Love, Actually - 1 John 4:7-12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
What is love? It's a question many people have tried to answer from William Shakespeare to Ewan McGregor. And as our videos in the centre of Hull showed, there are many different answers to that questions. Love is trust. Love is dependency. Love is a squishy feeling inside. Love is sex, as one honest girl said. Henry Kissinger once said: "Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes- There's too much fraternising with the enemy." But for all the different answers, one thing is certain. Everyone is looking for love in one form or another. And its no surprise given the effect of knowing that you are loved by someone else. The great bard himself, William Shakespeare wrote: "When Love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony." The clip we saw at the start came from Moulin Rouge, and the sentence that keeps recurring in the film is this: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return." So it's not in the least bit surprising that love is a topic which gives playwrights, poets, songwriters and scriptwriters endless material.
The latest film about love to hit our cinema screens is a good example. Love Actually is a film about love. The headline for the film goes like this: "General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed- but I don't see that- It seems to me that love is everywhere." Surely, we think, here's another film about love to tickle the senses, and send us away with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. But actually when you delve a little more deeply into the film you discover that some aspects of love as portrayed in the film have more to do with greed than love, precisely what the film is not supposed to be about. Love is portrayed in a number of different ways. Some are positive like a love of a step father for his son. But there are others which are more to do with lust than love. In some of the relationships love is portrayed as little more than a sexually driven urge.
You see the trouble is that if we are trying to answer the question, "what is love", then looking at the world around us, at our culture and society, then we will receive at the most a very mixed answer. Love is often portrayed as a romantic feeling, sometimes as a sacrificial giving, but sadly more often than not as simply a sexual urge. If you love someone, then you'll sleep with them at the earliest opportunity. That's love isn't it? The messages we receive are mixed at best!
So what is love? Well there is no doubt that love is a basic human need, and yet so many people seem to be denied that need, or feel they are denied it. It perhaps explains the increasing obsession especially among younger people of image. According to a report published in one newspaper in 2001, half of 13 year-old girls in America said they were unhappy with their bodies. By the age of 17 the figure had risen to 78 per cent. And it's not just the girls. The rise in suicide among young men must have something to do with the fact that many feel unloved, unwanted, and purposeless. What is becoming clearer and clearer is that for all the talk of love in our world, many people feel totally unloved. Alanis Morissette, the Canadian singer, said this in an interview with New Musical Express in 1996: "I was thinking that adulation and fame and all of that would give me a sense of self-esteem, when the opposite was in fact true - that if you're in that situation and your self esteem is low to begin with, it only amplifies it." Money can't buy you love, nor can success or power. It was Mother Teresa who said: "There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread."
So can we really find an answer? Can we really know what love is, and more importantly can we find it? Well there is an answer. But the complete answer is not found in sex. It's not found in good friendships. It's not even found by marrying the woman or man of your dreams and having that mythical unblemished happiness for the rest of your life. The Bible's claim is that true love is to be found in God and a relationship with him. And it's only by understanding love as he sees it that true love can be understood and found. Of course, the Bible does not say that you cannot find love in friendships and marriage and all the rest. But the complete picture of what love is, is found only in God himself. For the Bible tells us that the greatest thing you'll ever learn is to know you are loved and to love in return. To know you are loved by God himself. And that is the most important thing you can ever discover in life. In fact, it is actually the very purpose and meaning of life itself. So to help us discover what this true love is, we're going to turn to a passage in the Bible, to a letter written by one of Jesus' closest followers John, where he explains what true love is all about. And we'll discover three things from this passage which you'll find on your sheets:
1) When Love is Spurned
2) Where Love is Demonstrated
3) How Love is Received
1) When Love is Spurned
And the first thing that John tells us about is when love is spurned. Because that, he says, is precisely what we have done to God. We have spurned his love for us. Now John makes it very clear in this passage that God's character is to love. He says in verse 7 that love comes from God. And he puts it even more strongly in verse 9 to say that God is love. What he is saying is that God's very character and nature is love. Everything God does springs from love. If God creates something or someone, he creates in love. If God judges he does it in love. He is never angry simply because of spite or bitterness. God's very nature is love. For God is love. By way of illustration let me tell you about KFC. KFC as you probably know is a fast food store specialising in chicken. But what makes it distinct is the sauce that goes with the chicken to make it "finger lickin' good"! And who was it that invented the special combination of spices to make this sauce. None other than Colonel Sanders himself. So that at one time, you could have said without anyone misunderstanding you, "Colonel Sanders is KFC. Everything about KFC sprang from Colonel Sanders. You cannot separate the two. So here John says that God is love. Everything we need to know about love is found in God. For God is love. Now to some of us that may come as a big surprise. To some, you might think God is a God who simply bashes us with a big stick to make us do better. A God who waits for us to slip up so he can punish us, like a grumpy old headmaster. Nothing could be further from the truth. No, the God of the Bible is a personal God who made you and me and the whole universe because of his love. And no-one loves you more dearly, intimately and passionately than the God who made you. He is the one who gives us the very air we breathe. He is the one who gives us every day we live. He is the one who knows even the very number of the hairs on your head. Yes, God loves you, far more than you could possibly ask or imagine.
