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“I love you this much”

Date: December 21, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
4th Advent candle lit

John 3:16-17

Whatever advertising agency or agencies the insurance company Geico has used over the years, I hope they were well-compensated for their work.  Whether they feature the cavemen, or the gecko, or another character or theme, Geico’s commercials have tended to be quite funny and memorable.

They had one series of ads that all focused on the tagline “It’s what you do.”  Some of these were humorous because they’re quite true.

One of them had Tarzan and Jane swinging from vines in the jungle, until they have to stop because Jane is certain they’ve made a wrong turn and are lost.  They argue about it for awhile, until the voice-over comes on:  “When you’re a couple, you argue about directions.  It’s what you do.”

Indeed it is…or at least it is for Mike and me.

Awhile back, Mike and I had driven from Sac City to Chicago to see the Cubs play the Cardinals.  As the game got close to its end, a dark cloud rolled in, and light rain started to fall as the ninth inning began.  It didn’t rain hard enough to end the game, although some fans went ahead and left, because it didn’t seem likely that that last inning was going to change the outcome of the game, and that light rain was the harbinger of a pretty big storm.

By the time we left Wrigley, walked to the El station, caught the Red Line train, and then walked from our stop to where we had parked our car, the sky opened up and the rain poured down—and there were severe weather warnings all over the area.  We were in the Camaro, so we called on trusty OnStar for directions to get back on the highway and back to where we were staying, in Rockford.  But between the rain and the tightly packed multi-story buildings that line the streets in that part of Chicago, OnStar couldn’t figure out where we were or how to tell us where to go.

The direction indicator in the car wasn’t even right:  It said we were going west when we were going east.  And Mike and I argued about it.

I have a fairly passable sense of direction, at least some of the time, although it took a major hit when we lived in Portland, where you can’t always see the sun and things aren’t laid out in squares like they are in the Midwest.  So I was pretty sure we were going east.  But Mike absolutely refused to listen to me.  “It says we’re going west, so we’re going west.”

I was proven right when the road we were on dead-ended at Lake Michigan.  (In Chicago, if you’re going toward the lake, you’re going east, always.)

Looking out over the little stone wall that marked the edge of the lakeshore, he realized he was, indeed, going the wrong way, and turned around.  OnStar still hadn’t caught up with us, so we just kept heading generally west until we finally found ourselves out in a suburban area where things were a bit more spread out.  (We might have been in Skokie, but I’m not sure.)

At that point we were able to call OnStar and get accurate directions—except that for some reason it thought we were headed home instead of back to Rockford, so it put us on a road that went well south of there.  So we argued about that for awhile before Mike finally let me cancel the directions and get new ones to the place where we were actually trying to go.

When you’re a couple, you argue about directions.  It’s what you do.

How would you finish this sentence:  “When you’re God, you…”?

I’m going to read a second Scripture today (1 John 4:7-21), perhaps by the same author as the one we just heard, or perhaps by one of his followers who operated from the same basic theological framework. 

The Elder, John, in his sermon that we have mislabeled in the Bible as the First “Letter” of John, offers an ending to the sentence:  When you’re God, you love.  It’s what you do.  (John actually takes it a step further:  Love is who God is.)  It’s borne out throughout the Bible.

A lot of folks buy into a simplistic understanding of the way God is portrayed in the Bible:  In the Old Testament God is mean and judgmental, always looking for a reason to punish; while in the New Testament, God is revealed through Jesus Christ as merciful and gracious, always ready to forgive us when we fall short or just downright behave badly.

But do you know something?  That language for the way God is revealed through Jesus Christ—merciful and gracious, always ready to forgive—comes from the Old Testament.  It is how God self-describes in Exodus 34:6-7:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

The rest of verse 7 does say that God allows the consequences of sin to persist to the third and fourth generation (and anyone who’s studied family systems theory knows this is accurate)—but while the effects of sin might go forth three or four generations, God’s steadfast love persists for a thousand generations!  The witness of the whole Bible is that yes, God is a god both of wrath and of mercy; but God’s thumb is always on the scale on the mercy side.

