April 26, 2015

Nearer to the Heart of God

In 1964 the British Invasion of American pop culture roared to life when a British band called The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show to an audience of 73 million.  The Fab Four climbed the ladder to super-stardom in record time and went on to release hit after hit after hit.  A great deal of their music has become immortalized in Western pop culture where people still know and love their work.  One of the group’s most enduring hits was first released on the album “Magical Mystery Tour,” in 1967 and I’ll bet most of you can name that tune in one note: “All…you need is love.”  All you need is love.  It’s a simple but powerful refrain that has shaped how whole generations think about the classical virtue.  The kick is, though, what Paul and John were thinking about when they wrote their classic song was not what a couple of other guys also named Paul and John were thinking when they wrote about what love is and what it looks like to put it into practice.  The Beatles envisioned love as more of a generalized good feeling toward another person that trended in a wildly permissive direction where as long as everybody was happy and nobody was hurt pretty much anything goes.  What the apostles Paul and John had in mind, though, was something rather different from that.  McCartney and Lennon may not have been totally wrong in their sentiment, but once we understand the Biblical idea of love a bit better we can see just how gloriously right they were.  Love (Biblically defined) is all we need.  In fact, love is one of the things God really wants.

This morning we are in the second part of our series, What Does God Really Want?  The whole idea for this series is that all of us at one point in our lives or another asks that question: what does God really want?  We all go through periods when we feel like we’re doing everything we can to make God happy and just aren’t getting there.  We’ve talked about the fact that although this is a terribly frustrating place to be, it doesn’t have to remain so.  It doesn’t have to remain frustrating because about 2,500 years ago, God sent the prophet Micah to the people of Judah to tell them what He really wanted from them.  They were in a place just like you have been where everything seemed good to them and yet Micah was announcing God’s judgment on them.  This caught them off guard and so they asked the hard question: What do you want God?  (They were kind of sarcastic about it too.)  And here’s how great the God we serve is.  Rather than squashing them like a bug for sarcastically questioning Him (as most people then would have expected one of the gods to do), He let it go and answered their question.  Do you remember what Micah said?  “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

Last week after setting all of this up, we spent a bit of time on the idea of doing justice.  We discovered with the help of another prophet, Amos, that justice is essential because justice is worship.  To pursue justice is to participate in the character of God which along with acknowledgment and proclamation is at the core of what it means to worship God.  This morning I want to take the next step forward with you and look at this idea of loving kindness.  If we are going to give God what He really wants, Micah said that we need to love kindness.  Well, what does that mean?

In order to understand this better we need to take a quick look at the Hebrew here.  I said last week that the operative Hebrew word in this phrase is the word chesed.  This is a word used to describe the kind of love that God has, the kind of love God is. The problem with trying to translate chesed is this: how do you put the sum total of God’s love into a single word or phrase?  You can’t and so there are a lot of different translations of the word depending on its exact context.  Well, in the context here chesed appears as a noun.  It is the object of a verb, meaning it’s the thing toward which we are supposed to direct the action of the verb.  Okay then, what’s the verb?  Love.  More specifically the verb here is ahabaw which is the Hebrew word primarily used to describe human love.  I ahabaw Lisa.  I ahabaw my best friend, Jason.  I ahabaw my boys.  I ahabaw my parents.  So what does it mean to take all of that and direct it toward the love of God?

To get the answer to that question we need to make sure we understand what this second kind of love is.  Now, for the last several years I have been jumping up and down on a definition of love that I believe best captures the essence of love as described by guys like Jesus, Peter, Paul, and John.  The definition is this: love is an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be.  Nothing less than that is Biblical love.  I didn’t pull this definition of love out of thin air, though.  I discovered it when I was studying for a preaching series in the first letter the apostle John wrote to the believers in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus.  In this letter John has some great things to say about Biblical love, what it is, and how to put it into practice.  One passage in particular stands out as perhaps the clearest statement on what love Biblically defined is in all of Scripture.  Check this out with me starting in 1 John 4:7.

“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 God, because God is love.”  Got all that?  The best evidence that we belong to God is that we love one another.  Jesus Himself said that all people will know we are His followers when we love one another.  But, what exactly does He mean by love?  If we use the standard cultural definition of a kind of generalized good feeling directed toward another person, almost everybody does this whether they follow Jesus or not.  Certainly John can’t be talking about the amorous feelings of romantic love because then we’d have to say that every high school couple in the world is born of God and that’s just not true.

