|God Really Loves You
May 21, 2000 / Romans 5:6-8
Last Sunday I told you of my preaching plan on the eve of the Billy Graham Crusade. I said that I would be preaching these three themes on the Sundays immediately prior to that June 1-4 event: the worth of human lives in the eyes of God, how much God loves every woman and man of the human race, and how near and available Jesus is to each of us. For one thing, I want each of you to believe these things for yourself. For another, I want you to think about them in relation to someone you know and care about who is not a Christian.
Some of you are aware that some preachers and area congregations of the Church of Christ have been critical of my involvement as a member of the General Committee for the Graham Crusade. They have criticized our being a host church for training Crusade workers. They have declared themselves unwilling to participate in the Crusade in any way, shape, or form – and denounced you for being associated with a congregation that would do so.
Please don’t be angry with those people. And please don’t be too harsh about either their statements or motives. There are still a lot of people from our background who think that public preaching to large groups is the single best (or only biblical) method for leading people to Christ. They think you must teach and convince them of everything you want them to know in sermons. In our time and place, public preaching is one of the least effective ways of teaching people the gospel. People are led to Christ in this culture through one-on-one relationships that allow teaching over time. People in our Postmodern culture feel disconnected and lonely. They distrust authority in general and the church in particular. In the culture of two generations back, you could reach people in big groups (e.g., gospel meetings) and lead them into a smaller community (i.e., Sunday School class, family relationships, small group) of faith. In this generation, it works the other way around. They will more nearly connect in a small-group community and have some of their cynical edge removed and pass into the “big group” of a church’s assemblies and membership over time.
No, we’re not abandoning our belief in baptism, church membership, or the Lord’s Supper by working with the upcoming Crusade. We’re not compromising our identity as a church. We are simply grateful for the opportunity to receive and teach people who may go to a big-group event at the coliseum out of curiosity but who will not become followers of Jesus unless they connect with a few Christian friends or a small-group Bible study. The coliseum event will be a tiny first step of infancy faith for many people who can be encouraged and nurtured to maturity in Christ, if someone cares about them enough to help them.
These first-step believers will need somebody to connect them to the love of God. And that’s where you come in. That’s where today’s sermon comes in.
For a variety of reasons, today’s sermon may be the hardest of the three pre-Crusade lessons for some people to hear. The claim “God really loves you” falls on stony hearts with some people. It isn’t so much that they don’t want to believe in God and his love, I think, as it reflects some painful things out of their past that has made them doubt there is such a loving and benevolent Creator of all things who cares about them. Life, you see, has a way of inflicting some terribly painful wounds on human hearts. And Satan tries to use those hurts as wedges between people and God. Let me explain what I mean.
Why Some People Doubt God’s Love
The Golden Text of the Bible says this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That verse plays beautiful, positive notes of music in my heart. I know what it is to be loved by someone (e.g., father, mother, wife, children), and I can transfer those positive notions to God. I can imagine the positive, affirming attitude of God toward me and calculate some of the positive effects of such a love in my life.
“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isa. 66:13). I can identify with that image of God because of experiences with my mother when I was so sick for so many years as a child. “But while [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). I know I disappointed my father in some situations, but he never turned against me or cut me out of his life. So I can identify with these positive images of God’s parental role in my life. And so on for biblical metaphors about Christ loving the church as a husband loves his wife, my unqualified love for my daughter and two sons, and the meaning of friends and other affirming persons in my life.
But there are some people who no longer believe in love because they have been hurt and exploited in the name of “love.” A woman remembers being molested as a child by some man who pretended to love her. Or maybe she was a teenager or young adult when somebody said he loved her and then dumped her and left her behind – maybe with children to care for by herself.
A man is defrauded by business partners he thought were his friends. Someone’s memories of childhood involve an abusive parent who scolded, berated, or beat him in the name of “loving” him. People have been betrayed by preachers who – in the name of “God’s love” built little empires or practiced their immoral behaviors behind a smokescreen of piety.
If the word “love” conjures up negative memories, painful images, and thoughts of defective relationships, talk about God’s love can be barren or painful.
