MCML - God Is Love
1 John 4:7-12
Over the past 12 years Trista and I have spent a lot of time traveling from ball fields, to basketball courts, to soccer pitches, to football stadiums. It has been one of our family highlights to watch the boys participate on different teams. It doesn’t take long to realize that people act differently watching a sporting event than they do watching nearly anything else. When we go to a band concert, choral performance, or to see a show folks have a certain decorum that is not present at sporting events. In the stands folks talk loudly, so it’s often very easy to hear 15 different conversations at once. That’s why a few nights ago I found myself in the stands, where I, and everyone within 6 rows of me, overheard a conversation between two parents.
The first voice was commenting about the skill level of a certain player. The parent of the player said, “He’s gotten a scholarship offer from Faulkner University but I’m not sure.” The first voice remarked how great it was that a college was looking at their child, when the parent said, “I’m not real comfortable with him going to a religious school, and I definitely don’t want him going to a Church of Christ school.”
From the stories that many of you have shared with me, you have heard those same types of conversations and sentiments. More than once, some of you have shared with me how many of your friends and coworkers feel that exact same way. A few of you have shared with me that you are a little hesitant to tell folks that you go to a Church of Christ, because of how that name has been used in this community. We haven’t been here a year, and I have already had a few experiences at the gym, or bank, or Aldi’s when I shared with someone that I was the minister at the Greenbrier Church of Christ, the conversation abruptly ended.
We can try to make excuses as to why that happens, or we can be honest and admit that we might not have done the best job loving this city. And our community has noticed. Don McLaughlin wrote in his book Love First, “This question plagues Our mission. If the church wasn't born to love, the world wouldn't be on our case about our hating ways. People don't cuss at the desert when it's dry, nor do they scream at the ocean because it's wet. People learn to accept what's expected. But since the church is expected to love, the world rightly calls out our hypocrisy when we come across as hateful.”
I mentioned last week that we are spending some time at the beginning of 2018 looking at our Love Creed. I want us to spend some quality time looking at how we can model love in the model city and redeem the name of Christ’s Church. Look back with me at the text that was read for us this morning from 1 John 4. Here John pens one of the New Testament's most focused discussions on Sound Doctrine. Let’s begin in verse 7. 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. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
You probably don’t understand how shocking this would have been for the original readers who would have never expected John to say God is love. It’s a bit helpful for me to to remember that the Bible was written for us and not to us. What I mean is that when we take the Bible and read it, we read it through our culture and our experiences. But when John wrote that God is love, the people who first read the letter lived in a different time, they had different relationships, different cultures, and different experiences with God. Our best guess is that John’s original audience were the Christians in Ephesus, who lived in the shadow of temple of Artemis. According to the Greek historian Strabo, Artemis was part of the pantheon of greek gods who brought pestilence, disease, and sudden death.
The folks who originally read this letter lived in a culture that believed god was supposed to be appeased, or bribed so they might show you a little kindness. They would have never thought that God was love. Their relationship with god was based on superstition, or the law. They knew a god that was angry with people. They knew a god that punished people, they knew a god who woke up in the morning and thought, today is a good day to throw a couple of thunderbolts at people. To hear that God is love was just unbelievable.
That’s why John’s revelation that God is Love has to be the bedrock of our faith, because we act like what we worship. Let me say that one more time, We act like what we worship. I want to be gentle here, because I know that truth all too well. I grew up on stories like Nadab and Abihu, do you remember that story? According to Leviticus 10, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own firepan, put fire in it, placed incense on it, and presented unauthorized fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them to do. Then fire came from the Lord and burned them to death (verse 1-2) That was our Vacation Bible School lesson on Monday night, which made me really anxious at the marshmallow and hot dog roast.
Tuesdays lesson came from 2 Samuel 6 and dealt with a man named Uzzah. Uzzah reached out to the ark of God and took hold of it because the oxen had stumbled. Then the Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and God struck him dead on the spot for his irreverence (Verse 6-7). Wednesday was from Genesis 19 about Lot’s wife and for craft time we glued salt on a little cutout of a woman to take home. Thursday we studied Acts 5 and learned about Ananias and his wife Sapphira who were struck dead for lying in the church. The week ended in Acts 20 by looking at Eutychus falling asleep in church and falling out a window to his death. There was even a song about it.
What I was taught growing up, by well intentioned people who loved me and loved God is that the Bible is a law book. They would remind me that Jesus warned us about not allowing the jots and tittles to pass away (Mathew 5:17). The God I grew up worshiping was an angry and mad God. He was interested in me keeping the law and if I didn’t He would throw me into hell where the smoke of their (my) torment will rise for ever and ever (Revelation 14:11).
I became what I worshipped, I grew up and thought that I needed to debate the heathens. I used the Bible as a source of condemnation and guilt. My relationship with God was built on fear and trembling, and words like mercy and grace were stored away with ideas like faith and the Holy Spirit. In an effort to be faithful to God we took love out of the equation and replaced it with obedience. We reasoned that the best way to show our love to God was to be obedient, we discouraged questioning, we discouraged emotions, we discouraged anything that deviated from what we considered the old paths and sound doctrine. We lost our ability to love and the result was that our churches were filled with bitter brothers, sour sisters, and cantankerous christians. We became what we worshiped, and we were not worshiping God. That’s why we also tend to struggle a bit when John declares that God is love.
God is not wrath. While it is true that we see the wrath of God in the pages of scripture, His wrath is the divine judgement for our selfishness. What we consider the wrath of God is merely the consequences of our own sinfulness. God does not claim to be wrath, God is love.
