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Casting Out Fear

June 14, 2020
By Rev. James Barton
 
Note where the apostle John begins this reading. He begins right where we left off last Sunday - with the Holy Trinity and what the Holy Trinity already has done for us. That is at the very center of our Christian faith, and it is the motivation for all we now do as believers.
 
John writes, “By this we know that we abide in God and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (1 John 4:13). And how do we know that we have the Holy Spirit? The Scriptures, inspired by that same Spirit, tell us so. Paul writes, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). We would not even be here today, as believers, wanting to hear the Word of God, without the work of the Holy Spirit.
 
And how did the Holy Spirit work in us? Our Lord Jesus Himself says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The Spirit worked through the Word of God and baptism. As Peter preached on Pentecost, “... be baptized ... for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:38-39).
 
We believe these promises, and so we say with John, in our text, “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God” (with all that means, according to Scripture), “God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:14-15). It is through Jesus, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, that, as John says again in our text, “We have come to know and to believe the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in (His) love, abides (remains) in God and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).
 
Think for a moment of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in our gospel lesson. There’s an old country-gospel hymn, written in the 1930s during the Great Depression, that begins:
    Only a tramp was Lazarus that day,
    He whom they laid at the rich man’s gate,
    He begged for some crumbs from the rich man to eat,
    But they left him to die, like a tramp on the street.
That pretty much describes Lazarus - very poor, sick, hungry, covered with sores, and with such ragged clothes that dogs could come and lick his sores. He finally died, a tramp on the street. And yet Jesus says he went straight to heaven, carried by angels to be with Abraham (Luke 16:20-22).
 
Why did he go to heaven? Was it because he was poor - or he had such a rough life here that he deserved a better life in heaven? What did he do to get there? The Scriptures are clear, Jesus Himself said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Somewhere in his life, this poor man had come to know and trust God’s love and His promises, even for him; and he hung on to God’s love to the end, by faith, as miserable and abandoned as he was by others. Jesus gave him the name Lazarus in the parable. That name means, “God provides help.” And God did, in His love, help and take Lazarus to perfect peace in heaven.
 
That old gospel hymn goes on to say:
    O Jesus he died on Calvary’s tree,
    Shed His life’s blood, for you and for me.
    They pierced His side, His hands and His feet,
    And they left Him to die, like a tramp on the street.
It was even worse for Jesus. He, too, was bruised and bleeding, with most of his clothes taken away by others. He died with nothing. And He also died as a criminal in the eyes of most people, executed by Jewish and Roman justice, though He had done nothing wrong. Talk about brutality from bad authorities! Jesus knew exactly what that was.
 
But Jesus went to the cross willingly. The Scriptures say, though He was the Son of God, “He made Himself nothing” and “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). He did it out of love for us, who could not deal with our sins and sinful nature on our own. He did not have to do it, but He did it out of love for us, to be our Savior and to rescue Lazarus and us from sin and its consequences, including hell itself.
 
John wrote, earlier in 1 John, “(Jesus) is the propitiation for our sins.” That is a big word that John uses twice in this letter (1 John 2:2 and 4:10). It means that Jesus made the sacrifice that atones for, that pays the penalty for our sins, by His death on the cross. And, John says, “not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). And he says, “The blood of Jesus, (God’s) Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
 
Think about that for a moment. That means that Jesus, in love, died also for the rich man in the parable in the gospel lesson. Then why did the rich man end up in hell? Was it because he was rich? No, Abraham was also a rich man, yet he was in heaven, when Lazarus came there. Was it because the rich man failed to help poor Lazarus? That was very wrong, but that was only a symptom of the real problem - the problem of unbelief. The Scriptures say, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark16:16).
 
The rich man was apparently so much in love with himself and his lavish life and lifestyle that he could not see any need for God or for His love and forgiveness for him. He could not see his sins, including his failure to help Lazarus, and his total neglect of God, either. He died in unbelief.
 
Abraham reminds him that he and his brothers had the Word of God, through which the Holy Spirit works to bring faith. Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). That means that the rich man and his brothers also had our Old Testament lesson for today, which said, “Abraham believed the Lord, and He (the Lord) counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham was far from perfect. He did not even love his own family as he should have at times. But Abraham hung on to God’s love and promises, even in his weaknesses and difficult times, and God counted him as a righteous man.
 
