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No Margin for Error

Sermon delivered by Howard Batson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on September 13 2009.

1 John 5: 6-12.

Traveling via the airlines has probably been never more difficult than it is today.  All the amenities have been stripped away.  The airlines seemingly – for whatever reason – cannot turn a profit, so they take it out on their passengers.  Flights are full and foodless.  And travelers bring a great deal of anxiety and frustration with them when they plop down in their seat.

 

Gadling.com featured an article about the nine passengers we all love to hate.  The nine most annoying airline passengers and they bet that you, yourself, are guilty of at least one of these.  I want us to look at a few of those flying faux pas.

 

No. 9 is the escalator obstacle.

You know the sign says – clearly on the wall – “Stand Right Walk Left.”  That’s called escalator etiquette.  People who aren’t doing an O.J. through the airport stand to the right on the escalator, while those who need to catch a connecting flight can speed up by walking down the left side.  It’s a simple concept, and the Japanese do it fastidiously.  But in American airports, people park side-by-side on the escalator.

 

No. 8 is the airplane foodie.

Well, you can have a little sympathy with them because, after all, the airline is not even going to give you a brown bag anymore.  People are hungry, and they bring their food with them on the plane.  But the smell of all the various warm foods coming out of those bags is enough to make you want to gag.  Here is a fellow early in the morning who brings eggs, bacon, sausage, and hashbrowns.  The whole plane smells like his breakfast and so do all the passengers.

 

No. 7 is the baggage claim bully.

Those folks press their shins right up against the baggage claim conveyor belt in hopes it will help them spot, claim, and grab their bags faster.  Never mind that there are people three-deep behind them also wanting to spot their bags.  The baggage vulture ignores the yellow line, doesn’t politely stand in a position for all the people to see and retrieve their bags.

 

No. 6 was what the travel website called the American airhead.

I’m sorry.  I’m just quoting here.  Not trying to step on any toes, but he is referring to American tour groups who can be obnoxious and forget there are others around.  He says they wear matching brightly colored shirts.  They block the entrances to the baggage claim.  They block the restroom.  They talk over everyone in the restroom with loud jokes.  Those who show no respect to the culture in which they are visiting.

 

No. 5 is the parent with the crying child.

I don’t really agree with him on this one.  A baby can’t help it if he cries when his ears feel the pressure of a change in altitude.  But apparently there are some travelers who think kids make great comrades on the playground but horrible partners on a plane.

 

No. 4 is mobile phones and bluetooth barrons.

Some people think the airport is the best place to make perfectly random phone calls to people they’d never normally talk to.  They talk so loud with those headsets that the people behind them and around them can’t even think.

 

No. 3 is the call button commando.

The people who immediately sit down and think they are the only person on the airplane.  They push the button for the attendant to have to respond.  Of course, it’s okay for an emergency.  If you need water to take a pill, that’s one thing.  But if you just want to be served your drink before everybody else, without waiting your turn, it’s quite another.  The flight attendant is not your personal butler nor your waitress.

 

We’ll come back to No. 2.

 

No. 1 flyer we all love to hate is the rude recliner.

Now, I’m with him on this one – I really am.  I’m just about 6’1”, and I can’t imagine what you really tall guys go through when you sit back there in the cheap seats.  The people who hit that recline button the minute the airplane is in the air.  Don’t check for the knees of the person behind them.  When you let your seat back – I’ve got long legs; I’ve probably got the legs of a guy about 6’3” or 4” – when you let your seat back, my knees are in my mouth.  It’s one thing if there is no one behind you.  It’s another thing if the person behind you is a little lady who is about 5’1”.  But unless it’s a really long flight, do you really have to treat your seat like it’s a La-Z Boy?  (Sorry, I didn’t mean to get personal with that one.)

 

No. 2 on the list is the one I want us to talk about today.  They call it the converter – the enthusiastic proselytizer who desperately wants to persuade you to convert to his or her religion.  This passenger, the website says, will question your morality, insist you are going to hell, and proudly proclaim they have all the answers – and that only their answers are right.  The author of the article says, “You don’t know me.  You don’t know what I believe.  You don’t have the right to harass me for an entire flight trying to convince me to change to your way of thinking.”  The writer says, “I seem plagued by this sort of passenger.  At lease once a year I’m stuck next to one, usually on a long international flight.  Once I had an entire high school group of evangelicals who tag team preached to me all the way form the U.S. to Bulgaria.  My religious friends joke that maybe God is trying to tell me something.  The problem with that theory is that these annoying fellow passengers come from all different religions.  Maybe God is trying to tell me not to listen to people who claim to know what He wants.” (www.travel.aol.com)

 

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that any of us be annoying when we share our faith or that we be pushy or impolite.  But I was intrigued by the author’s idea that we shouldn’t try to convert others to our way of thinking because – well, zealots from the various world religions are equally enthusiastic about their own beliefs and, thus, any religion will do and one is just as good as another.  I’ll take mine, and you take yours, and we’ll all end up in the same place in the sweet by and by.