God is not violence. Our history books are filled with story after story of people who did despicable things in the name of God. Holy wars, building empires, murder are the acts of fallen people. We can do all types of awful things in the name of God, but that says more about our wants and desires than it does about God. God does not claim to be violence, God is love.
God is not guilt. I might have plenty of reasons to feel guilty about my sinfulness or my failures. I might be lost in my guilt like Judas or brought to repentance because of my guilt like Peter. But it is not God that heaps guilt upon guilt in my life, I do that when I realize my failures. God does not claim to be guilt, God is love.
God is love, no matter how many times we have taught that He was an angry, violent, vengeful God. You can draw a pretty big crowd preaching that God is a God of fear, fear is a powerful motivator. You can draw a lot of folks preaching that God is a God of guilt, or vengeance. Religious people generally like to be told that God is vindictive, as long as His holy anger is directed toward other people.
For decades I believed God was not love and I became like the angry, miserable, cold God I was worshipping. But a change occurred in my theology when I discovered God as revealed in Christ. Jesus Christ is the foundational understanding of who God is and what He is like. God does not have the characteristic of love, God is love itself. Love exists because God exists. Our community lives in the consequences of religious people who claimed God is love but never lived like God is love. If Greenbrier is going to model love then we must live with an understanding that love is essential to everything that God is and expressed in everything that God does. We will never be able to be loving, forgiving, compassionate, and merciful until we gather to worship God for who He really is. God is the very nature and essence of love. It's not just that He loves; He is everything that is loving.
I could stand up here and say that I love. I could say that I have a faithful, committed, and whole hearted love. I could say the same thing about you, I could say that you love well, but we could never claim to be love. If you or I decide to stop loving we wouldn’t cease to be human. We might not be a nice human. We might be difficult to live near, or work with, but we would still be a human being. But it’s different with God, He is the universe's source of love. He is love. And if God would cease to love, He would cease to be God. You cannot separate love from God or God from love.
But let me make a small interjection here. God is love, but don’t buy into the idea that love is God. There are far too many folks who want to shrink God down to this emotional, sentimental gobble goop. They think love is God. When something happens that doesn’t line up with their definition of love then they begin to doubt if God is actually God.
We live in a culture that says God is love, but what they actually mean is that our feelings of love, whatever we choose to love and whenever we decided to love, should be respected and honored as God. When we make love our God, then we have the right or the responsibility to do whatever makes us happy. When love is God then what ever brings us momentary joy is always the right thing to do. And how dare you treat my desire, my love with disdain. I can do what ever makes me happy, take whatever will benefit me and who are you to tell me that I cannot be happy, because love is God.
That is something completely different from what John is saying. Love can mean different things to different people depending on their situation. What might be loving for you, might be painful for me. What I might think of as loving, you might think of as selfishness. Feelings are a terrible master, that’s why it is so important for us to understand that love is not a characteristic of God, but God is love. His love is perfect and powerful, holy and healing. Love might be a characteristic of humanity, But God is love.
There is one more thing about John’s statement that is extremely humbling for me; John is essentially saying, Love has a source, and it is not you. God is the only source of love.
The truth is that you and I don’t have the natural ability to do what John is calling us to do in this passage. We can’t figure out how to love one another or how to love God on our own. What John is calling us to in this text is something deeper than being respectful, it’s deeper than having good manners, it’s deeper than doing an occasional random act of kindness.
At its core, love is selfless and driven by what God is doing inside of us. Love never happens apart from God because it requires a radical change of heart. Real love is so much more than being respectful, being nice, or doing an act of kindness. Yes loving people can do these things but real love is something deeper than mere outward actions. God’s plan all along was to save us so that we might experience this great love, and then become channels of His love to everyone in our lives.
Secondly, this means that we cannot make God love us. It was a difficult revelation for me when I discovered that there was nothing I could do to make God love me more. But I also realized the opposite was also true and there was nothing I could do to make God love me less. It is a bit arrogant to think that we can make God do or be anything other than what He is.
Remember the folks who first read this letter were living in the shadow of the Temple of Artemis. The people in that culture believed that they could somehow entice or merit the favor of their god by behaving in a certain way, or offering the right types of gifts. There are times when I read about this idol worship and think how can someone be so naive? Then I take a step back and notice that there have been far too many days when I believed that I could manipulate God with my prayers. I Lived far too many years believing that if I acted in a certain way, or didn’t act a certain way then I could make God happy with me and maybe He would bless me or pour out more love into my life.
God is Love, which means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, no amount of spiritual practices, no good deeds, no church attendance, no 5 steps or 5 acts, no amount of knowledge, or no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes will make God love us more.
But because God is love that also means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less, no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love. Love doesn’t change God, but His love always changes us.
Meredith Newton was our veterinarian, and a dear family friend. She told me one time that you can learn everything you want to know about a dog owner by just watching the dog. If the dog is happy, friendly, and joyful then you know that the master is happy, friendly, and joyful. But if the dog cowers or if the dog is aggressive then you can tell that the dog’s master is angry and disconnected. I wonder what people have learned about God by watching us?
Maybe if we were willing to be honest this morning, we would all confess that we have not been very successful in allowing others to know that God is love, because we have tried to manufacture love on our own. True love is not based on feelings, but grounded in deep eternal truths. This kind of love comes out of who God is. If we are going to do more than just talk about loving this community, if we are going to redeem the name Church of Christ and model love in the Model City it starts with drawing closer to God who is love. This morning if we need more love, what we are actually saying is that we need more God. And this morning He makes Himself available to you.