A number of months ago, I had a friend that gave me a gift.  I can’t figure out if it’s my favorite gift or my least favorite gift I’ve ever been given.  It was one of these Echo Dots.  It looks like a little hockey puck.  You sync it with your phone and your wireless in your home.  You can talk to it; her name is Alexa.  You can have her do a number of things for you.  The thing I love about it is my kids can talk to Alexa and tell her to play songs.  The thing that I hate about it is that my kids can talk to it and tell her to play songs.  Many days I come home and there’s a dance party going on in our living room.  My four-year-old son is the DJ; Alexa, play The Final Countdown.  Alexa, play Came in Like a Wrecking Ball.  My kids have the inability to listen to an entire song.  They jump around so much.

I can’t imagine growing up as a kid with an “Alexa” in my home.  When I grew up—-back in the day—-I can remember driving in my dad’s 1970’s Honda Civic listening to this thing called a radio.  Not only that, it didn’t have anything that lit up on it in the way of numbers.  You had to turn this dial and the dial would sync up with different radio stations.  Some of them came in really good, and sometimes there was static.  Sometimes you had it going good for a while, then you drove a little bit and it got out of sync.  The station you had it programmed on was no longer programmed on.  There was this constant—not science—art of listening.  Not creating but listening to music.  Some of you may remember growing up and gathering around one of these radios and listening to shows that came on.  It was the form of entertainment a number of decades ago.

I think life is more like this radio than it is Alexa. I think there’s moments when we’re synced in and then there’s moments where there’s just static.  I think our assumption is that if we’re here this morning and we’re a follower of Jesus it’s really simple that we just trust Him and then we sync up and that’s that.  But you and I know that the dial slips, doesn’t it?  Sometimes we’re hearing the voice of God and it’s clear and, what the Bible would say, in step with the Spirit, and then there’s time where it’s either static or it’s a different station altogether.  When Pastor John wrote to the series of churches, he identified and spoke into their lives about how important it is to make sure that you’re dialed in.  To make sure that you’re hearing the right frequencies, that you’re listening to the right voices, because there are multiple voices that you could hear and that I could hear, and….{Will you look up at my for a second?}…..we ALL hear voices.

Will you turn with me to 1 John 3:24?  We all hear voices and the truth is our lives are shaped by the voices we hear and the voices we listen to.  Pastor John, writing to this series of churches…..John, who was loved by Jesus, who walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, touched Jesus, smelled Jesus, ate with Jesus, writes to his churches and says this:  Whoever keeps his commandments…  {We’ve talked about this already.  His commandment is to love.}  …abides in God, and God in him.  And by this we know that he abides in us, {They question they might be asking is How does God abide in us?  He says oh, this is how….}  by the Spirit whom he has given us.

John anticipates a question.  This happens all throughout, especially the New Testament epistles, the authors assume that the readers are going to have a question and he anticipates and answers the question.  The question he assumes you’re going to have when you read that?  How do we know we’re dialed in to the right frequency?  How do we know we’re actually hearing the voice of God and not just some other voice, or our voice, or the loudest voice in the world we live in, but actually hearing the voice of God?  Here’s the way John answers that question — 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.  {John is simply saying that there is a myriad of spirits, there’s a myriad of voices, there’s a myriad of messages, so you’ve to be intentional and not get swept away in the midst of all the different voices.}  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.  This is the spirit of the antichrist, {The one who is against Messiah, against the King.}  …which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

John is writing to a church that’s at the crossroads.  They’re a church that has a number of different voices going on in their culture, in their day.  Some of them are more clear than others, but their question is man, in the midst of all these different voices, how in the world, do we know if we’re hearing the right voice?  In the midst of people dying for their faith, how do we hold on to that voice?  In the midst of this quasi-new religion that’s sprung up on the scene—that Jesus is Lord of all…..how do we sort through all these voices, some of which have been around longer and actually know this is the voice above all?  John is writing to (we would call it) a spiritual people.  We live in a material world.  This is the air that we breathe.  This is the zeitgeist of life in the West—-the physical world is all that there is.  That would not have been so with John’s audience.  They knew this was a spiritual world.  {Anecdotally, the majority of the world still knows that and still believes that.}  John says there’s other voices, there’s other spirits.  And he says do you want to know how you’re listening to the right spirit?  Here’s the one question, the only question, you have to ask—-What do they do with Jesus?  What is the spirit, what is the voice, what is the message that you’re hearing, do with Jesus?  He says listen, if Jesus is exalted as Lord, if Jesus is exalted as God, then that’s the Spirit of God.  If not…..  Notice, John is very black and white.  If not, if it’s not the Spirit of God exalting the person and work of Jesus, then it’s ANTICHRIST.   Not like….sort of wrong.  It’s EITHER the Spirit of God exalting the work of Jesus or it’s not.  It’s one or the other.  In fact, in the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul will write and say—Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ….. (Phil. 1:19)  All throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is equated with the Spirit of Jesus, pointing us to Jesus.  John says that’s your litmus test.

