Sunday, August 21, 2011

1 John 4:1-21

"Loving Mirrors"
MasterPiece Church
21 August 2011

During his heyday at the Crystal Cathedral Robert Schuller used to get everyone to turn to their neighbors and say God loves you and so do I.

In that spirit I would invite you to repeat after me -- “God loves you and so do I.”

Frankly, and this is not intended as a criticism of Schuller, who was a generation or two before me, leading in a different social context, and an era when a good jingle could make or break a product. But frankly, “God loves you and so do I...” comes across to me as a bit trite and contrived.

Again, that may have more to do with the media suspicion and cynicism that characterizes my generation.

I mean, what is the love that can be reduced to a casual throw away slogan?

Now, of course, unlike what we see pitched on TV or hear on the radio -- Schuller’s diddy does make sense -- logically and theologically. It may even be biblical.

If you remember your high school LOGIC you might be able to rephrase this in the form of a SYLLOGISM. That is, "God loves you. My life reflects the activity of God. Therefore I love you."

The love that I have for you is based in the love that God has. And that is certainly consistent with what John is saying here in the letter we call 1 John.

Last Sunday we talked about the fact that true love is always characterized by sacrificial action. Active love is the mark of true faith.

This week we're looking at the basis for that active sacrificial love -- the major premise in the syllogism -- God's love.
  • Why ought we to love each other?
  • Why are we to obey God's word?
  • Why do we have fellowship with God?
All because of God's love.

All of this talk about logic and syllogisms is relatively unimportant if you remember this one thing, and this is the key point this morning. We love because God loves.

One of the most profound theological statements in the entire Bible is found in our text this morning -- profound and yet so simple that anyone can get it.

Remember, John is not writing to a bunch of doctors of theology but to ordinary people like you and me.
  • People who struggle to love their little sisters...
  • People who have undoubtedly "lost at love" at sometime...
  • People who are trying to figure out if THEY are really loved..
To such people as us John writes, here in 4:7, “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God...”

“Love comes from God” -- that's it -- four words that express one of the most profound truths known to humanity – four words which also rock the foundations of the false teaching that John is opposing.

The false teachers, like the some of the eastern religious thinking that has crept into our own world today, would have been happy if John had simply said: "God is light." or "God is Spirit" or that "God is some kind of powerful but impersonal force."

But to say that God is love or that love comes from God is to cast him in very personal terms. It suggests that he is knowable by ordinary people.

I teach a world religions survey class at PIU -- and I’m always learning new things about the various religions BUT so far I have not come across any religion in the world which thinks of God in quite this way -- other than Judaism and Christianity.

It suggests that at the core of his character is a kind, caring very personal being who wants to relate to people personally. At a level deeper than jingles or trite sayings. “....for love is from God.”

Just bask in that for a second. You may have heard this so many times that it no longer sinks in to impact you the way it needs to -- the way that God wants it to. Hear this as though for the very first time – and think about it God is love.

You are perhaps already aware of the four main words that are used to describe love in the ancient Greek language -- the language in which the NT was written.

One such word is PHILEOPhileo is often used to describe the kind of strong affection that exists between close friends or brothers.

Phileo, as perhaps you have guessed, is the root word of PHILADELPHIA -- the city of brotherly love.

Phileo, however, is NOT the word that John uses when he says that "love is from God."

Another word is EROS. Eros is obviously the root word for the English erotic. So I'm sure that it's no surprise to you that eros usually refers to passionate love – the sparks that fly between to lovers. And the Bible speaks quite highly of this type of love.

Eros, however, is not the word that John uses when he says that love comes from God.

A third word is STORGE. I don't know of any English words which claim storge as root.

Storge is a word that refers to casual affection or loyalty. This is the kind of love that goes on between a boy and his dog -- Timmy and Lassie -- another YouTube assignment for some of you!

It's also the word used to describe the love between a ruler and the populace. The Brits say, "We love the queen!"

I have some friends who are really into their Mac computers and iPhones. They will tell you that they love Apple. That's storge... not amore – but storge.

Storge, however, is not the word that John uses when he says "love comes from God" or that “God is love.”

No, John uses the word AGAPE -- which we've anglicized to agape.

This is a powerful, powerful word that the biblical writers practically had to invent in order to describe the love of God.

As a matter of fact there is only one known reference to agape outside the Bible. It is a reference to the godess Isis, who is given Agapao as a title -- and that is perhaps 100 years after the apostolic writers finished writing. And even then, it's not used in the same exact sense as the biblical writers use it.

I don’t think we can know if the biblical writers concocted this word or commandeered a word in use but not in writing. It’s hard to say.

In the Bible agape refers to the SELF-LESS – totally giving love of God. This is a revolutionary form of love. All other forms of love expect something in return or they vaporize, cease to exist. But agape is "in spite of love."

God says,
  • "I will continue to love you in spite of the fact that you hate me."
  • "I will continue to love you in spite of the fact that you are sinful rebellious against me."

