|Levi Ryan Gregg (our grandson)|
A baby. The singular most effective way to change shopping habits. By the time a baby reaches its first birthday, parents spend $7,500 at stores like Target. That is why retailers study purchasing habits. If you are pregnant, retailers convince you through coupons and specials to spend $7,500 in their stores. That said, I will examine habits in light of our readings and Lutheran tradition.
Two weeks ago, I said John’s motive for writing to his church was to warn members about the dangers of philosophies that tempted them from following the Way, which is, the Person and Teaching of Jesus Christ. In today’s passage, John encouraged Christians to persevere as true brothers and sisters living in the world. He reminded them that not only the secessionists, those who walk in darkness, hate them, but also the world hates them because the world hated Jesus. The world hates Jesus’ followers.
Because the world hated Christians, John exhorted them to love not “in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”[i] He called them to lay down their lives for one another. Here, he referred to a specific event in history, Jesus’ crucifixion.[ii] John echoed Jesus’ words in the Gospel, “I lay down my life for my sheep.”[iii]
Jesus’ voluntary crucifixion was not only the supreme sacrifice, but also the indispensable means of forgiveness.[iv] As we heard two weeks ago and will hear next week, Jesus was the propitiation for our sins. Jesus is propitiation and propitiator. He lovingly paid our debt with his own flesh and blood.
John’s Christians expressed true love in the supreme sacrifice of laying down their lives for one another and through lesser, mundane means.[v] In John’s church, charity did not always imply laying down one’s life, but it always involved helping another at some personal cost. By cultivating such love in the community, John strengthened the Church’s identity and severed malicious behavior at the root.[vi]
When John wrote, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” he referred to the heart as the seat and source of love, sympathy and pity.[vii] Implanted in us to keep us on the straight and narrow, the heart knows right from wrong. It prompts, nags and condemns us. In Romans, we read, “[The Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”[viii]
Yet, there are times when the heart distracts, confounds, refuses to believe the truth or shuns all comfort and betrays us.[ix] Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”[x]
Who can understand the heart? … When should you not trust your heart? John’s answer was: When the heart questions or doubts God, who is greater than you, your heart is not your friend.
John knew unrighteous sinners walking in dark shadows falsely accused Christians. Because Satan accused Christians day and night, John offered a strong dose of encouragement to squash the inner voices of anxiety and self-doubt.
He reminded Christians to approach God as the One who knows everything about their hearts, and is still able to forgive. God knows human folly and guilt, disgrace and shame, and thoughts and words before one thinks or speaks them.
Moreover, Christ our Advocate stands at God’s right hand. Through his intercession, God’s knowledge of human misery results in the exoneration that the heart desires rather than the condemnation that the soul fears.[xi]
To silence the heart, and refuse to submit to its distractions, betrayals and condemnations, and to focus instead on God and the sweet Gospel of forgiveness, is to turn the turmoil of trouble to joy.[xii] John wanted Christians to be confident enough to ask God for whatever they needed. This “whatever” was not some magical thing by which they could twist God’s arm, forcing Him to carry out some human wish that He would not execute. Rather, Christians could ask for what they did not know or have. Having received it, Christians should thank God who alone knows the needs of His children and provides for them.
Because God alone knows our needs and provides for them, John’s Christians could love one another as God commanded them. Their love for one another proved God abided in and among Church members.
About this passage, Martin Luther taught, “If our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still ‘God is greater than our heart.’ Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort. The fear of the conscience, or despair, must be overcome, even though this is difficult. It is a great and exceedingly sweet promise that if our heart blames us, ‘God is greater than our heart’ and ‘knows everything.’”[xiii]
Luther went on to say, “Although our sin is great, … His redemption is greater.” Luther’s insight, as noted by the renowned Catholic Scripture scholar, the late Raymond Brown, was resisted by Calvinists and Catholics alike, but has won the day among most Christians.[xiv]
Our sin is great. His redemption is greater. Basic Law and Gospel. The Law convicts us because we are guilty of sin. The Gospel frees us because God is loving and merciful.
Our loving and merciful God abides in us – as individuals and as church. How then, brothers and sisters in Christ, do we show love and mercy to one another? To repeat myself from two weeks ago: forgiveness. The mature Christian forgives habitually.
The mature Christian forgives habitually. … How? By believing that our loving and merciful God abides in us, and by practicing forgiveness.