God’s self-description in Exodus 34 became a formula for how Israel described their God, and it appears in several places in the Old Testament.  You might remember a few weeks ago when we saw it in the book of Jonah, even:  Toward the end of that story, Jonah admits that the reason he resisted preaching to Nineveh was because he knew God would forgive that city if they should repent.  God’s love and concern extended even to the capital city of the most brutal enemy of God’s people.

The formula shows up in the New Testament, too…but I’ll say more about that in a moment.

But as they say on those stupid TV ads where they’re trying to sell us a gadget we don’t need, and that probably won’t even work, to solve a problem we don’t have:  “Wait!  There’s more!”  Listen to this:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you…
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life” (Exodus 43:1-2, 4, which is the basis for the favorite shape note hymn Bellevue, “How Firm a Foundation”).

The word of the Lord, spoken through the Second Isaiah…and this, also from Second Isaiah:

“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:14-16a).

…and this, spoken through the prophet Hosea:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me…
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

“…My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
…My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger…” (Hosea 11:1-2a, 3-4, 7-9a).

…or this, from Lamentations, the basis for a favorite hymn:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

There are plenty more—even if God’s love is not explicitly stated in a text, it’s clearly demonstrated in how God behaves toward the people.  You see, even in the Old Testament, when you’re God, you love.  It’s what you do.

Even when God’s people didn’t deserve it; even when they actively resisted it; even they had sinned so much for so long that God had to put them in time-out, in exile, God still loved them.

The Prologue to the Gospel of John, which will be featured in our virtual Christmas Eve service later this week, makes clear that the God revealed in the Old Testament and the God revealed in Jesus are one and the same.  It only takes one verse, verse 14, in which the Old Testament formula God used to describe himself is repeated in New Testament language:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  That last phrase is the Greek way to say precisely what God said about God’s self in Exodus 34:  abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

We don’t have two Gods.  We don’t have two progressive understandings of who God is and what God is about, one from the Old Testament and one from the New that is superior because of Jesus.  In Jesus God has revealed to us who God has always been:  When you’re God, you love.  It’s what you do.  When you’re God, you are love.  It’s who you are.

In 1 John the Elder takes it one step further:  When you are God’s people, you love.  It’s what you do.  How can you not?

The extent of God’s love has been demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ, who laid down his very life to save us.  That is so much more love than we can even imagine—and I’m not talking about rainbows and unicorns here; God’s love is not a pretty feeling but a continuous, hard-nosed, unyielding orientation toward the good of the beloved.  We’re loved beyond our wildest dreams, and the only possible response is for us to turn and let that love flow through us in our words and our actions.

But can we ever love others the way God loves us?  And if we did, what would it look like?

Maybe like this…A recovering alcoholic experiences a major tragedy, the kind of tragedy that might in the past have led him to turn to the bottle for comfort.  Knowing the peril this man could be in, another recovering alcoholic—they know each other only because they attend the same weekly AA meeting—drops everything and remains at the first one’s side through the decisions that have to be made, the work that has to be done, the questions and horrific images that inevitably arise and that both men may have once been tempted to drown in drink.

This man has chosen to remain with the one who has suffered a terrible loss for as long as he’s needed.  If he weeps, his brother will weep with him.  If anger and pain cause him to lash out, his brother will let it roll off his back.  If he has trouble putting one foot in front of the other, his brother will hold him up.

His brother doesn’t necessarily have to do any of this:  they only know each other because they happen to attend the same AA meeting.  But he is doing it.  He may or may not have any warm fuzzy feelings about the guy, may not even like him; but he loves him in a way that has caused him to drop everything and go stand with him, doing whatever he can to help him find his way toward healing and wholeness.

That’s just one example of the kind of love we are capable of because God first loved us.  I’d like to challenge all of us, this week, to keep our eyes open, so we might catch glimpses of God’s kind of love in action in this strange, stressful season.  And I’d like to challenge us a bit further:  Let’s also look for opportunities when we can show God’s kind of love to someone else.