Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 18th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Love John 3:14-21
For God so loved the world. Actually, a better translation to give the proper idea to our ears would be something like, - For thus God loved the world, or In this way God loved the world. Which raises a question. What is love? Is love a feeling, as in ‘God loved the world soooooo much?’ Or is love an action, as in ‘God loved the world in this way, by doing this thing’? Or is love a condition, a state of being, as in ‘I am in love’, the state of being in a particular type of relationship? It’s confusing.
I do think we can say at least two things about love, one that it is very important to us human beings, and two, that by and large we humans have messed up love horribly. Sometimes we treat love as just a feeling, a feeling that we enjoy, that we soak up, that we go to great lengths to find. But just a feeling. These days we tend to think that when the feeling of love disappears, or even just fades a little, this releases us from all obligation to the person we said we loved, just a little while ago. Easy come, easy go, I don’t feel like I love you anymore, and so I’ll be going.
Sometimes we treat love as just an action. Of course, very unhappily, we all too often reduce love as an action to those physical relations that God intends to be the exclusive, private shared joy of a husband and wife. Sexual love is designed by God to be private, protected by marriage vows, a special gift from God that can give joy, including the joy of children. But we poor miserable sinners have largely cheapened this category of love into an anything goes, do whatever feels good, all too often bought and sold, dirty, dingy affair, that injures and insults and causes all kinds of unexpected and hurtful consequences. In our culture God’s good gift of sexual love has been for many reduced to recreation, recreation about which we feel we must make stupid jokes, to cover up the hurt and confusion that we suffer.
For in this way God loved the world, but the world in turn has messed up love. But this still leaves the question, “What is love?” Well, love is an action, a selfless serving action towards another. And love is certainly a feeling, a sometimes overwhelming emotion of joy and happiness felt because of our relation to another. And romantic love, love between a man and a woman, is real, and important, part of God’s good plan. I also think we can rightly distinguish a category of love that is a state of being, a state of being in a relationship with another, with commitments and service and selflessness as its rightful anchors. And yet, knowing and acknowledging these categories of love does not yet get us to the full meaning of love, and certainly does not solve our struggles to know and enjoy lasting love in our lives. Something is still missing.
God is missing. God is missing from this definition of love. The same John who wrote our Gospel reading also wrote this: Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8) God is love. John doesn’t in this particular verse say God is loving, or that God should be loved, or that God loves the world. All of these things are true, but John says more. John, inspired by God the Holy Spirit, says God is love. Love is not simply a feeling, not just an action, not just a state of committed relationship. Love is all of those things, but even more, love is a being. Love is The Being, the Source of all Being, the Great I AM, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. God is love.
This is hard to understand, isn’t it? We can readily comprehend the idea of love as a feeling. Even if we confuse feelings of lust and infatuation for feelings of love, nonetheless, we get the idea. And love as an action is easily grasped when we see a mother comforting her child, or a child steadying the walk of an elderly parent or grandparent. We even get the idea of love as disciplining actions, like the love of the parent who says no to sleeping in or says no to going to this activity or that, in order to make sure their children learn to gather on Sunday morning in God’s house, to hear His Word and receive His love. And, while we are very much less likely these days to hold ourselves or others accountable to do the work it takes to sustain a loving relationship, we nevertheless recognize and celebrate the value of lifelong love relationships. But how can God be love? How do we understand this?
Well, to try to understand, we might look for a comparison. The closest being to God that we regularly see and interact with is a person. Now, people aren’t very close to being like God, but they were created in His image, and they are the only comparison we have. So, let’s consider. We know that a person can be lovely, as in my lovely wife. And we know that a person can be loving, and lovable. And we recognize loving relationships and acts of love between persons, as when my lovely, loving and lovable wife commits herself to living her life with me and loving me. But we don’t say a person is love. I don’t say “my wife is love.” That doesn’t make sense to us. Love is something about a person, or something a person feels, or does. But John says that God is love. So, God must be very different from us. And this is remarkably good news.
There are many things we can say from Scripture about God, for instance, He is eternal and unchanging, having been Himself since forever, and continuing on as Himself, forever and ever. God is all-knowing, nothing is hidden from Him. God is Holy, completely different, set apart, and completely without sin or evil. God is all powerful, nothing He wills can be stopped, He is the unstoppable Sovereign of all things.
All of these things we can say about God are true, but none of them are good news for us. The unchanging, eternal Holiness of God, His unchangeable will, His almighty power, all of these pose problems for us, because of our sin. God has commanded us to obey Him, even more, He created us to live in His will, which includes hearing and following His Word, which Word instructs us to love our neighbors, to keep love pure, to never injure or insult or use others. The unchanging, pure, sin-hating nature of the Almighty Lord God means we are in big trouble, because of our many sins, and because we are simply sinful, from birth. Based on these truths about God, how could sinners like us ever love Him, how could we ever trust that He will not reject and punish us, for this is what we deserve.
But wait, there’s more. God is almighty, eternal, unchanging, holy, pure. And, besides all these things, John says that God is love. And as love, God then loves to serve, loves to protect, loves to rescue, loves to be in relationship. And this is good news, good news for sinners, as John continues in his first letter: By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten 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 propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:9-11
I want you to learn three things from this passage. First, while really wrapping our mind around the truth that God is love will always be difficult for us, at least in this life, you can see in this passage how the reality of God being love is revealed: God manifested or revealed His love in us, by sending His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Two categories of love are in play here. The one true God who is love is also a relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a relationship which means the God who is love could also love in action, the Father could send His Son to love us.
Second, propitiation means the atoning sacrifice, the sacrifice made by Christ to atone for, to make up for, to pay for, our sins. Jesus Christ, lifted up on the Cross like the serpent on the pole in the wilderness, was lifted up to be the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice, for our sins, indeed, for the sins of the whole world. Once for all, there is enough merit in the suffering of God’s Son to cover all sin. Our sinfulness, our lack of love, creates a problem between us and God that we could never solve. But because God is love He has quite naturally done what it takes to overcome our problem, that we might know His love.
Third, notice how John begins and ends with a call for us to love, but the heart of this passage is all about God loving us. Listen again:
First the call to love: Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God,
Then the heart of the passage: for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten 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 propitiation for our sins.
Finally, now that the fount and source of love has been proclaimed, John returns to the call to love: Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
The only way we will ever truly love one another, the only way we will ever begin to leave behind the pain and the betrayals and the disappointments that plague our weak efforts at loving, is by first and always being centered on the love of God, which is given to us in Christ crucified. His love lifts us up, and changes us, giving us new hearts, filled with His Spirit, who moves us to love others. The first and most important step towards loving others is to know the love of God given on the Cross of Jesus. Know God in Christ, and He will move you to love others.
When our love fails, we break trusts. The trust that should exist between a husband and wife, or a parent and child, is broken by failures to love. Our feelings of love are lost when someone we count on fails to come through for us, and our faith in them is broken. When we are loved, and when we love, trust is built up, but human trust is a fragile thing, easily destroyed. This is why we must always depend on the love of God first, for God is love, and also the source of all love. And God has loved the world in this way, that He gave His only begotten Son into death on the Cross, to take away our sins, to wash away all the reasons for God to hate us, and for us not to trust God. All who believe in Him, in the Son of God lifted up, will not perish, will not suffer for their sins, but rather are forgiven and will live forever in God’s love.
God has loved you, in the giving of His Son. Believe it, live in His love, and rejoice, today, and forever and ever, Amen.