When someone asks, “How is your spiritual life going?” we usually respond by discussing our devotional time, prayer life, or worship times. However, the true mark of health in our spiritual lives is growing in our capacity to experience God’s and as a result, growing in our capacity to love others. That’s ultimately what Jesus desires for us at Christmastime.
This Sunday we look at the wonder of God’s love found in 1 John 4.
We’ve spent the last three weeks looking at the wonder of Christmas.
Not the spectacle of decorations, holiday parties, or the amount and size of gifts under a tree, but the hope, peace, and joy to be found in this season.
If you’re familiar with the historical church calendar, you know these as the themes of Advent.
But if you’re not, your idea of Advent may be tied to calendars filled with chocolates.
Advent is a season of expectation and anticipation leading into the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Today, we finish with the wonder of love.
It’s interesting to notice that in December, many of us go the extra mile to extend love to the people around us, family, friends, coworkers, even strangers.
That is unless they take too long ordering their venti peppermint mocha half calf extra hot extra whipped cream in the drive-thru, and love can all too quickly be thrown aside.
Love is even expressed in the stories told at Christmas.
Is there a more fantastic love story than told by Hallmark Christmas movies?
*Someone has to travel somewhere, usually back home to a small town.
*There’s a chance encounter with a first love or long-lost friend who just so happens to be single.
*They begin to enjoy each other’s company, and a spark is ignited.
*Then there’s that moment where their eyes meet, and they pause before one of them awkwardly says, “I should go…”
*They finally start to lean into their unexpected love but get interrupted just before they kiss.
*Not long after, one of them overhears part of a conversation or observes some romantic-looking situation and thinks, “This was never going to work out, I should just go back home and give up my dream of love and happiness.”
*But before all is lost, one finds the courage to tell the other how they feel.
*And finally, they embrace their love on Christmas Eve, looking toward the days and years together on the farm, or in the country store or restaurant, and they kiss, surrounded by the entire population of the town.
Am I wrong?
Here’s where we’re headed and what I hope you internalize.
The Christmas story, at its core, is a love story.
The love of a heavenly Father pursuing his sons and daughters.
You’ve most likely heard 1 Corinthians 13 called the “love chapter.”
But I want to suggest that the actual love chapter of the Bible is found in 1 John 4.
We’re going to rest there for the next few minutes, so if you have a Bible, physical or digital, open it with me to 1 John 4.
If you’re new to the Bible, start at the end and go back a few books.
We’ll also have it on the screens.
It’s believed that the Apostle John, who spent three years as a disciple learning from Jesus, wrote these words.
We’ll start reading in verse 9.
(1 John 4:9-10) “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world…”
There’s the Christmas story.
An angel appears to Mary, telling her she will conceive and have a baby, and his name will be Jesus.
Angels appear to shepherds in a field, announcing the birth of the Messiah, the Anointed One.
Magi traveling a great distance following a star, looking for the newborn King.
“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.”
John says this is how God showed his love or some translations of the Bible say God made known or displayed His love.
The word means “to come out in the open, to be made public.”
How did He do it?
He sent His Son, born in obscurity to humble parents from a nowhere hometown.
Nothing in a worldly way of thinking indicated any other than an average life for this child.
And in showing love, God gives.
You see, real love is never passive or inactive.
How would that kind of love work for you if you’re married or in a relationship?
Here are some indicators of passive or inactive love.
*Communication is mundane; there’s no conversation of meaning things.
*Intimacy isn’t what it used to be, or it’s non-existent.
*Date nights are scarce.
*You never argue, or you always argue.
*There’s no effort being put in; you avoid each other.
*You’re constantly on the offensive or the defensive.
*You’re critical of each other.
But a love that is demonstrated is irresistible.
A few Greek words describe love, and they imply different emotions or experiences.
John uses the word agape, a love that impels the sacrifice of self for the benefit of the object loved.
It’s a love awakened by a sense of value in the object loved.
It speaks of compassion, kindness, unselfishness.
Have you heard the short story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry?
It tells of a young, financially struggling couple who only had two possessions of value between them: Della’s long, beautiful hair and Jim’s heirloom pocket watch, passed down from his grandfather.
With no margin in their budget to buy each other gifts at Christmas, they both make plans unknown to the other.
In the story, Jim comes home, walks in the door, and is stunned at what he sees.
His wife’s beautiful long hair is gone.
Della responds, “I sold my hair so I could give you a gift.”
Jim hands her the gift he had purchased.
