Quick: name the runner-up in the last Mississippi gubernatorial election.
All right, name the runner-up in the governor’s race before last.
Save for a few of you political junkies in our congregation today, most folks couldn’t answer those questions. Sure, many of us might be able to name the last few governors, but we just can’t place the names of those second-place finishers.
Our society – and perhaps humans by nature – are obsessed with winning. We celebrate our champions and fete them with parades. When it comes to second place, though, who cares?
Quite simply, there is a vast chasm between victory and defeat.
I don’t know how competitive you are. Perhaps you live for competition; perhaps you are the least-competitive person around. Most of us experience victory and defeat in life, whether getting a big promotion at work or being laid off, whether winning the cooking contest or coming in second. One thing is certain, though: a defeatist attitude surely will doom you.
You might be surprised to learn how many Christians have a defeatist attitude in their everyday life. Facing the obstacle of sin, facing countless temptations and struggles, so many believers – and you might be one of them – simply throw up their hands in defeat.
“I’ll never make it,” they pine. “I’m bound to lose my war with sin, because those familiar temptations are so strong.”
This morning, however, as a child of the living God, you are called to live a victorious life in Christ. No, it won’t be easy. No, you won’t live perfectly.
But you can – and you should – live victoriously.
We return this morning to our study of St. John’s first epistle, written about 1,900 years ago to his churches in the ancient city of Ephesus. John’s churches had been torn apart by false believers claiming to have greater spiritual insight than those who believed on Jesus Christ as their Savior. John wanted the remaining Christians in Ephesus – and he wants you today – to examine your lives to see if you display the marks of a real Christian. John wants you to be assured that you have eternal life in Christ Jesus.
As a part of that assurance, John also wants you and me to live victorious lives in Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t serve sin as our master, nor should you and I take a defeatist attitude toward our battle with sin.
You and I as Christians are born winners. You are born to win. First, John teaches you are born again to believe the strengthening truth about Jesus Christ. Second, John teaches you are born again to love God and His children (your fellow believers). And third, John says you are born again to live victoriously over sin by following God’s commandments.
God has given you the strength in Christ to defeat sin every day; so call on His Spirit to renew you as you live for Him.
First, you are born again by the Holy Spirit so that you may believe the strengthening truth about Jesus Christ: that He is the God-man who has defeated sin once and for all.
As we’ve seen in I John, the three tests John lists for being a genuine believer are right belief, right behavior and love of the brethren. It all starts, though, with belief.
And interestingly, St. John in this passage unites your faith with victory over sin. It matters eternally, immensely, what you believe about Jesus Christ, for without a victorious Savior, you’d have no hope of turning away from lust and drunkenness and gossiping in your own life.
If you believe that the man Jesus was also God’s anointed servant, the one sent to suffer for your sake on the cross, to endure death for you and to rise to life so that you might rise with him – in short, if you believe he is the Son of God, your Savior – then John says you are born spiritually of the living God. You have new life that gives you strength.
Yet there’s something else about this Savior that the world misses and, sadly, that many Christians overlook: Jesus has overcome the world. He said so. And he proved his victory on Easter morning.
The person who is victorious over sin, who resists old temptations, who turns from evil, is the one who knows Jesus is the Christ and has cancelled the power of sin. This person knows and believes that Jesus’ victory over sin matters in his or her life as well.
Many folks in the world, whom Jesus calls the “wise and prudent,” think they have religion all figured out. They think Jesus was a nice man who said lots of interesting things that fit well on inspirational cards … but he wasn’t God. The Incarnation wasn’t possible or logical, they argue.
And so they venture out on a pointless, fruitless campaign to live decent moral lives: pointless, because all they’re doing is piling laws on themselves without grace; and fruitless, because they’re relying on their own strength to turn from sin.
Victory over sin starts with your belief about Jesus, the Son of God, the living and victorious Messiah. You were born again (given a new, believing heart) by God’s Spirit so that you might cling to the truth about Jesus. And the truth is he has conquered sin and the grave and gives you strength every day to live in his power.
Second, you are born again to love your fellow Christians.