Let’s just pause for a moment and recognize that while we may not live in what we’d perceive to be as “spiritual” a world as John is writing to, there are a number of different voices in our world, aren’t there?  There’s a number of different things that people say about Jesus.  Jesus was a good teacher.  Jesus was a prophet.  Jesus was a miracle worker.  Jesus was a nice guy.  Jesus is a figment of your imagination.  There’s a number of different things that the spirits, or people, or ideologies, or world views will do with Jesus.  That would be what the “religious” voices are and there’s a plurality of them.  But there’s also a number of voices you hear that you wouldn’t attribute to religion.  It’s just the air that we breathe, the world that we live in.  Some of the voices will say things like new, or better, or more IS the anthem of life.  This is the Solomonic quest—try to get more, try to get better, try to get brighter, try to get newer, and THEN, life will be okay.  I would add that the holiday of Thanksgiving speaks directly into that lie.  If you’re caught up in a world of MORE, the best thing you can do is pause to give thanks for what you have.

You don’t need to go much further than opening your news app to figure out that we live in a world that has a number of voices.  A number of things saying build your life on this.  Just recently, a number of people in Hollywood have been accused of crimes and we wonder how it could become so wide-spread.  And….shame on us for looking to Hollywood to be the bastion of morality in our society.  This should not surprise us.  And you don’t have to look too far in your news app or newspaper to see things like suicides or mass-shootings, or even in your own soul, to feel the escalating anticipation and anxiety associated with Christmas.  And these are all voices.  These are all things that we hear.

The invitation from John, through the Scriptures, and to these churches, and to us today, is step back from the noise and step into the voice….the voice of the one true Spirit.  Step out of the chaos and into the clarity.  Step out of the deafness and into the life.  There is a voice that speaks, a Spirit that speaks, above the noise and above the crowd and that’s what John wants to say.  So he’ll say ‘discern’ the spirits, test them out, and figure out if there of God.  Discerning the voice you follow is so, so important, because it determines the life that you live.  Determines the life that you live because we all hear voices.

We all hear voices.  What I’ve found as I’ve thought about my own life and I’ve talked with many of you, I think there’s one of two voices that is primary in our life.  There’s either the voice in the back of our head, the spirit that says…work, achieve, validate, earn, and prove.  Prove that you’re worth the skin and the breath that God gave you.  There’s another voice.  Some of you hear it.  Some of you march to it.  Some of you stay in step with it and it’s a beautiful thing, because this voice says, “You’re my beloved with whom I’m well pleased.”  There’s a spirit of the world and that spirit says, “Earn, prove, validate, achieve more, more, more, in order to be okay.”  And there’s the Spirit of God that says, “You’re loved.”  And it’s THAT Spirit that I want to invite you into today.  I think even in a “Christian” world, even in the church, we get this wrong so often.

I’m reading a book with a few friends right now that came highly recommended and has been popular for the last few months.  The book is called The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.  St. Benedict was a monk back in the fifth and sixth centuries.  He founded twelve different monasteries.  He created this rule of life that many followers of Jesus have ascribed to over the years.  The rule of life is actually beautiful and a good thing, however, while reading the book, I found out that most of The Benedict Option is based around fear.  Retreat.  Get out of the world, because the world is going downhill really quick.  Have you been around Christians who, when they listen to God, their first inclination is to run?  To retreat?  To fear?  That’s the premise of the book.