 

The author’s unwritten agenda is really a very narrow theology in itself.  It’s what I would call the wagon wheel theology. 

 

I.  All assertions are faith assertions.

 

The wagon wheel theology depicts religion in this manner.  We’re all going to end up at the same place in a Utopian kingdom of God or in heavenly bliss.  I’m going to walk my road, but I need to realize that as you walk your road, we’re going to end up in the same place anyway.  I don’t have to feel pressured to convince you to convert to Christianity.  I shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think that my way is the only way.  I need to be tolerant, understanding, and broad-minded.  What gives me the right to think that what I believe is right belief?  So just pick a spoke on the wagon wheel, walk your own way and I’ll walk mine, and we’ll all be together in the end.

 

The problem with wagon wheel theology is that the idea that all religions are equally valid is quite a faith assertion in itself.  Those arguing for a wagon wheel approach usually tell a story.  The declare that religion is like blind men and an elephant.  Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch it and feel it.  “The creature is long and flexible like a snake,” said the first blind man, holding the elephant’s trunk.  “Not at all – it is thick and round like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg.  “No, it is large and flat,” said the third blind man, touching the elephant’s side.  Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant – none could envision the entirety of the truth.  In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

 

The problem, as Timothy Keller explains in The Reason for God, is that the story is told from the point of view of some one who is not blind.  He is watching three blind men describe different parts of an elephant.  In fact, the person telling the story is claiming to have the ability to see the real truth of the whole elephant.  The person telling the story to prove that no one has the true vantage point for all truth is actually claiming to have the true vantage point of all truth.

How could you possibly know that no religion could see the whole truth unless you, yourself, had a superior comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality that you just claimed that none of the religions have?

 

You see the problem.  All assertions, at heart, are faith assertions – even assertions that claim that all religions are equally valid.  The only way you can really doubt my beliefs about Christianity is that you have belief in something else that you hold to be equally and vigorously true.  When you say there can’t be just one true religion, that Christianity can’t be the only way, then you’ve made that statement as an act of faith.  You can’t prove that all religions are equally true.  It’s not a universal truth that all accept – I, for one, don’t accept it.  The reality is you’re requiring more justification for the Christian world view or belief than you are your own.  If you’re truly a sceptic, do you know how hard it is to justify your beliefs to those of us who don’t share your faith and skepticism.

 

In fact, all religions aren’t equally valid.  If Jesus really is God, as John will argue in our passage today, then Muslims and Jews fail in a serious way to love God as God really is.  But if Muslims and Jews are right that Jesus is not God, just a teacher or prophet, then we as Christians fail, in a serious way, to love God as God really is.  (Tim Keller, p.4)

 

It is not true that all major religions are equally valid.  They are mutually exclusive, in fact, and they don’t basically teach the same thing.  Nor do they worship the same God.  You can’t say that Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism have insignificant differences and they all, ultimately, lead to the same God.  Buddhism doesn’t even believe in a personal God at all.  That doesn’t match the others.  Judaism, Islam, and Christianity believe in a God who holds people accountable for their beliefs and practices.  And, in fact, the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself.  So if you hold that view, you’re doing the very thing you’ve asked me not to do – for your view of God as a being available to all world religions is something your touting as superior to my view of God, which is that God works only through Jesus Christ.

 

You might hear others say that religion is really just a matter of culture, a matter of time and history.  No religion can be absolutely true.

 

Someone used to tell the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “You know, you’re so sure about Christianity.  But if you were born in Morocco, you wouldn’t even be a Christian, you’d be a Muslim.”  Let’s take that thought for a moment.

 

“Suppose I concede,” says Plantinga, “that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, by beliefs would have been quite different.  But the same would go for your wagon wheel theology.  If your wagon wheel theologians would have been born in Morocco, you probably wouldn’t be a wagon wheelist, would you?  Doesn’t that mean your wagon wheel theology is wrong simply because you wouldn’t have held it if you were born in Morocco?”

 

The reality is that everyone is making truth claims, even those who claim to be making no truth claims.  Therefore, there is no alternative but to weigh the various versions of truth and pick the one – yes, I said the one – that is right.  We have no alternative but to do so.  For even those who claim not to be picking and choosing are the chief choosers of all.

 

Well, it’s just arrogant to think your religion is right and try to convert others to it.  To think you somehow have a superior truth, the argument goes.

