jesus?”

It is safe to say that if you have no concern whatsoever about obeying Jesus, that you are not a Christian. That is not meant as a judgment. It’s similar to saying that if you don’t ever sit down at a keyboard, it’s probably a pretty safe bet to say that you are not a pianist.

I want us to consider our lives as a dance. The way we live is the way we dance. And the way we dance will be moved by the music that is playing in our heart. If the music of the Christian’s heart is the love of Jesus, then the dance that emerges will become as beautiful as what he hears in his head.

Pair-a-Sermons Lost

On October 9, 2011 I preached a sermon which, unlike most all sermons preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church, was not recorded. Ordinarily I would not have been too concerned about this, but this time I was a bit sad.

As far as sermons go, it was not one which was substantially better than any other sermon I have preached. However, this sermon did address issues which I know are of concern to many people. So I was sad that I would not be able to easily direct people to some content that might be of help to them.

The sermon centered upon John 14:15 where Jesus challenges his disciples with this statement:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Non-Christians and many Christians make the wrong assumption that Christianity is no more than a complex but carefully organized ethical system. To be a Christian means to have rules and to keep those rules.

Others have been introduced to the subject of grace and have subsequently been confused by the question of if and when and how to talk about rules and obedience in the Christian life.

This sermon is set in the context of several others (available here) on John 14 which trace Jesus’ instructions to his disciples hours before his death by which he intends to move them from despair to hope, from anxiety to peace. Obedience to him is a part of that. But HOW it is a part is what the sermon attempted to explore.

To make the content of that sermon available, I intend to post its content here. To keep from overwhelming the reader with a single 4000+ word post (which would be unbearable) I will divide the sermon by points and post each daily over the next couple weeks. If nothing else, for two weeks these will serve as a kind of daily devotional.

I am going to try to resist the impulse to apply heavy and extensive editing to what were simply my original sermon notes. What you will get here is basically what was before me the morning that I preached it. These notes were intended to be spoken and heard, not written and read, and so they will reflect some of that particular quality.

I trust that these thoughts will be of some benefit to those who read them. My heart’s desire, for myself, for those I love, for those who read these words, is that we would delight in our God, and that that delight would be reflected in the way we love to live our lives.


NOTE: After the above was written, I learned that the sermon I preached on October 16, the following Sunday, was not recorded either. Having seen the effort required to post the notes from one sermon, there is little to no chance that I’ll do this again. But this at least gave me the opportunity to create a witty title.

Well, witty to me, anyway.