Summary: What does it mean to say that God’s love is "personal"? What difference does it make?
Most people would agree, I think, that our society is becoming increasingly impersonal. More and more of the daily activities that used to involve contact with another human being are being automated. For instance, some of us are old enough to remember the days before telephone answering machines and voice mail. In those days, when you called someone on the phone, they either answered or they didn’t. And if they did, you would be talking with a real live person. No recordings, no computerized voice synthesizers. Another living creature. Sounds rather quaint, doesn’t it? Using a telephone to have a conversation, instead of just using it to leave messages? These days, if you call any business larger than the local pharmacy, you are almost certain to get voice mail, a recorded message with a list of various options and which buttons to push. But woe to the hard-of-hearing or inattentive person who doesn’t listen carefully, and who pushes the wrong button. You will descend in to the fourth circle of voice-mail hell, never to escape. They will find your lifeless body slouched over the receiver, while over and over the message plays, "Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line. Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line."
And it’s not just voice mail. It’s everywhere you go. You can literally go through the day without a significant encounter with another human being. When you stop for gas, not only is there no gas station attendant (you know, the guys who used to pump your gas), but you don’t even have to go inside to pay. You don’t have to talk to a cashier. You just slip your credit card in the pump and away you go. At the grocery store, they’ve replaced half the checkout lines with scanners that you operate yourself. The ATM has replaced the bank teller.
I grew up in a small town, and I know first-hand that there are benefits and drawbacks to living in a small town, just like anywhere else. But one of the benefits of small town life is that it is personal. More personal than some people would like, in fact, but nevertheless, it’s definitely personal. Your doctor knows who you are. You’re not just another name on a list of HMO subscribers. Your mailman is a deacon at your church. The people on the school board are your neighbors. The mayor is your daughter’s high school math teacher. The chief of police is a guy you went to school with. No, it’s not Mayberry-RFD. Small towns have their problems, too. But one problem they don’t usually have is being too cold and impersonal. And that’s one reason why a lot of people are moving out of the cities and suburbs and back into the small towns. An article in the Dec. 8, 1997 issue of TIME magazine stated that since 1990, two million more Americans moved from cities to rural areas than moved in the other direction. In other words, we’re in the midst of a net migration out of metropolitan areas and into small towns. Now, I’m sure there are several reasons for this trend, including crime rates, cost of living, the desire for a slower pace of life, but I believe part of the appeal is that on a deep level, we all want and need contact with other people. It’s what made the TV show "Cheers" so appealing: people want to go where everybody knows their name, where they can walk into a PTA meeting or a school board meeting or a town council meeting, and they don’t need any introductions because they already know everybody there. People are rebelling against the depersonalization of modern life, and they’re seeking a sense of connection; a sense of community, in small towns.
That’s the background. But my sermon this morning isn’t about urban and rural population trends. Nor is it about the depersonalizing effects of modern technology. It’s about that need, that yearning we all have, to be connected. To be known. To have someone acknowledge our existence as an individual. What we all want so desperately is to be understood on a deep, fundamental level, and not only understood, but accepted.
In the past, you may remember, I’ve argued in sermons that the church is the ideal place for this kind of connection and this kind of community to happen. For one thing, we believe in the dignity and worth of every person, because we know that every person is created by God in His image. Not only that, but we have an understanding of life that tends to break down the barriers between people. We know that each of us is deeply flawed and ruined by sin, that all of us are in constant need of God’s grace and forgiveness, that our only hope for salvation is in the perfect life and substitutionary death of another person, Jesus Christ. And because of that, none of us has any reason to boast, none of us has any reason to think of ourselves as being somehow better than others. There’s nothing in us to commend us to God; nothing we can do to earn his acceptance or favor. In the final analysis, when it comes to God, we are all beggars and debtors. But because God has accepted us in Christ, we can rejoice together. We can accept one another, with all of our flaws, just as God has accepted us.