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Finding Love In Our Differences

1 John 4:7-16

 

Singer songwriter David Wilcox wrote a song called “Fearless Love.” Whenever he performs that song, he uses this story to set it up.

 

Two old farmers are neighbors. Their farms are right next to each other, and their houses are fairly close together. But these two farmers never talk, because they have a feud that’s been running for several years now.

 

The whole thing got started over a cat. The cat was a stray, but both of these farmers started feeding the cat and each said that it was his cat. From there, everything went downhill. They quit talking, and the grudge escalated to the point that one of them dug a ditch to reroute a spring and make sure it divided their properties.

 

One day, a carpenter came through the area looking for work. He knocked on the door of one of the farms, and the farmer said, “Well, if he’s going to try to divide us up with that ditch, then I might as well finish the job. I don’t even want to have to look at him!” So he asked the carpenter to build a fence all the way across the property, a nice, big, tall fence.

 

The carpenter said, “OK, I could do that, but it will take a lot more wood than what you have in your wood shed.” So the farmer went into town to buy more wood, and the carpenter started working with the wood in the shed.

 

That farmer came driving back down the dirt road to his home, but when he looked across the field, he didn’t see any fence going up. Instead of the barrier he’d wanted, he saw that the carpenter had built a bridge across the creek. And there across the bridge, his neighbor came walking toward him with his hand outstretched, a big sheepish grin on his face. “You’re a brave man,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d want to hear the sound of my voice again. Can you forgive me?” The first farmer was surprised, and as he reached out to shake his neighbor’s hand, he found himself saying, “Aww, I knew it was your cat.”

 

In the song “Fearless Love,” Wilcox weaves another story, this one about a church protest and split. One of the people caught up in the split remembers Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies, and the example Jesus gives of carrying a Roman soldier’s pack twice the required distance. “Going the extra mile” so to speak. That phrase, “going the extra mile” actually came about in the context of Christ’s command to love our enemies. The chorus of the song says, “Fearless love makes you cross the border.”

 

The love of God that Jesus both reveals and embodies truly is a fearless love. Turn with me to 1 John 4:7-16.

 

This is the season of Advent. The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, is marked by expectation, waiting, anticipation, and longing. Not just longing for gifts and family time the way children do, although that’s certainly a fun part of Christmas, but longing for the coming of Christ.

 

Advent is not just an extension of Christmas – it is a rediscovery of Christmas, a season that links the past, present, and future. Advent offers us the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, to celebrate His birth, and to be alert for His second coming. Advent looks back in celebration at the hope fulfilled in Jesus’s coming, while at the same time looking forward in hopeful and eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when He returns for His people. During Advent we actively and hopefully wait for both.

 

During this season, we’ve been in a series of sermons called “Rediscovering Christmas: Good news in troubling times.” In this series, we’ve been exploring the four traditional themes of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and today – Love.

 

All four of these – hope, peace, joy, and love, are anchored in Jesus, in who Jesus is, in what Jesus accomplished here on this earth. They aren’t just seasonal sentiments associated with Christmas. They’re real, tangible, gritty, and founded in the historical reality, the truth, of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They’re based in the coming of Jesus.

 

One of my favorite sources of Christmas music is the progressive rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I love their music because they explore Christmas from so many different perspectives and angles. One of my favorites is their song “This Christmas Day.” One of the verses says …

 

So tell me Christmas are we kind

More this day than any other day

Or is it only in our mind

And must it leave when you have gone away

It’s different now,

It’s changed somehow

And now you’re here to stay.

 

That’s a great question … does Christmas matter? Does it change the way we live this time of year, and shouldn’t it change the way we live the rest of the year too? A celebration of Christmas, literally the Christ Mass, that is grounded in the truth of Jesus should have that impact on us. It transforms us, not just in mid-December, but in every hour of every day of our lives, because it’s about Jesus, and his love for us.

