Wednesday, April 12, 2006

the core truth

You are a preacher, and the assigned text that comes up is John 3. 16. If I asked most of you, “what is the best known verse in the Bible?”, you would probably say John 3. 16. Many of us learned it as children: For God so loved the world that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. There is a verse that follows John 3. 16, one that we would benefit from knowing just as well, one that is less known to most of us, but we will get to that on another day: it is worth hearing again: For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

God loves us. That is a simple affirmation of faith. Well, God is like that. God is gracious and merciful and kind. That would be like God. We can affirm those words, but like many truths, this one sometimes doesn't penetrate too far beneath the skin. And yet it is true. God loves us. In fact, God loves the world.

God loves you and God loves me.
God loves the old and God loves the young.
God loves the U.S. and God loves Iran.

God loves the natives and God loves the immigrants.
God loves conservatives and God loves liberals.
God loves normal people, whatever that is, and God
loves different people.

It begins, I am convinced, with believing the core truth, that God loves you. In his baptism, at his transfiguration, Jesus heard the words "You are my beloved, I am pleased with you". As the gospel goes forward that core truth gets applied to us: God loves you.

If it is not as easy as it might seem to preach about John 3. 16, it is also not that easy to preach about love, because that word "love" has been applied to everything in our culture, from ipods to vacation sites to your favorite sports team. Loving something might mean desiring it, having fun with it, enjoying life in
a different way because of it, wanting to consume it.

And there is also the problem that love can simply mean appreciating something that is exceptional or beautiful. I remember Pam and I watching a country music video---I don't often the remote in our household, I mentioned that last week, but on this evening I did---and we were watching country music videos and a woman was singing "My baby loves me just the way that I am". She had large blue eyes and maybe an ounce of body fat, and Pam turned to me and said "my baby loves me just the way that I am...what's not to love"!

The love we are talking about has a different meaning. When John says that God loves the world, it does not mean the natural created world, and it does not refer to all of the goodness that is in the world. The world that God loves is at odds with God. God so loved the worldly...God loves us in spite of what we might do or think or feel.

From our place in all of this, we might sometimes think that we are not worthy of God's love. But this is one of the core truths of Christianity: God loves you. And of course, Paul writing to the Ephesians knows that this is a gift of grace. We do not deserve God's love, we do earn God's love, we can never repay God's love. It is a gift. I love the words in Henri Nouwen's Life of the Beloved, words that echo Isaiah and Romans, Jeremiah and the Psalms:

”I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you from the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother's womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow on my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate that that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You belong to me. Nothing will ever separate us”.

Once we hear this word, that we are loved, we listen for it more attentively. Do you remember the words of the old gospel, the song about the old, old story of Jesus and his love:

I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
It a story, a word, a core truth that we hunger for: that God loves us.

This love we know most clearly in Jesus Christ. An Anglican priest friend shared this prayer recently, a prayer that he begins each day with:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross
that everyone might come within the reach
of your saving embrace:
so clothe us in your spirit that we,
reaching forth your hands in love,
may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name. Amen.

In Jesus Christ God stretches out his arms toward us...I hope to preach about that on Palm Sunday...and those arms embrace us, the arms of the cross, the clearest symbol of God's love. Those arms were stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, reminding us that love is always sacrificial and grace is always

I want to share a personal story. Our older daughter was a very good viola player. She played in the youth symphony of the city, and at in the summers at the Appalachian Music Festival, and in the county, regional and state orchestras during her high school years. Pam and I spent many afternoons and evenings waiting for
concerts to begin, listening to the many of the same pieces, over and over again: the Brandenburg Concerto, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. One evening Liz’s violin teacher was talking to us and Pam asked her guidance about purchasing a new viola. Did we need to look into that? And her viola teacher said, in a nice way, "Liz is at the place where she probably does need a new viola. If her viola were a car, it would be a pinto. It’s time to replace the pinto".

She was being honest, in a very nice way, of course. And so Pam looked into violas, and finally found one that the teacher approved of. Pam never told me how much it cost, although I know it cost more than one of our cars.

What I remember most is our giving it to her on her sixteenth birthday. We went out to breakfast, early in the morning, the three of us. Pam left in the middle of the meal and went to the car and brought it inside. As she carried the viola, which was in the case, it seemed to me that she was bringing a sacrifice. And of course, she was doing just that. It was a sacrifice.

There is no love without sacrifice.

God loves you. But one other comment about that core truth. Whenever we have heard the good news, really heard the good news deep in our bones, that God loves us, we begin to fulfil the second part of that prayer.

so clothe us in your spirit that we, reaching forth your hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name”.

Nouwen writes:

When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness”.

Since God loved us, the writer of I John wrote, we love one other. And so we pray that the arms of Jesus Christ will extend through us to those who do not know him or love him or know that he loves them.

It is not that we have to love other people. It is the love of God, and the enormity of God's sacrifice and the amazing character of God's grace overflowing from within us. It is the natural consequence of the core truth: God loves you. God loves the world.

Annie Lamott, the writer of unusual and compassionate books on the faith, once asked a rabbi why the Old Testament speaks of writing the words on our hearts, rather than in our hearts. The wise rabbi responded, "Oh, that's easy. When the heart is broken, the words fall in".

The heart of God is one of love for you, and for me, and for all people. And if our hearts are broken, may the words of the core truth fall in:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

It is true: even those of us who know it best, this core truth, seem hungering and thirsting, sometimes, to hear it like the rest.

Source: Henri Nouwen, Life of The Beloved


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