Few temptations have troubled believers more through the centuries than worldliness. There are all sorts of reasons for this. One, we are surrounded by the world. It’s what we see and sense. We can touch it and hold it. Apart from divine revelation and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, it’s the only reality we can grasp. Second, the world offers what our sinful nature longs for: instant gratification; while the promises of God are heavily weighted toward the future and eternity. Third, the church, in an effort to be “relevant”, in misguided attempts to become all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22) has regularly become like the world rather than the light of the world. Finally, the love of the world is a dangerous temptation for Christians because Satan would like us to believe that that we can have it both ways; that we can love the world and love God. The apostle John makes it clear that the Christian’s love is exclusive; you either love God or you love the world, but you can’t love both. Today we ask: what is the world to me?
Recall from last week that John wrote this letter to Christians who were being misled and confused by heretics. These heretics claimed to have enlightenment, but John says that they were still in darkness. They tried entice people with the promise of a secret knowledge of God, but their doctrine and life revealed that they did not truly know God. To refute their claims that true faith is purely subjective, that doctrine and behavior don’t really matter, John gave his readers three tests by which they could evaluate these false teachers (and their own faith) to see if it was authentic. Briefly, there was the moral test – obedience; the relational test – love for others; and the doctrinal test – teaching and believing the historical gospel of Jesus Christ. The section before us is an application of the moral test – authentic faith is marked by obedience and love for God above all things.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. The first word to understand and define is love. The Greek word is agape. This type of love is a commitment, an act of the will, NOT a feeling. It is a one-way love. It is the love that caused God to send his precious Son to die for a hostile world. It is the kind of love husband and wife promise to one another in marriage. Just as you cannot commit to lifelong love for more than one person, you cannot love God and the world. You can be committed to God or the world, but not both. It’s impossible. You must make a choice.
The second word to define is the world. The Greek word is cosmos. It originally referred to the well-ordered nature of the universe as God created it. But here, John uses it to describe the organized system operated by Satan in opposition to Christ and the gospel. Later in his letter John would say: we know that…the whole world is under the control of the evil one. (1 John 5:19) The world consists of unbelievers under Satan’s control – those who operate on the basis of ungodly thoughts, attitudes, motives, values and goals. It is everything that stands opposed to Christ, his gospel and his glory.
So what does it mean to not love this world? John does not mean that you must hate your house or your car (although when they break down it’s hard not to hate them). He doesn’t mean that Christians ought to empty their bank accounts and sell their possessions and live in seclusion and poverty – although some have done so. No, in the words that follow, John demonstrates that this love is primarily a question of attitude and motivation. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.
Worldliness is an attitude and lifestyle that is motivated by sinful desires. To be worldly means to operate on Satan’s principles. It is to move through life motivated by selfishness, greed, pride, and personal ambition. It is to have sinful desires for things you do not have and sinful pride in what you do have. Rather than living to please God who judges the heart, the worldly person tries to impress other people, who can only look at outward things. So there should be a list of things to do and not to do, right? In the past, some Christians came up with the “filthy five” – drinking, smoking, attending movies, playing cards and dancing – and if you avoid those then you have successfully avoided the world. The thing is, John is not primarily concerned about about what you do or where you go. He’s concerned with why you do what you do. Do you do what you do because you love and want to be loved by the world or because you love and want to be loved by God. It’s either or. We must choose our love.
There’s one thing about this choice: on our own, we would and could never choose to love God. From birth we were Satan’s children. We were dead to God, blind to his blessings, and hated his will. We were capable only of loving the world. Until God stepped in to change things. Later in this letter John writes, we love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19) God demonstrated this committed love to the sinful world over and over. God knew exactly what would happen shortly after he created a perfect universe, he knew that the crown of his creation would ruin it with sin – but he created it anyway. Later when God looked at the world and saw…that every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5) he could have scrapped everything and started over – as he proved in the Flood – but in love he preserved Noah and his family so that you and I would have the chance to be born and believe and be saved. God knew exactly the type of world he was sending his Son into by placing him in Mary’s arms – a world that would hate him, reject him, unjustly condemn him and crucify him – but God loved the world enough to sacrifice his Son to save it. God knew your heart, your desires, your sins before you were born, he knew that you would disobey his commands and live as his enemy – but in the waters of Baptism he reached into your heart and cleansed it, created faith in it, and wrote your name in his book of life in heaven. You cannot love God and the world, but neither can you choose to love God instead of the world. So God chose you. With his Word and Sacrament he created life where there was only death, love where there was only hate, children where there were enemies. That’s grace. That’s God’s love for you. Because God chose to love us, in faith, we can choose to love him above all things.