We also have other ways we interact with the world.  One of them might be retreat.  Another may be retaliate.  If I’ve been wronged, I’m going to be wrong and that’s what the Spirit of God says to me.  You also may hear this voice in the back of your head….I hear this one often.  It doesn’t say retreat and it doesn’t say retaliate, it just says…..recline.  Praise Jesus!  Just go along with it.  This is where it’s going, just go with it.  Which makes the question all that more significant—-What does the Spirit of God say?  And how do we know if we’re listening to his Spirit?  Just turning the switch and becoming a follower of Jesus can give us a ton of voices.  What does His Spirit say?

Let me jump in and answer the question from this little letter that John writes to these churches.  How do we know that we’re listening, that we’re in step with the Spirit of God, with the voice of God.  Discerning the voices we hear is so important because it leads to the life that we live.  The voices we hear lead to the life that we live. Here’s what Pastor John says:  Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)  John is suggesting that there is a competition going on for the space between your ears and your heart.  There’s a competition going on.  Have you ever played the game “King of the Hill” as a kid?  John’s saying that the same type of interaction is going on with the narrative that you put in your brain, and that you hear, and that you live in.  What station are you going to dial into?  Which spirit are you going to listen to?  John says that the Spirit of Jesus is stronger, is greater, is bigger, is better.  His point is that when we listen to the Spirit, when we walk in step with the Spirit, it convinces us of God’s strength and of his victory.  You go, hey, Paulson, I want to believe that but the reality is there are some things that I believe in my life that have power.  Not Jesus.  There’s some things that play in the back of my mind that make me anxious.  There’s some things that play in the back of my mind that make me want to retreat.  There’s some things that play in the back……   That’s why what John is writing to these churches is so important, because he goes I get it!  I understand that!  There’s competition for that space in your brain and in your heart.  I get it.

He would say that those other voices certainly have power, but they only have the power you give them.  The Scriptures are going to teach us, they’re going to press on us.  The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 about us being both physical, material people living in a physical world, but engaging in a spiritual battle.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.   {A stronghold was a picture of a fortified city where troops gathered to prepare for war.  He says you’ve got those things in your mind and in your heart.}  We destroy arguments…  {That’s the spiritual battle.  What are you listening to?  That’s the spiritual battle.  You want to fight that battle?}  …and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.   Those other voices only have the power you give them.

I think Paul would say three things.  You’ve got to recognize the voices playing in your head.  The spirit of the antichrist, John would say.  The anti-Messiah, the one who’s against Jesus.  You’ve got to identify, you’ve got to recognize it.  The second thing is to rebuke it.  You’ve got to tell it it’s a lie.  Martin Lloyd Jones, on his essays on spiritual depression, says that we spend way too much time listening to ourselves.   We got to spend more time talking to ourselves.  Identifying lies and pointing them out.  We recognize it, we rebuke it, and then we redirect it.  John says we’ve got to make every thought captive under the lordship of Jesus.  What does this tell us about Jesus?  How does this fit under the work of Jesus?  How does this fit under the victory of Jesus?  We would call this renewing our mind.  It’s what the Spirit longs to do in you.  Victory is possible.  Other voices have power, but only power we give them.  Because the Spirit of God lives in us, John would say THAT Spirit is greater.  Can you see his church going, “Oh, man!  That’s a game changer.”

Here’s what he says next.  He wants to push back against a generally conceived notion about what God is like. So he says this:  Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)  You may have heard it read at a wedding.  You may have heard it from a devotional — God is love.  It’s sort of this nice, warm feeling.  John is speaking into a lie.  He’s speaking into a lie that many people in his culture believe. Growing up in a Greco-Roman culture, their view of the gods would have been very different than this view of God.  The very world was birthed in a cosmic battle, according to them.  Human beings were simply created to serve god, and if they did a poor job, they should expect to be struck down.  So when John writes God is love, his original audience would have been scratching their heads.  He’s love and……what else?  He’s love and he’s angry.  No.  He’s love and he’s vindictive.  No.  He’s love and he’s going to crush his enemies.  No.  He’s love PERIOD.  What John doesn’t say is that God is loving.  As if to say that’s one of the attributes or characteristic that we could attach to God.  Certainly he is loving, but he’s loving because he is love.  It’s the very essence of his character and that’s what John wants to point out.  As the Spirit of God works in your heart and life, and mine, what it points out to us is what God is like.   And God is love.  It’s his very essence.