She opens it to find a beautiful set of combs she had been wanting, but they could not afford.
“It will grow back,” Della says as she hands Jim the gift she purchased.
He unwraps a small box containing a gold chain to go with his precious watch.
Jim sits down on the couch, hands behind his neck, and simply says, “I sold the watch so I could give you the combs.”
That’s sacrificial love.
John says, “This is love…”
Not any kind of love, but a divine love that’s pure, underserved, unearned, unexpected, and unending.
And notice, this love did not start with you or me.
It started with God, initiated on His part.
“Not that we loved God, but that He loved us.”
My mother-in-law pointed out to me a few weeks ago that I didn’t finish the story of God’s promise of hope to me during a difficult season of life, that He would bless my later years greater than the former.
Part of that promise was fulfilled in my love story with my wife, Jamie.
Thanksgiving 2017, I sent her a Facebook message asking her out.
Smooth, classy, I know.
I had never met her but knew I had to.
When we spoke over the phone, we made connections of common friends and planned a time to meet.
As I thought of that conversation the next day, I recalled one of those friends four years previous asking if I wanted to meet a friend of hers, her hairstylist, who had asked her about me.
I was in a season of healing and said it wasn’t the right time, and nothing was ever said again.
That was Jamie, four years before I reached out to her!
So there could be some debate over who initiated our love.
John makes it clear that there’s no question about who made the first move with the greatest love you’ll ever experience.
God loved first.
Not because we’re lovable or deserving.
Quite honestly, the opposite is true.
God chose to pursue a world of prodigals who have turned away from his love.
John tells us elsewhere, in the Gospel that bears his name, that “…Light (referring to Jesus) has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)
God loved first and sent his son John says, “…as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Jesus came to save you from your sin.
Other Bible translations use propitiation, which means “to appease an offended party’s wrath to gain goodwill.”
It’s a gift or payment offered to satisfy the anger of an offended person.
I read the story of Neil and Sally this week, not a real couple, but an illustration of propitiation.
Neil and Sally had recently started dating, and he had a bit of a wild reputation.
One night, Neil began drinking at a party and continued until they left.
As they drove home in the early hours of the morning, he lost control of the car, hit an embankment, and it rolled several times.
Several hours later, Neil awakes to find himself in the hospital, his head and body aching as he tried to remember what happened.
“How’s Sally,” he asks the doctor and is told she had been paralyzed in the accident.
He wants to see her, but she refuses.
A year later, Neil receives a letter from Sally’s lawyer.
She’s bringing legal action against him due to his choices and actions that left her with a permanent disability.
There are three factors at play here.
First, there is an offense.
Neil acted recklessly and irresponsibly when he decided to drink and drive.
Second, there is an offended person, Sally.
She’s angry, and rightly so.
Third, there is an offender, Neil, and he knows he’s to blame.
He’s deeply sorry for what he’s done, but that won’t and can’t change the fact that Sally is paralyzed and her lawyer is taking him to court.
Neil hires a lawyer to talk with Sally’s lawyer and see if a settlement is possible.
The discussion centers on one question: what will it take to satisfy Sally?
She is the offended party.
Suppose the lawyers identify an amount of money acceptable to Sally.
The payment would be a “propitiation” offered to satisfy the offended person’s anger and the need for justice.
Let’s make it personal.
Your sin is the offense, you are the offender, and God is the offended party.
The question is, “What will satisfy God?”
And this is exactly what John is telling us.
Jesus, his One and Only Son, who was born so that he could die as our propitiation, our atoning sacrifice, taking on the penalty of sin, becoming your substitute, and assuming the debt of your sin.
Interestingly, John’s reference of “one and only” is also used in another familiar Scripture he wrote, John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
God loves so much He sent His Son into our broken, messed up world for our broken and messed up condition, to redeem you and restore a relationship with you.
There are many emotions and feelings that accompany love: affection, care, concern, attraction, contentment, and trust, just to list a few.
But self-sacrifice is at the core and is the foundation.
*A parent who gives up sleep to change and feed a newborn child shows love.
*A spouse who serves the other even when they’re exhausted after a long day of their own shows love.
*A brother or sister who spends their own money on a sibling’s Christmas present shows love!
John will say in just a few verses that “God is love.”
It’s not just something he does; it’s what he is.
It’s his very nature.
And since he is love, all he does is marked by and springs from love.
This makes Christianity stand out from and above all other religions.
The love of God pours out onto the canvas of his creation.
The love of God that sent his Son for you.
Now, here’s what we need to understand.