And yet, for all God's love for us, for all his kindness and goodness to us, John says in verse 10: "This is love: Not that we have loved GodThe Bible's verdict on us is that we have not loved God as we should. What does that mean? Well it means that we have not given God the rightful place he deserves in our lives. We were made for relationship with him, we were designed to live life perfectly as he intended. But we have spurned his love. It's what the Bible calls sin, and to sin is to put self at the centre and to rule my life my way. Of course, we might be tempted to say: "Hang on, I'm not that bad. I do my bit. I'm a good person." But that would like a person saying: "Oh yes, I'm a great son or daughter." And then never bothering to visit their parents. Imagine them never ringing or bothering to email or writing to them. Imagine as their parents get increasingly more elderly the child never helped once. What kind of a son/ daughter would they be? It's like that with God. We might think we are good people, but being good is defined by how we treat God. And the fact is we would rather have things our way than God's because we think we know best. Oh, we might look in on God every Christmas or Easter, but it's not much for the one who sustains every molecule within us every second of the day. Not much for the one who lovingly made us and put us on this earth.
Or to change the illustration, it's as if we've pushed God off the throne, as if we ever could, and sat down on it ourselves to rule our lives our way without reference to the one who made us. When I was at school we were taken on a trip to London to see the Houses of Parliament. And during that trip we were taken into the chamber of the Commons and the Lords. And as we went through the Commons, there was a sign where the Prime Minister sat, Margaret Thatcher in those days. And the sign said: This is the seat of the Prime Minister. Do not sit here." Only the Prime Minister could sit there. Well on another occasion, a friend of mine was being shown around, and he sat down in that chair. And the commotion that followed was terrible. Security guards were called in, the guard dogs went berserk, my friend briskly removed. Why? Because that chair is reserved for the Prime Minister. And yet even though God's throne is reserved for him alone, we have sat down on it, and pushed him out of our lives. And we have made up the rules for ourselves.
But do you know the worst thing? God will not stand for it. He will not stand for human beings shaking their puny fists at him and saying that they are God. Because as a God of loving justice, he will hold us accountable for such shocking rebellion. It's not just that we have committed the odd minor sin, like the odd white lie or not giving back the next door neighbour's lawnmower on time. No, it's far worse. Our whole lives have been turned in rebellion against the God who made us. And he will hold us accountable. Yes we rightly cry out for justice when we read in the Hull Daily Mail this week of a man being beaten senseless, or of terrible atrocities in Iraq and Haiti. But little do we realise that we are only condemning ourselves, for we will all appear before God's bar of justice and be found guilty. We might not have done the worst sins in history, but we're all suffering from the same root problem. Rebellion against God. And the worst thing of all is that God will give us what we want, which is self rule. The only trouble is that when God removes himself totally from the world and gives us what we want, it's what the Bible calls hell. And that is what each one of us is facing for our spurning of God's gracious and kind love. When is love is spurned? Every minute of every day in every human heart.