Let me describe it like this.  As a father, I love my kids.  When I’m healthy, everything I do flows out of my love for them.  I get messed up and twisted sometimes, just like you do, and I get angry, but even my anger flows out of my love.  Even my discipline of them flows out of my love for them.  I want them to become the kind of people who love the life that God’s invited them to live.  I don’t want them to be jerks!  It’s because I love and because I can see the writing on the wall.  If you keep going down THAT road, it’s going to lead to a place you don’t want to go.  The limitations I put in their life are because I love them.

The same is true of God.  If you were to get down underneath everything, here’s what you’d learn about God:  He’s love.  The reason for creation?  Love.  The reason for redemption?  Love.  The reason for incarnation?  Love.  The reason for it all?  Take a deep breath right now.  The reason you’re able to do it?  Love.  That’s what’s behind it all.  John goes a little bit further and says listen, I want to describe it even better.  (Verse 9)  In this the love of God was made manifest… {It appeared.  The veil was pulled back on the extravagance and extent of the love of God, the reckless love of God.}  …among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.    He says do you want to know the extent and extravagance of God’s reckless love?  Look no further than the person and work of Jesus.  Exhibit A.

Here’s the thing.  If God’s angry, if God’s simply out for retributive justice, Jesus makes no sense.  And that’s John’s point.  Jesus makes absolutely no sense if God is simply angry and wants justice.  You can’t get to Jesus if that’s God’s motive.   Not only that, but he says that Jesus does something else.  (Verse 10.)  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.    Here’s John’s point—don’t start to think, don’t let the spirit inside you start to say God loves you IF.    If that’s the voice you hear, I can assure you, it’s not the voice of God.  Why?  Because God, in his very essence and nature, is love.  It is impossible for God to do anything except love.  Let that sink in for a moment.  It’s IMPOSSIBLE for God to do ANYTHING outside of love.  Because that’s who he is.  He goes okay, even the people who were against him…..not that we’ve loved God.  That’s not the narrative we share in the back of our head, that’s not the story we tell.  Even people who DIDN’T love him, he loved.  Why?  Because he’s love.  Is that the voice you’re hearing?  This is what God is like–through and through.  Always and forever.  For all of eternity, God will be (not loving) love.

Therefore, all throughout this passage he says things like verse 7—Let us love one another….   Verse 11—-We also out to love one another.  Verse 12—If we love one another…  Verse 20—-Love you brother.  He goes listen, the bar’s not all that high, just don’t hate the people around you.  Because that’s what God is like.  He doesn’t hate his enemies, he dies for his enemies.  The Spirit not only reinforces the victory that God has for you, not only does He remind you of the character of what God is like, but he says follow me and charts the course of what it looks like to live in the way of love.  Early followers of Jesus got this.  They were like this is our anthem.  We’re people who love.  Before they had a Bible, they had a command.  Love the people around us.  Everyone.  Period.  Always.  There’s no footnote.  There’s no choose your own adventure.  As a follower of Jesus, you don’t get to choose IF you’re going to love, you just simply get to choose HOW. It’s what the Spirit would stir in you, if you’re listening.  The soundtrack to the world says hate.  Get revenge.  Get yours.  Defend yourself.  Come out on top at all costs.  The Spirit of God says:  Love.

Here’s how John ends this section.  The Spirit’s affirmation into our fear.  (1 John 4:17-19)  By this is love perfected (completed, fulfilled) with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  We love because he first loved us.   Notice, the anthem of Christianity, the calling, the command above it all, is to love, but John says if you get the character of God wrong, you’re going to get the command wrong.  If you don’t recognize that God loved you first, you won’t live in the way of love.  But if you do, you are released into that way.  What John claims….this is a great verse….verse 18.  It’s an amazing verse!  There’s no fear in love.  We apply it in a number of different ways.  I think there are applications of it in other ways, but John’s specific and unique application is this:  If God is love, and you know that in the depths of your bones because you’re living in the way of love, you don’t need to fear standing before God.  You can do so with confidence.

