Virtual Faith

The Forestry Service in Wyoming thought they would be user friendly and put out suggestion forms for people to offer their suggestions on how they might make it a more pleasant experience for users of the park. They received these:
• Trails need to be reconstructed – please avoid trails that go uphill.
• Too many bugs and spiders and snakes – please spray the wilderness to get rid of these pests.
• Please pave the trails so they can be plowed of snow during the winter.
• Chairlifts need to be placed in hard-to-reach places so we can enjoy the wonderful views without having to hike to them.
• The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake – please eradicate these annoying animals.
• Escalators would help on steep sections.
• Too many rocks in the mountains.
Some people like the idea of being outdoors, but the reality isn’t what they bargained for. Some people like the idea of the church, but the reality is a lot harder and messier than they meant to get into.

The apostle John writes from his life of living in the real church to people who need encouragement to live a real world faith.

1 John 1:1-4: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

I guess it had to happen. You can now go to worship without leaving the Internet. Log on to a Cyberspace Worship Service and you will get a weekly dose of prayer, singing, sermon and you can even make a tax-deductible contribution when you double-click on the appropriate tab (have your credit card # handy).

No more parking spaces out in the boonies, you don’t have to get dressed up, no more crying children disturbing your communion with God, if the sermon goes too long you can click on your favorite game of solitaire and no one will give you a dirty look!

Virtual faith. Impersonal, undemanding, quick and convenient. Sound appealing? I worry about folks who want to keep their faith at arm’s length – who would love the church if it weren’t for all the people – who look forward to going to heaven, but don’t have time for God in this life.

Like the video games in which you put on a helmet and are transported to a battle with a dragon and you are a virtual knight. Or to a football game and you are the star running back. It isn’t real. It’s a few minutes of entertainment in a fantasy world, but when you take the helmet off you’re the same old you.

The apostle John connects us back into real world faith. Faith that is first hand and life-connected. Not a faith that is theoretical, but a faith that confidently meets the struggles and temptations and trials of life head on. We don’t need a second hand faith that doesn’t ever deal with the real issues in our lives. We need a God who knows exactly where we live and what’s going on with us – and gives us the courage and strength to deal with it.

That’s why John is writing. He tells us, “I was there. I saw him with my own eyes, heard him with my own ears, touched him with my own hands.” John doesn’t want us to miss his point. Three times in three verses – “seen, heard, touched.” John is an eyewitness, and what he tells us is what he experienced.

But there is more to what John is trying to communicate. Not only has John experienced this intimate closeness and fellowship with Jesus, but he wants his experience to be ours also. Vs. 3 – “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, SO THAT you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”

John is the last of the living apostles – he writes this letter in the closing years of the first century. These are Christians who are two generations removed from Jesus. They didn’t see him, they didn’t hear him. All they know is what they have been told by people who weren’t there themselves.

As John writes this letter to his beloved children in the faith, you picture this grandfather gathering his family around him to tell them stories of Jesus. You see a little boy crawl up in his lap and say, “Grandpa, tell us about the time you were in the boat with Jesus in the storm.” Another calls out, “I want to hear about Lazarus being raised from the dead.” A middle aged woman asks, “what was it like when you stood at the cross holding his mother and watching him die?” If you could have asked John a question, what would you have asked him?

And the point is that, like the patriarch of a family who wants to pass on the heritage of his faith to the next generation – to make it real to them – John wants to make their faith as much a first-hand faith as possible – to bring them as close as he possibly can to walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

There is a second side to John’s purpose. He wants our faith to be first hand, but he wants to make sure we understand what our faith is in.

Our faith is “in the Father and in his Son, Jesus Christ.”
I met a man not long ago who thought he was being very profound when he said, “I believe in everything. You can’t pick just one religion so I believe in all of them.” I wish people would listen to themselves when they say stuff like that.
What he means is:
1) I’m too lazy to decide what I really believe, and
2) If I choose something to believe in I might actually have to do something about it.

John wants our faith to be in something more than a vague “higher power” out there somewhere. He wants us to KNOW without a shadow of doubt that the one we believe in has been around forever – “that which was from the beginning” – he calls him “the Word of life,” “the eternal life, which was with the Father.”

