This is a sermon I preached during Lent at Wesley United Methodist Church in Concord, NH on 25 March 2012. I have been wanting to post it, yet it took me some time to do so. May any truth in it help you to pursue love on your journey of faith.
Primary Text: John 3:14-17; Secondary Text: First Corinthians 12:4-7
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17 CEB)
Ceara has a new phrase that she started using a week or so ago, and while the phrase makes us smile, the timing of when she chooses to use it started me thinking. She will say something like,”I draw a picture, that make mommy happy.” Or, “I get shells at beach for you daddy, that make you happy.” Now, it is not that Courtney and I are unhappy or walk around the house sulking all the time. Rather, she chooses to use this phrase when we start doing the three-count. Some of you know the three-count: “Please put on your shoes one, please put on your shoes two…” Maybe it is her attempt to avoid being placed in timeout… Our response is usually something like, “What will make mommy and daddy happy is when you obey.”
Please don’t get me wrong, we like the pictures and the shells, yet we want her to learn to obey. I wonder if she thinks that maybe we won’t love her and she wants to do something to make it up to us or to earn back our love. We make sure that we let her know that we love her – no matter what, and that is a choice we have to make multiple times each day.
But what does ‘Love’ mean to a 2 1/2 year-old?
What does ‘Love’ mean to us?
What does it means that God loves us?
Love can be an ambiguous word at times, and it can mean different things to different people.
Society portrays “Love” as an ecstatic feeling that just hits us, makes us starry eyed, and causes us to do crazy things. Sometimes the World tells us that Love is an outside factor over which we have no control. It is erratic and unpredictable. So, one minute we can ‘fall in love,’ and the next minute we are ‘out of love’ as feelings wane. Sometimes we see Love used as a commodity in our world in that people either give it or withhold it based upon performance.
As Christians, though, we have a bit of a quandary because we are commanded to love.
It is no different today than it has been throughout history, which is why the story we belong to as Christians can make such a significant difference in this World.
In scripture we hear the command: Love God, Love Neighbor, Love Enemy. But what does it mean to love God with our heart, soul, and strength? Does the love of neighbor and love of enemy look the same? Does the evidence of this mean that we issue ecstatic, spontaneous proclamations of, “I Love You!” to God, Neighbor, and Enemy?
I want to suggest to you the Apostle Paul’s words, “The pursuit of Love,” – a pursuit which affects and determines other emotions and actions. I am not saying that Love as an emotion is a negative thing. In fact, saying, “I love you,” to convey deep care, emotion for, and connection to someone is a good thing. Nor am I saying, “Choose to Love.”
Rather, I am saying that the pursuit of love is a choice that transforms us. This transformation can determine our actions – and sometimes in ways that we may not necessarily be able to explain, yet in ways that we can witness their effects and witness to their effects. In this way, maybe society has it right, because love can cause one to do crazy and, at times, unpredictable things. For example, pursuing love can cause people to do the crazy and unpredictable actions of forgiveness and reconciliation. In Wesleyan language God’s choice to pursue love for us and work transformation in our lives continually is called sanctifying grace.
John chapter 3 begins by talking about transformation. It tells how transformation occurs in ways that we cannot always understand or explain, yet in ways that demonstrate real evidence – just like the wind. We cannot see it or totally explain it, but we can feel the wind or watch the effects of the wind – from the slight rustle of leaves to fallen trees; from coolness on our skin to chasing our hats across parking lots.
Today’s scripture follows this portion on transformation with John mentioning Moses, the Israelites and their sin and healing (a story found in Numbers 21), and likening Jesus to the serpent on the staff, which, when the people afflicted looked at it, they were healed. This is a seemingly obscure reference, yet one which John uses to foreshadow the extent to which God will pursue love for us.
God So Loved The World… Does God have emotion for us? For Creation?
I would like to think yes.
Scripture is the story of God’s love for all of Creation. In this story we see the emotions of happiness, anger, jealousy, and sorrow – just to name a few, and we see the pursuit love expressed as grace, redemption, transformation, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
We see in God’s human form, in Jesus, the range of human emotions and feelings, yet that is not all. In Scripture we witness that God has made a choice for Creation – for all of us – for each of us. As Christians we experience and we witness to God’s choice for us. A choice to forgive; a choice to do whatever it takes; a choice to go to the cross in order to reconcile and be in a relationship with us, and not to give up on that relationship no matter how much we have failed and probably deserve to be dropped.
The World’s predictable way of dealing with sin is condemnation and guilt. However, God’s love responds unpredictably by redeeming and reconciling. That is Love! This is the Good News – that God chooses to pursue love for all of creation.
But still, what does the pursuit of love mean for us?
First Corinthians has some great descriptors and evidences of love. If you have been to more than five weddings chances are pretty good that you have heard this read – even if it is a non-Christian wedding – because this is a beautiful piece on love. Those who are Christians may say something similar to “a reading from the love chapter in First Corinthians.” Those who do not wish to have God and the Church involved may say, “A reading from Ancient Semitic Poetry…” The point is that even the World recognizes there is something unique about God’s love even if they are not willing to name it as such.
I invite you to listen to this possibly familiar passage: “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t joyful with injustice, but it rejoices with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.”
This is a beautiful list, yet notice that none of the descriptors of love are sentimental feelings. These descriptors are choices people make. Choices made possible for us because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. In choosing pursue love differently we allow God to transform us – to sanctify us. Loving like First Corinthians 13 witnesses to the possibilities of living differently in this world. Pursuing love bears witness to the power of God to transform us because God pursues us in love. God pursues this world in love, and we bear witness to this by pursuing love in the way we live every day.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he told the disciples and the crowds the trajectory of his life – the cross and the resurrection – and they didn’t seem to understand him. He spent three years with people who didn’t seem to get his message or receive him, and many of whom end up wanting him dead. Jesus’ journey to the Cross entailed pursuing love each and every day – choices that transformed this world.
Sometimes Lent is described as, “Journeying with Jesus to the Cross.” We are a bit more than halfway through the Lenten Journey – In what situations do each of us need to pursue love in the ways that we Love God… Love Neighbor… Love Enemy…? Pursuing Love is a choice we must embrace each and every day, and sometimes multiple times each day.
The bad news is that we can’t do it on our own. The good news is that we don’t need to do it on our own, because God wants to helps us. God wants to do transformational work inside each of us. When we allow sanctifying grace to work in us, then we no longer need to live out love strictly as an emotional feeling in the flesh.
The feeling of falling in love is nice. Yet to pursue love – each and every day and, at times, in spite of circumstances – is hard, and it is the best thing we could ever do.
In John’s Gospel we hear: “God so loved the world…,” and another way to translate this is: “God loved the world in this way…” God loves Creation so much that God does the unpredictable and crazy act of becoming human living among us, dying, resurrecting, ascending, and promising not to leave us alone but to come as the comforter to stay with us until Christ returns in final victory.
Later in John’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ words, “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9)
We love because that is what Christians do. We love because God loves us. We love, yet not by having gooey feelings for people at home or at work or in the store or on the street. Rather, we love by choosing to feed, to clothe, to visit, to stand in solidarity with others, to speak truth – just to name a few things.
Pursuing love drives us to engage our World when we may not feel like it – it drives us to give of our time, treasure, and talents when we may not feel like it. Pursuing love helps us to engage in Missions – here or abroad – through prayer, giving, or going. Pursing love can lead us to forgiveness and reconciliation when we have lists as long as our arms of reasons why we are justified not to forgive and not to reconcile.
Jesus invites us to pursue love like he does. When we choose to join God pursuing love for this world we participate in God’s holy work of healing this world, and that is Good News.