 

Look at Vv. 9-10, and then down at V. 16. Love begins with God. Love, at its core, isn’t human. It’s divine. Love is a part of God’s nature and character. God is the source and origin of love, and all true love comes first and foremost from God, because God enables love. “Love is FROM God.” Love emanates from God. And God loves because God IS love.

 

Now, we need to understand something here. We don’t take our human experiences of love and our human descriptions and definitions of love and arrive at an understanding of God based on those things. Human love, even at its best, is imperfect, can be fickle, and is tainted by sin and selfishness. God’s love isn’t any of those things. God does not resemble human love.

 

No, we don’t take our human ideas of love and place them on God and say now we understand who God is and what God is like. We understand love by understanding who God is. Love doesn’t define God; God defines love. The more we know God, the God who IS love, the more we understand what love really is, and how we are to love God and one another.

 

Love isn’t the only thing the Bible says God “is.” The Bible also says that God is Spirit, that God is Light, and that God is a consuming fire. Love isn’t the only word that is used to describe God, but it is one of them. Spirit describes the essence of God’s being … God isn’t limited by time and space the way we as human beings are. Light gets at God’s justice. God’s light shines on our lives and illuminates, brings into awareness and focus, our sin and brokenness. And consuming fire gets at God’s response to that sin. He deals with it. He consumes it. Burns it up. And all of these characteristics work together. So God judges in love and loves in justice. They work together.

 

As human beings, we view love as a soft, empathetic sentiment. But love, as defined by the character and nature of God, defines love very differently. Because God is love, God seeks justice, and because God is just, God loves. To us, love is very nonconfrontational and just condones and accepts everything. But God’s love, true love, real love, doesn’t condone sin because sin hurts me and it hurts the people around me. God’s love doesn’t condone sin. God’s love exposes sin and then consumes it without destroying the sinner. Love and justice working together.

 

And that love is made visible, real, and tangible in Christ. For although we cannot see God, because God is Spirit, we can see Christ. He became human. A word we use a lot to describe Jesus, almost a name for Jesus, this time of year is Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us.” God with skin on. God in tangible form.

 

We give gifts at Christmas because of the gift God has given us in Christ. Now, the value of a gift is determined by two things, what it is and what it is for. John tells us that Jesus, God’s gift to us, is “God’s only Son.” That doesn’t mean that God the Father created the Son, or that Jesus is God’s Son in the human sense of a human father and a human son. God didn’t get married and have a son. God didn’t mate with Mary and together with her produce a son. He is God’s Son in the sense that he IS God, made manifest in human form. In John 14:9, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus IS God with skin on. He is God as a human. This is a gift of the highest value, for it is “God’s only Son” himself. He isn’t a cheap knock off, or something of no value. He’s the real deal, 100% authentic.

 

Jesus is “God’s only Son,” and he came “that we might live through him.” He came to give us life. Down in V. 10, John tells us that God sent his Son “to be the propitiation for our sins.” A propitiation is simply an act intended to gain or regain the favor of someone or something. God sent Jesus, his only Son, to be our propitiation. To rescue us from our sin and re-establish us in our relationship with God. No gift of greater value could ever be given, and human words don’t suffice to communicate this truth. Not only does God define love, God deeply, deeply, loves you and I. You see, love doesn’t sit back and watch the loved one dig a deeper and deeper hole for themselves. Love jumps to the rescue. And that is what God has done in Jesus. That is why John began this paragraph by calling us “Beloved.” We are deeply, deeply loved by God. We are his beloved. And because we are God’s beloved, John considers us his beloved too. Look at Vv. 7-8. And then down at Vv. 16 and 21.

