Preached by Terrell Carter on 5/26/13
A 5 year old boy was in the kitchen with his mother making supper. She asked him to go into their large pantry and get her a can of tomato soup, but he didn’t want to go in alone for fear of the dark. He said, “I can’t mommy. It’s dark in there and I’m scared.” His mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid of the dark. God loves you and is always with you. He’s with you even in dark pantries.” With that, the boy slowly walked to the pantry door, opened it and saw how dark it was inside and said, “God, if you’re in there, would you please hand me a can of tomato soup?”
Most of us know cute innocent children like that. Some of us probably were cute innocent kids at one time. It’s obvious that within the story, this child clearly misunderstood what it meant to call on God’s name. He misunderstood what it meant for God to be present with him. He misunderstood what it meant to be friends with God and what it means to be able to depend on God. That’s okay. It’s only a story.
But, as cute as this story is, it stands as an example of how, in innocence, people who sincerely love and believe in God can sincerely misunderstand what it means to have a loving relationship with God filled with trust, devotion, and protection. This type of misunderstanding is not new. Humans have been misunderstanding God and our relationship to the Holy One since humankind was created.
In light of this, I want to ask a question this morning. And the question is this: Is there a way for people to combat or overcome our misunderstandings as it relates to our relationship with God? Is there anything that we can know that can help set our minds at ease as we interact with the Holy One?
I believe that the answer to that question/those two questions is a resounding ‘yes’. Why am I able to be confident in my answer? Because of the passage of scripture we read in our bulletin a few moments ago. The passage comes from I John 4:7-13. As we prepare to take a deeper look at the passage, I want you to understand some of the underlying history of the book.
One of the reasons that John wrote this letter to the church was in order to equip believers to combat misconceptions about God and God’s relationship to the world. Why would John need to do this? As Christianity grew, so did the number of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and heresies about God. The challenge was that these misconceptions were not only happening in sects and cults. Multiple types of misunderstandings occurred within the church. One erroneous philosophy that had infiltrated the church was called Gnosticism.
Gnosticism was a system of belief that taught that the spiritual world was good, but the physical world was bad, and the two worlds could not mix successfully. The system taught that there was a battle going on between the spirit world and the world of matter. The system also taught that God the Father was the High God over a lower division of angelic spirits, which included the Christ Spirit.
Gnosticism’s adherents taught that because spiritual things could not mix with physical things, this meant that God, who was spirit, would not have anything to do with creating this world because, by default, it was impure and defiled because it was made of matter. And if God would not create this kind of world, God would not save it. This also meant that God could not have a meaningful relationship with mankind because they are of the flesh. For Gnostics, the logical conclusion from all of this was that if God didn’t have a relationship with mankind, men were not obligated to live according to some moral set of obligations that God would hand down. Instead, people could simply do what they wanted.
John wrote this letter to the church in part to refute this teaching. But I believe that he wrote the letter for another reason. I believe that he wrote it in order to reassure the church that they could have a relationship with God.
But what would be the evidence that the church could lean on to assure them that they were in relationship with God? The evidence would be God’s love. God had already proven it to them through His love for them. John tells them that God had practiced love on their behalf, and for God, the true God Jehovah, not the god of Gnosticism, practicing love was the foundation of being in any meaningful relationship.
How did God practice love on their behalf? He did it in one glorious way. But before we look at the way God practiced love, lets identify what John means when he uses the world love, which appears so many times throughout this letter.
Overall, what John is talking about is not a feeling or an emotion. What he is referring to is action. He is referring to a state of being. What John means is that God is love. Not love is God. But, God is love.
In the Greek, there was no article for the phrase “to love.” Instead, the phrase could be translated, “to God.” God’s essence is love. Who God is is love. God is compassion. God is concern. God is care. This is who God is.
John wants the reader to understand that love starts from God and who God is. Love begins with God. It then moves outward. God is love in action. God is intimacy. God is kind. God is altruistic. God is abiding. God is sacrificial. God is mercy. God is loyal. God is steadfast. God is binding. God is gracious. God is abundant. God is forgiving. God is undeserved.
You may be thinking, “Terrell, you just threw a bunch of words at us, but you didn’t give us a simple definition of the word love.” Well, the simple definition of love is…God. All that God is and does on our behalf and the behalf of all creation. That is love. Or, at least, that’s what I think John is telling his readers.
God is…and God is love. God’s very existence is the practice of love. And because God is love, God practiced love on the behalf of John’s readers.
John identifies the most important way that God practiced love. It was the sending of His Son, Jesus the Christ. Verse 9 says, “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.”
Clarence Jordan wrote it this way in his paraphrase called the Cotton Patch Gospels, “And God’s love took shape in our midst when he sent his one and only son into the world so we might start living.”
God’s love was manifested for humankind through action. That action was the sending of Christ from heaven to earth in order to restore, to rebuild, to repair God’s relationship with men and women. God loved humankind and did something about it. Without being prompted or asked, God moved.