This passage is quoted again and again in the New Testament to remind us that we are never right with God by our own efforts and goodness, but by faith, by belief in God’s love for us and His saving work for us in Jesus. (See Romans 4 and Galatians 3, for example.) This is so important for us to remember, as we go back again to our epistle lesson and hear John also speaking God’s Law to us. He says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar. Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). This is all true. There is right and wrong, and the Law always works to show us our sins and failures and to drive us to repentance and God’s love and forgiveness. And laws and fear of punishment also help in our civil society to keep order and protect us from chaos (Romans 13:1-5).
 
But in the spiritual realm, what John does not want us to do is to fall into the trap that Martin Luther was in, in his own time, with a false religious system that said: Yes, God gets you started with love and grace. But then, it really depends upon you and how well you live and how much good you do. And because Jesus really did not pay for all sin, entirely, in this viewpoint, you must do extra things yourself, in payment for your sins, when you fail. And over everything else is a threat, a motivation by threat. You better do good, or else, when you die, you will be taken to another place, a kind of purgatory, where you will have to keep on paying for your sins for who know how long; and you will be obligating your living relatives to do even more good to help you out of that place.
 
John wants none of this false thinking. He does not want us motivated by fear or threats, but by love, God’s love for us. “We love,” John says, “because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Listen again to how he describes this in our text. He says, “We have come to know and to believe the love God has for us. God is love... By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence (not fear but confidence) for the day of judgement, for as He (God) is, so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:16-17). These are amazing words! “As God is, so also are we.” As we, too, believe in Jesus and His completed work for us, in His love, we are also counted as righteous in God’s eyes - perfectly acceptable to Him.
 
That is why Paul can write, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her ... having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle and any such thing ... holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). That may not be the way we feel and look, but this is the way God looks at us, through the perfect love of Christ, as we believe and trust in Him. As John says in our text, “Fear has to do with punishment,”... but there is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). And it is not our perfect love for God, but the perfect love of God, given to us in Christ, that takes away our fears.
 
And so, we can live our lives, not in fear every moment, not to try to earn favor with God or others, but in a joyful way, thankful and grateful for the perfect love of Christ for us and the blessings that He has given us, with which we can now help others, in love. We love, because God first loved us.
 
Most of us, I suspect, are tired right now from the struggle with the coronavirus and more challenges possibly still to come. And in the last few weeks, in numerous parts of our country, we have also seen justifiable anger and concern about some terrible things. But the reactions have tended to have been more anger and accusations and threats and demands, some of which, biblically, seem justified; and others, biblically, not justified or right at all.
 
How good it is to be able to step back for a few minutes today in worship and just quietly rejoice in God’s continuing love for us, even in these confusing, chaotic times. God’s love does work, and we do love, because God first loved us. We also know that He loves and cares for all people, for Christ gave His life for all.
 
Think about these things as we close. Those involved with our food pantry kept it going all through the pandemic, week after week, and donations have continued to flow in to help. Jesus loved poor Lazarus, and there are plenty of Lazaruses still around who are needy. And so, we love and provide food because God first loved us and them.
 
$90,000 was raised for the school ministry even through the limits of a virtual auction and an economic climate that has not been so good. We know the importance of all people to our Lord, including children and parents and teachers. And so, we love them and help as best we can.
 
It was announced last week that we are one of the top churches in giving in support of a fundraiser for Matrix LifeCare Center, to help protect unborn babies in the womb, and moms and families struggling with pregnancy and childcare issues. All of these human beings are also important to God, and we do what we can. We love because Christ first loved us and all others.
 
Do we have to have a virtual VBS and a virtual Sunday school and other things we are offering? We know we are blessed with the whole Word of God; but there are still people today like the rich man and his brothers who don’t know and aren’t listening to that Word of God. And so we try to share the Word as best we can. And who knows what other opportunities the Lord might give us in days ahead? Some of us are still confined at home and can’t do much except pray. But that is important, too. And so, not with fear, but with joy and thanksgiving, we love because God first loved us.
 
In Christ. Amen