Friendship with the world is enmity with God.
A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2023 at Holy Communion
1 John 2:15–17, Deuteronomy 12:1–7
“Friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
If you have ever had the impression that the Bible is conflicted or confused about what it thinks of “the world,” you are not alone. Every Sunday we hear John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” But then you have verses like the one I just quoted, James 4:4, which says that “friendship with the world is enmity with God,” or 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” How can it be that God’s love for the world is the heart of the message of salvation, and yet it is wrong for us to love the world?
The word must be used in different senses. There is a positive sense of “the world” and a negative sense. And the way that we sort out which is which depends on a fundamental Christian idea: that the world is not as it is supposed to be.
When God created the world, he called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The world is not evil; it comes from God, and its good purpose is to find its fulfillment in returning to God and showing forth his glory. We sing that “heaven and earth”—that is, the whole world—“are full of thy glory.” This is the world that God loves, and which we must love too: a world which is made for communion with God. We love the world as it could be and as it should be.
But the world is not as it should be. So what is the world actually like? St John tells is this too, immediately after he tells us that loving God and loving the world are incompatible. He says that “all that is in the world are the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” and that these do not come from the Father (1 John 2:16). The world as it actually is is an enemy of God because of the things that it desires. We might say, in contemporary language, “because of the things it values,“ and St John lists them: lust, reputation, possessions (1 John 2:16).
You cannot simultaneously be a friend of God and value the things that the world values. We love the world, but that means that we desire its redemption, its liberation from the slavery to pride and greed and sensuality.
And that’s a fine thing to say, I suppose, but I also suppose that it doesn’t hit very close to home. If the message is, “reject worldliness,” what worldliness are we supposed to accuse ourselves of? I hope we have the tender consciences to realize, like Paul says in our Epistle, that “covetousness is idolatry,” but I suspect that for the most part we have have the attitude that worldliness is not our problem. It’s the world’s problem, after all—that’s why it’s called “worldliness”!
If only it were so simple. In fact, worldliness sneaks in when you are not looking—or worse, even, worldliness enters by the front door in a disguise, and we invite it in. What we think of as our best intentions, when we don’t examine them very closely, can have the fatal flaw of worldliness.
We get an illustration of this from our Old Testament reading today. The Israelites were told in advance that, when they took possession of the Promised Land, they were to utterly destroy every site for pagan worship. Cut down all the idols, burn all the altars, demolish all the local sacred sites. Why? Because “you shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.” Instead, the Jews should travel to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. Throughout Israel’s history, we see time and time again that they did not follow this instruction, and for an obvious reason: it is just so inconvenient to walk to Jerusalem several times a year to worship! But they still want to worship the Lord, so what do they do? Instead of tearing down the local sacred sites, they adapt them to their faith in the Lord.
Was their intention bad? Did they think they were being worldly, or religious? They probably thought they were being supremely faithful, making sure that everyone had easy access to worship of the Lord.
But in fact it didn’t take long for that to go to a very bad place. You may not know that one of the earliest artifacts recording the name of the Lord, YHWH, is on a piece of pottery found at one of these local shrines. It depicts the Lord God as a human being—that’s no-no number one—and it depicts the pagan fertility goddess Asherah as his spouse. Oops.
This is worldliness in action. I’ve said before that we have such a “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” concept of sin that we think we’re safe just because we don’t do “the big ones.” But our attitude may remain fundamentally worldly. We think we are faithful, we think that we are doing everything in our power to make sure that our faith fits into modern life—and we end up worshipping a fertility goddess instead of the maker of heaven and earth. This is what happens when we accommodate our faith to the standard of what the world will find acceptable.
The message of our Old Testament reading is simply this: it is tempting to think so, but the worship of the Lord does not fit with the values of our neighbours. It doesn’t even fit with our values, the values we unreflectively share with our neighbours which we have not considered in light of God’s word.
So the invitation for today comes from the final words of our gospel reading: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). It is so very easy to love what the world loves. We drink in a desire for worldly things with our mothers’ milk. But the things that the world loves—carnal pleasure, reputation, possessions—tend only to death. The only way to blessedness is for your heart to be cleaned out, and for a new tenant to take up residence: the word of God.