What we need is a little more to go on in terms of defining just exactly what John’s talking about.  Well, look at the next verse: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  Now we’re getting somewhere.  If we are to get love right, it needs to be as close an approximation of the love of God as we are capable of making.  And what is the nature of the love of God?  What did John say?  It led Him to take the radical step of sending His sinless Son to die for a bunch of sinful people in order that we might be able to be in a relationship with Him.  In other words, love, Biblically defined, is just as I described.  It is an intentional decision (God was very intentional in sending Jesus for us) to see someone else (it is primarily and others-oriented affair) become more fully who God designed them to be (we were designed to be in a relationship with God and Jesus’ sacrifice allowed that to happen).  This is very simply what love is.  And, as John writes in v. 11, if that’s how God loves us, then it would seem to make sense for us to love other people in the same way.  We are to make sure that all of our energies toward the people around us are intentionally directed toward seeing them fall more fully in line with God’s intention for them.  That goes for our spouses, our kids, our friends, our family, our coworkers, even our enemies.

Now, come back with me to this idea of having this kind of love for, well, God’s love.  Micah’s not talking about having amorous feelings for God’s love.  He’s pointing to this kind of intentionality on our part.  We are to be intentionally dedicated, not to seeing God’s love become something since it is already fully formed, but to seeing it fully recognized for what it is and put into practice after the pattern God has set for us.  To put that a bit more simply: we are to be intentionally committed to putting into practice the love of God.  This is how we give God what He wants.  This is how we make God happy.  They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  Well, the way to God’s heart is through this intentional dedication to putting His love into practice.  In other words and now that we understand better what love is, love is the way to God’s heart.  Love is the way to God’s heart.

So how do we do it?  Well, what are some of the examples of God’s love that we see demonstrated for us in the Scriptures?  He was radically kind to people—whether they followed Him or not.  He met people’s physical needs.  He ministered to their spirits.  He set down loving parameters to keep them from falling into sin and the death it always brings.  He was willing to make enormous sacrifices so they could have a relationship with Him.  He accepted people just as they were.  He didn’t leave people as they were.  We could go on like this, but that’s a pretty good list to use as a starting point.  How could you show radical kindness to the people around you?  What are somethings you could do to meet the physical needs of people who are lacking?  How can you minister to the spiritual needs of the people you meet?  What are some humble, gentle, and practical things you can do to help keep people from falling into sin?  What sacrifices are you willing to make to see people enter freely into a relationship with God?  How could you be more accepting of the people around you?  What are some realistic steps you could take to move the people you love further down the road in the direction of God?  These are all examples of what it means to ahabaw chesed, to love…love.  And love is the way to God’s heart.

And if you want to see what this looks like in even more concrete terms, look no further than the group of people in this room who are preparing to head to Honduras (back to Honduras for most of them) in a few weeks.  They will be participating in the love of God whether they realize it or not, and love is the way to God’s heart.  They will be meeting the physical needs of folks who can’t see those met in any other way.  They will have the opportunity to receive people just as they are and love them there.  There will be chances for them to engage with the spiritual needs of some of the folks they meet.  They are making a huge sacrifice to even go on the trip.  There are few more radical acts of kindness than to leave behind everything comfortable and familiar, give up a week’s worth of income, and go to a place that is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and dangerous to serve the least of these.  Do I need to go on?  For you who are going, rest assured that you are showing the love of God to a people very much in need of experiencing it.  You are giving God what He really wants.  You are making Him happy.  You are showing love.  And love is the way to God’s heart.

Know well that you are an encouragement to the rest of us and although we can’t go with you, we will be supporting you as we are able through prayer.  As a matter of fact, we are going to start that process right now.  If I can have all the team members line up across the front here I want to introduce you to everybody else.  As I do, I want the prayer partners to come up and stand with your team member as well.  It’s going to get a little crowded, but we all brushed our teeth this morning and bathed at least once this week so we’ll be okay.  When you get up here, prayer partners, introduce yourselves if you need to, and present your crosses.  When all that’s finished we’re going to get even cozier.  We are going to pray for these guys and if you are not already up here, but you feel so led, come on down and we’ll all lay hands on these guys as we pray.  I’ve asked Nury if she’ll open us in prayer—in Spanish—then the floor will be open to anyone who feels so led to pray, and I’ll close things out after a while.  Sound good?  Let’s get started.