A few weeks ago, I walked into a Christian bookstore for the first time in a very long time. It’s funny, I don’t have anything against Christian bookstores, I use to be a music buyer for one near my home, I just don’t usually find what I’m looking for there. But this time around I was looking for some new Bibles for the kids, we’ve used up the picture Bibles and it was time for a more grown up version for them to start working through. But when I walked into the Christian bookstore I had completely forgotten just how much stuff there is in one of those places and it’s all “Christian.” I wandered for a few minutes and found every kind of gift, knick-knack, book, devotional, self-help, Bible, candle, thing-a-bob you could think of and then I saw a bunch of books displayed prominently on a rack by a very popular televangelist and I thought to myself, “hmmm, that doesn’t belong here.” I say that, because if you listened to the heart and center of the message that person teaches you would find rather quickly that it doesn’t match up with the Bible or honestly with the Christian message at all. It sounds nice and “Christian-like” on the outside with lots of talk about God but once you start really hearing the message it’s all about you and what you can do and how God owes you a shiny red corvette if you just believe in yourself.
I wondered, how is someone supposed to know when they walk into a Christian bookstore, with the word “Christian” slathered on everything, if the message you are actually hearing and receiving is a Christian message? Then of course you have everything on TV and the radio, other televangelists and movies with Biblical names like “Noah” that have actually nothing to do with the Bible. With all this Christian stuff, how can you be a discerning Christian in what you let into your head and heart?
This is assuming that there is actually something that is called a Christian message, this something that is unique and true and that by knowing it you can also know if a message you’re receiving is not true, not the Christian message. Here is the heart of the problem, not much different than the time when the Gospels about Jesus were written was the same struggle, something has to be true and to be true beyond human opinion or idea, if there isn’t anything true beyond us, then everything is false, a matter of human opinion and you can’t really know anything because it’s all in your head in the end. Think about a world where there was nothing that was absolutely true and everything was completely based upon human opinion, you couldn’t do basic things like science, because science is based upon a belief that you can actually know something and if you do something over and over again you will get predictable results. You have to be able to know something outside of your own head, for it to be true apart from you, to really know anything at all.
Some will say this about religion and faith, that it doesn’t really matter what you believe it all means the same thing. But take that idea and bring it to knowing God. If God is an absolute reality with His own substance and being existing apart from us, then by necessity there has to be things that we can say that are true about who God is and if we can say if there are things that are true then we can also say there are things that are not true about who God is.
Just look at the examples of all of creation, the very idea that we exist and that nature is so fine-tuned for life to flourish and grow. The accuracy of just one of these parameters is comparable to getting the mix of flour and sugar right to within one grain of sugar in a cake ten times the mass of the sun. But also look inside our own hearts, if you were looking for evidence of a God who was not just a scientist or mathematician but who cared for human beings and cared for what is good and holy, and wanted his people to stand for those things, wouldn’t it be interesting to find written in your own heart this moral law which is calling you to do just that?” (Francis Collins) But our own hearts also accuse us and remind us that we do not do what is good and holy and we live in a world filled with people who are broken just the same. What we can know about God from nature and the testimony of humanity is that God is all-powerful and all-knowing but also the source of life and good and holy; and what else is true goodness but love.
If we can know some of these things about who God is, then we look to see what religion can teach us about God and we would necessarily walk away from those religious ideas that don’t match up, like there being many little weak gods (polytheism) or a God who is only an angry god far off and distant from creation or a type of ying yang where there is no pure goodness and love. As you filter the religious types of ideas down like a funnel brushing away the ones that do not match with what we know about God, we do find that in many religions there is a spattering of the truth but it seems incomplete or twisted weirdly by human imagination. This shouldn’t be a surprise because God has not left himself without witness in nature and in our hearts. But as we widdle these things down what speaks most fully about the all powerful and all knowing creator God from eternity who is the source of life and is good and holy and most of all love? What is the most loving thing that could be done but for love to come to what is broken and redeem it and bring it back to God.
This is what our passage today from I John teaches us: Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
After we have funneled everything down from what we can know about God from nature and our own hearts we finally come to the place where who God is makes its ultimate sense, love does not leave us in our broken state but love comes to us, comes to us in Jesus. This is the very heart of the Christian message that we know God most fully in Jesus because God has come to us in Him, reveals himself and brings us back to God.
That heart of who God is, love coming to what is broken to redeem us and bring us back to God all done in Jesus, is our criteria for testing the Spirits or the messages we choose to hear from all of the ones we are bombarded with each and every day. We can ask is the foundation and heart of what I am hearing based upon the good news of God coming into the world in Jesus to redeem us from our sins and from that heart sharing all of the implications of how that plays out in your life? If it is, keep listening with a discerning ear but if it isn’t then be careful with what you are taking from that message because at its heart it’s probably not about Jesus at all.
Because God is the source of all life, both now and eternally, would we want to have our hearts and minds shaped and turned by those messages that are not about God’s love in Jesus and in doing so taking us away from that which gives us life? But it’s not only the messages that we regard as religious, think about the other “religious” messages you receive from commercials or the latest movie or politicians, to the things that try to keep us away from worship with our church family. Not that we can’t or shouldn’t watch movies or tv but it is good to do so with a discerning heart and mind because everyone has a message they are trying to send you, a way of changing your heart and mind and is that message at its heart bringing you closer to God who is the source of all life or taking you farther away from God and into that which only brings death both now and eternally?
This is what Jesus teaches us when He says, (from my confirmation verse John 15:5-6) I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
To abide in Jesus is to abide at the heart of who God. But taking ourselves apart from God, in the messages we feed ourselves, taking ourselves away from the community of faith, all of these things takes us away from the heart of who God is and away from the life He gives. Are their places in your life that are taking you away from the heart of who God is in Jesus? Places that may need to be pruned away from us so we are not pulled away from the vine who is the heart of God? Are their places where we should focus more of our time and energy, those places that bring us closer to the heart of God and life?
We ask ourselves these questions, even in a Christian bookstore, where the word Christian is slathered on everything, so we can look and listen and test the messages we are allowing ourselves to receive always asking does this bring me closer to the heart of God in Jesus?