I John 4:7-21
There’s a really easy way to make a very short sermon out of this passage. It really only needs to be a couple of sentences long. When I first began here as pastor, lo these many years ago, Laf French used to tell me that the secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible. Now of course, I never did master that technique, but if memory serves me right, and it often does not, I think Laf attributed that quote to Mark Twain. It does sound a bit Mark Twainish. But because I am learning to look stuff up on the computer, I typed it in, and it turns out that it was God himself who said that. That’s right. God, that is, if God is allowed to smoke a cigar, and fall in love with somebody named Gracie. And, given the dozy expressions that sometimes greet me on Sunday mornings at sermon time, I can hardly disagree with that sentiment.
So, for your inspection, here are the two sentences that I came up with for this morning’s sermon: number one, God loves us, but that doesn’t really grab us. And number two, but if it was to grab us, it would increase our love for one another. Love for God and love for one another is pretty much God’s single command throughout all of the Scriptures. There is no avoiding them whatsoever. One cannot be a person of faith without loving God and loving one’s neighbor. One cannot love God without loving one’s neighbor, and one cannot love one’s neighbor without loving God. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor are inseparable.
But in order for all of this to come together, it must begin at verse 10. John says this, which is where my first sentence of the very short sermon came from: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That is where it all begins. It was not our love for God that started this wonderful relationship that we have with him. In fact, our love didn’t hardly enter into it, or to put it yet more truthfully and even more bluntly, we did not love God. We had no reason to love God. God was some old geezer with a beard and a cigar who lived in someplace called heaven, way, way, away in our imaginations. Nothing was real about God at all, and so there was nothing to love. Besides that old guy with the beard and the cigar is well known, and highly proclaimed by many, as someone who delights in smiting people and making their lives miserable. So why would anyone love an angry old cuss like that? What would be the point?
But somehow, somewhere along the way, we met or encountered a different God from the one that we thought we knew so well. We could say that we experienced a complete change of heart, and we discovered that the old guy with the cigar and the beard wasn’t really God at all. And yes, I know that I’m conflating my gods here; the god with the cigar didn’t wear a beard, and he was a whole lot nicer than the one who did. And he was funnier too. But for purposes of this sermon, the old guy with the cigar and the beard departed our hearts and was replaced with a God that we know loves us. And knowing the difference between those two Gods has made all of the difference in the world. And the writer of First John has this to say about all of that. We’ll all find it, once again in verse ten. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” We did not love God. We had no reason to love God, but in spite of all of that, God loved us. And God loved us long before we knew it, or realized it.
But then we learned that God loved us. We discovered that the old guy with the beard and the cigar and the propensity toward smiting was not God at all! We learned that this smiting God was merely an impostor, and a demonic one at that! But how did we learn the difference between the two Gods? Well, first of all, we might have stumbled into a church; unlikely, but maybe, and we might have had it preached at us that God is a loving God. We might have learned while we were in this church, wherever it may have been, that God’s love for us was so great that he wanted us to live forever. And that’s very different from the smiting God that we thought we knew, who didn’t want us to live very long at all. And then we might have learned that in an act of perfect, but very mysterious love, that this loving God sent his son to live on this earth for a time, and to teach us the truth about love. But then, in a terrible twist of fate, jealous and hateful people turned against this man Jesus, and they killed him. And we stumbled hard on that one. And we wondered what kind of loving God would put his own beloved Son in harm’s way, and allow him to be killed? And when we stumbled, we thought again of that God who is quick to smite. And if we didn’t turn away at this point, we might have also learned that the jealous and hateful people only played a small role in putting Jesus to death. And even though there is no shortage of jealous and hateful people in this world, Jesus actually died by giving his life up willingly. And this was exceedingly profound to us, because we could not imagine that someone would willingly give up his life for us. But there it was, nothing less than a great and wonderful mystery, that Jesus would willingly take on the burden of our sin, so that we could live forever. Verse nine is hard to ignore: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” And I suppose that some of us here this morning could have come to faith in this way. We could have stumbled into a church, and we could have had the truth of God’s love for us preached at us, and we could have responded to that preaching.
But it is more likely that we learned about the truth of God’s love for us from someplace else, other than in some church that we might have stumbled into. Very few people just happen to stumble into churches these days. More often than not, we learned about God’s love for us from someone who happened to love us for no particular reason at all. For reasons unknown to us at the time, someone came into our lives and demonstrated love to us. At first, it seemed odd, or strange. Why would this person show an interest in me? Why would this person be so caring and compassionate, and yes, loving, when I have done nothing to merit that kind of love? But that person persisted in being kind and interested. And maybe even insightful. But they were always gentle, and never pushy, and certainly never creepy. Eventually, we actually learned to trust this person, and they became a true friend.
And so one day we put it to them. And we said something like, you came into my life at a time when I really needed someone like you, although there is no way that you could have known that. You showed me love, and you helped me in more ways than I can count. I didn’t love you, but you loved me. What gives? And then they told us, lovingly and patiently. About how someone had loved them in the same way, and who introduced them to a God who loved them. This God had loved them long before they had learned to love God, and this God was very different from the one they had previously imagined, that one being the one with the beard, the cigar, and the short temper.
If we came to know Jesus Christ through someone like that, we need to become that person. We are loved by a God who loved us long, long before we ever came to love him. We need to love others in the same way. We need to love others first. We need to be the one who extends kindness and compassion, and genuine concern to those who have neither earned nor deserved it.
“We love because [God] first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment that we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”