Who is God?
Love: God our Father
So far, in our series of sermons on “Who is God?” I’ve been progressing through the OT – sort of following along with God’s progressive self-revelation to humanity: Abraham’s Patron; the Creator God; the Holy One in the Burning Bush; the Deliverer who instituted the Passover; the one who gave Meaning to David’s life. Today, I want to jump all the way almost to the end of the New Testament and talk about a new way of understanding God that comes to us from the early Christian teachers.
“God is love,” says the apostle John. This idea was quite revolutionary when it was first put forth; oh, to be sure, God was seen doing and saying many loving things – comparing himself to the husband of a faithless wife, declaring himself the Father of the orphan, jealously fighting for his People -- But love? Not merely “loving,” but Love himself – that’s a new thought. And as long as it is kept in the context it is given here in John’s letter, it makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, once “love” escapes its context, it gives rise to several erroneous views of God that we labor mightily – and with only sketchy success – to eradicate from people’s minds today.
The first erroneous idea is that if “God is love,” then you can certainly turn the formula around and say, “Love is god.” People have advanced that idea as a serious philosophy from time to time – and it’s sold a LOT of rock n roll songs, this idea that Love is such a powerful and good thing inside yourself that whatever you feel Love telling you to do you MUST do, that it can’t be wrong, or misguided, or overemphasized. I’m in love; therefore, I am being directed by the very will of god himself, and god tells me to . . . well, whatever it is that my love for you moves to me to do right now.
The fact is, we get ourselves in no end of trouble because the demands of love – that we all have felt – SEEM, when they come, to be unanswerable, emphatic . . . DIVINE – when they’re really as likely as not to be our own sentimentality or hormones or excitement. Not only can “love,” so-called, move us to do foolish things, but if the demands of this “love” are unanswerable, then when I decide I’m no longer in love with you, but now I’m in love with that person, well then, LOVE (i.e., “god”) is demanding that I break all my promises to you and hook up with that person, because, after all, I must obey the voice of the Love that is God. C.S. Lewis was correct when he said that love ceases to be a devil only when it ceases to be a god – when it is placed under the correction of the God who really is Love, who shows us what love is really like in the person of Jesus Christ.
Equally erroneous is the picture we sometimes have of God as an indulgent, grandfatherly type – the kind of nice old codger who never has a cross word for the young folks – perhaps because he can’t hear very clearly and doesn’t really know what they’re saying about themselves, but in any case, he always pats them on the head and gives them a Twenty and says, “Have a nice time.” Such a nice old guy, this God of Love – never tells us we’re wrong, always supports us.
But real love is anything but indulgent. Real love is a burning fire that is totally intolerant of anything that would hurt its beloved. If someone were hurting your child – if your child was hurting itself by something it did – would you pat that person or child on the head and say, “well, that’s nice – whatever you want?” NO. You’d be hard to restrain as you exercised yr wrath upon whatever it was that was hurting the one you love.
God hates sin; he loves us, but he hates sin, and that means he is totally IN-tolerant, NON-indulgent toward a lot of what we do. We should not mistake his patience for a general, senile benevolence. He means to make us perfect. He means to clean us up and make us fit for heaven. And he doesn’t care how much it costs us. Or him. Any price is worth paying in order to save us from the dreary and despicable sins into which we have fallen, which is why it is impossible to talk about the love of God without talking about the cross – the cross upon which God in the flesh suffered and died. So, no, don’t fool yourself. God’s love is the love of a Father, fiercely protective of his children, who wants them to do right, and be right, and will pay any price to make them right.
And then, there are those who want to talk about the love of one’s brother – which is where John says the love of God should lead us – without talking about the love of God himself. As if “our love for our brother” could be abstracted from “God’s love for us” and offered up as a kind of social or political program, so that those who advocate the fiercest on behalf of the outcast or the poor or whoever are assumed to be acting in God’s behalf, even if they are actively hostile to God’s influence in other areas of life. They want to be priests of an idol that has no opinions that might possibly contradict their own. But that’s not righteousness, since God is not allowed to speak for himself; it’s SELF-righteousness, even if it is cloaked in high-sounding words.
John writes, 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. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.
