Sermon Series on First John, “Collecting Evidence of Faith”...“God is Love” I John 4:7-21
-Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
C.S. Lewis suggested that God’s love for us is a much safer subject to consider than our love for others. On this Sunday following the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on America few would argue that we live in a world largely devoid of love. Why is love so blaringly absent from our world? Because if people don’t know God, they can’t know love. When people kill in the name of God it shows they don’t know God. People can be martyrs without love; a terrorist suicide bomber is hardly a messenger of love. Pope Benedict criticized Islam for being violent a few days ago, and the Moslem world responded with violence.
John declares that people born of God are able to love, because love comes from God. It doesn’t come naturally for us. We confuse attraction and emotion with love. Our deluded world thinks love is something that makes people feel good, a “many-splendid thing.” The world is filled with people who are self-centered rather than love-centered. True love is unconditional acceptance and sacrificial commitment. While we can define love, it’s not something that can be learned. We’re only able to love through the work of Holy Spirit, Who lives in us. People you know may not read the Bible, but they are checking out “The Gospel According to You.”
“God is love”(vss 7 & 16). Everything God does is an expression of love. What God does may not be for our immediate good but our ultimate good. We’re part of a love story written by the Author and Finisher of our faith. God loves the unlovable and the undeserving, and pursues them till they stop running--then blesses them! His love compels us to love others. Love is God’s nature, and our new nature. We become what God is, and God is love! This does not mean that “love is God”, which is being in love with love, making love an idol. Love is not something we figure we ought to do but something we want to do. We fall into infatuation; we feel aroused; we choose love.
A man went to see his Pastor about some trouble he was having with contentious next-door neighbors. He explained that he tried being nice to them, but nothing seemed to work: “I know the Bible says to love our neighbors, but I doubt if anyone could love my neighbors!” The Pastor suggested that maybe his motive for being nice wasn’t exactly selfless. His kindness was calculated to make his neighbors more tolerable. “Simply love, with no agenda,” the Pastor counseled. If we love our neighbors, we desire their good. A month later the man reported back to his minister that his neighbors hadn’t changed a whole lot, but his attitude toward them had changed, and their behavior was no longer producing consternation in him…because he was focusing on loving the unlovable. We’re not responsible for how people treat us; we’re responsible for how we respond. Their bad behavior should not produce bad behavior in us.
It’s possible to have sound biblical beliefs yet show little love toward others. When we enter into a living relationship with a loving God we’re transformed into loving people. The true follower of Christ both believes and loves. “There’s an infinite difference between real Christianity and mere ideology” (Kreeft). Faith without works of love is dead (James 2:26). God’s word may reach our heads, but it has to also reach our hearts, then our feet. D.L. Moody said that “Bibles ought to be bound in shoe leather!” We’re to go beyond sentiment to action. Sentiment is “feeling without responsibility” (Wiersbe). Love is compassion with a plan.
Our works of love give God pleasure. In a cartoon, a child sees his father come home from work, briefcase in hand, and asks, “Daddy, does anyone put your work on their refrigerator?” If God had a refrigerator, our work would be on it.
Verse 9 is reminiscent of John 3:16. “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” The Cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love, extending beyond the depths of eternity. The Cross has your name on it. Other loves cannot explain the Cross. Jesus was the visible presence of God in the world, the unveiling of God’s heart…and we now serve as His visible presence. We do so imperfectly, yet we are nonetheless His body. We are His arms to a world in need of an accepting embrace. No one who has come to the Cross and experienced God’s undeserved love can return to a life of selfishness.
“This is love: not that we loved God but that He loved us” (10). No definition of love is adequate without going to the Source. Love originates with God, and is manifested in the coming of His Son. His initiates love; He doesn’t wait for us to love Him--He loved us at our worst.
We can love because “God lives in us” (12). Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. In Old Testament times, the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies within the Jewish Temple; God’s Spirit now dwells within all believers. Our inner life is empowered, which changes our outer life.
Let’s take patience, for instance, a virtue we all strive for: “God, give me patience, and I want it right now!” No one can be patient without love. We can repress impatience, which buries it, but our impatience is not dead; it’s seething under the surface, forced under by will power: “I’ll be patient if it kills me”, and it nearly does. What seems like patience is forced…but love has the power to produce real patience. “The only way to control a passion is by a stronger passion” (Kreeft).
John refers to Jesus as “the Savior of the world” (14). He is not only the Jewish Messiah but the Redeemer of all who trust Him. The Romans regarded Caesar as their savior; today in North Korea the people treat Kim Jung Il like a god. But we are loyal to One whose authority transcends any and all human liberators. We are rescued from the oppression and penalty of sin. Jesus is love incarnate.
A word of caution: “All you need is love” (the Beatles) just isn’t so. Belief in Jesus, the fullest expression of divine love, is essential. People enjoy quoting Jesus without acknowledging Him as God-the-Son. Jesus is more than a good teacher. People can know a lot about God without knowing Him.
A friend sent me a scary video depicting the return of Christ recently. How do you respond when you hear of the “day of judgment” (17)? With fear? We have no cause to be afraid; John insists that we have “confidence” facing the day we’ll stand before God. We’re no longer insecure or frightened by the coming of the Lord, because of our standing. Our position is more secure than our condition. We have no fear of punishment because our sins were judged on the Cross. We love others, not out of any threat of divine retribution, but because we’ve tasted the grace of God. We revere God but we’re not afraid of Him. We are children who respect our heavenly Father, not prisoners cringing before a judge. We need not fear God’s wrath because we have trusted in His love. Sometimes God chastens us; this is how His love appears, wanting to get us back on track.
“We love because He first loved us,” verse 19. Loving one another is an essential part of truly loving God (Marshall). This epistle tells what true faith looks like. The chapter closes by stating that the test of our love for God is in how we treat the people in our lives. Real love for God exists only when we also love others. We are so grateful and grounded in God’s love that our lives are transformed. We’re healed inwardly, making love towards others the natural outgrowth of the love we’ve experienced.
When I was studying to be a hospital chaplain at Brooke Army Medical Center I read a few books by Dr Richard Selzer, MD, stories of his experiences. He tells of standing before a hospital bed where a young woman is recovering from surgery. Her mouth is twisted. A facial nerve connected to her mouth muscles had been severed, and her deformity would be permanent. To remove a tumor in her cheek, the nerve had to be cut. Her husband, also in the post-op room, stands on the opposite side of the bed. The young wife asks, “Will my mouth always be like this?” The reluctant answer is yes. She nods silently. But her husband smiles. “I like it” he says, “It’s kind of cute.” He then bends down to kiss her crooked mouth, twisting his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works. And the doctor remains silent, in awe, in the presence of this divine love (Mortal Lessons).
God’s love is complete when it is reproduced in us. God’s love generates our love. When we love, we show that we are living in the Light.