Our faith is rooted in one who has always been and will always be. We need not fear that some archaeologist is going to dig up some clay tablet that says, “Surprise! It was just a hoax, Jesus wasn’t real.” Every shred of evidence, every new piece of history which is uncovered points to the truth and the veracity of what we read in the Bible.

I am convinced that we live what we believe. There is no such thing as theoretical theology. Doctrine is never meant to be the playground of academics. If your doctrine (i.e., what you believe) doesn’t intersect with life you don’t have the right doctrine. What we believe about God directly affects how we live in this world.
2:6 “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did”
2:9 “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.”
3:7 “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”
4:20 (back to how we treat people) “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.”

Belief is not something theoretical and unrelated to real life – it is absolutely foundational. How we see God, and what we believe about God will be reflected in how we live and how we treat others.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Suppose that you believe God is harsh, legalistic and looking for a reason to send you to hell. How are you going to live life? You’re going to be legalistic and fearful and convinced that ultimately you will go to hell. How will you treat others? You will be harsh and critical and fault-finding and take pleasure when others fail because you’ll have someone with whom you can favorably compare yourself. Life will be joyless and hopeless.

But suppose you believe God is gracious, loving, generous and wants more than anything for you to be with him in heaven for all eternity. How will that affect how you live life? You will experience blessing and hope and long to spend time with God. Toward others you will be forgiving and generous and you will want to tell others about your wonderful savior. Life will be filled with joy and confidence that God loves you.

You see, correct doctrine makes all the difference in the world. What you believe isn’t all about how you think – it changes how you live.

Do you want to know the real reason John is writing this letter? He tells us in vs. 4 – “We write this to make our joy complete.” That ought to be a familiar phrase. We heard Jesus say it all the way through John’s Gospel. (cf. John 15:11, 16:24, 17:13)

It reminds us that there is a difference between the kind of momentary happiness we get from a pleasant experience or an unexpected event, or just a day without any potholes. But we all know that those days can be turned upside down and inside out with just a word and a change of mood. Happiness comes and goes, ebbs and flows. I can be happy one moment and unhappy the next, depending on my circumstances.

But joy is different. Joy comes from a place that isn’t controlled by momentary circumstances. Like we said last week, it can’t be undone by a phone call with bad news or a downturn in the stock market. Joy is the fundamental, underlying attitude toward life that comes from being in a right relationship with God.

In fact, when I re-read the 61 verses in the NT that mention joy, I was surprised at how often it occurs in the context of suffering and trials. Of all the places you would think joy would be missing – and yet there it is in full bloom. Think about a couple of familiar passages from scripture:
James, in the context of trials writes: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds… (1:2).
Or Peter, also talking about suffering grief in all kinds of trials, writes: Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (2 Peter 1:8-9)
The Hebrews writer talking about Jesus himself said, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (12:2)

The bottom line is that John knows where true happiness is found. It is found in a life that is wrapped up in Jesus Christ. Nothing would make him happier – make his joy more complete – than for them to join him in this intimate fellowship with the Father and the Son.

And as we join him, not only is his joy made complete, but so is ours. Our eyes begin to see, our ears begin to hear, our hands begin to touch, and the Savior who was far off and aloof comes near and becomes personal.

Our problem is we think first-hand faith belongs to those special few who walked with Jesus in the Bible – whose company include names like Peter and James and John. They walked with him, they talked with him. They were on a first name basis – the Son of God was their best friend and companion. But here we are two thousand years and half a world removed from hearing the sound of Jesus’ voice calling our name. All we know is what we read.

But did you hear what you read? What John wrote to you was this: We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that YOU ALSO may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

That’s what John wants for us, and that’s what God wants for us as well – a first-hand faith, a hands-on experience. He know your name as well as he knew John’s. He wants to be on a first name basis. He wants us to walk side by side with him through every day.

He doesn’t want us to keep our faith arms-length and impersonal. God wants us to get our hands dirty in the messy business of helping people. That means, like our savior who touched lepers, ate with tax collectors and talked with outcasts, we must go to the people who need him most.

And when we begin to do that his story becomes our story, and we can proclaim to the next generation what we have experienced of this incredible one they call Jesus.

Illustration – an elderly blind man’s joy – Jesus’ face will be the first face I will see.