The Language of Advent: Love

1 John 4:7-21
December 22, 2019
Matt Goodale

I’m going to read that passage again that Linda just read for us, because I think this is one of the most profound passages in all of Scripture. So you can close your eyes or read along in a pew Bible, whatever you need to do to soak up this message and let it really sink in:

7-10 My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

11-12 My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!

17-18 God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

19 We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.

20-21 If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.

Well, there you have it folks. I don’t know if I even need to preach a sermon on that. That’s about as clear as Scripture gets on anything. God is love. God loves you. So love others.

If only we allowed things to be that simple. But we have this uncanny ability to overcomplicate things, don’t we?

We have silly theological debates over whether it is more important to love God first or to love others first. Which one do we put our primary amount of attention and energy into: loving God or loving others? John’s answer is simply ‘yes’. You can’t have one without the other.

And then we go and sometimes knowingly, but most of the time unknowingly set up boundaries around who is allowed into God’s love and who is not. God obviously loves “these people”, but we’re not so sure about “these people” over here. The measure of love we think God has for certain people will always determine the measure of love we have for them.

Let’s be honest, for a religion that is supposedly all about love, Christianity produces some of the most unloving and exclusionary people we know. In the news nowadays, Christians are more known for who or what they are against than what they are for.  Christianity largely seems more concerned with keeping the church pure and free of blemish, fixing others so they look just like me, and all the while rejecting those who don’t believe, live or look the same way I do.

Perhaps some of us have experienced some of the hatred and exclusion of Christian communities because of any number of reasons—gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, lifestyle or theological beliefs. But we can’t just point the finger, because we do this too. We may think ourselves more tolerant or more loving, but in reality we have no tolerance for intolerant people, no love for unloving people, and thus we become what we hate.

Our love it seems is conditional and limited. And so we like to complicate messages in Scripture like this one to wiggle our way into believing in a God who loves like us: conditionally, with limits and boundaries. It is almost as if we believe that God’s unconditional love is too good to be true. Surely we can’t deserve such love; there need to be conditions, stipulations for God to love us so well. And so as Christians we busy ourselves creating these boundaries, these conditions, these “right beliefs”. Until we realize that having the right belief or the exact right theology has become more important to us than having the right kind of love.

But I wonder if our love for others remains conditional and limited because we haven’t yet experienced how vast, how bottomless, how limitless, how unconditional and how incredible God’s love for us really is. It’s too good to be true, so we don’t believe it.

The author of this passage, John, knows all about the ways we try to complicate God and get out of loving those we don’t want to, and so he wants to simplify things for us. John sums God up in one word: love. God is love. That sentence summarizes the whole Bible. That truth is the measuring rod against which every other view and image of God must be measured. God is love.

If you are ever given a view of God that doesn’t match up with this, throw it out. It’s unhelpful. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other images of God in Scripture. We do get images of God as angry and wrathful that are problematic to reconcile with this image of unconditional love. But the question becomes: which image do we start with? Our starting point is important. If Jesus is any indication of what our starting point should be, then I think to start with a loving God is a safe bet. Jesus is the fullest revelation of God – Scripture tells us that if we look at Jesus we know who God is. And in Jesus we find unconditional love, especially for those on the margins. The only times we see Jesus angry is when someone tries to overcomplicate and limit God’s love; when someone tries to draw a boundary around God’s love, Jesus has some strong words.

When asked by a religious leader what is the most important law in the whole Torah, Jesus responds: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole law, which mind you was 613 laws in the Jewish tradition, is summed up in this: love. The religious leader wanted to complicate things, but Jesus simplified them. And that is what John is attempting to do for us again today.

John has four simple messages about love that he is communicating in this passage, and with these four messages he hopes to cut through the ways we try to overcomplicate God’s love.

John’s first message is that God loved us first.

Before we did anything of consequence, before we did any good work, before we even knew our own name, God loved us. Knowing what we would become, with all our faults, our failures, our cracks, God still loved us first. Before we could ever reciprocate an ounce of that love, God loved us. Even if we never reciprocate any of that love, even if we turn our back on God and walk away, God loves us first.

This type of love is too good to be true! Many of us have never experienced that kind of unconditional love; some of us have caught only glimpses of it. God’s love is a free gift. And the thing about gifts is that they aren’t given because recipients deserve them. Imagine on Christmas Day, you’ve bought a gift for a special friend, and upon opening it they exclaim: “I figured I had this coming! I was due for a good gift from you sometime!” That would be a slap in the face. You don’t give them the gift because they are worthy or deserving of it, but because they’re your friend and it’s an act of love.

God’s love for us is a free gift, it is undeserved, unmerited, unearned. It’s not something you can lose. Notice what John doesn’t say: he doesn’t say, “Love others so God can love you.” He says, “Go and love others because God already loves you!” We learn how to love others based on how God loves us. God’s love is the starting point. We love because God first loved us. If God is love, then whoever abides in God abides in love, and whoever abides in love abides in God. God loved us first.

John’s second message is that God’s love has no limits…so neither should ours.

Do you notice how John did not add any stipulations, any conditions on his command to love others? There are no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts”. We are the ones who add conditions. We may say that we love everyone, because we know that’s the good Christian thing to say, but in practice, our life tells a different story.

