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Love: This Is How

In The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan tells his brother Alyosha

why he will not live by faith in the Lord.

As Ivan justifies his unbelief,

Alyosha, who is a monk, feels Ivan is mocking him

for his devotion and vocation.

Ivan recounts the long list of human brutality

and concludes God has simply not responded with what human beings need.

Belief in the Lord is an added burden to people,

not deliverance or peace, he concludes,

while implying Alyosha is part of that burden.

When Ivan finishes his denunciation

he senses Alyosha’s sorrow and hurt,

but he is convinced

Alyosha has nothing to say in response,

nothing that would meaningfully affect Ivan.

But Alyosha leans forward to his brother,

who has offended him deeply,

and kisses his brother.

Dostoevsky is saying to us:

The kiss cannot overcome a logical argument,

but at the same time there is no logical argument that can overcome love.

― Fyodor Dostoevsky writes, “What is hell?

I maintain that it is the suffering

of being unable to love.”

 

These verses from 1 John 4

will take us deep into love’s character

so that this living Word

not only assures our hearts

but forms and shapes our lives.

The old gospel song says,

They will know we are Christians by our love,

and we all confess that is not happening

as we desire today.

 

7 Dear friends, let us love one another,

for love comes from God.

Everyone who loves

has been born of God and knows God.

8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

 

The passage begins ‘dear friends . . .’

but the word is more intimate and gracious than that. It literally means ‘beloved.’

Our identity is as ‘one who is loved.’

We keep the sense of this word alive

when we refer to someone close to us

as a ‘loved one.’

That’s what this word means.

But it means more.

This is the word the Father used

speaking from the heavens to the Son of God,

when the Lord declared to the world,

“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Now it is the way believers are referred to:

beloved, loved by God.

So who are we?

Who are you?

The loved one of God.

That’s your identity.

That’s how closely you belong to the Lord.

That’s the result of the cross of Christ.

 

7 Dear friends (or ‘loved one’),

let us love one another,

for love comes from God.

In that freedom and assurance,

be generous toward others.

This is what our thankfulness to God should look like:

it should look like loving one another.

Ah, but we have already confessed

in the last few weeks that because of sin

we human beings are confused about love.

We limit love to an emotional response,

or think it is intense liking,

or confine it to romance and family.

We confess we say things like ‘I love this slice of pie’ more than we say ‘I love my neighbor.’

So in order to learn what love really is,

and to recognize when we are loved well ,

and then to love well ourselves,

we find out what love is from Jesus and his cross

because love comes from God

who is love embodied and enacted.

 

If you are wondering today whether God loves you,

or whether that love matters,

or even whether God is real,

here’s some wisdom.

Instead of wrestling with all the arguments

for God’s existence or whether the Bible

is infallible and a reliable witness,

or worrying and judging

what others do or say

or fail to do or say,

ask yourself a different sort of question:

what experiences of love have I known?

Because that’s where God is!

Could it be that the Lord has loved me

and I haven’t seen it, recognized God’s love?

When has the Lord called on me to love

and how have I responded?

Could all of these situations and circumstances and

opportunities be what I’m really looking for?

What I’m made for?

For, ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God

and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love

does not know God, because God is love.’

God’s love is redeeming;

it is also a revealer, a teacher

of the grace and truth of the Lord.

 

Those who share your burdens.

The time you served and helped out

even though you were tired

or had plenty of other things to do.

The card you received in the mail.

Giving to church and mission.

The sacrifices others have made to provide you

with the schooling you have been given.

The blessings of the day.

The prayers prayed for you;

the prayers you offer interceding for others.

The comforting touch of the one close to you.

The forgiveness of a friend or family member.

All these and more are experiences

as citizens in the kingdom of God’s love.

 

The passage then points out

the true love God has given to us:

9 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.

10 This is love: not that we loved God,

but that he loved us and sent his Son

as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

 

Here is the definition of what love really is:

Love is self-sacrifice done in Christ’s name

for the eternal benefit of another.

Is that how you define love?

That’s how God defined it.

This is the sum of the Lord’s desire.

Notice these features of divine love:

God takes the initiative.

The Lord sent his one and only Son.

The language of this verse remembers John 3:16, “For God so loved the world he gave

his One and Only Son . . .”

This means that love also cost God dearly;

it cost the Father his Son.

Love costs.

But the cost of love results in life.

So now we are truly alive

when we love in thankful response:

living through this costly act of the Lord to give

in response to our sin.

Can we add all this to our decisions

and passionate desires of love?

To act first.

To give.

To sacrifice in order to restore another

in the grace of God.

Did you know love was that powerful?

 

10 This is love: not that we loved God,

but that he loved us and sent his Son

as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

We’ve been saying that God’s love

does not depend on our merit or worthiness.