 

You see the problem with that sort of thinking.  The statement that “all religious claims to have a better view of truth are arrogant and wrong,” is, on its own terms, arrogant and wrong.  When the skeptic says that any exclusive claim to religious truth cannot be true, the skeptic has disproved his own position.  You’ve assumed in your theology that God is unknowable, that God doesn’t reveal Himself.  That God is loving but not wrathful, and that God is some sort of impersonal force who does not reveal Himself in scripture.  Those are all faith assumptions that you can’t prove.  It is no more narrow minded to claim that there is one way of salvation or one right way to believe than it is narrow to say that all ways are equally valid.  Either way, you’re making an exclusive claim that cuts out other people’s religion.  When you say all ways are equally valid, you’ve cut out my faith in Christ Jesus and you’ve done the very narrow minded thing you’ve asked me not to do to others.

 

The bottom line is we all have some sort of religion.  Religions answers those questions about what is important?  What is life all about?  How did I get here?  How do I have a relationship with the one who put me here?  How can I live beyond this life – or not, as some religions would hold?

 

Well, unlike the skeptics of today or the Gnostics of his day, John claims in this epistle and in this passage that

 

II.  There is only one way to the Father, and that is through the historical Jesus who is both man and God.

 

Look at verse 12.

He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.

 

There is no margin for error, congregation.

 

Let’s look back to verse 6, and let’s walk our way through John’s argument.

 

In verse 6, he says, “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood.”

 

The idea of Jesus coming, or being the one who came, makes reference to the Incarnation itself.  Look at 1 John 4:2.  “By this you know the Spirit of God:  every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”  And notice, he says He came by “water and by blood.”  That’s sort of a cryptic remark that is hard for us to understand, but I think it means something like this:  both His baptism and His death are important.

 

John’s opponents were teaching that Jesus came by water but not by blood.  They were saying that He became the Messiah – this human Jesus – at the moment of baptism when the Spirit descended upon Him, and that before His death the Spirit of God left Him.  Therefore the earthly Jesus died, but the heavenly Christ was not on the cross.  But John makes clear that Jesus was already the Christ when He experienced His baptism, and, therefore, Christ did not descend upon Him at that point.  He was Christ Himself, and it was the Spirit of God who was giving His blessing and approval like the voice of the Father at baptism.

 

It is said that John, the writer of this book, so fought those who said that Jesus was not both fully human and fully God that he feared even the presence of a heretic.  There was such a heretic by the name of Cerinthus.  John entered a bath house where Cerinthus happened to be bathing. Cerinthus – who taught against in the Incarnation, against God putting on flesh – was so abhorrent to the apostle John that when John entered the bath house and realized that Cerinthus was there, he fled naked from the bath house because he was afraid the wrath of God would cave in the bath house because of the presence of the heretic Cerinthus.  (www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.viii.xxviii.html)

 

John is saying it was the Christ who died.  He was in the flesh.  He was one of us.  He was a sacrifice for our sins.  You cannot reduce the death of Jesus down to the death of mere man, for in doing so we lose our salvation.  We lose our atonement.  For in Christ, and in the cross, God was reconciling the world to Himself.  God, Himself, bore our sins through Christ.

 

Well, he gives evidence of this.  He says the Spirit bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth.  There are three witnesses, he says:  the Spirit, the water, and the blood.  And all three are in agreement.  They stand together, he is saying.  He kind of personifies the baptism and the crucifixion of Jesus, and he says that along with the Spirit, these give testimony to who Jesus was – the Son of God come in the flesh.  The Spirit comes first in the witnesses, because He witnesses through the water – through the baptism of Christ – and through the blood.  Don’t accept the testimony of men over the testimony of God, who has borne testimony to Jesus and declared Him to be His Son.  Don’t call God a liar (v. 10).

 

Yes, the testimony of God is the crucifixion of the Christ in the fleshly person of Jesus – it’s the most important thing of all.  Paul says he proclaims Christ crucified, the stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Gentile, but to those who are being called – both Jews and Greeks – it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

 

III.  The final thing I want to say is that there is no margin for error.

 

You’ve got to get it right.  All religions are not equally valid.  God has spoken and revealed Himself in His Son, Christ Jesus – our Lord and Savior.  God has given us, he says in verses 11-12, “eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”

 

You have got to bet on something.  You’re going to seek the wisdom of God and the revelation of His Spirit in your life, and you’re going to weigh the realities of all the competing stories.  But there is only one story that really matters.  There is only one story that is the story of redemption.  There is only one story that has claimed, through the historical eyewitness of the apostles, that Jesus Christ was God.  That He was crucified.  And that He was bodily resurrected from the dead.  And these are the things John would tell you that he has seen and that he has heard.  And he shares them that you, too, might believe.

 

Congregation, we have to get it right.  And we have to share it.  For there is no margin for error.

 

“He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”