 

Because God loves us, and has acted in Christ to save us, we first and foremost love God in return. And our love for God involves both our belief and our trust. Faith and action. Up in 1 John 3:23, we read, “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” We believe, and we love. Faith and action. Belief leads to action. We love because we believe. In fact, our love is evidence that we believe. John goes so far as to say that if our lives are not marked by love, we don’t even know God, because God IS love. We are loved by God. And so, as we believe God, we begin to love God, and we begin to love others, and we grow in our ability to do that. We don’t manufacture that love out of our own self will. We don’t love so that God will accept us, so that we’ll do enough good things to somehow earn God’s approval. We believe the truth that Jesus is the Son of God and that God raised him from the dead, and the we love because when we believe, God places his Spirit in us, and we are connected to him.

 

Think about it this way. If I hook a hose to a water spigot, and turn on the spigot, what comes out? Water. If I hook a metal wire up to a source of electrical power, what will flow through the wire and out the other side? Electricity. If a branch is connected to a maple tree, what flows through that branch? Pancake juice. And if someone is connected to God, what flows into and through them? Love. Why? Because God is love.

 

As followers of Christ, we often say that we love everyone, that we love the whole world. And yet we allow ourselves to harbor resentment and allow ourselves to develop animosity with others. Loving the world is a philosophical creed. But loving the world can only be done by loving the world face to face, one person at a time. And while we say we love the world, it’s people we can’t stand.[i]

 

So who are we to love? We’re to love God. One person asked Jesus outright which commandment was the greatest, the most important, and Jesus said, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Matt. 22:37-38). But we don’t stop there, because Jesus immediately followed that up with, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:39-40). And of course Jesus redefines “your neighbor” as anyone you come into contact with, regardless of gender, age, race, or creed. In fact, he tells us to love even our enemies. That doesn’t mean that a country and a government cannot stand against their enemies globally. It means that, as people, we are to love those we disagree with. We are to love even those who might wish to do us harm. In fact, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus completely redefined an “enemy” as falling within the scope of neighbor. We are to refuse to harbor resentments and allow animosities to rule our lives.

 

I want you to leave here understanding two things this morning. The first is that you are deeply, deeply loved. God loves you with a love that will not die. The second is that as followers of Christ who are connected to God, who are in relationship with God, we are to love one another. We are to love our neighbors. And we are to love our enemies. Jesus calls us to a radical new kind of love that isn’t based on human ideas of love. No, it’s based on the character of God as the definition of love. Self-sacrificing, self-giving, unending love.

 

Pastor and church planter Darryl Dash tells this story about his own neighbor, whom he simply calls, “The Hoarder Next Door.” The suite next to our condo is a small studio. The neighbors who lived there when we moved in fit the profile: young, professional, and private. That’s why I was surprised when the new guy moved in. He was older. He didn’t work. He was pleasant enough, but also awkward.

 

His place was a disaster. When I left my suite, I’d sometimes see into his. Laundry baskets were stacked from floor to ceiling. A trail of debris began at his door and continued down the hallway. I’d sometimes find his cart and his backpack outside his door. We’ve always wanted to hold a floor party. We didn’t. We never invited our neighbor for a coffee. We’d make small talk in the hallway, but I never learned his name.

 

On Monday night, I found police officers in the hallway. More police arrived, and someone in a suit. Someone must have complained, I thought. The police must have called a social worker. But then I heard them talk about the coroner.

 

My neighbor died last weekend. They found his body on Monday. A police seal now secures his door. My neighbor is gone. So is the man who was killed by a falling tree limb in a local park last Friday. So is the man who was hit by a train near me early on Monday morning. Death surrounds me this week, even in a young community like Liberty Village.

 

Nothing might have changed if I’d invited my neighbor for a coffee, but I would have known his name. I might have known his story. Now I’ll only know him as the hoarder next door. And that’s no way to know a neighbor.[ii]

 

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know love, because God is love … and this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” In Jesus you are connected to the source of love, so love. Let us pray.

[i] Calvin Miller in The Taste of Joy. Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 11.

[ii] Darryl Dash, “Hoarder Next Door,” Dash/House blog (6-23-16)