Others cannot believe in God’s love, for they have been taught that God has been he source of all their heartache. “God took your baby because he wanted him more than you did” or “God gave you that brain tumor to teach you to trust him.” Last Wednesday a broken-hearted lady whom I had just met confided her confusion and anger at God over a severely handicapped and mentally retarded child. Some people from a church near her had told her, “God gives children with such special needs only to very special mothers who can give them what they need.” (Though I’m sure those people meant well by their pious sentiment, what they didn’t know was that her health was beginning to break under the strain and that her husband had just told her that he couldn’t take it anymore and was leaving! Did God arrange those things for her because she was capable of handling “special” situations?)
What reasonable person can believe in a loving God if he or she has been taught to think that bankruptcy and heart attacks, car wrecks and divorces, or handicapped children and deserting husbands are his doing to single people out for tragedy?
At this very moment, a two-week-fire in New Mexico has scorched more than 50,000 acres of land, left over 400 families homeless, and damaged the storied Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory. You know what such a disaster is called in insurance lingo, don’t you? Why, it’s an “act of God.” No! Such events are often simply natural disasters caused by lightning or devastating tragedies caused by careless campfires. This one appears to have been caused by human error – or, arguably, human stupidity.
I know what the people out there need right now. It is for multiple true “acts of God” to be displayed toward them. They need for some of us who still have our houses, jobs, and possessions to share with them. That might restore their shaky confidence over facing life after this tragedy has passed. So let’s help them.
[Doug Poling comes to the platform to call for a special contribution for victims of the Los Alamos fires, some of whom he knows personally.]
Making God’s Love Believable
The reason so much of this church’s outreach begins with compassion is simply that we understand how some people cannot see God as a source of love and goodness in their lives. They have been hurt and betrayed. They are sick or homeless or enslaved to alcohol and other drugs. They are in miserable marriages that keep them perpetually frustrated and angry.
Maybe they are angry at life in general because they’ve had such a hard time. Perhaps they are angry at themselves for ruining what was once a fairly decent life. So God has become their “whipping boy,” for he seems to be a fairly safe punching bag for their disappointment and rage. It’s like an angry child screaming at her Mommy because she doesn’t know what else to do with her anger. People sometimes scream at or indict God because they are in more pain than they think they can bear, and they simply must strike out in one direction or another.
So I cannot assume that everybody I meet feels kindly disposed toward God. From a wide variety of life experiences, he may have very ambivalent feelings toward God’s love. She may not believe in God at all because of her secular worldview. He may be so confused by what he has seen in and heard from Christians that it is impossible to make sense of (much less believe!) the words “God loves you very, very much.”
When I try to be Jesus in that person’s life and help him in the midst of his pain, it may backfire on me. If you’ll pardon the analogy, it is sometimes like trying to rescue a bird with a broken wing or a puppy who has been hit by a car. Try to pick up the bird, and he’ll peck at you and make angry sounds. Try to examine the dog’s broken leg, and he’ll snap at you – bite you, if he can.
The one thing we must not do is use the anger, ingratitude, or negative responses of some of the people we try to help as our excuse for withholding compassion and love. The job of the church is to make God’s love believable by treating people with respect, care, and support – even, no especially, the “hard cases.”
The Convincing Evidence
Ultimately, however, the proof of the love of God doesn’t come from our attempts at imitating Jesus to the people among whom we live but in telling the story of God’s dealings with humanity across the centuries. He is incredibly quick to compassion and slow to anger. He is eager to bless and reluctant to punish. “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
And even when he must punish evil in order to defend not only his own integrity but those who are attempting to live in holiness, he does so with the option of grace always on the table. “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you” (Psa. 84:5). People remember the terrible flood of purging waters that God sent over the Earth but are inclined to forget that he gave wicked humanity 120 years to repent and be spared. People remember the fiery end of Sodom and Gomorrah but seem to forget that if only ten people could have been found in those two cities who could grieve over their wickedness both would have been spared.
