This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living Deep". See series.
A love/hate relationship with the world
Christians have always had a "love/hate" relationship with the world. On the one hand, the most famous verse in the Bible tells us that "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son." If God loves the world that much, it seems like we should, too. But then you come to a passage like this, where John warns us not to love the world or anything in the world. So which is it—love or hate? Are we to forsake all worldly pleasures?
I went to a Christian college in the Midwest that enforced this negative view of "the world." Certain activities were not permitted while you were a student—no tobacco, no alcoholic beverages, no social dancing, or even playing. These were considered "worldly forms of entertainment." For the most part that didn't really bother me. I wasn't a smoker or a drinker or a dancer, and I figured I could get by without playing cards for nine months of the year.
But halfway through my junior year, I took a semester off and went home to work. The only friend who happened to be home was a guy I'll call, Bobby. He and I had been friends since 3rd grade Sunday school and had gone through youth group together. But Bobby had drifted spiritually since high school. The reason he was home was that he had gotten kicked out of another Christian college for some of those worldly forms of entertainment. But things seemed to be working alright for Bobby. He had a full-time job and was making all kinds of money—enough to buy himself a yellow Corvette convertible. He was dating a fashion model, going to clubs, and skiing on the weekends.
One night, Bobby and his girlfriend and I went to the movies. We saw Saturday Night Fever, which featured a young John Travolta and friends smoking, drinking, and dancing their way through the weekend. While there were things I was uncomfortable with in the film, it suddenly hit me (as I climbed into the back Bobby's Corvette, knowing he and his girlfriend were going to drop me off and then go out for a night on the town) that there was another kind of life out there than the one I was living—a life that looked kind of fun. Was I missing something? Was I really prepared to forsake all those "worldly pleasures" for the rest of my life? It sparked a bit of a crisis for me that spring—one of the few times in life I questioned my commitment to following Christ.
It seems like that's what our imaginary letter writer, Angie, is wrestling with. Here she is, 20-something, her career's getting started; she's got friends, money, freedom. It's an exciting time of life. Is all that worldly stuff off-limits? If so, why? "I love God," she writes, "Do I have to hate everything else?" Chances are you've found yourself asking the same kinds of questions from time to time.
So let's see if we can understand better what John is trying to say in this letter of his as he continues to teach us what it means to live deeply. So far we've learned about deep joy, a deep walk, and being deep clean. Today in 1 John 2:12-17, John is going to talk to us about deep desire.
A pastoral touch
Today's reading begins with a curious section: "I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. …" Then he goes on to address "fathers" and "young men." He finds something to affirm in each of these three groups, and then repeats the cycle all over again.
There are a variety of interpretations as to what is going on here, but the general consensus is that John is inserting a "pastoral touch" to his letter, a letter that has thus far been pretty straightforward and hard-hitting. So here in chapter 2 John pauses to make a personal connection with his readers, reminding them of his love for them, and affirming all that God has been doing in them.
The three groups—children, fathers, and young men—most likely refer to three spiritual stages represented by John's readers. Some are new believers, still rejoicing in their forgiveness. Some are seasoned believers, mature in their knowledge of God. And others are just hitting their stride as followers of Christ, full of zeal and strength. Wherever they might be in their journeys, he doesn't want them to get discouraged by his challenging words, and he wants them to understand that he has their best interests at heart.
And certainly all three groups are represented here today—some of us are new to the faith and full of gratitude and curiosity; some have been following Christ for a lifetime but still are eager to grow; and others are enjoying a season of strength and impact. Wherever we are, we are all eager to go deeper in our faith this year. And like a wise parent, John sits us down and looks us in the eye; he tells us that he loves us and is proud of us, and that he has something very important to share with us.
"Do not love the world or anything in the world," John writes in verse 15, "If you love the world, the love of the Father is not in you."
It's a stern warning. It's one of the relatively few times in the letter John uses the imperative mood, as if giving a command. Just to help you appreciate the significance of that: the book of James, which is also five chapters long, uses the imperative mood 35 times to give a command or a prohibition. John only does that 15 times, and this is one of them. "Do not love the world." That's how serious he is.
What exactly does he mean by "the world?" He's using the Greek word, kosmos, here, which generally has one of two meanings in the New Testament. Sometimes it refers to the created world—that is, the earth itself and its inhabitants, human beings. The Bible is clear that the created world is good; in fact, God pronounced it "very good" when he was done creating it. And as we said, it's clear from the Bible that God loves the world and sent his Son to save the world. So when he says here, "Do not love the world or anything in the world," he's not referring to the earth itself or to the human race.