This love story is not just about you or for you.
It’s meant to be lived thru you.
John continues, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1John 4:11-12)
The greatest proof of God’s love in you is God’s love displayed thru you.
It comes full circle, and love is made complete.
Love defines our relationship with God and dictates how we should treat others.
I should be loving to you; you should be loving to me; we should be loving to others not because any of us are worthy of it, but because God has loved us in our unworthiness.
I remember a song sung in churches when I was young that said, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Are we known by our love?
As a follower of Jesus, you are called to give love to the world.
This is at the heart of what Jesus said to the religious teacher who asked him what the greatest command is.
Jesus replied, love God AND love your neighbor as yourself.
Loving God is to be carried into loving others.
They’re not two separate commands but a continuation of one into the other.
One flows out from the other.
Imagine the impact that Blue Oaks, this community of faith, could have if you and I let God fill us with his unconditional, redemptive love, a love that pursues the
*the socially awkward
*the have’s and have nots
*the upper class and those with no class.
It’s a love that says, “I am willing to love you no matter what.”
“This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love… We love because he first loved us.” (1John 4:13-16, 19)
As I thought of this over the last week, I began to see a pattern that becomes a model for you and me.
In demonstrating His love, God opened His heart to a world lost in sin and opened His hands by sending His One and Only Son.
In the Christmas story itself, Joseph opened his heart to Mary after learning she was pregnant and opened his hands to take her as his wife rather than end their engagement.
Jesus, in coming to this world, opened His heart to sin-broken people and opened His hands on the cross as our atoning sacrifice.
As one who is loved, how do you show that same love?
Open your heart and open your hands.
First, OPEN YOUR HEART.
Do something with me.
Clench your fists nice and tight.
Now, wrap your arms around your chest and hutch your shoulders down.
If you’re with someone, turn away from them.
How does this feel?
Closed, shut off, unapproachable.
This is a closed heart.
I can tend to get into this position internally and sometimes externally.
My wife challenged me recently when I was acting with a closed heart toward someone, telling me, “You’re turning your body away to shut them off.”
She was so right.
Closed hearts can result from something done to you, hurt, or trauma that has left you unwilling or unable to love.
Or it could be the result of a self-seeking heart that is more concerned with itself than with others.
Maybe your heart is closed because of a judgmental attitude toward others.
They don’t think, believe, act, live, look, vote, or believe like you.
Whatever it might be, when you are like this, you can’t give love.
God loved you so that you could give love away, and it begins with an open heart.
So open your heart.
Second, OPEN YOUR HANDS.
Clench your hands into a fist one more time.
What do you feel?
*Is your heart beating a little faster than usual?
*Do you feel the muscles in your forearms working to keep your hands closed?
*Is your neck or shoulders tensing up?
*Maybe your fists are so tight you feel your fingernails pushing into your palms.
Closed hands are a position of selfishness, anxiety, worry, and fear.
What’s mine is mine, and I’m holding on to it.
In the Christmas story, the magi arrive at the home of Joseph and Marry and present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the then-toddler Jesus.
They came giving, hands open, in an act of love.
It’s hard to love another when you’re holding on to what is “yours.”
Now, unclench your hand, and rest your palms on your knees, facing up.
What do you feel now?
*Maybe a little vulnerable?
Open hands extend to others in welcome, in acceptance.
They wrap around another in an embrace that communicates you are loved.
It says to someone in need, “I’ll help; what’s mine is yours.”
Saint Augustine was asked what loving your neighbor looks like and answered, “(Love) has the hands to help others.”
Living with open hands demonstrates a willingness to engage others rather than hold them at a distance.
When your hands are open, truly open, you can hold them out to God fearlessly and to others lovingly.
So, this is the love story of God for you.
This is the Wonder of Love at Christmastime.
Ann Voskamp, in her book, The Greatest Gift, writes,
“Our God who cradles whole galaxies in the palm of His hand, whom highest heavens cannot contain-He folds Himself into our skin, and He uncurls His newborn fingers in the cradle of a barn feeding trough…and we are saved from ourselves.
We are saved from our loneliness because God is love, and He can’t stand to leave us by ourselves, to ourselves.
That is the message of Christmas.
We need a Messiah.
For unto us a Child is born.
God can’t stay away.
This is the love story that has been coming for you since the beginning.
Love had to come back for you.
Love had to get to you.
The Love that has been coming for you since the beginning.
This is the truest love story of history, and it’s His-Story, and it’s for you.”
Blue Oaks Church