Monday, November 26, 2007

Little Big Words: Love

(A sermon based on 1 John 3:11-24)

We’ve been talking about some of the “little big words” in our life with Christ. These are little words that have big meanings and big implications. So far we have talked about the little big words grace and faith. Today we turn to love.

I suspect that love may be the biggest of all our little big words. It lies at the heart of who God is. It lies at the heart of what Jesus did. And it lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

What are some the truths that our passage teaches us about the love that a Christian has and displays?

First, love is basic to the gospel message. John wrote, “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (v. 11). Things that are said from the beginning are very important things. What John has uppermost in mind is the beginning of the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. “From the time that Jesus came into the world and from the moment that he began to teach and preach,” John is saying, “the teaching that Christians are to love one another has been basic.”

We can make this idea more particular. Surely we would all have to say that from the time that we first became aware of the good news of Jesus we have heard the necessity of love taught and preached. If you don’t remember hearing that, then you might to wonder about the kind of Christianity that was being promoted—or you might need to wonder how good your memory is! From the beginning of our Christian lives we have heard love preached.

Or we can make this idea more general. We can say that the primacy of love has been part of the fabric of God’s world ever since he created it. Indeed, righteousness and love have always gone hand-in-hand. So Cain, John said, killed Abel because Cain was of the evil one and his deeds were evil. The lack of love is symptomatic of an evil heart being influenced by the evil one; the presence of love is symptomatic of a righteous heart influenced by the Righteous One.

In all of these ways, love is basic to the gospel message. The introductory course in the Christian faith is Love 101.

Second, love is a sign that we have been born again. “We know,” John said, that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (v. 14). There’s a song that says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Well, we can change the pronoun and still sing the truth: “We’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Love is life. To be born again is to be born into God’s love and God’s life; it is to be set free to live and love as God intended.

Sometimes Christians who are sensitive to their failings or who tend to over-intellectualize things get to having doubts about their salvation. The first category of Christians will try hard to be better and to do better so that they can know they’re saved. Those in the second category develop headaches trying to think their way through to assurance. We’re better off accepting what John says: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” When Christ’s love is poured into our hearts, when we really get grace and mercy and love, then we can’t help but grow in our love for one another.

We’re still a week away from the first Sunday of Advent and we’re still a month away from Christmas. Still, a Christmas story from classic literature offers a good illustration. In the Dr. Seuss book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch was a mean, miserly character who lived on a mountain outside Whoville. The Grinch tried to steal the Whos’ Christmas by stealing their presents and decorations and food on Christmas Eve. The next morning he expected to hear their wails of sorrow. Instead, he heard them singing songs of Christmas joy.

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?" "It came without ribbons! It came without tags!" "It came without packages, boxes or bags!" And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store." "Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
And what happened then...? Who-ville they say That the Grinch's small heart Grew three sizes that day!

When Jesus comes into your heart, it grows. It doesn’t grow three sizes. It grows and grows and grows. And that’s how you know you’re a Christian.

Do you remember the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” Try this one: “Christian, Christian, if you’re quite contrary, then how has your heart grown?”

Third, love is a matter of the heart. John said that we should not be like Cain who killed Abel. He went on to say, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them” (v. 15). This goes to the state of our hearts. Recall the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

In other words, real righteousness does not consist in just avoiding harmful acts; real righteousness consists in having a heart so changed by the grace of God that you want to do good to people and not to do harm to them. I may never strike you and I may never say a hurtful thing to you—but what is the stance of my heart toward you? If I wish harm on you or if I think of you as less than human or if I see you as an object to be abused or exploited, then my heart is not a heart filled with love.

Love means more than not doing harmful things. It means having an attitude of grace and mercy toward people that sees them as fully human and deserving of God’s love.

Fourth, love is a matter of action. Here is the flip side of what I was just talking about. I just said that the avoidance of harmful acts does not constitute love; the heart must be changed so that our motives and our attitudes toward others are positive and helpful. Real love, though, will issue in positive actions on behalf of others. John said,

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (vv. 16-18)

Here is the essence of God’s love: Jesus laid down his life for us. That is how God showed his love for us. If we are saved by that love and if that love has been poured into our hearts, then we will lay down our lives for one another.

Chances are slim that we will have to literally do what Jesus did and give up our lives for one another. Therefore, it’s all too easy to say that we would do so. The real test is in our actions. Do we have hearts that are so filled with the self-giving, self-emptying love of Jesus Christ that it overflows in practical acts of kindness to our brothers and sisters? There is simply no way in heaven or on earth to reconcile the love of Christ with greedy and selfish actions. Loving hearts and loving actions show that the love of Christ is in our hearts.

Only the grace of God can put the love of God in your heart. Is it there? Such love shows itself in love acts on behalf of others. Are they there?

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