Sometimes that word kosmos is used to describe the sinful world—that is, the earthly system of values, beliefs, and behaviors that are in opposition to God and his purposes. John uses the word this way two other times in this letter. In 4:3, which we'll look at in a couple of weeks, he writes, "This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world." And in 5:19 he writes, "The whole world is under the control of the evil one." When John uses "the world" in this sense, he is referring to a way of life that ignores God and his rule. If you're still not getting it, just think Las Vegas, and you'll get the idea!
The point John wants to make is that you cannot love the world and God at the same time: "If you love the world, the love of the Father is not in you." In other words, you can't have a foot in both worlds. You can't say you love God and the deep life he offers, and at the same be actively embracing the sinful values and lifestyles of the world.
We've all known people who've tried to do that. Perhaps we've tried to do that at times. It doesn't work. It's like trying to have one foot in a canoe and one foot on the dock. Eventually you have to throw yourself in one direction or the other! Sounds like Angie might be finding herself in just such a predicament as she launches her adult life.
So how do you know if you love the world? Let's continue in verse 16.
"For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes, and their boasting about what they have and do—comes not from the Father but from the world." There are a variety of ways to translate this verse. I like the way the King James Version puts it: "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." Whichever translation you prefer, John is identifying three (worldly) desires that are characteristic of a worldly way of life. They were once explained to me as the desires to do, to have, and to be, and I've never forgotten that.
The first is the desire to do, which the King James Bible describes as "the lust of the flesh." We should talk about that word "lust," because it actually applies to all three desires. In the Greek language, "lust" is a compound word which takes the normal word for desire and puts a prefix on it that intensifies it. Literally, it could be translated "hyper-desire." Lust begins with a healthy desire but takes it to an unhealthy extreme.
Remember, there's nothing wrong with desire. Most of them are God-given. The desire to eat, to drink, to work, to play, to build, to procreate, to achieve, to conquer—these desires are all natural to human beings. What the world does is take these natural desires and pervert them, corrupt them, or exaggerate them, so that they become unnatural and sub-human.
We got a flyer in the mail this past week—an advertisement from a local restaurant: "So and So's introduces 5 new reasons to Crave! SuperMelt Sandwiches!" There's a close-up photo of a grilled piece of bread with some phony-looking cheese oozing out the sides. Now, I like a good sandwich as much as the next guy, but something's gone wrong when a larger-than-life photograph can send people scurrying to the restaurant to get one!
So the first of these hyper-desires is the desire to do, which John describes as "the lust of the flesh." That word "flesh" refers to the sensual side of our nature. So we might label this desire "pleasure." Once again, remember there's nothing wrong with pleasure or with sensuality. In his wisdom and love, God gave us taste buds and ear drums and nerve endings so that we could experience the world in a physical way—in a way that brings pleasure. Biting into a crisp apple, guzzling Gatorade after a good workout, the feel of a perfectly carved turn on a ski slope, running your hand across the surface of a finely-finished piece of furniture, a hug from your grandma, a pat on the back from a friend, a kiss on the lips from someone you're crazy about—these things feel good, and there's nothing wrong with them when they're experienced as God intended them to be experienced.
But the world takes these desires and twists them into something they were never meant to be. There's nothing wrong with food, until we eat too much of it. There's nothing wrong with a drink (liquor or coffee!), until it alters our behavior, or until we can't live without it. There's nothing wrong with skiing, until it crowds God right out of your life. There's nothing wrong with a kiss on the lips, as long as the person you're kissing is rightfully yours to kiss.
When the pursuit of pleasure takes over our lives, when it drives us to do things that are hurtful to ourselves or to others or to society, then the world has gotten to us and eclipsed our love for the Father.
The second worldly desire John identifies is the desire to have. The King James Version puts it as "the lust of the eyes." This desire is not directed toward sensation and experience, but toward material objects—"things" the world tells us we have to have. It's the desire for possessions.
There's nothing wrong with material things, whether they be clothes or houses or toys or tools if God should provide the resources for them. The Bible never condemns anyone for desiring things or having things. We meet plenty of wealthy, godly people in Scripture, and Jesus had plenty of wealthy friends and acquaintances.
But when you decide you have to have a particular thing—when you're prepared to spend reckless amounts of money to get it, when your happiness or identity depends on it, when you want it just because someone else has it or because the TV tells you that you have to have it—the desire has given way to lust, and having "it" has become more important than having God.
The third worldly desire is the desire to have, which the King James Version describes as "the pride of life." This is the pursuit of success, achievement, and recognition, so we'll just call this one "pride." There's nothing wrong with taking pride in a job well done, or feeling good when you achieve a milestone, or reveling in the affirmation of others when it's rightly deserved and received. God placed within us a desire to pursue excellence and impact and accomplishment.
