13Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” 15Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. 16See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. 17Your builders outdo your destroyers, and those who laid you waste go away from you.
There’s a tension in preaching between depth and breath. Should I take one small piece of a passage and focus on that, or try to open the whole thing but not get as deep? When I focus tightly I regret leaving out so much of the passage. When I work with the whole passage, like today, I feel like I’m treating it too superficially. The truth is I can never do enough with God’s word in our short time together. If this is the only dose of scripture you get in your week, you’re not getting enough to grow to your potential as a Christian, so please don’t neglect the word in the rest of your week.
Before we turn to our next passage I want to spend a few minutes with the one Karen just read. Maggie and I were on vacation this past week. We spent the week visiting friends and family along the East Coast including a stop in Baltimore to see one of my best friends and his daughter, Amelia. This was the first time I’d seen Campbell as a dad, and it was amazing.
Parenting is kind of an alien world to me, but the scene would be familiar to many of you. There’s this beautiful little person in Campbell’s kitchen spitting milk on her sweater and eating peaches off the floor. Campbell is unfazed by her secretions, taking care of boogies and wiping drool from her face every few minutes. He let her do her thing, but she was rarely out of his reach and never out of his sight.
It was obvious from our short visit that Campbell’s whole life is different than it was before Amelia was born. There’s nothing he does without thinking about her. Like dads and especially moms everywhere, parenthood is a big part of what defines Campbell’s life now.
Isaiah speaks for God to tell Israel that God’s love for them is like a mother’s love and even greater. The tenderness I saw between Campbell and Amelia points to the tenderness God has for her people.
The people of Israel feel abandoned by God in their exile, like Campbell’s daughter felt abandoned when she was in her high chair 45 seconds longer than she wanted to be. Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can Campbell forget his screaming daughter? Of course not.
Even if these examples of devoted love could abandon their children, God cannot abandon his people. Next to God’s love, even our best efforts pale in comparison.
God’s love for us is tender and determined. It’s also cosmic in scope: the prophet invites heaven and earth to join in the songs of praise celebrating God’s redemption of her people. As intimate as a parent and as broad as creation; that’s God’s love for us.
John gives us a different way of looking at God’s love. We’ll work through this passage together, so go ahead and open your Bible to 1 John 4 beginning with verse 7; you’ll find it on page 241 in the New Testament part of your pew Bible.
1 John 4:7-21
7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
John starts this section with encouragement for his community to follow God’s example and love each other. Love comes from God, so when we love other people we tap into God’s nature. We find new life in God’s family by loving, and in loving others we know God.
If we don’t love other people it’s impossible to know God. Not only is God loving, God is love; so without love anything we say about God is meaningless. With that foundation, John gets more specific about how we know God’s love:
9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
When all the prophets in the Bible couldn’t convince us of God’s love, God sent Jesus into the world. We see love in our lives: in friends and relatives and their care for us. But the truest, strongest love is God’s love for us. We see that love most clearly in Jesus’ life and death for us.
There’s all kinds of theology and doctrine and debate about what it means for Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Some of that is important; a lot of it can be divisive and distracting. The most important thing about Jesus’ death is that it shows the depth of God’s love for us.
God sent Jesus to atone for our sins, to take all our separation and isolation, our hostility and selfishness and make us one with God again. Atonement brings us back to God, it makes what was divided one: atonement- at one ment. In Christ we are joined again to our source, our life, our Lord.
John says God’s love is revealed in Jesus, that Jesus came to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and so that we can live through him. When we accept God’s love and accept that our sins our forgiven we can really start living. That’s because trusting God’s love breaks through the fear and guilt that threatens to overwhelm us sometimes. Trusting God and accepting our forgiveness sets us free to love and be loved, to live for others and for God, to follow our calling as Christ’s disciples.
We don’t keep God’s love to ourselves. God’s love bears fruit in our lives. So John turns from reminding his readers of the depth of God’s love back to what that means for life in community. John comes back to this point again and again because God’s love and our love for others are inseparable.
11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
We know how much God loves us, and we’re called to love others in the same way. Putting our faith in action isn’t so much about how we worship or how much we love God. God isn’t a physical part of our world the same way our neighbors are. We love God by loving the people around us. When we truly love others, God lives inside us, guiding and shaping our lives with his love and his Spirit.
Love takes practice, and we get better at it with time and God’s guidance. That’s what I think John’s getting at when he says God’s love is perfected in us.
14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So 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.
John has been talking about love; here he takes what feels like a detour to talk about things we believe and proclaim. He reminds his audience that “we” (maybe John and the other apostles?) have seen that God sent Jesus as the savior of the world. He emphasizes how important it is to confess, to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God.
John doesn’t spell out how this connects with what he’s been talking about, but if we reflect a little it becomes clear enough. The reason it’s so important to believe that Jesus is God’s son is that Jesus died for us. If we believe Jesus is God’s son, not just a prophet or righteous man or teacher, then we know how deep God’s love goes.
Think about how much you love your children. Now imagine loving someone else enough to send your child to die for them.
When we believe that Jesus is God’s Son and that God sent him to die for us, we see how amazing God’s love is.
The flip side of that is important too. Jesus told his disciples that he was laying down his life freely. God sent Jesus into the world, but God didn’t force Jesus to die; Jesus accepted his calling willingly. Take a few seconds to let that soak in. The love the Father and Son have for us blows me away.
When we truly trust that God loves us, we abide in love; in other words we make love our home. And when we make love our home, we’re also resting in God and he takes root inside us. John’s going to reinforce that connection even more:
17Love 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. 18There 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.
When we let God’s love grow inside us we can face life’s challenges. We can even face death or Judgment Day with confidence because we know that God’s love has no limits. When we accept how much God loves us, there’s no point in being afraid of God or anything else. No matter what happens, God will love us and hold us close.
John tells us: “Perfect love casts out fear.” I love that sentence, and I know it’s true in my own life, even though my love is still a long way from perfect. I used to worry a lot about hell; about what happens when we die. I worried especially about people I love who don’t know Jesus.
The more I know God and trust his love, the less afraid I am. There’s plenty in the Bible about judgment for those who don’t believe. There’s a lot I don’t understand about how God works, but the things I don’t understand don’t scare me anymore, because more than anything else, I trust God’s love. The way to God is love, not fear.
19We love because he first loved us. 20Those 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. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
John finishes this passage where he started it: when we know how much God loves us, we can love others. The proof of our faith and love for God is in our love for our brothers and sisters. People are easier and harder to love than God. On one hand, people are closer, more immediate, and easier to see, so they are easier to love. We can really know other people in a way we can’t know God because God is so totally different from us.
At the same time, it’s easier to love God than to love actual people. Real people have quirks, both endearing and annoying. People get angry and say mean things. They sometimes hurt or disappoint us. People make mistakes and act in ways that makes them very hard to love sometimes. It’s tricky to love the people God puts in our path.
But then we don’t make it easy for God to love us either. We turn away from God and sometimes forget him entirely. We hurt each other, bringing tears to God’s eyes. When he sent his beloved son Jesus to teach and heal us, we put him to death.
In spite of our failures and faults, in spite of our hatred and stubbornness, God loves us deeply. Like a mother caring for her nursing child or a father comforting a crying toddler, God will never let us go. Our calling as Christ’s people is to let that love into our heart, to trust God’s love for us, and to let that love flow out of us to embrace everyone we know. As we practice, as we grow in love, we will find the fear draining out of our lives, replaced by the power of God’s endless love.
Thanks be to God.