Simply put, because it is God's very nature to love... God is agape. It emanates and radiates from him. He couldn't stop loving if he wanted to. Even when he is angry or judging -- those things flow from his love.

What a contrast between the God of the Bible and the gods of the Greco-Roman world. The Greek gods thought nothing of lusting after beautiful women. They were hot and heavy into eros. But they never loved sinners.

God's agape is most vividly expressed in Jesus Christ. John is writing along in verse 8 -- “But anyone who does not love does not know God—for God is love.”

Then the very next thought that pops into his head is about Jesus.
“God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (vss. 9-10)
Now that is "in spite of love." In spite of our sin – God loves us and in his love he provided for our sins. It's not that we loved God first. If you think that you first started to love God before he loved you, raise your hand.

He loved us first and continued to do so at great cost to himself, sending his son to die a real death with real pain, and then to rise again to life – bridging the relational gap between himself and sinners.

Some of the translations use the word “propitiation” in vs. 10 -- “He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Propitiation is a technical term used to describe the way that sacrifices eliminate guilt. Biblical scholars like to argue over whether it is a proper translation of the idea in this verse. Frankly, I think some translators use it just to confuse English as second language readers.

The NLT strikes a healthy balance here “...he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.”

The point of the verse is to emphasize the love of God -- not to sidetrack us through a technical argument over the nature of the sacrifice God makes on our behalf. The fact is that his love is so great that the depths of his generosity will never be completely understood.

It is a deep love that John is talking about when he says that God is love -- the kind of love that would involve a sacrifice which he knew that we would never be able to complete comprehend. A mystery.

When we lived on Guam we had a colleague who was on an even tighter budget that Cheryl and I. Sometimes when she was busy and preoccupied I’d steal her car (I knew where she kept her keys). I’d drive it off campus about four miles to the gas station and fill the tank with gasoline. Then I’d return the car to the exact spot where she left it -- and put the keys back. She never knew that it had been moved.

It was a very small way that we could help her out and I am guessing that to this day she still does not know how it is that her gas tank kept refilling itself. It was a mystery -- and we are happy to leave it at that. It’s more fun that way. You all are sworn to secrecy if this ever comes up.

And you can imagine the pleasure that God derives when we enter into his fun. You see, God's love didn't end with the earthly life and times of Christ Jesus.

God continues to demonstrate to the world his great agape love -- and he does so, through us.

1 John 4:12 (NLT) – “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love has been brought to full expression in us.”

Also verses 16 17 –
“We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.”
The CEB captures the thrust here at the end of verse 17 quite well, too -- “...because we are exactly the same as God is in this world.”

We are the visible representation -- the reflection of God’s love. God's love is perfectly and completely visible among us. When we love each other we are the visible expression of God's agape love.

You see, the world knows God's love through us because when we're loving one another the world has a complete or perfect picture of God's love. As a matter of fact this love is so complete that on the day of final reckoning -- when we're standing before God we won't have to be afraid because when God looks at us he'll see his very own love reflected back to him through our lives.

We'll be mirrors – the product of fine polishing by God himself. For God is love.

"Therefore, we ought to love one another" -- as we said last week, and as is pointed out again in verse 11. I guess it is one of those things that bears repeating -- even to the seasoned Christian. “Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other.”

Beloved, dear friends, dear ones – however you want to put it – if we claim to be tuned into a loving God then we better be acting in accordance with the agape love that we have received -- so that we are reflecting that love.

Of course, this was the problem with the false teachers John was opposing. They claimed to have special receivers so that they were better tuned into God than anyone else.

They claimed to know God in a way that was superior to everyone else. And John is scratching his head and saying, "These guys can't be for real!" God is love and speaks the language of agape love. How then can these pseudo-experts on God really know him if they don't even speak his language?

As John says in verse 20 – “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?”

The point is this, if we're in fellowship with God we will reflect, as his finely polished mirrors, his love – not only on the final day of judgment – but also on a daily basis as we relate to each other.

If we're not loving our brothers and sisters in Christ then we obviously are not in tune with the loving God. We love because God is love.

Some religious groups are known for the great cathedrals they build or the television shows they produce -- or even the programs they offer. And those things are fine. It’s not really bad to say God loves you and so do I -- as long as there is genuine loving sacrificial agape love backing it up.

What if the church didn’t worry so much about all of these other very very secondary things and instead built its reputation on its loving action?

Now, theoretically all of this sounds great. But there is a certain tension here with which John doesn't directly deal. John says, if you're loving one another, you're in tune with the God of agape love.

John lays it all out in very black and white terms. Yet I often fall into the gray area. I'm often loving but not always.

I don't really hate anyone but I'm not always loving to everyone. Do you get what I'm saying? Can you relate to that? Do you find yourself vacillating between love and indifference or perhaps in some cases between love and hate?