Tell me if I am wrong. Most Christians do not practice forgiveness habitually. I start with me and look no farther than our church doors. If I am wrong, correct me, but I am willing to bet most of us do not practice forgiveness habitually.
We practice ruthlessness, blame, cruelty, hatred, indifference and numerous other bad habits – sins – that are far from Christ’s supreme sacrifice and lesser, mundane ones like having the world’s goods at our disposal and opening our hearts when our brothers and sisters are in need.
What does it take to replace bad habits with good ones? To replace blame with forgiveness, cruelty with mercy, hatred with love? To help answer my question, let’s go shopping.
In 1984, a UCLA professor set out to answer a basic question: Why do people suddenly change their shopping routines?[xv] A year of research revealed that most people bought the same brands of cereal and deodorant week after week. Habits reigned supreme. Except when they didn’t.
The professor discovered what has become a pillar of modern marketing theory: People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. Marriage, divorce, buying a new house and changing jobs alter consumers’ buying habits. And the biggest life event for most people is having a baby. Parents’ habits are more flexible at that moment than at any other period in an adult’s life. Target and other retailers capitalize when you change your spending habits.
Retailers benefit from your change in spending habits after you experience a life-changing event like having a baby. My question is: Has the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – a life-changing event – changed your habits? If the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead changed your habits, let’s take this conversation 50 miles west so you can show me proof.
Let’s examine our habits in light of our reading and our Lutheran tradition. John wrote, “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. … Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. … We have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”[xvi]
The application of God’s Word is easier read than practiced, easier discussed than done, easier heard than lived. Living God’s Word is easier when life’s breaks go my way rather than against me. Easier when I receive God’s grace rather than sinners’ scorn. Easier when I have hope in God rather than despair. Nevertheless, as Luther said, “Despair must be overcome even though this is difficult.”[xvii]
Satan prefers you never overcome despair and hope in God. Satan prefers you never overcome your old habits. Luther, John, Jesus and His Church prefer you overcome despair and bad habits. What do you prefer? Do you prefer being your sinful self or would you prefer being a loving and merciful person? Will our world be a better place if you respond to your brothers and sisters with a closed heart or with a Christ-like heart? Do you want to be a chump for Satan or a champion for Christ?
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking. … They follow the habits they’ve learned.”[xviii] So said Tony Dungy when he interviewed to become a head coach in the NFL. Dungy turned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, perennial losers, into winners. He did it by getting men to replace old habits with new ones. He did it by getting men to believe in themselves. Dungy says, “Belief is the biggest part of success in professional football.”[xix]
We can say the same about our lives as Christians. We believe God is greater than our hearts. We know the Resurrection changes lives more than marriage, divorce or the birth of a baby. Touched by God’s merciful love, we know we can change, but when life is tense and tough, we return to comfortable old habits.
Too often, saved Christians, resort to vulgarities, lies, blame, denial, violence, gossip and other sinful habits when challenged, chastised or confronted. We return to comfortable, sinful habits when life is tense, tough or tempting.
We must believe change is possible to change our habits permanently. Usually, that belief emerges with the help of a group. For Christians seeking to replace old, sinful habits with new, loving and merciful habits, change will happen when we, the Church, hold one another and ourselves accountable. We will do that when our love for God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His children motivates every thought, word and deed. We will do that we realize that God Father, Son and Spirit loves us as His children, His babies.
If people can stop smoking and drinking; if people can lose weight and perennial losers can become champions, we can change our sinful habits because God loves us and through the Church, the Holy Spirit gives us the means to make it possible. We have the means to make it possible, if only we live God’s Word and Sacraments. For those you love and for the world, live God’s Word and be God’s Sacrament. Children of light, pray to the Holy Trinity for that grace. In Jesus’ Holy Name, we pray. Amen.
[i] 1 John 3;18
[ii] Bruce G. Schuchard, 1 – 3 John. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2012), 382.
[iii] John 10:15
[iv] Schuchard, 382.
[v] Ibid, 383.
[vi] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: Third Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2010) 502.
[vii] Schuchard, 389. See fn 337.
[viii] Romans 2:15
[ix] Schuchard, 390
[x] Jeremiah 17:9
[xi] Schuchard, 391f. See fn 354
[xii] Ibid, 394.
[xiii] Ibid, 391. See fn 348.
[xiv] Ibid. See fn 350.
[xv] Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks (2012), 191ff.
[xvi] 1 John 3:16-23
[xvii] Schuchard, 391.
[xviii] Duhigg, 61.
[xix] Ibid, 86