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Archive for May, 2021

One of my favorite Bible storybooks.

God Is Love. Really.

A Sermon on 1 John 4:7-21

God is love.  Really.  Love is who God is.  Love is what God does.  Love is why God created everything, and why God created us in God’s image, the image of love.  Love is God’s number one concern.  Every telling of God’s story must start with love, and end with love, and be filled with love all the way through; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.

But so many people tell the story as though God’s number one concern is sin, and stamping sin out is God’s number one goal. Since sin is totally incompatible with a holy God, God can’t stand to be around it or even to look at it.

There were some in Jesus’ day who put sin at the center of the story.  Their focus was on controlling sin.  We certainly should not knock the very good and moral lives they lived, trying to honor God by keeping God’s law down to the last detail.  Trying to walk in the ways of God is honorable and worthy of respect.

But these people felt they HAD to be right or else.  There was one right way of interpreting the scriptures—their way, and one right way to practice the sacred laws—their way.  And any other way was itself sin.  Any other way did not please God.  Any other way invited God’s anger and judgment. 

These are the people that Jesus got in trouble with.  He read the scriptures differently, and he put them into practice differently.  It seemed to them that Jesus was lax in his observance of the sacred law and even worse, teaching others to do the same.  That in itself was sin in their eyes.  Jesus was leading people astray.  What’s more, Jesus didn’t just tolerate people whom they judged unclean and immoral—the “sinners.”  Jesus welcomed them.  Jesus even shared the table with them.  Being soft on sin was in itself sin.

Some of these folk set out to prove themselves right and Jesus wrong.  I’m sure ego and pride and wanting to maintain control was involved, but I think fear was the deeper motivator.  Fear is the motivator when people feel they have to be right.  Things had to be just so.  A few even believed that the Messiah would not come until all of God’s people got their act together and kept the law perfectly.  “If we want to be an independent nation again,” they maintained, “everybody needs to get with it and follow God’s law!  God will never rescue us from the Roman oppressors unless and until we all stop offending God and start pleasing God!”  No wonder right scripture interpretation and right practice meant so much to them. 

When people center God’s story on sin, God often comes across as somebody with a hair-trigger temper who gets offended easily, won’t accept anything less than perfection in every way, holds grudges, and has to be placated and appeased to keep his anger in control.  If God’s number one objective is to destroy sin, that’s just one step away from saying God’s objective is to destroy sinners.  The result is an understanding of God based on fear, and not the healthy kind.  Not the kind of awe and respect that prompts one to bow the head.  Fear, instead of the thankfulness that prompts one to open the arms and the heart to God.

Heard through fearful ears, God’s story comes across this way: Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, God has borne a great grudge against all humanity.  Adam and especially Eve didn’t get it right, and nobody since has gotten it right, and nobody can get it right.  That’s sin.  The penalty for any sin whatsoever, big or small, doesn’t matter, is eternal punishment.  As a consequence, by default, all souls are destined for everlasting torment in hell.  Somebody’s got to be punished so God can forgive us.  Somebody’s got to be the target for God’s rage, so God sent Jesus to be the target and take the blow that should fall on each and every sinner. 

But that doesn’t have to happen to you if you just get this one thing right.  Believe that Jesus did this for you and accept him into your heart.  Jesus saves you from God.  If you get this wrong, the punishment is eternal torture.

Think about what that implies: God’s steadfast love really isn’t forever because if you don’t get this belief right before you die, that’s it.  God’s love for you is over. God will not be even as merciful as the worst human terrorist.

Anxious people looking at the salvation story this way are often critical and judgmental of others who, in their eyes, don’t have their scripture interpretation and beliefs right, and/or don’t have their actions right, and/or don’t take a hard line on others who don’t get it right.  For them it isn’t just sin that destines you for hell.  Being soft on sin also destines you for hell.  And if you don’t warn others that they’re being soft on sin, God will ultimately hold that against you.

Fearful people sometimes play on people’s fears as a way to tell the story of Jesus.  Scaring people is even applauded.  Here’s an example: Every once in a while our church gets an invitation in the mail to an event called a Judgment House, or to a show with a title like “Hell’s Flames, Heaven’s Gates.”  They especially want churches to bring their young people.  They dramatize the torture that lies ahead for all who don’t accept Jesus into their heart.

Is fear really a good foundation for a loving, life-giving, life-saving relationship with God?  Is fear a good starting point for telling the story of Jesus?  John the writer of today’s readings doesn’t think so.  The foundation is God’s love.  The starting point is God’s love.  We love because God loved us first.  We are here because God loves us.  And the reason we can love is that God loved us first.  God pours God’s love out for us and into us in the same way we do our own children, only even more.  That is why John calls us beloved children of God, born of God.

How deep is this love?  If we are tempted to doubt God’s love, John says to look to the cross.  Remember what God did through the cross and resurrection.  Yes, it is an act of sacrifice, but it is not the act of an enraged father punishing his child. The sacrifice is God’s letting go in love, not pulling his son back out of harm’s way.  Not withholding his son or his love from humanity.  Even when humanity rejected him, Jesus didn’t pull back.  He laid his life down.  And here’s the wondrous mystery: he defeated sin and death by taking it on himself.  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ disarms sin and death, breaks its power, delivers us from it.  Sin is real and it is a killer, but through Christ we live.  The cross and resurrection are the sign, the seal, the guarantee of God’s mighty, eternal love.

This love is overwhelming.  This love is perfect.  This love chases fear away.  There is no fear in love, but love casts out fear, John writes, for fear focuses on punishment.  This love holds us safe.  Safe in Jesus, who is God’s supreme offering of love, we are not afraid of judgment. 

God’s primary objective is not to stamp out sin, but to love us in every way, and that includes rescuing us from the grip of sin and death.  The heart of the salvation story is not how to keep God from punishing us, but an invitation to let God love us.  To stake our whole lives on God’s love, to live in it, to abide in it, to embody it for others.  There is no need to be scared of being wrong.  John wants everyone to know and believe the love that God has for us.  I think that’s why he keeps saying the same thing over and over again, why he keeps on urging us to abide in God’s love, to rest in it, to live it.  That is why he keeps on urging us to share it with others.

And we can share it with others, courageously, freely, graciously, generously, even when they don’t love us back because we are safe in Jesus.  We are safe in God’s love.  Like Jesus, we dare to put our lives on the line, loving with all that we are and all that we have.  Concern for others’ wellbeing is as second nature to us as well as our own, because we know God’s got us safe.  God’s seeing to our wellbeing, always.  We love because God loves us first.

God is love.  Really.  Love is who God is.  Love is what God does.  Love is why God created everything, and why God created you and me in God’s image, the image of love.  Love is God’s number one concern.  God’s steadfast love really does endure forever, for you and for me.  Really.  And that’s the story I love to tell.  AMEN.

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