Jesus, lover of my Soul: God’s love for sinners

August 17, 2008

(originally delivered at the University of Georgia WDA campus ministry)

Let me first admit to all of you — this is not an easy subject for me to write on. God’s love is a many sided thing, and as of late I have been receiving His hard love — discipline, correction, and rebuke. I have built up over the years a number of bad habits, which He is busy stripping me of at the moment, and I’m finding that rather hard to deal with. So, right off the bat, I don’t want you to think that the image of God’s love that I’m painting it all rosy, pie-in-the-sky by-and-by. Yet God’s love is real.

And yet again, I feel I have bit off FAR more than I can chew. I feel like St. Augustine when, it is rumored, he encountered a young boy on the beach that compared Augustine’s attempts to write books about God to the boy’s own attempt to pour the sea, bucket by bucket, into a small hole in the sand. This has led me to acknowledge outright that if I say ANYTHING tonight that speaks to you, it is not I. This is my attempt to pale the entirety of the Pacific into a small hole in the sand.

But seriously, I approached this subject asking myself, “How do I make this material new?” knowing that many of you will have grown up in the church, and may have heard it so many times that, sadly enough, you’ve grown cold to it. But I don’t know that it’s my job to make the truth new, so much as to remind you of it, so apart from a few new angles, that is exactly what I’m going to do.

As the third part in a series on God’s love, I thought I might quickly summarize. First, we talked about how God has shown His love for us in giving the law. He illustrated God’s love using his own fatherhood as an example. We saw that like a good father sets rules in place for my child for his protection and well being, that he might enjoy life within the boundaries that it was meant to be enjoyed, God did the same in his law. Next, we were spoken to about God’s love expressed through the prophets. We saw how again and again God’s people have played the prostitute, leaving our groom to chase after our lusts, and yet we saw how God has been faithful, working continually to call us back unto Himself.

Tonight as I speak to you, I hope along with Paul in Ephesians 3:14; “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” And in light of that, let me add — if you think you’ve got a grip on this “love that surpasses knowledge”, you REALLY haven’t yet even begun to understand.

 

Now, having heard so many sermons on God’s love, I am disappointed that we so rarely have asked the question, “What is love? So I asked myself that same question a few nights ago and I quickly realized why no one else wanted to go there. Love is very hard to define. Again, hoping to pour the Pacific into a hole in the sand, I think I have an insight or two that will help us at least begin to better understand the nature of Biblical love.

Most people are familiar with 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul speaks of love’s basic qualities: patience, kindness, selflessness, long-suffering, protectiveness, trust, hope, and perseverance. Keep these in the forefront of your mind, and take a look at John 15:13;

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

So – what must love be in order for all of this to be true? I think J. I. Packer, in his book “Knowing God” is wise to point out that at it’s most basic, to love someone is to identify with his or her welfare. Packer says, “If a father continues to be cheerful and carefree while his son is getting into trouble, or if a husband remains unmoved when his wife is in distress, we wonder at once how much love there can be in their relationship, for we know that those who truly love are only happy when those whom that love are truly happy also. So it is with God in His love for man.

In John 15:13, Jesus taught us that this identification with another can go no further than the act of dying in someone else’s stead. Let us flesh this out a bit…

First, God identifies with us in the incarnation. Isaiah 7:14, an Old Testament messianic prophecy quoted by Matthew, foretells that the messiah will be “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us.” Though-out Jesus’ life we get hints of his divinity – his claims to forgive sin, to be one with the Father, his display of power over nature itself — in Christ we have “God with skin on.” The second person of the Trinity has come down to live among us, and to live as we should. The incarnation is an incredible expression of God’s commitment to truly identify with our humanity, and all of the troubles it brings. The incarnation reminds me of a line from the Disney movie Aladdin where Genie describes his life as, “PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER – itty bitty living space! In a sense that is what we have in Christ, except the incarnation is so drastic in that Christ has even personally given up his “phenomenal cosmic power” and has subjected himself fully to the Father, and is reliant upon the Spirit for all he does, just as we are.

There is an interesting, but little recognized, point to be made when looking at the incarnation. When we read the Gospels, after Jesus’ early childhood, with the exception of one notable occasion where he is found teaching at the temple, we hear little about his life until his public ministry begins around the age of 30. All we have from the Scriptures is this; “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Basically, Jesus did what any good male Jew of his time would do — he worked obediently in his family business as a carpenter, studied the Torah, he sometimes celebrated, and most likely sometimes cried. He lived a normal life. The second person of the Trinity lived a normal life among us in order to redeem the WHOLE of us. It is because of this that there is no necessary Religious/Secular dichotomy in the Christians’ life — unless we are willing to accept Jesus as somehow a second-class citizen — somehow “sub-holy” until his ministry began. No — but in fact we do ALL THINGS as unto the Lord. God, in the incarnation – in drawing near to us – has made even our day-to-day a devotional experience. God identifies with us even in our work, and He is redeeming it for his own glory.