2) Where Love is Demonstrated
So can such spurned love ever be regained? Is there a way for us to be saved from this fate worse than death, to be permanently and rightly cut off from God for ever? Well there is, and it comes from God himself. Because the staggering thing about God is that despite the fact that we have treated him and his gifts to us so appallingly, despite the fact that we do not deserve one jot of love from him, yet he still loves us. And that brings us to our second discovery in this passage. Where love is demonstrated. Because the fact is that the Christian faith is unique and exclusive in all the world's religions. For Christianity alone is based on something that has been done for us, as opposed to us doing something to get to God. We must realise that there is nothing we can do to get ourselves out of this mess we are in. We cannot work our way to heaven by good deeds. God will not look at us on judgement day and say: "Actually you're not so bad after all. You've been kind and generous all your life. I'll let you in to heaven." Friends that is not going to happen. Let none of us leave this building tonight thinking we are good enough for God. We are not. Good enough for God is being perfect, because he is perfect. And if you are to live with God forever, then you need to be perfect. And surely no-one here will say they are perfect. If so, I'd love to meet you afterwards. No. No matter how good we have been, we are not good enough. It's like trying to swim to America from the coast of Ireland. It doesn't matter whether you are an Olympic swimmer who can swim 30 miles, or a nautical novice like me who can swim about 30 yards. Both will need rescuing at some point off the coast of Ireland.
And that is what the Bible teaches us about our need. We need rescuing. And God has provided the rescue. Verse 9: "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." How did God rescue us? By sending his own Son to die for us on the cross. He was a sacrifice for our sins, for our wrongdoing. He stepped into our shoes so that we need not take the penalty we deserve for rejecting God and rebelling against him. And it's not as if Jesus is some innocent third party that God has just dragged off the streets. No, Jesus claimed all along that he was God in person, come to deal with the fundamental problem between God and human beings, a broken relationship.
Last year on a trip to London, I had the privilege of going on the Millennium Eye, which is basically just a glorified big wheel, just a little bigger and safer than the one at Hull Fair. And from the top you could see all across London. But two landmarks stood out as the sun glistened on the top of them. These two land marks aren't too far apart, but they represent exactly what is happening on the cross. The first landmark is the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. On top of that building stands justice, and in one hand she carries a set of scales to weigh the cases that come into the courts, and in the other she carries a sword, and if you are guilty then the sword of justice will fall on you. And there is absolutely no doubt that God's sword of justice will fall on each and every one of us on judgement day. For we have been weighed on God's scales and found wanting. But as you cast your eye to the right, down the street you see another building, St. Paul's Cathedral, and on top of that building there is a golden cross. And it was on that cross that the sword of God's justice fell on God's own Son, Jesus Christ. He was innocent, he did not deserve it. But he willingly gave himself up to death, even death on a cross, so that you and I need not face the sword of God's justice. And what does John say the cross achieved? He says in verse 9 that Jesus died for us on the cross so that we might "live through him". We deserve death, but Jesus dies for us so that we can have life. It means we can be forgiven, totally washed clean. It means we can go to heaven to be with God if we trust in what Jesus has done for us. It means we can be given freedom and a fresh start, set free to live life the way God intended with him as our Saviour and King.
One of the most moving films that I have watched in recent years is the film "To End All Wars". It's a true story of what happened to a bunch of mostly British soldiers who were captured after the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Many of the tens of thousands of captured troops were put in concentration camps run by the Japanese Army. They were terrible places, made worse by the fact that many of the soldiers were put to work on the Thailand to Burma rail line. The film follows the story of what happened in one camp. It was pretty clear from the start that the camp was divided into two factions. One, led by Major Ian Campbell, wanted to plan an escape from the off, and they began a seemingly suicidal mission to try and escape. But another faction led by a POW named Dusty Millar argued that they needed just to sit tight and work hard and wait for the end of the war. Well one night a group led by Major Campbell try to escape. They kill two guards, and almost make it to the armoury, but are found and arrested. All five men face death because they themselves are guilty of murder. And before the whole assembled camp four of the five are executed. But as the Japanese commander comes to the last, Major Campbell himself, one POW steps forward, none other than Dusty Millar, the leader of the peaceful faction. He's done nothing wrong himself. But he asks to speak with the Japanese commander. After a brief discussion, Campbell, the rebel who'd killed two Japanese guards is released. But Dusty Millar is taken away to be killed. But what motivated Millar to do it? Well earlier on in the film we discover that Millar is a Christian, and the Japanese know this. So how do they put him to death? Well the Japanese have read the NT in Millar's Bible. So what do they do to him? They crucify him.
