Sunday, August 6, 2017

God Is Love


God Is Love

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

August 6, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Psalm 136

1 John 4: 16-21




Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.



16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.



Last week we began this series on defining the idea of love, we wanted to get at the heart of exactly love is, in its totality, in its completeness, for Christ himself calls Loving God and Loving our Neighbor to be the greatest of all commandments, and here John in his letter affirms unwaveringly that we are to love, abide in love, love God and must also love our brothers and sisters also, so it is imperative for us to know what love is, but I also had said that one of the real dangers of defining something like love, something that truly is infinite is that when you do so you can also confine it, you put it in a box, making it easy to handle, easy to hold, easy to accomplish, but easy then also to wield like a weapon, easy to limit, and easy to miss. There is the danger that you could think that loving in one limited way would be somehow enough. Like the liar that John refers to who says he loves God, but despises his brothers and sisters. There is also the danger that you could think that your broken and limited view of love be all there is, and when that limited definition leaves you hurting and wanting, you have nothing else, nothing more to pull you through. There is the danger that you could mistake someone’s loving towards you as something else. Have you ever been there before, and feeling those feelings of loss, hurt, betrayal, abandonment, from loved ones? Perhaps. Have you ever done something for someone from your perspective out of Love, but had the other person not understand, or did not take it the right way, or thought of your love, not of love, but took it as hate?  Have you ever felt either of those ways towards God. . . feeling betrayed, hurt, abandoned, in your darkest moment, by God? Have you ever asked the question, how could a loving God allow this to happen? How could a loving God allow that to happen? Could love include such things? Our New Testament Lesson goes very far in answering that question unwaveringly in the affirmative.  Saying that God is Love, that God has perfected love, that God abides in love, and that we know God does love us, and believe God does love us through His love, and we love, because God first loved us. These words ring out in the affirmative that God, who we believe to be all powerful, is Love, but then there is suffering in the world. Can such things be? Can such things be love? Does your definition of Love include such things? Some people have said that yes the God of the New Testament is a loving God, but the God of the Old Testament is vengeful, smiting, and unbending, but aren’t both God? Could both characterizations of God be defined as Love? Is that possible? Or are we missing something? Maybe we don’t know what love is after all. . . maybe we need to push out our boundaries a little bit, that our definitions of Love are too confining for the Infinite God we serve.

Last week I took the very long road to say that there are two ways that we can define an infinite idea without confining it. One is through poetry and metaphor, for they each leave the interpretation open to the experience of the reader. The other is through narrative because narrative deals with experience. So if we were going to look at our God/Love metaphor, that God Is Love, we would need to look at all of the experiences of God, the poets who have written, and the narratives that describe God and his actions. It is a great thing we can look at God to find out about Love, and perhaps we can experience Love and find out about God. This morning we can start with the poetry because it is actually a poem about God’s actions, and saying how they fit God’s love, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s from the Old Testament. You see the same loving God is actually there, too.

Let’s take a look at Psalm 136. It has a repeated refrain, “his steadfast love endures forever” at least that is what I have in my NRSV, but the pew Bibles are NIV, and the NIV has “his love endures forever.” The King James, our oldest English version has “his mercy endureth forever,” and I read another translation that said, “his covenant agreement endures forever.” There are many. . . so today I want us to leave behind the middle man, and speak a little Hebrew. It is actually easier for us because in Hebrew it is only three words. And the first one is easy, it is just Ki. . . got it? And Ki just means “for.”  The second one is a little more tricky because it has kind of a guttural sound, it is La’olam, and this means “enduring”. And the third starts with a grinding ch sound, Chasdoh, is the one for steadfast love, which comes from the root, chesed, which is the closest word to our Love, maybe or the Greek Agape, but it is about God’s love for us, which of course is connected to his keeping faith in his Covenants, something that he always does, and something we often fail at. So I’m going to read the English first line and we will say together each time, Ki La’olam Chasdoh. . .



O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

who alone does great wonders,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who by understanding made the heavens,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who spread out the earth on the waters,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who made the great lights,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 who divided the Red Sea in two,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,[b]
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 who led his people through the wilderness,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 who struck down great kings,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed famous kings,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to his servant Israel,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 who gives food to all flesh,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

26 O give thanks to the God of heaven,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.





You see that is the great thing about that Psalm it repeats it. It tells the entire story about the covenant relationship between Israel and their God, and each step of the way they chant as if to remember, as if to drill it into their minds that their God is Love, and that each thing that he does is a part of that love, from Creation to the parting of the Red Sea, to the providing of food, the giving of land, and the getting rid of their enemies. . . all seen by them as Love and a part of God’s steadfast love, Hessed, for them, but aren’t there more things that God does in the Bible, isn’t there more to the character of God than just these things, can’t we delve deeper and get more, breaking through any confines that may arrive, although we are getting a picture of love from this, creating a place and home, providing food and nourishment, protecting from those who may mean harm, setting free from bondage. . . that is a pretty good list, at least to start with,  because at this point it is confined to a certain perspective. . . what about love for say the famous kings, for King Shihon of the Amorites and King Og of the Bashon. Does love include preference? Choosing? One over the other? Could such things be?