So many people live their lives afraid of God.  They live their lives under…..what I would claim to be sort of this experience of Dante’s Inferno. Epic poem written in the 14th century.  Virgil takes this journey through the nine rings of Hell.  In each one, somebody’s being tortured for their sins.  I think a lot of our view of God comes more from Dante than it does from the Bible.  Here’s what John would say to you and to me:  Knowing the Spirit calms our fears.  It casts out our fears.

Some of you are saying, hey, Paulson, I’ve read my Bible and I know that the Bible says that we should fear God.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….   It’s in there….over 100 times.  What do we do with that?  We always read the Bible through the lens of Jesus first, because Jesus is ultimately what God has to say.  That’s where we start.  We start with Jesus.  Then we try to figure out what it means to fear God.  It means awe, it means reverence, it means worship, it means ascribing and attributing the power that’s due to him.  He created it all.  John is saying that while God certainly has the power and ability to crush us, instead he chooses to use that same power and ability to love us.  He uses that power to speak into our lives and to calm our fears.  Some of us need to listen to that voice today.  We’ve been living the narrative of self-rejection.  We’ve been living the narrative of fear.  We’ve been letting those voices of the things that we’ve done in our past and the failures and the shortcomings speak a word over us.  Today, the Spirit of God wants to speak a better word.  I love the way Henri Nouwen put it: “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved.  Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.  We are loved as creatures with both limitations and glory.”    The voice of self-rejection is what John would call antichrist.  Anti-God.  Anti-Love.  Anti-Goodness.  The question is which tape are you listening to?  Which story are you hearing?

Four different times in this passage…..live in the way of love, live in the way of love, live in the way of love.  It was what the Spirit was saying to the church back then and it’s what the Spirit of God says to South Fellowship Church today.  Let the Spirit invite you into victory.  Let the Spirit invite you into recognizing the character of God is love at his very essence.  That’s not what he does, it’s who he is.  It’s why he does everything he does.  To chart the course forward with us, for us.  To affirm over us a calming of fears as Romans 8:15-17 would say:  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, {That’s not what’s inside of you.  It might be what you’re listening to, but it’s not the Spirit of God.} …but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons….

So here’s what we get the opportunity to do as St. Augustine so poignantly put it:  “Love and say it with your life.”  Don’t just love with emotion, anybody can do that.  Love in action.  Love when it’s easier to hate.  Let the Spirit empower you.  Love when it’s easier to hate.  When it’s easier to say it’s us against them.  When it’s easier to say they’ve hurt me, they’ve wronged me, therefore I’m going to lob grenades back towards them.  When it’s easier to hate, choose, allow the Spirit to prompt you into the way of love.  When it’s easier to fear, love.  When you’d rather retreat and just be around people that you perceive can’t hurt you, love.  Love requires proximity.  You can’t love from a distance, you can only love intimately.  Finally, love when it’s easier to concede.  Lest you think that love just means sitting back and letting people around you do whatever they want to do.  Speak a better word.  Speak a word of hope.  Speak a word of resurrection.  Speak a word of life.  Speak a word of love.

As the worship team comes back up, I want to you put your stuff away and I want to carve out a few seconds for you to listen.  For you to listen to this God who speaks.  Jesus said my sheep hear my voice.  Now that you have this grid, we know what the Spirit of God wants to lead us to, to recognize the victory we have, so maybe the word that you hear as you listen is a word of God speaking victory into some of your fears right now.  Into some of the things that you’re carrying that you think you’re never going to get over.  Maybe you hear the Spirit speak a word about God being love.  Maybe your view of God is different than that.  Would you let Him speak to you this morning?  Maybe the word’s more specific….maybe it’s about the way that you’re living.  Would you be open to his loving correction?  Maybe you’re afraid.  Afraid of God.  Afraid of this world.  Would you let love speak a better word?  Jesus, we’re listening.

1 John 4:12 says — No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.    John is saying that as you listen to the Spirit of God and as you live in the way of God, while people may not be able to see God literally around them, they will see God through you.  They can’t see him literally, but they can see him through you.  If He’s love, when you love, you point to your God.  The only way we do that is if we first know that we’re loved.

Jesus, I pray as we listen to your voice, your voice above all the others, your voice above the crowds, our prayer is that you would speak a word of love that would release us to live in the way of love.  Spirit, speak over our fears, speak into our anxieties.  Spirit, speak into the lies, break down those walls, we pray.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.