God sent Christ in order that John’s readers could live and have the opportunity to start living. God sent Christ in order for humankind not to be separated from their Creator. Instead, they would have fellowship with God. They would be able to have a relationship with God. That is what true life entails.
This is love. God’s act of unmerited, unwarranted action on behalf of mankind. John says, “Not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
That word propitiation is a big $5 word that means “a willing sacrifice.” An action that was committed on our behalf without being prompted or compensated that sets us free from spiritual debt. Love is God sending Christ, and Christ willingly giving Himself for us. The writer John Stott says, “While the origin of love is in the being of God, the manifestation of love is in the coming of Christ.”
So complex, yet so simple. Because of whom God is, God wanted to have a meaningful relationship with men and women. God was willing to put that desire into action through the Son, Jesus.
And what does God expect out of men and women in response to this love that has been manifested for them? God expects that men and women would become love for each other.
God’s desire is pretty straightforward. Verse 11 says, “if God so loved us, we ought to love one another.” Is there really any legitimate argument against this “If, then” proposition? If God did something, then we should do something. If God loved us, then we should love others.
And how much easier should it be to love people we see and know? We have never seen God, but we are able to love Him. It should be just as easy for us to love people that come in and out of our lives on a regular basis.
When we practice love, we practice God’s attributes. We show that God’s love is “perfected in us” or “made perfect” through us. What John means in that statement is that when we show love, we are fulfilling God’s purpose for us. That we are doing what we are built to do. We are growing and becoming spiritually mature. We are being conformed to the image of God. Apple says, “Our loving others is not the condition for God coming to abide in us; but it is the evidence, the manifestation, of that indwelling divine presence.”
For John’s readers, the Holy Spirit was the guide that would confirm all of this in their hearts. The Holy Spirit would reassure them that “God is” on their behalf. The Holy Spirit would confirm that their relationship with God was real. The Holy Spirit would confirm that their relationship with God was tangible and personal. Because of their relationship with God, which was made possible through Christ, they no longer had to fear God or God’s wrathful judgment.
I want to make sure to say that I don’t necessarily think that John’s readers viewed God through rose colored glasses. John’s readers were likely raised believing that under certain circumstances, God would and could display wrath and pronounce judgment. They also understood that after this life, all people would have the opportunity to stand before the throne of judgment to hear God address them as heaven-bound children, or pronounce a condemnation of separation against them.
But, John reassured them that they no longer had to fear God’s judgment. Why? Because as Christ is before God, so were they. As John had stated, Christ’s sacrificial act on their behalf made it possible for them to no longer be under God’s judgment. Because of this, they no longer had to fear God, or the afterlife. They didn’t need to be afraid of God. Instead of fearing God, they could accept God’s love and forgiveness. They could live in peace with the Holy.
Okay, Terrell. We can tell that you’re trying hard to put a happy spin on this passage. But, what are we supposed to do with this? Why is it so important for us to have thought about this today? Let me ask another simple question. Who do you understand God to be? I’m not asking what your mother or father thought about God. I am not asking what you understand Baptists think about God. I am not asking what you think I think about God. I am asking what you understand about God.
Do you see God as some cosmic celestial force that is out there that sometimes moves in the earth, causing certain things to happen in people’s lives just so they can know that He is around? Do you see God as a destructive force like the tornadoes that were experienced last week in Oklahoma and Texas? Do you see God as an impartial force that makes arbitrary decisions on who lives and dies and which house gets uprooted?
Do you see God as some menacing force that is always on the lookout to get you every time you mess something up, make a mistake, or commit a mistake? Do you see God as some abstract detached deity that you really aren’t sure cares about you and what happens in your life?
What would it take for you to see God differently? To see God as God truly is? What would it take for you to see that God is a personal participant in your life? What would it take for you to know that God actually does know you and is concerned about you? That God is not constantly sitting in judgment over you, but actually has compassion for you. That God’s heart aches when yours does? That God is aware of your needs? That God celebrates when you celebrate? That God cheers for you? That God is your biggest fan? That God is aware of your faults, fears, failures, and still loves you.
I encourage you to realize that God knows and loves you. Period. Nothing else needs to be added to the equation. God is love and God loves on your behalf.
But, what does this mean for WGBC? God still loves this body of believers. God has not forgotten about you. God has not turned a blind eye to you. God still has a plan for you. The pews may not currently be as full as they have been in the past, but that’s okay. The number of people that attend any given service is not the measurement for how much God loves you or how much WGBC loves God.
My encouragement this morning is that you don’t have to be afraid of the future. Yes, it may look uncertain. But our certainty is not in men. Our certainty is in God. God, the one who loves us unconditionally. God, the one who supplies all of our needs. God, the one who said in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith Jehovah, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you hope in your latter end.” In the CEV, this verse says, “I will bless you with a future filled with hope–a future of success, not of suffering.”
Let us look expectantly towards that future.
Will you pray with me?