And like any other relationship, this one must be maintained. In Baptism, God broke Satan’s stranglehold on your heart, but he never stops trying to lure you back to his side. The way we maintain our relationship with God depends on how we handle everything in the world that Satan uses as bait. Here is one of the many places where our hymnal is such a treasure, because the hymn we just sang points out both the temptation of worldly love and gives us guidance to love God. You may forget every detail of this sermon – but hopefully you take this hymn with you.
What is the world to me, with all its vaunted pleasure, when you, and you alone, Lord Jesus, are my treasure! You only, dearest Lord, my soul’s delight shall be; you are my peace, my rest. What is the world to me! (477:1) What is the world to me when it comes to the cravings of [my sinful nature]? I hate to admit it, but often it means way too much. My cravings, my appetites too often take control of my heart and become the focus of my life. As humans, God created us with these appetites, but Satan twists and perverts these cravings so that we try to find peace and rest through comfort food, pills and alcohol, laziness or sinful sexual outlets. I seek the escapes it offers to forget about my problems. But the peace and rest the world gives are short-lived. The contentment of a full belly only lasts a few hours. The momentary haze of painkillers and alcohol doesn’t actually solve any problems. And, while ignoring God’s will for sex and marriage may seem like freedom, presidential candidates aren’t the only ones who realize it only leads to guilt and shame. The only way to overcome these cravings is to be filled with desire for Christ and his promises. Christ offers lasting peace – peace with God purchased with his blood. Christ offers true rest – because he said it is finished. (John 19:30) Christ wed himself to me in Baptism so that I can honor God’s will concerning sex and marriage. Christ can overcome my cravings.
The world seeks after wealth and all that money offers, yet never is content though gold should fill its coffers. I have a higher good; content with it I’ll be; my Jesus is my wealth – what is the world to me! (477:3) Our commercial culture works overtime to tease the lust of [my] eyes. Attractive people tell us we won’t be happy unless we own the product they’re selling or the lifestyle they’re pushing. We flip through magazines and websites that tempt us with beautiful homes, shiny cars, luxury products and glamorous vacations. Capital One and MasterCard will buy you everything you want, and they’ll dig you deep into debt for free. The lottery promises financial freedom – and you only have to get lucky once. Christ gives me life and breath and a new sunrise every day. His mercies are new every morning. The peace, forgiveness, and love he offers never go out of style. And best of all – he gives them away for free. Longing for the true wealth Christ offers smothers the lust the world seeks to enflame.
The world seeks to be praised and honored by the mighty, yet never once reflects that they are frail and flighty. But what I truly prize above all things is he, my Jesus, he alone. What is the world to me! (477:2) Yeah football players and politicians want to be praised and honored. But so do I! I like it when people notice what I’ve done and give me a pat on the back – and soon enough getting noticed becomes my motivation. If I need to put someone else down to get the recognition I deserve – so be it. And social media provides the perfect platform for me to toot my own horn while simultaneously tearing others down. The problem is that no matter how much praise I get from the world, God knows the ugly truth, He knows how rotten I really am. But because of Christ God looks at me and smiles. Clothed in Christ’s righteousness God will raise me up after a far-from-perfect life and say well done, good and faithful servant, come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:23) If worldly praise and honor are what we seek, we may get it – and that’s all we will get. But if we love God, we know it doesn’t matter if anyone notices us now, because God, in Christ, sees us as his children, children he wants to spend all of eternity with.
But John saved the best for last: The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. If the world and the things it offers are the focus of your heart and love, you will lose them all at death. Nothing worldly will mean anything in eternity. But if you do God’s will, and remember, the primary work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:29) – you will live forever.
What is the world to me? Until we die, we will live in this world. But Jesus prayed for us the night before he died, prayed that though we are in the world, that we may not become part of it. (John 17:15-19) That while we walk this dust just like everyone else, we may be different. Because God chose us, we are different. We are citizens of another place. We are strangers here. Our minds are set on heaven and its riches, not this world and its desires. Our hearts are not filled with worldly cravings, lust and boasting – because they are filled to overflowing with God’s love for us and our only boast is in what Jesus has done for us. He took our place in hell. He washed us clean and gave us life. He fills us with hope not just for this life but for all eternity. Jesus is our treasure, our peace, our rest, our crown, our life, our all – and he means way more than the world to me. Amen.