The essence of love is sacrifice. It’s not about how you make me feel, but about what I’m willing to dare and do for you. It’s about Jesus Christ – the only-begotten Son of the Father, through whom we can become the children of that same God. It’s about his incarnation and his death on the cross. Greater love has no man that this, said Jesus, that a man lay down his life for his friends. And he was that man who laid down his life for those who only hours before he had called his friends – the same friends who either ran away or betrayed him.
Which means people who want to talk about love but who say that it doesn’t matter what you believe about God or who are indifferent to how to serve God are selling you something. If God didn’t send Jesus, and Jesus didn’t do what he said he would, then it’s all just made-up – phony – and loving your brother is for chumps, or as the Neo-Marxists would say (not to mention most humanities professors, but I repeat myself), this is an example of “False Consciousness.”
But for those who know this love, who have received it from God, who know that Jesus has come in the flesh and showed it to us, who accept that Jesus has died for us – well, then, the first demand that is placed upon us is to love others as we have been loved.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. Not only that, but since God is Love, then the evidence of his living inside of us is that we feel his love working its way out through us for others. The Spirit begins to think God’s thoughts inside us and to spur us to do God’s deeds with others. We find ourselves doing things that are NOT in accordance with our own inclinations, at least at first. The sign that you’re making progress in the Christian life is when your inclinations start to change and at least some things God wants you to do become less of a struggle. And the hardest struggle of all is sometimes the one that comes at the very beginning of the process: to believe in the love of God at all – at least, as applied to yourself.
At the bottom of many hearts, down where we don’t show it other people, many folks struggle with this notion, this thought that bubbles up in a deafening silence: That if you really knew who I was, you wouldn't like me. Couldn't like me. After all, I can only barely admit, even to myself, what’s going on in my heart – and when I do, I don’t like me very much, either. Why should you? And why should God, who knows my heart even better than I do? Oh, yeah, “Jesus love me, this I know.” And I hope so, yor heart says, but I don’t see how he can.
There is a tinge of fear that accompanies many folks’ profession of faith. They’re hoping it’s true, but they suspect that it may well not be. Not that they believe they’re bound for hell, but since they have such doubts about the love of God that has been promised them, they find themselves not being very certain about heaven, either. They’re kind of functionally agnostic about it all. So their fears lead to doubts which lead to a kind of muddle-through despair. Maybe it’ll all be true, I hope it is, but I don’t know. What I do know, is I’m an awful disappointment to God, I’m sure.
Does that voice sound familiar? Does it haunt you, sometimes?
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so 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 he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us.
Perfect love casts out fear – specifically, the fear of judgment. God has sent his Son through Hell to find you and bring you home. Do you really think he doesn’t love you? That he’ll leave you because you can’t get it right? Because you’re not good enough? When we sing, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” don’t you realize what we’re singing?
Yes, THAT’S my hope! ‘Cause I’ve got nuthin’ to give him. Nuthin’ to show for all that he’s invested in me. Still stuck on most of the sins I started with, still full of grudges and complaints, and still worried that he’ll drop me – and yet he doesn’t. And he won’t. Whom have I in heaven but thee? asks the Psalmist. Nobody. Only him. It’s not even about me. It’s all about him. I can’t add anything to the balance. He’s got to do it all. And he says he will.
All I can do is to stop trying to save myself. Stop trying to justify myself. And just give myself to him and let him save me. And if I can quit beating up on myself and believe that he’s going to save ME, because he loves ME – then I need to stop beating up on my brother, too. Because I’m not any better than he is – or she is. And the only hope either of us has is Jesus, who brings to us the love of our heavenly Father, the God who IS love.
Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns, but the one that was his brother John’s favorite was of Jacob wrestling with God, alone at Peniel. Having sent his family across the creek, Jacob stayed behind, half wondering if he could evade meeting his brother Esau by running away again. But God came to him in the night and wrestled with him and prevented him from running away. And what the hymn says it that is only God who keeps us from running away and makes us finally face ourselves -- and God. where we find, to our vast surprise, not condemnation but Love. So, as our Hymn of Response, I invite you to stand and sing that old Wesley hymn, “Come, O thou traveler unknown” – and as we sing, I invite you also to look at the one you run from and find in his face the Face of Love.