For the last two weeks, I have become intimately familiar with one guy’s face. Normally, I wouldn’t notice him at all. He’s not very charismatic. But beginning two weeks ago, I held onto this guy’s every word. Why? He’s Ed Rappaport. And Ed Rappaport directs the work of the National Hurricane Center, and as someone who was living in the path of the monster storm, Hurricane Irma, that Center had a lot to say to me. So, when those four times a day bulletins from the Center would come around, I’d turn on the news, eager to see this face.
Now, if anybody could make a hurricane undramatic, even boring, Ed Rappaport could. When Ed talked about the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, you’d think he was talking about his grocery list. Frankly, in some ways, that can be strangely reassuring. But a moment came, when even Ed’s composure broke.
One of the newscasters mentioned to Ed folks he had spoken to in the middle Keys, who had decided to ride out the storm. At first, Ed looked puzzled, as if this newscaster was talking about little green men or some other thing that could not exist. Then he got it. He realized that this newscaster was telling him that he knew of people who had not evacuated, who were sitting in their homes at the very point where this storm would make landfall. Alarmed, Ed simply said. This hurricane in that place is not a survivable event. Those words chilled me. I realized. Ed was not giving an opinion. He was as a scientist, stating a fact. The combination of wind and storm surge in that place would destroy anyone in its path, no matter how experienced or tough they were.
In life, certain realities exist, and nothing you think about them will change the truth of their existence. You don’t have to believe in gravity. But your disbelief won’t stop gravity from killing you if you decide to leap off the top of that building they’re constructing in Young Circle.
Ed was saying much the same thing. You don’t have to believe that Irma will kill you for Irma to kill you. In life, certain facts exist, and whatever you think of them, will not change that reality. And some of those facts, if you ignore their truth, won’t just inconvenience you, they’ll destroy you. In the words you’re about to hear, God gives you one of those facts, one that if you ignore its truth, will take away your life in a deeper and more profound way than even Irma ever could. What is that truth? Here God shows you. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Some truths you can’t ignore. If you do, not only won’t they go away, but if you ignore them or disbelieve them, they could kill you. When the doctor tells you that you have blockages in your heart, she’s not giving you an opinion. She is giving you a fact. Nothing you think about that fact will change the reality that those blockages threaten your life. In the same way, John is giving you a truth here, you can’t ignore. John is telling you that in Jesus, God came to earth and died for you. Why is that truth so crucial? It’s because it’s truth goes deeper than any other truth that exists. And when you ignore it, even if you live, at some deeper level than you realize, you will have missed what living is truly about.
In life, people have a certain comfort with truths like a doctor’s diagnosis or when a hurricane expert tells you about storm surge. Those truths you can see in an x-ray. You can see their effects on the video reports on the news. Yet even there, you have more and more people who are doubting even those truths. And that is a scary thing.
But truth goes far deeper than simply those facts. Life carries with it certain realities that if you ignore them will destroy your life in ways that go beyond anything a hurricane can do. A quote from the filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille puts it well. DeMille said: It’s impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law. Now DeMille wasn’t talking about jay-walking. DeMille, who directed the movie classic, The Ten Commandments, was talking about law at a deeper level than that. DeMille was saying. Certain deep realities exist, and you ignore them at your peril. You can’t break them. You can break yourself against them.
Yet today, lots of folks resist what DeMille pointed out here. And they have good reason too. Too often, people have claimed something to be true like that when it wasn’t true like that at all. They have even pulled in God to undergird their claim. Susan B. Anthony, one of the leaders who help secure women the vote, said it well. She said. I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I know it always coincides with their own desires. How often did Anthony hear people say as if they were declaring some objective truth that if women could vote, it would destroy the institution of marriage. People, including Christians, have claimed as objective truth things that did not fit that description at all.
But just because folks, including Christians, have misused these claims for truth doesn’t mean such truths don’t exist. But if this truth does exist, what makes Jesus is God, a God who bled and died for you, a truth like that? Why does John even call believers who discount it, not simply not Christian, but actually anti-Christs. Isn’t that a bit much?
In John’s day, this idea of God becoming a human being didn’t play too well. People didn’t think too much of the whole body thing. They thought of bodies as unpleasant, nasty things, about as far from spiritual as you could get. So, the idea of the creator of the universe becoming a body, a real, flesh and blood human being sounded not only ridiculous, but even disgusting. Then the fact that this God not only became a human being, but actually suffered a humiliating death as a criminal, that just went beyond the pale.