But when our pursuit of success compels us to bend the rules, when we need to beat everyone else to feel good about ourselves, when we find our identity and worth in our accomplishments, when we look down on others who've attained less than we have—the people's approval has become more important to us than God's, and our soul is in peril.
Chances are one of these three poses a particular problem for you—pleasure, possessions, or pride. When any of these begin to demand time or money or attention that rightfully belongs to God—when they tempt you to compromise your convictions or to neglect people or pursuits that are important to you—then you are falling in love with the world, and it's only a matter of time before you end up throwing your self toward one of these instead of toward God.
If you had to identify the desire you struggle with the most, or the one you're struggling with now, which would it be? It sounds like Angie is struggling with all three. She wants to have fun on the weekends. She likes being able to buy nice things. And she wants to be on the fast track at work. But is that so bad? What's wrong with having fun, and owning things, and striving for success? Well, nothing, as long as they lead us closer to God and the life he has in mind for us. Because these three desires—to do, to have, and to be—were never meant to satisfy us in and of themselves; they were meant to point us to God.
Look with me at verse 17: "The world and its desires pass away, but the one who does the will of God lives forever." The problem with pleasure, possessions, and pride isn't so much that they are wrong; it's that they're not enough. They don't last, for one thing. Pleasure is fleeting. Possessions lose value. And earthly accomplishments are soon forgotten or surpassed. They don't last.
For another thing, they're too shallow. They cannot satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. You see, it's not just pleasure we're looking for; it's joy. We don't need more stuff; we need contentment. It's not achievement we're after; it's significance. And these things can only be found, ultimately and eternally, in relationship with God, which is why John says, "The one who does the will of God lives forever."
According to C. S. Lewis, these desires—to do, to have, to be—are merely the rumblings of a much deeper desire. It's a desire so deep, so profound, even Lewis couldn't find a word for it. He talks about it in his writings, this inconsolable longing for something more. Sometimes he describes it as beauty, other times as joy, but by his own admission, none of those words quite gets at it.
The closest word he could find was the German word sehnsucht. It's hard to define, but we know it when we feel it. Sehnsucht combines the ideas of wanting something and missing something. It describes a deep existential yearning for something that we can't name but know to be true. In his book The Weight of Glory, Lewis describes it as "the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited."
It's the longing for every good and perfect thing all at once. It's the longing for God and his kingdom. And until that deepest of all desires is satisfied, nothing else will ever be enough. Like Mick Jagger says, we can try and try and try, but we "can't get no satisfaction," because no earthly pleasure or possession or achievement can ever satisfy the deep longing of our souls. "The human heart was made for God," Augustine said, "and our hearts are restless till we find rest in him."
But once that desire is satisfied, once we have turned to God and aligned ourselves with his good and eternal purpose for our lives, we can experience earthly things as they were meant to be experienced—in relationship with him.
So when Angie enjoys a night of fine dining in Boston, or a beautiful day on the slopes, she'll praise God for his handiwork and for the capacity to enjoy it. When she goes shopping for clothes or a car, she'll do it with wisdom and gratitude, as a steward of God's resources. And as she pursues her career, she'll do it in a way that brings God glory, and advances his purpose for her life and the world.
"The world and its desires are passing away," John says, "but the one who does the will of God lives"—lives!—"forever." And if you think this world has things to enjoy, you can't even imagine what's waiting for us in the life to come, in that country we haven't visited yet but know to be true!
So John's message for us this week is this: You know you're living deep when you want life with God more than anything this world has to offer.
It just so happened that this past week I found myself back on the campus of that Christian college in the Midwest. I was visiting my son who's a senior there. (They do allow playing cards and social dancing now, but not the other stuff!) I had a few minutes to walk around the campus, reminiscing about my years there, remembering how rich they were, and how they set me on a good and godly trajectory for the rest of my life.
Suddenly this sermon I was working on came to mind and that brief season I described earlier when I felt "the world" tugging at me, pulling me away from God and the life he was calling me to. How thankful I am that 30-some years ago, at a critical moment, I threw myself toward God and his purposes, rather than toward the pleasures and pursuits of the world.
And the truth is, in those 30 years I have enjoyed more doing, and having, and being than any human being could ever ask for or imagine. I wouldn't trade one day of my life with God for a thousand days in this world without him. "I'd rather have Jesus, than silver or gold," an old gospel song says. "I'd rather have Jesus than houses or lands." I'd rather have Jesus than anything this world affords me.
Is that true of you? Would you rather have Jesus and the life he offers than any earthly pleasure, possession, or accomplishment? If so, I'd like to invite you to take some steps toward that life in the days to come.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.