It's an incredible story of how one innocent man is willing to give himself up to face a terrible death so that another could go free. And yet all that Dusty Millar could achieve for Campbell was freedom in this life. Yes it was an act of amazing self sacrifice, but it was limited to this life. But when Jesus died on the cross, he gave us the offer of total forgiveness and freedom and a place in heaven for all eternity. And he did it for people like you and me who are natural rebels against God. Do you want to know what love is like? Don't look at the Hollywood films. Look at the cross of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God dies for people like you and me, who aren't his friends, but his enemies. That is where love demonstrated.
3) How Love is Received
But lastly we see how love is received. Because like all rescues, this rescue that Jesus provides is a rescue that needs to be received. It would be totally bizarre if I, having tried to swim to America off the coastline of Ireland and failed, then refused to accept the hand of the rescuer in the helicopter hovering above. No, if I know I need rescuing, then I have got to accept the rescue. And that is the challenge that we are left with as we consider love as it actually is. You see, Christianity is not about being a better person, or being nicer than others. Christians aren't better than anyone else. No Christians are people who know they are in dire trouble with God and have accepted the rescuer Jesus. They are forgiven people, not good people. And nor is Christianity just a matter of opinion, something that if it works for you then that is great, if not then leave it. It's not some herbal remedy for a heavy heart, a crutch fo the weak minded. It's a matter of truth. If it's true, then everyone must take action. And what action must we take? John says elsewhere in his gospel, his biography of Jesus: "To all who received Jesus, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." If you admit your need, and trust that God has provided a rescuer for you in Jesus Christ, then he will grant you his forgiveness and a fresh start. He'll set you on the right path of being a child of God, of living life as it was meant to be lived, in relationship with your maker.
I guess as we close, there may be a number of different reactions amongst us. Some might well be saying: "I don't believe a word of this. It doesn't make sense, and I certainly don't want God ruling over my life." Well can I plead with you to at least understand your predicament as the Bible explains it. That if you reject the rescuer, then he will honour your human dignity by allowing you to do that. He will allow you to condemn yourself to an eternity without God, what the Bible calls hell. All I would ask, is that you think very carefully before you reject this Jesus. Do you really have a good enough reason not to investigate at the least. We've got an excellent course which will help you at least check out the evidence. But please don't reject Jesus out of hand straight away.
Perhaps others will be thinking: "Well this is very interesting, but I'm certainly not ready to commit to God." Well that's fine. I would not wish to force you to do something you're not ready to do. Again can I commend these Christianity Explored courses to you. You can ask your questions and you can see for yourself what Jesus is saying. Melvin will explain how you can do that in a moment.
Perhaps others will be thinking: "Well this is all too good be true. Can it really be true that God does love me? Is it really true that there is such a thing as unconditional love, that I could be forgiven and given a fresh start? Sadly some think it is just not possible. Listen to how Anne Robison of Weakest Link fame puts it in her autobiography. Having described a tragic and desperate life of addiction to alcoholism and one night stands, she says: "Every young woman needs a cushion which says: 'No-one is coming alone to rescue you'. No-one gives you unconditional love except your mother, and then only sometimes. The sassy career girl is free to plan her romantic white wedding with all the enthusiasm of an immature adolescent, but woe betide her if she thinks her husband is going to fill every gap in her life. When he turns out to be human she may be disappointed. She should not be surprised." Well it's pretty sad and cynical, and it also ignores that fact that there is rescuer, and there is one who loves us unconditionally, despite that fact that we have treated him so appallingly. And that is God himself. No, it's not too good be true. In fact, no rescue would be too bad to be true. But God is love. And true to his character he has provided a way back, but at great cost. So will you receive that love he offers, that rescue he holds out to you? Well maybe you do wish to do that for the first time, and if so then it couldn't be simpler. I'm simply going to pray that prayer on the pink sheets which is prayer thanking God for Jesus and asking for rescue. And if you would like to receive God's rescue and start afresh with him again this evening, then simply echo this prayer in your hearts. Moment of quiet.
Well if you've prayed that prayer, then tonight is a great night for you. You are forgiven and God has received you. We'd love to help you, so please do chat with a friend or with one of us. It's the beginning of the rest of your life.
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