The Lord acts first in our lives.

All the time.

That’s the first witness of baptism.

When a baby is baptized surrounded

by the faith of parents and church

the picture is of God making a promise first,

of the Lord declaring love first.

This is love, says verse 10,

not that we merited it

or that we did the right things

to get in God’s good favor,

but that the Lord God loved us and sent his Son.

So even this morning the Father acts first in your life,

loving you in Christ.

 

Love acts first, and then with gracious intention.

. . . he loved us and sent his Son

as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Despite our sin and the broken relationship,

the Father restores us in forgiveness:

that’s love’s intention.

The English translation is that Jesus is

an atoning sacrifice.

That phrase is reaching for a way

to explain the costly, effective self-giving love

we’ve been talking about.

If you’ve got an older version,

or happen to remember how you learned this verse

a generation ago,

you notice that this phrase ‘atoning sacrifice’

was translated as ‘propitiation’:

the Lord sent his Son as a propitiation for sin.

That’s a five-dollar word that doesn’t make it

into everyday conversation anymore.

Do you know what it means?

 

Propitiation? You may not recognize the word,

but you know it when you see it:

In the King Kong movies

the beautiful movie star is captured

by the indigenous tribe

and tied to a platform as an offering to Kong.

And they beat the drums

as they call out for Kong to receive their gift

so they can live at peace with the great beast.

 In The Hunger Games the government of Panem exacts a punishment on 12 districts after a civil war. Each district must produce two tributes,

a boy and a girl,

who will fight and kill each other

until only the winner remains.

At The Reaping the contestants are chosen.

And the sacrifice begins.

 And who here remembers

that American Literature short story

we had to read in high school

called The Lottery?

Each villager picks a slip of paper

and the one with the black dot

is stoned to death

so that the town  is assured

a bountiful harvest.

Is that story still part of the curriculum?

You’ll have to ask our sophomores.

 

Each one of those stories is about propitiation.

Whether its pagan gods or a corrupt state

or cruel superstition,

the people have to offer some sort of sacrifice

to appease the wrathful ruler

and make up for what they’ve done.

Propitiation is to appease

an offended and angered party

in order to avoid punishment and receive mercy.

 

We shy away from ‘propitiation’

because it sounds like God is an angry God

who is about to pour his wrath upon us all,

but then Jesus calms the Father down

and says I’ve taken care of it.

 

It sounds like that,

but don’t forget that God so loved the world

the Father gave his Son.

Remember these verses that reveal

9 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.

10 This is love: not that we loved God,

but that he loved us and sent his Son

as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

 

The full picture is that the Lord God

takes the initiative

to deal justly with righteous anger,

deserved judgment,

and the Lord deals justly

by God’s own suffering and sacrifice and giving.

 

Knowing all this,

we rightly understand love,

and now we are called to love the same way:

11 Dear friends, since God so loved us,

we also ought to love one another.

This speaks of a life of gratitude

that is focused on loving self-sacrifice.

Our love is not love if it is based on

you owe me

or you make the first move.

 

Now remember, the context is

our identity as beloved, as God’s loved one.

And our confession is that we don’t handle love well

and often fail to recognize or receive God’s love.

So there is wise counsel here for all:

it is meaningless and fruitless

to explore God's reality or presence or being

apart from love;

in the receiving of forgiveness

and in the participating in self-sacrifice

for Christ’s glory and honor

love is made known.

Do you have trouble accepting the reality of God

or that the Lord’s presence

means something to your everyday living?

How about asking the Lord for forgiveness?

How about sharing with Jesus in prayer

your regrets, your shame?

How about choosing to love

even when you don’t like,

and taking this initiative

you will experience the love of God.

 

vs 12 adds to this understanding:

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

 

‘No one has seen God’

We are not going to reason our way to God

or figure God out on our own,

or reduce God to an intellectual achievement.

To say, I know about God is to say nothing lasting

or holy or helpful about God.

If you struggle,

look for evidence of love,

and in those sacrifices you will sense

the presence and reality of the Lord.

I’m thinking we often hesitate to witness

about the Lord because

we don’t think we know enough,

or we’ll be asked a question we can’t answer.

What if instead we shared all the ways

the church community loves her neighbors

and stands with the persecuted?

What if that was the content

of our Facebook and Twitter posts,

what if we pictured that on Instagram?

How about some time this week

you share the way you have loved another

with self-sacrificial action

simply because that’s the love of God

given to the world.

 

For we experience the presence of God

as we love in Christ’s name.

This came to me when I began to read this verse

and thought, I have read this verse somewhere else.

Let’s compare this verse to John 1:18

This verse, 1 John 4:12 says,

No one has ever seen God;

but if we love one another,

God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Now look at John 1:18,

18 No one has ever seen God,

but the one and only Son,

who is himself God

and is in closest relationship with the Father,

has made him known.