Yet even so, this message of a God who loved human beings, who came to give human beings life, even immortal life, lots of folks liked that. So they said. Let’s keep that part of the message. Let’s even say the presence of God dwelled in Jesus. But this whole Jesus is God thing; that has got to go. And forget this God dying. No, Jesus might have died. But by that time, God had left the building so to speak.
But this message John calls a lie. Not only that, John has these people expelled. He calls them anti-Christs. Why can’t John tolerate a little diversity in the ranks? Why does John see these people as so far from the truth that he even calls them liars? I’m sure these folks would say that they were simply trying to get to the heart of the message. John fights so hard against them because John has played the movie.
Years ago, I heard an insight that I have never forgotten. The psychologist Henry Cloud said that one thing successful people always do is they play the movie. Cloud meant that when these people make a decision, they take time to play out the consequences. They play the movie so to speak.
So, let’s say, this person feels an attraction to someone at work. They sense that this someone feel attracted to them to. But rather than act on it, they play the movie. They think. Let’s say I do some flirting, and this person flirts back. And one thing leads to another, and we end up having an affair. Then out of that affair, problems arise at work. Maybe we lose our jobs. Then, my marriage collapses. Then my relationship with my kids gets wounded forever. And I end up alone in an apartment, my life in shambles. And once they’ve played that movie, this person doesn’t seem all that attractive any more. Do you see how this works?
John is doing the same here. He is playing out the movie. John realizes. If God didn’t come to earth in Jesus, that not only changes everything; it destroys everything.
What do I mean? Well, why do Christians believe that God come to earth in Jesus? Christians believe that God did that because nothing less than that could save human beings from themselves. Nothing less than God becoming human, God even dying for you, could save you. That’s how lost you had become, how disconnected from God.
But if God didn’t really do that, then the human situation wasn’t that bad. Instead, God didn’t come to rescue you. God came to enable you to reach your highest potential, to even become a god yourself. God doesn’t have to save you. No, God came in Jesus to show you how you could save yourself. Now, if you think about that, you can think that sounds kind of nice. Those sorts of lies always do.
But here’s what happens. First, this lie blinds you to the truth about yourself. No one really wants to face their ugliness within. And with this lie, you don’t have to. You can live in denial about how deep the brokenness within you really is.
But even so, you will have moments when that denial will break down, when the ugliness will pop out. And when that happens, it can be terrifying.
After all, when you start believing you can save yourself, how do you know that you’ve done it. How do you know if your goodness is good enough, that your enlightenment is enlightened enough? The answer is you don’t. So, instead, you live with this underlying anxiety that maybe you haven’t met the grade, that you’re not good enough.
How do you deal with that? You look at someone you see as worse than you are. Okay, you say, granted, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like that person. I’m more enlightened than that. You put yourself on a hierarchy, one that always put you above someone else. And in that way, you ease your anxiety somewhat. But still the anxiety is always there. And this life, well, it becomes no life at all. And this is the lie of religion, one that has led to all sorts of misery and pain.
But John knows. The message of Jesus as God breaks that lie. It gives you the painful truth of who you really are. It tells you. Yes, you are as broken and messed up as, on your worst days, you fear you are. You are really that lost. And no matter what you do, you cannot save yourself. But God has not left you there. In Jesus God came to rescue you. God came to bring you home. And God loves you so deeply, so infinitely that in Jesus, God gave up everything to make this rescue happen. God has saved you. And what do you need to do? All you need to do is to believe this beautiful truth is really true, that it actually happened right here on earth, in history, for you.
And when you do, this truth comes to live within you. It even starts restoring the divine image within you. You begin to become more than you could ever have dreamed you could be. And God becomes not only a fact you know, but a reality you experience. And in the presence of that God, your judgments of others begin to fall away. After all, you know that you’re no better than them. And in the love of this God, the anxieties that bind you begin to break. After all, you know that nothing, no mistake, no failing, not even death will take this love away. And you start to live, even in your worst moments, a life that is deeper, richer, and more beautiful than ever before. You know the truth, and this truth has set you free.
If you’ve been caught in the lie, trying to gain approval from God, trying to be good enough, whatever that means, then leave that lie behind. Let the truth embrace you. Let the truth set you free.