Our world is increasingly fragmented and individualistic. Our communication is shallow, consisting of e-mail and voice mails, and we rarely have to interact with each other personally.
This scenario suits many people just fine: “Leave me alone,” they think.
But we as Christians are called not only to love our Heavenly Father but also His children, which includes every believer you know. As we’ve seen in studying this letter, you and I are born into a family, and between family members there must be love.
At the heart of the communion of saints is this word: common. We as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have something special, something utterly important, in common. St. Paul says it this way: “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” There’s not a Presbyterian God and a Baptist God and a Catholic God and a Caucasian God and a black God and an Asian God.
There is one Father of us all, and you who really are Christians will love your brothers and sisters just as you love God. In fact, love of God and love of fellow Christians go hand-in-hand.
Love, as we’ve noted before, is not passive. Love takes work. It takes forgiving someone who hurt you with a mean word. It demands time and energy to visit the sick and the homebound. It might demand restructuring your schedule to take an elderly person to the doctor.
Let’s be honest: love costs, and love takes effort.
Yet loving others instead of being petty, selfish and angry is a way of gaining victory over this sinful, selfish, hateful, unforgiving world. You have been born again to love God and your fellow Christians, and just when you want to take an “I-can’t-do-this” attitude, the God of love gives you strength from His Spirit so that you might live victoriously in love of others.
Third, John teaches you are born again to live victoriously for God by obeying His commandments.
At first sight, this statement seems contrary to our way of thinking. You and I long for autonomy: “I am the captain of my ship.” The prideful human spirit says with the Enemy, “Has God really said not to do thus-and-such? It sure looks tempting, and does God really know what’s best for me? Oh, why deny myself?”
And so, blinded by our pride, you and I rebel against the God of love and try things our way. Every time, though, we come up empty.
Love of God is demonstrated practically – not just talking about loving God, but proving your love for Him by obeying His commandments. And John lets you in on a secret the world doesn’t know or acknowledge: the greatest freedom and victory are found in submitting to God’s commands.
John says God’s commandments for moral living, such as the Ten Commandments, are not burdensome. Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden light.
How so? After all, have you tried to not sin recently? It’s tough, isn’t it?!
His commands aren’t burdensome or too difficult to fulfill, because He gives us His indwelling Spirit, and His Son grants us strength spiritually each day. Remember the role faith plays in victorious living? Look to Jesus, who defeated the power of sin, and you will be nourished and enlivened yourself.
There are so many professing Christians who want to give up the fight. Old habits die hard, they think, and there’s little hope for them to change. Or if they do change, like a diet the pattern of living gives way to old, negative habits. It seems so difficult to turn down lust, substances, more money at the expense of morals. It seems so easy to gossip about others.
They think they have freedom in sinning at will. They think it’s better not to fight the war against sin in their lives; instead, they should cave in to the pressure.
But that’s bondage, beloved.
Gossip destroys friendships. Substance abuse destroys lives. Adultery destroys marriages. Pride destroys hope and joy.
Sin is still empty, and this world – all that is opposed to God – is still bent on its own destruction, regardless of what it protests or says it believes.
Seek the better things. Seek the things that are above. And fight the good fight, because the God of grace is giving you His sin-defeating strength to win the battle every day.
We don’t throw many parties and parades for losers. That’s a good thing, because victory is sweet. Just ask the Greene County Wildcats following a big win.
God calls you to take your passion for winning to the next level, though. There is a war out there: a mighty struggle with sin. Perhaps you’ve never acknowledged that war, and you think you’re living a free and victorious lifestyle wallowing in sin.
Turn from that emptiness and believe the truth, friend: Jesus Christ has come to save you from the bondage to sin and to bring you into real, better and genuine life in himself.
If you are a believer, then your Lord calls you to a better way of living. Not giving up and subjecting yourself to selfishness, sinfulness and emptiness – but giving yourself up to God in obedience, following His life-enhancing commands, trusting in the power of His Holy Spirit.
Believe the good news, Christian: you have been set free from emptiness to live for Christ in the richness of victory over sin.