Both begin the same way, no one has ever seen God.

This speaks of our need for transcendence,

but our inability to experience the divine fully.

That inner reality called eternity in our hearts

that persists in telling us

there has got to be more

than what we can sense in this life.

John 1 reveals that Jesus makes this reality known

since Jesus is very God come in the flesh.

1 John 4:12 expands this reality

telling us incredibly that

when we by faith follow Jesus

in such giving and self-sacrifice

God is present living in us.

We see Jesus – his presence with us -

his love made complete in us.

Not meaning that God’s love is lacking until we love,

but that human beings can fully receive,

recognize and relate to God

as Christ’s love is shared together.

 

Here’s the truth:

Belief leads to participation in God’s love.

Participation in God’s love leads to belief.

16 And so we know and rely on

the love God has for us.

 

The next verses accent our assurance,

for the Holy Spirit lives in and moves our hearts,

continuing to shape and form our desires

toward this love.

And presses us to love’s practical actions:

For the third time in just these few verses

we read “this is how . . .”

17 This is how love is made complete among us

so that we will have confidence

 on the day of judgment:

In this world we are like Jesus.

18 There is no fear in love.

But perfect love drives out fear,

because fear has to do with punishment.

The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

 

This is how:

In this world we are like Jesus.

Jesus was loved by the Father.

Jesus loved the Father and completed God’s will.

God so loved you

and surrounded your life in love

because God is love.

So this is how we live:

in this world we are like Jesus.

Love as he so loved.

Giving.

Self-sacrifice.

In order to share eternal blessings like forgiveness,

like acceptance even when you are rejected,

like including even tho there is a barrier

because of sin there.

 

When we read about perfect love driving out fear

the verse has a specific kind of fear in mind:
the fear of punishment and eternal condemnation:

the fear of cosmic loneliness;

the fear of a life with no divine purpose.

Fear has to do with punishment.

It is God’s love that drives out that fear

by taking it away.

So again, the way to witness

in order that others too may live

saved by grace alone

is this way of Christ’s love.

I fear Christians are tempted to be

too focused on our own selves

when we needn’t be, because our eternity is secured.

Too much time is spent on

our own needs and struggles,

and we dwell too much on our own condition.

And then, the church is too focused on

securing our own rights and freedoms.

We are too easily offended.

We rush to defend God

when the Lord can defend himself

far better than any of us.

We are NOT like Jesus when this is our gospel,

when this is what we focus on.

So 1 John 4 says THIS is how:

love – In this world we are like Jesus.

We love because he first loved us.

 

The reality is that outside of this love,

people, even good people,

people on our hearts,

are facing eternal punishment.

 

I know, we don’t like to talk about that.

I know, to talk about it

is to face another kind of criticism.

But here’s the truth:

Jesus spoke more often and vividly about Hell

than anyone else in the New Testament.

CS Lewis concluded that real, eternal judgment,

as horrible as it might seem,

is the only way Christians can affirm

the holiness of God

and the moral freedom of human beings.

 

We prefer to think somehow

everyone will be saved in the end

and all will wind up in heaven

because, after all, we just said God is love.

But this wouldn’t really be love at all.

Imagine a God who never put an end to evil,

and who never stopped those

determined to continue committing evil—

a God who never told abusers,

persecuting dictators, rapists,

prideful narcissists,

unjust judges and the like

who refuse to accept His help or authority

that enough is enough.

There could be no ultimate restoration of creation, and no ultimate peace for the redeemed.

 

To those who object that this isn’t fair,

CS Lewis replied with a piercing question:

“What are you asking God to do?”

To wipe out your past sins, and at all costs,

to give you a fresh start,

offering every miraculous help?

“He has done so, on Calvary.”

Do you want Him to forgive you?

He has offered forgiveness in Christ.

Do you want Him to leave you alone?

“Alas,” wrote Lewis,

“I am afraid that is what he does.”

The one thing God will not do—and cannot do—

is allow those who refuse His love

to “blackmail the universe.”

Hell will not be allowed to eternally “veto” Heaven.

 

The paragraph of Scripture ends commanding us

to be lovers of God and God’s creation

and those God has given life:

19 We love because he first loved us.  . . . 

21 And he has given us this command:

Anyone who loves God

must also love their brother and sister.

 

“Fewer than half of churchgoers,

including born-again Christians,

felt strongly that their church

demonstrates unconditional love.”

― David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters

 

You may be known as a Christian.

Your neighbors, co-workers, classmates

may know you attend church worship services.

Will they connect God’s love to who you say you are?

The Father’s giving of the Son says

you were worth sticking it out for.

Will you act the same toward another?

For love keeps us from losing sight of God.

Amens

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