The history of the church is riddled with moves towards exclusion rather than inclusion, as conditions are added and boundaries are drawn…often done in the name of Christ! You must believe this exact doctrine, you must have this sexual orientation, this type of gender identity, you must be baptized this way, have this type of atonement theory and you must take communion in this manner to be allowed to be part of our “loving Christian community”. Exclusion always sends a message about who is lovable and who is not. If the church does not accept me, then surely God does not either.

In Acts 8, we have a powerful story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. The Eunuch was the epitome of someone who was excluded from the majority religion and society of his day. He would likely be excluded from most churches today too. His religious affiliation is ambiguous, and as a eunuch, his sexuality and his gender identity are ambiguous. He doesn’t fit properly into any of the boxes we want people to fit into. And Philip, an early Christian disciple, encounters the Eunuch on the road and the Eunuch asks Philip: “What must I do to be baptized”—what must I do to become a part of your loving Christian community?

Philip doesn’t say anything, but gets down and baptizes the Eunuch, no questions asked, no conditions. It’s interesting that years later, scribes who copied early manuscripts of the Bible were uncomfortable with the lack of conditions, and so they added a verse: they had Philip telling the Eunuch that he must confess a certain set of beliefs before being baptized. We have since realized this was a late addition to the text and have taken it out, but it stands as a telling sign about our need to place conditions on inclusion into God’s loving community.

Too often we prefer a religion of purity over a religion of love. We would rather keep the church pure, make sure we don’t have any sorts of “those people” here. We love conditionally and we project that same conditional love onto God. Surely God would want these people excluded, we say. Surely God cares more about the purity of the church than the measure with which we love.

But if Jesus is the clearest revelation of God, then we know for a fact that there are no boundaries, no limits, no conditions on who is allowed in and who is not. Jesus repeatedly ignored the limits that religious communities imposed. He spent his time with the heretics, the sinners, the tax-collectors, the poor, the marginalized – all the people who were unclean and you weren’t supposed to hang around with. God’s love knows no limits. If we want to love others the same way God loves us, then our love will also know no limits.

If we believe in a God of conditional love, then we will also love conditionally. If we believe that God’s love must be earned, then we will also make others earn our love. We will not be able to love unconditionally until we allow ourselves to experience how incredible and how boundary-less God’s love is for us.

John’s third message is that love is an action, not a feeling.

John writes: “This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him” (4:9). God’s love is not some ethereal abstract love; it is a love that is demonstrated concretely. The Christmas story is a story about the lengths God will go to get to us, because he loves us so.

We are not used to thinking of love in terms of actions. Our culture talks about falling in love and falling out of love. We equate love with warm and fuzzy feelings, or with something we like. In the same breath I can say I love my mom and I love this piece of pizza. This is not the type of love John is calling us to embody.

I gave a toast at one of my good friend’s weddings a couple months ago, and I shared that my prayer for them is that they would choose each other each day. Because love is not primarily a feeling, but a choice; it is a choice to love the other concretely and sacrificially, even when you don’t feel like it.

Understanding that love is not a feeling, but an action/choice changes the way we understand Jesus’ difficult call to “love you enemy.”

Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died hundreds of people from across the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, but one – former President Richard Nixon, who had not long previously dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.

Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party than Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome home!”

The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”

Love for friends or enemies is not about a feeling, but it is a sacrificial way of living. And love is primarily about inclusion. God sending his Son, Jesus, is an act of love to include us in God’s story. You can’t say you love someone and in the same breath exclude them. John writes: If you can’t love the people in front of you, whom you can see, then how can you say you love God whom you don’t see (4:20-21)? John cuts right to the heart.

John’s fourth message is that God’s love is contagious.

Once you have experienced the vastness and bottomlessness of God’s love for you, you can’t help but let it overflow into every part of your life. The message of the Christmas story does not stop at Jesus’ birth. We don’t remember the birth of Jesus every year to celebrate some event that happened 2000 years, but we remember it to celebrate an event that is happening right now, inside of us, inside of our communities and inside of our world. Jesus is alive in our love for the world, for each other, for our enemies.

Vicar Judith Jones writes: “When we love one another, we re-present God to the world. By allowing the love that God has showered on us to overflow onto our sisters and brothers, we make divine love real and visible in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. God invites us to let Jesus live in us, so that through us Jesus can continue to welcome outcasts and touch untouchables and heal the broken. When God’s unimaginable, limitless love comes alive in us, we become the real presence of God in the world.”

John says this same thing: “But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (4:12) When you have experienced the incredible love of God, all you can do is turn around and share it with others. Our love overflows unconditionally, because we have been loved so unconditionally and so incredibly first. God’s love is alive in our world through us. Now just think about that: we are the carriers of God’s love. God’s love remains incarnate in our actions, in our choices. Jesus lives and loves through us; our heart is the manger that provides a home for Jesus, God’s love incarnate.

This is indeed good news of great joy that changes the way we live and love.

God’s love for us breaks all the limits, conditions and boundaries we would try to place on it. God loves us so much more than we could have ever imagined. This incredible truth can be summed up in the simplest of children’s songs: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Amen.