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The Rev. Johann Vanderbijl: “Perpetual Fear and Love” (1 John 3:13-24)

June 25, 2009

From the Rev. Johann Vanderbijl of the Anglican Church of St. George the Martyr in South Carolina, here is another excellent sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity, based on 1 John 3:13-24 and titled Perpetual Fear and Love:

Please turn with me to page 191 in your Prayer Books and let us pray the Collect for this 2nd Sunday after Trinity together. “O Lord, who never failest to help and govern those whom thou dost bring up in thy steadfast fear and love; Keep us, we beseech thee, under the protection of thy good providence, and make us to have a perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Have you ever promised to do something for someone only to fail through no fault of your own? Or have you ever had someone fail to do what they promised you? I know I have failed often…as a husband, as a father, as a priest, as a child of God…that is what prevents me from being overly harsh and judgmental with regard to those the failure of others. Failure is, unfortunately, part of the warp and woof of humanity since the Fall and we all fail at some or other time, sometimes simply because we are limited in what we can accomplish because we are finite. But God is infinite and although many people often perceive Him to have failed them at some or other time in their lives, the Scriptures tell us that He cannot fail as He cannot but fulfill what He has promised because He cannot lie or be false. Of course, as Christians we know this to be true ultimately because of Jesus…if God would fulfill His promise to rescue fallen humanity by dying for them, surely He will fulfill His promise to never leave us nor forsake us and to be with us always, even to the end of the age. As St. John said in our Epistle reading for today, “Hereby we perceive the love of God, because He laid down His life for us.” We know that God loves us and that He wants only the best for us because He has already demonstrated (or illustrated, or shown) this love and care for us in Jesus.

Now, the reality of God’s aid is defined by the very next clause in our Collect in which we are told that those whom God never fails to help are those whom He brings up in His steadfast fear and love. This sentence paints an intimate picture of the relationship between a Father and His children…the Father’s protection is always there as long as the child remains close by, trusting in the Father’s good guidance and governance. So, theoretically at least, when this guidance and governance is questioned or rejected, the child runs the risk of falling through no fault of the Father. It is not the failure of the Father if a child is hurt through a refusal to remain under the Father’s care…and so we are reminded that the help and governance we receive from our Heavenly Father is based upon both our fear and our love for Him. Those who do not fear Him or love Him are like those who chose not to go to the great supper prepared by the lord in Jesus parable and were ultimately excluded from the feast altogether. But I want you to note that it was their refusal to reply positively to the free invitation, not the failure of the lord to invite them or to provide for them.

Essentially this means that our assurance of Divine assistance is founded upon our trust in Who He is and what He has done for us. In biblical terminology, it is those who believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and who consequently keep His commandments and love one another who have confidence toward God in spite of our own weaknesses. But this is not blind faith as some would tell us, no, rather our faith in God’s good providence is not only based upon our experience of His provision of deliverance from slavery to sin through Jesus’ death on our behalf, but also on pure and simple observation of His governance of the universe. The fact that the stars do not come crashing down on our heads ever so often, or that the speed of the world’s turning on its axis is not random (fast one day and slow another), or that the movement of the planets are predictable, tells us that the One Who designed and Who created and Who sustains everything in existence is good and consistent and reliable. The Scriptures refer to this as God’s faithfulness or His lovingkindness and Jesus tells us that this extends even to the most mundane things such as the number of hairs on our heads and the fate of the common sparrow. God is good and therefore we should submit to Him if we have any sense at all.

Of course, there are always those who will raise an objection by pointing out the many times in history where it seemed God didn’t give a straw for humanity…even His own children. Where was God when persecution broke out in the First Century and Christians were being fed to the lions and burned alive on poles to light up the Emperor’s garden parties, they ask. Where was God when missionaries were being imprisoned, tortured, butchered, cooked and eaten…or where was God when people were being exterminated by the millions simply because they were of a different creed, color or culture? Or more personally…Where was God when my child died in excruciating pain? Where was God when my husband left me for another man? I’m sure you can come up with a lot more questions of your own, but essentially the question remains the same. Where was God? Did He not fail then?

Now, at the risk of sounding hollow and glib here, let me say that the Scriptures do not promise that this life will be free of suffering and sorrow…in fact, our Lord promised the exact opposite when He said to His disciples, “in the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” And St. John indicated that the hatred of the world and consequent hardship in the world was to be expected. St. Paul said the same thing, “those who seek to live godly lives in this world will suffer persecution.” In other words, dearest brethren, as long as we are on this side of eternity, we will experience pain and sadness and sickness and death.

But this is not due to any failure on God’s part…to the contrary. It is the love of God that prevents Him from obliterating us all as we are all, in one way or another, the cause of suffering in this world…from the squishing of an ant (or, indeed, the swatting of a fly) to the extermination of a nation…from the stealing of a cookie to the embezzlement of millions…every one of us has contributed to the sorrow of another because we all fail to fear Him and love Him as we ought. None of us have clean hands and pure hearts…that’s the whole reason behind the coming of Jesus….He came to save us (deliver us) because we were enslaved sinners…all of us…and, as such, we were all incapable of entering into the presence of the holy God. But when that salvation (deliverance) is applied it is applied within the very sin-sick world we live in. We are not suddenly removed from the world…indeed we remain in the world, even though we may not be of the world…but because we remain here, we will continue to suffer the consequences of the refusal of the world to turn wholeheartedly to their Creator.

And this is why it is so important for us who are not of this world to live out that reality before those who are of this world. We remain in the world to be witnesses to the world. We must live in perpetual fear and love of our Lord’s holy Name as a witness to His goodness. Where the world scoffs at God, we should respect Him. Where the world rebels against God, we should submit to Him. Where the world hates God and hates His creatures, we should love Him and the brethren. Where the world arrogantly claims intellectual superiority, we must humbly assert our faith in the foolish preaching of the cross. Where the world proclaims that God has failed, we should demonstrate that He always helps and guides those who submit to His sovereignty.

And perhaps it is for this reason that St. Paul said that in the Eucharist we proclaim the ultimate portrayal of God’s goodness and love for mankind until He returns to bring all things to closure. Who can claim that God has failed him when he stands before the vivid illustration of a promise fulfilled at the highest price possible…the willing laying down of one’s life for those who were yet His enemies? All appearances to the contrary are dispelled at the foot of the cross where all the faults and failures of humanity were taken and laid upon the One Who was totally sinless and totally innocent. And so, dearest brethren, as you come to partake of the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which we are assured of God’s favor and goodness towards us, ask your heavenly Father, who has never failed you, to grant that you might have a perpetual fear and love for His holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III 2009

One thing about Fr. Johann’s sermons: they make it abundantly clear that if we say God is love and we serve that God of love, we must live a life of love as a witness to that!  My thanks to him for that reminder.

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