Let’s look further. . . we remember that God creates the world in 7 days, that he places a firmament, that he holds back the waters, that he creates space, and that he fills that space. . . and that finally he creates human beings, in his image. . . perhaps we can create our own refrain, steal it from Tina Turner, What’s love got to do with that? Remember. . . God is Love. . . what about rest, on the seventh day God rests. . . is rest a part of love? Then God places a tree in the midst of the garden, forbids it to be eaten, but leaves us free to do so? What’s love got to do with that? God is Love. . . God shows up, in the cool of the day, calls out, where are you? Even though he must know already? Does God punish. . . or are these merely the consequences of the action? (That is Day 1 or 2 of my Sunday School class starting on September 10th so we’ll skip answering that question for now). . . God chooses and prefers Abel’s offering to Cain’s. . . What’s love got to do with that? Remember God is Love? But when Cain kills Abel, God sends him out, but leaves a mark on him, a protective mark, that he not be touched. . . interesting. . . then you have Noah, a flood to destroy the world, except for 1 righteous man and his family and all the animals 2 by 2 except for those silly unicorns that missed the boat, God Is Love. .  . a rainbow, a promise, the first covenant, never shall I again. . . is this the beginning of “Ki La’olam Chasdoh” or is it merely another aspect of God is Love, that has never not been. . .  because then Abram is called. . . promised to. . . then made to wander, to wait, to question, to act in faith, and during that time the great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, love again? We affirm again, yes God Is Love! Abraham take your son, Isaac up the mountain, father, says Isaac, where is the lamb. . . love. . . he does show up though, right at the moment of truth, Abraham, Abraham, put down the knife. . . no not your son. . .

What about Jacob, the trickster, cheats his brother out of his inheritance, flees, but is chosen still by God, and God wrestles with Jacob, renames him, and again, is it like Cain, leaves a mark on him, gives him 12 sons, but they fight amongst themselves, jealousies reign, they sell their brother Joseph, but God cares for Joseph, provides for Joseph, protects Joseph, uses Joseph to save many from famine, including the brothers who had sold him. . . . but then allows the Egyptians to forget, and then to enslave, for years and years of bondage, but then when Pharaoh decrees that babies should be slaughtered, he saves one in a basket. . . the same Hebrew word for the basket is Ark from that old story of Noah. . . one slow of speech, he uses to set the captives free, and promises to lead them to a land flowing with Milk and honey. . . . Think about God with Gideon, Deborah, Ruth, Samson, Samuel. . . think of Samuel’s mother Hanna, and her prayer, God give me a son, and God does. . . think of David, with Goliath, with Saul, with Jonathan, what about with Bathsheba. . . what characterizes God through all of these stories, again all of it is Love, must be. What about the prophets, what about Daniel, what about Elijah, that God not being in the hurricane, the earthquake, but instead the still small voice. . . the oil jars that are always full. . . what about with Jonah, the patience, but also the forgiveness toward Nineveh. You could spend a lifetime studying all of the aspects of God and of Love in the Old Testament, but how often do we seek to limit God to suit our tastes, and to limit Love then to what is easy sweet and appealing, the Valentine’s Day love. . . but we can see that it is much more difficult than that. . . Love has many more rough edges than that. Jacob wrestles with God, and doesn’t let go. . . is that what we need to do to understand the depths and mysteries of what love can be, because I didn’t even mention Job yet, or the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, or the exile, Esther and Haman, hmm love. What about the Persians, Isaiah calls Cyrus the anointed of God, could it be love to use a foreign ruler to restore and reestablish the Jewish state, even if it is merely a colony within the larger Persian empire? Then you have the Greeks, and then finally the Romans. . .

At which time the ultimate definition of Love comes. Christ, God come to live with us, not born in a palace but a manger, allowing himself to be baptized by John, heads out in the desert to fast and resist temptation. . . the temptation of control and escape. . . he withstands. . . his steadfast love endures remember. . . eats with outcasts, feeds the multitude, heals the sick, raises the dead to life. . . and takes over the empire, sets up a benevolent dictatorship where everyone’s needs are administered to, and all are taken care of forever more. . . wait, what? Isn’t that what the world says the definition of love would be? A central authority making sure that everything is fair and equal and no one ever needs, or has their feelings hurt? Isn’t that love? Perhaps not, though because that isn’t at all what Jesus does. No he goes to a cross. That can’t be right, I thought the New Testament was the progressive loving testament. . . how could it be that with all of the power in the world, all the power to do some good, Jesus doesn’t do it. That instead he goes to a cross, to die, and to be trapped inside of a tomb?

NO there is something more to this love stuff. . . there are a few common threads that we see in the story, and they find their culmination in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. WE see the act of creation. . . creating a world, creating beings to be in that world, establishing ways that lead to the flourishing of life, but also leaving people free to make those choices. . . even to their own destruction. . . but then repeating the process again and again, with special promises, planting seeds, seeds that find themselves cultivated through actions done freely, always freely, in faith. . . these seeds create lands flowing with milk and honey, blessings, and abundant life. . . then there are other times when the captives need to be set free again. . . covenants of righteousness are forgotten and broken not by God but by us, and people end up in chains. . . God sets those captives free. . . but the new covenant according to Jeremiah the prophet will be written onto our hearts, and so God comes himself to be the seed planted, to leave his mark on us, to set the captives free, to become the sacrifice, and to show for ever that the true and full definition of love, though it may be difficult because it always includes a cross, is stronger than any limitation we could ever put on it, even death itself.

Can you imagine how much faith must be a part of love for love to include such freedom? I’m not talking about the faith that we have in God, but the faith that God must have in us. He must know something that we do not, to have such faith in us, that we could ever learn to love like that, to love He does, he must have much faith in us to believe that we could begin to have enough faith in Him, and to have faith enough in our neighbors to love him and them in the way that God loves us, faith enough to feed and heal and provide and sacrifice ourselves, all in order to set them free. . . not to shape them to our will or enslave them and control them, but to set them free. Love is heavy. . . for God is Love. Amen.