Secondly, God identifies with us in the death of Christ. Earlier this Semester we looked at the doctrine of the Fall of Man, and how it caused many separations to take place; sin separates us from the creation, sin separates us from ourselves, sin separates us from one another, and worst of all, sin separates us from God. Yet God, in his great love for us, has made a way to restore us in every one of these areas, and it is through Christ that he does this. In regards particularly to our separation from God, Romans 5:7-8 says, Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God has demonstrated his love for us in that He, in Christ Jesus, has become sin on our behalf! Our sin is so great that each and every one of us deserves death — apart from Christ we are already spiritually still-born, and physically headed for the grave. But Christ has identified with us in taking our own sin, and taking the punishment in our stead. Just as He taught, “Greater love has no one that this...”

Lastly, God identifies with us in Christ’s resurrection, though this is a reverse identification. Ephesians 2:4 says, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Notice this: it is because of his great love for us that he has given us life in Christ, and God has raised us up in Christ. In other places the Scripture says that we will be “raised like him” and that we will be “raised imperishable.” In this case, God identifies with us by making us more like himself. In fact, the whole process of sanctification is growth in Christ-like-ness –God’s restoration of the His image in each of us. Ultimately this will end with our being “raised like him.”

Let’s look at Luke 15:11-32; ‘Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, `How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. ‘”But the father said to his servants, `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. `Your brother has come,’ he replied, `and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, `Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “`My son,’ the father said, `you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

First, take note of the extent of this son’s disobedience. Verse 12 records this young man as making a very bold request, indeed: “Father, give me my fair share of the estate.” That estate would be part of his inheritance! Can you imagine your own child saying to you, in essence, “I don’t care about you — I only want what you can give me — in fact, I wish you were dead! Let’s pretend that you are dead, and just give me what is mine!” According to Jewish law at that time the Father could have stoned him to death for such an insult, but he does not. Rather, he gives his son what he requests, and the son squanders it in wild living.

And does he EVER squander it! The Jews considered pigs to be so unclean that they would not even touch them, let along eat and live with them. Yet, as far as this young man would be concerned, he had truly hit rock bottom. He couldn’t have possible gotten any further from God and Godliness when he decides to return, and thus he has little hope within him for full acceptance from his Father when he returns. His highest hope is that he might be taken in as a mere slave.

Yet, think about this: his father saw him coming AT A DISTANCE. What does this tell you? Do you think this was an accident? When I read this I imagine a scene where the father stood scanning the horizon every evening for his son’s return – expectant even after such a long wait.

And when he saw that speck on the horizon HE RAN to meet him! Now, in this culture the patriarch of the family DID NOT RUN – it was considered undignified to do so. This particular patriarch, however, did not care about dignity. He was not afraid to call him his own, to fully identify with his son, even if it made the old man out to be a fool.

Jesus gave us this parable to show us how the Father’s love is for his children. He is gracious to us even in our sin, He is watching the horizon for our return, and He runs to meet us when we turn to Him. God, no matter how low you have stooped, is not afraid to call you his own!

 

 

In closing, one of the things we should recognize about God’s love is this — there is a progression to God’s love. God first showed his love in creating us, and making provision for our sin in the garden. And our sin increased. God showed us love in giving his law, and our sin increased. God sent personal representatives to share his message with us in the prophets, but our sin still increased. Then, God sent his own son, Jesus, God in the flesh, to make atonement and restore the relationship on our behalf. This is how much God loves us. We are the prostitute wife that God continually woos back to himself. We are not beautiful in and of ourselves — we have been living amongst the pigs, but God runs to us as our Father, and calls us His own! This is what it means when John writes, “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.” (John 3:16)


So, how to we apply this?

1. 1 John 4:11 says, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” And we should recognize that this love is sometimes tough love. God’s love to me as of late, as I mentioned earlier, has been a love full of discipline and correction, but in all of this I KNOW that he is still there — that he still calls me his child. One of the most life-changing events over the past few years has been my encountering friends who simply WILL NOT LEAVE ME. This, and even more-so, however, is how God loves us, and being confident in HIS LOVE, being secure in HIS LOVE, enables us to truly love one-another in a way that has life-changing effects.

2. Secondly, Romans 8:36-37 says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Let the incredible example that we have in Christ of God’s love give us confidence in our salvation, that we might live our lives in response to that love. As Paul says, “You are no longer under law, but under grace.” Yet, the freedom we now have in Christ is freedom to serve God, to be who we were really created to be, in Christ! This is freedom to truly live! This is the call to abandon your lives to Christ.

Amen…

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