One of the most extraordinary stories in all the Bible for me is told in the Book of Jonah. I’m not talking about the big fish that swallowed and then spit out the prophet either. I’m referring to Jonah’s racism and nationalism that made him pleased at the thought that Yahweh was about to destroy Nineveh. Nothing could have pleased Jonah more! So he finally – reluctantly, for this is where the flight by ship and big fish story come in – got to Nineveh and preached: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jon. 3:4b). When the people heard of impending judgment, they repented and turned to the Lord. And Jonah’s reaction was bitter, bitter disappointment. He wanted those people annihilated.
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jon. 4:1-2).
Thank God that he is so gracious and compassionate, so slow to anger and abounding in love! Thank God that he “relents from sending calamity” when we make the slightest moves back to him!
Jonah ran from God because he was a bigot and racist, but God still pursued him. Hosea’s wife was a prostitute, but Yahweh told Hosea to pursue her as he was still pursuing Israel. Noah got drunk, Jeremiah was depressed and suicidal, Elijah burned out. Moses stuttered, Naomi was a widow, and Samson (can you believe it!) had long hair. Both Moses and Paul had the blood of a murder on their hands. Peter was afraid of dying, and Lazarus already had died. Miriam was a gossip, Martha was a neurotic worrier, and John could be self-righteous.
Why does God keep on pursuing people like these “losers”? Why does he keep on lavishing his love on me? Why is he trying to connect with your heart right now? It’s because he loves you. He loves you very, very much. He really does!
A Text With Three Themes
The final proof of God’s love for you is the cross of Jesus Christ. Augustine was right when he said the cross is a pulpit from which Jesus preached God’s love to the world. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Please pay attention to this incredible text and the three strands it weaves together from the biblical record:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6-8).
First, the crimson thread ends the verse: “Christ died for us.” What does that mean? There are mothers and fathers in this room who would die for your children. You love your babies so much that you would gladly trade places if cancer or a car out of control was threatening your child’s life. I’ve stood in hospital corridors more than once and heard people sob, “Why couldn’t it have been me? I’d have gladly taken his place!” Do you hear the words: take his place, trade places, die for her? That’s what Jesus did on the cross.
Second, there is a stained threat in this text: Christ died in our place “while we were still sinners.” We weren’t obedient, loving children when Jesus was put to death in our place. We were rebels. We were disobedient. We had not asked him to do anything for us because we were determined and deliberate in our sinfulness. Because of our sins, we deserve to die. Because he traded places with us that day, we can live. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). We didn’t deserve it and hadn’t asked for it. It was a gift to us in our pathetically dark, stained, sinful lives.
Third, there is a golden thread of divine love: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this.” In some other settings and in light of some of your experiences, the message that God loves you very, very much can sound hollow, unconvincing, and even trite. But if you have been moved to see the cross of Jesus through the eye of faith, those words ring true! They hold the prospect of forgiveness and the beginning of a brand new life.
Gordon Jensen put all this wonderful theology of divine love this way in a song:
In letters of crimson God wrote his love
on a hillside so long, long ago.
For you and for me Jesus died
and love’s greatest story was told.
“I love you! I love you!”
that’s what Calvary said.
“I love you! I love you!
I love you! written in red.”[i]
Irving Berlin (1888-1989) is the composer you know through such songs as “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and “God Bless America.” In an interview with a reporter from The San Diego Union, he was asked, “Mr. Berlin, is there any question you’ve never been asked that you would like someone to ask you?”
“Well, yes, there is one,” he replied. “ ‘What do you think of all the many songs you’ve written that didn’t become hits?’ And my reply would be that I still think they are wonderful.” And that from a songwriter who wrote over a thousand songs!
Do you realize that God feels that way about you? He thinks every single one of us is wonderful. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks – whether they see you as a “hit” or not, whether you’ve been acclaimed as a howling success in life or written off by someone as a hopeless failure. God’s opinion of you is that you are awesome. Wonderful. Beloved.
How can I be sure? It’s written in blood at the cross of Jesus.
[i] Copyright © 1984, Word Music.
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