You want to be consistent and you want to love people -- to go beyond just saying “God loves you and so do I” – especially for those who are among the believers – but frankly, you only have so much energy. You only have so much that you feel you can give!

And it's not really all that helpful to tell you that you ought to be loving one another when you feel that you're loving all that you can right now.

Let me suggest that this was also the case with John's readers. They weren't all that different from us. I mean, if they were perfect Christians John wouldn't have written about these things to them. He is writing to encourage them to live more consistently with the love of God. And at the same time he's writing off the false teachers because they are not at all in tune with God's love.

His intention is not to discourage those of us who are weak but to encourage us. No, we're not perfect lovers but that's John's point in verse 10 – “This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.”

God recognizes that we are not perfect in our obedience -- that we're flawed mirrors –- and he's made provision for that.

Well, is this then an excuse to relax and forget everything else that John is saying?

Hardly, and I really doubt that anyone here is going to take it as such. We all want to be better lovers. And that's the problem. How do we do that?

Sometimes I think, "Well, if I'd just try a little harder and put a little more effort into being a loving person, then I'd get better at it." So I get all psyched up and geared up to love everybody and I go out into the world with a big smile -- only to find that someone on the freeway flips me off and it puts me in a bad mood and all the psyching up I did goes to waste.

I can't always love like I'm suppose to. I don't seem to have enough love in me to consistently give out. What should I do?

Well, I'll tell you what you shouldn't do.

First of all, the solution isn't to flip off the other guy on the freeway – unless you really want to shoot it out with a crazy. And the solution isn't to simply try harder to love each other. Nor is the solution to brow-beat ourselves with our failures – there's a lot of that going on.

No, the solution is to focus or redirect our focus onto God's love – which is what John is trying to do in this letter. You see, the more we become aware of God's love – the more we really begin to grok -- grasp "the deep deep love of Jesus..."

The more we listen to him say how much he loves us – the more, then, we begin to speak his language –- the more his Holy Spirit empowers us to love one another.

You see, it's God's love, not our own love or efforts at love. It's not our good intentions, that are the source of the love that we have for each other. It's the love that comes from God. And personally I find this to be a great relief. I don't have to dig down deeper into myself looking for a previously untapped vein of love.

This is what new age philosophy and religion would have us do. In new age spirituality or eastern thinking we are all a part of a great love force that makes up the universe – an impersonal force in the sense that it transcends any one person or personality or way of living. We're all a part of this one field of love – and thus we just have to dig down inside of ourselves to find the love that is inherently a part of the universe.

You have it all inside yourself and you just have to unleash it. And there are a number of ways to do that – or so would argue the new spirituality gurus.

But none of this is gospel. Christians don't dig deep inside themselves looking for love – instead we look outside self.

I look beyond myself! I re-read the gospels looking for the ways that God loves me. I sing the songs that remind me of God's love. I thank him for his love when I pray.

It’s when we look at him that we begin to mirror him.

In 1921 Lewis Lawes became the warden of the famous Sing Sing prison in New York. He his wife and three daughters moved into the warden’s quarters just down the road and outside the fence.

Lawes was considered to be an extraordinary warden -- introducing a lot of reforms -- including a sports program. But actually, it was his wife Catherine who got the most attention. At the first prison basketball game she showed up with their three young daughters in tow.

I mean, we’re talking about one of the most notorious prisons – and she took her daughters inside. And she didn’t worry about it in the least bit. Her philosophy was that if she invested in the prisoners they would look out for her.

And such was the case. One prisoner went blind and she taught him to read braille. Another went deaf and she figured out how to teach him to sign. It went on and on like this for years.

The prisoners loved Catherine because she obviously loved them. And seeing that love for them had a noticeable affect on them.

One day in 1937 the warden didn’t show up for work. And word got around that he was home with the girls because Catherine had been killed in an automobile accident.

By mid-morning a large group of prisoners had gathered at the fence, in shock, staring toward the warden’s house outside the prison grounds.

The assistant warden – recognized the depths of their grief – and the impact of Catherine’s love – opened the gates and let the prisoners leave to go to the warden’s house. "Just be back by night roll call," he told them. And they were.

They had seen love and they were changed by it.

It wasn’t a program. It wasn’t a jingle. It wasn’t something that they mustered up from within. They had looked into the eyes of love and they were changed.

Real love does that. And that’s the good news.

Let's pray:

Sit quietly for just a minute. Ponder anew in your mind the fact that God is love. Thank him for his love. Experience it in a fresh way.

Lord, we try too hard. We think that success depends on us and our own abilities to strategize and pull off loving actions. Maybe it's because we read only the "ought" side of the message -- we ought to love each other. And we get so wrapped up in making it happen that we forget the source. Forgive us for our impertinence. Restore us with a fresh glimpse of your love and all the ways that you love us -- especially with a fresh vision of Jesus -- who in love laid down his life that we might have life and through whom we live to your honor and glory. Amen.

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