Monday, May 04, 2015

Sermon on 1 John 4:1-11, for the 5th Sunday of Easter, "God's First-Love"

In the Name of God, who is Love, of Jesus, who has come in the flesh, and of the Spirit of Truth, Amen. 1 John 4 talks to us about listening. It’s possible for us to be hearing or listening up here (point to ears), with sound waves bouncing off our eardrums, but not be hearing or listening down here (point to heart), because we’ve closed our heart to God’s Word. Being present and accounted for is important—but even more important is that our heart is open to and receiving God’s Word. That we are listening in here (point to heart). And in the reverse, as children of God, we will also confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Not merely sound waves reverberating off our vocal cords, but a confession that proceeds from our heart. This confession of faith from the heart and from the mouth is from the Holy Spirit living in us. From God’s through the ears…down to the heart…back out through the mouth—the confession of faith is “same-saying” or affirming what God has said is true about Jesus Christ. Echoing back to God the truth He spoke about us and our salvation.
Hearing is so critical, because there are competing messages trying to get in our ears and into our hearts. True messages, and false messages. Messages that are unpopular with the world, and messages that the world finds attractive and even seductive. The world readily tunes into the false messages, while tuning out God’s truth. John warns us that behind every message there is either a true spirit of God, or a false spirit that is not of God. Spiritual warfare is at work in the voices and messages we hear both in the world and even in churches. A battle for our hearts; for good or for evil. So we must not be gullible, and not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. Christians cannot afford to be complacent or unthinking, but must be discerning and watchful, testing everything we hear. Do not leave your heart unguarded and open to spiritual attack, by setting aside God’s Word, which is the lamp to your feet and the light to your path, or by setting aside your faith, which is your shield.
So how will we know if what we hear is from God or not? The first test is whether they confess Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, or not. Jesus is at the heart and center of the spiritual warfare between the truth and error. The devil’s game is to find any way to undermine our faith in Jesus Christ, or confuse us about who He is. The false prophets and the spirit of antichrist will seek to deny Jesus, to displace Him, to replace or reduce Him. John ends his letter by saying: (1 John 5:20) “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” Jesus is the True God and eternal life. Rejecting Jesus is to reject not only Him, but also God who sent Him. Those who are from God confess Jesus has come in the flesh. Discernment is especially needed when various groups claim the name of Jesus, but try to “reduce” His status or His work, to anything less than what Scripture fully teaches. That He is the True Son of God, born into human flesh, and that our salvation is full and complete in Him.
The reading then transitions from truth and error, and confessing Jesus rightly or not, as signs of whether or not we are “of God”—to another sign that shows whether we are “of God” or “not of God.” That sign is love. 1 John 4:7–8 “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God is Love. Three of the most profound words in all the Bible. The simplest and truest definition of God. Well what is love?
Did you know that in the ancient Greek language, before the New Testament was written, that the Greek word agape, for love, was a relatively uncommon and bland word? It was vanilla-sounding, like “prefer” or “to like.” But when the authors of Scripture began to use it, both in the Greek Old Testament and New Testament, they gave “love” rich, new meaning. Especially as it centered concretely in what God does for us in Jesus Christ. The writers of Scripture filled agape, or love with content. Or really, the descriptions of God’s love filled it with content. God’s love shows up as completely different from this sinful world’s love. His love is not just a big version of human love or desire, but He defines what goodness, truth, and love mean.
This is why old words for love, human terms for love, fell short. New life and meaning had to be breathed into that word agape or love. God’s love is seen, for example, in sending his Son to die for a sinful and ungrateful world. God’s love was not reciprocated at first. But He loved us, even while we were His enemies. Luther wrote, “Consider the inestimable love of God, and show me a religion that could proclaim a similar mystery.” The founder of no other religion has claimed to die for the world. And the founder of no other religion has risen from death, as Jesus did, and is alive. Jesus’ actions and His miraculous resurrection from the dead prove His claims and prove His love was more than mere words. The difference between God’s love and ours is the difference between precious jewels and mud. God’s love is not even on the same scale. God’s love is far deeper than emotion, affection, or mere physical love. It is self-sacrificing; self-giving. It is the greatest love the world has ever known.
The Bible uses and defines the word love. In daily habit we use the word “love” without defining it. It becomes bland, colorless, and lifeless when we use it for everything from “I love you” to “I love pizza” to “I love that song.” But how do you “flesh out” the meaning of that love, that loves a person? By putting actions to your words—caring for, committing to, and protecting the one whom you love—that is to live in God’s love. Jesus “fleshed out” God’s love when He came in human flesh, born of God, knowing God, loving God. He comes to humankind who doesn’t love, doesn’t know, and who are by nature children of wrath—enemies of God. And in flesh, in word and in actions, He cares for us—lifting up the broken, healing the sick, caring for the distressed. He commits to us—an unwavering love that walks amidst all the abuse, scorn, and hatred, all the way to the cross, and hangs there with a love that sees friend and enemy alike with the same forever-deep compassion and mercy, that sees past all false fronts, masks and hatred, that sees behind all the deception that holds men and women captive to sin, and He loves us all from the cross.
He commits to us; willed to love His own to the very end. Protects the ones He loves—seeks the lost, brings us into the safety of His fold. All of Jesus’ words about love translated directly into the most profound self-sacrifice and action, so that even after His death, He brought victory and life up from the grave. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” God started this love—not us. He is the source, not us. But He pours out that love so generously on us that it will flow out and through us, back to Him and out to our neighbor. Just as His Word enters our ears and our hearts and returns back through our mouths, so also His love moves in and through us. His love produces a great return.
God’s love does what mere human emotion or imperfect commitment could never do. His love changes lives, changes hearts, overthrows the bitter fruit of evil, hatred, lying, and division in our lives. His love moves ours; creates our love. And we cannot be still. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” In lives that were once broken and dead through sin, God, by His redeeming power and the gift of His Holy Spirit, makes us new. The old worldly, sinful nature is drowned and dies, courtesy of our baptism into Christ, and a new spiritual nature is raised to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
And that new nature, the new person that is raised up out of those renewing, baptismal waters—that new nature loves with the love of God. Not by our own power, will, or might, but by the love of God in us. This is our confidence to overcome the world, because God is greater than the world. No evil in this world can extinguish God’s love, though it will try. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Beloved. This word opens and closes this section of 1 John, and appears throughout the letter. Beloved says it all. Beloved means we are already loved by God’s first-love. We’re loved with a love that is not temporary or lasts only till another “love” comes along, in the way of the world—but we’re loved with an everlasting love. Even “if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). God’s love will not betray us—it is the only love that is truly for better or for worse, bar none.
Secure in His love, we ought to love one another with the same love. For any doubts that our love will be rejected, unappreciated, or unreturned, we have in Christ Jesus God’s constant support, love, and undeserved approval. Life or death can’t separate us from that love that is ours in Christ Jesus. If our love is broken, weak, or insufficient—if we struggle to love as we know we ought to—we must know that we are loved by God’s first-love, and it is His love that will pour down and live and move through us. And whenever our sin or pride or selfishness gets in the way, we throw it back out of the way by repentance, by humbling ourselves to again be recipients of His great and undeserved love and forgiveness. We receive it, and we believe it in Jesus’ most precious Name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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false prophets                                      confesses Jesus in the flesh
not of God                                          of God
spirit of antichrist                                [Spirit of God]
he who is in the world                        He who is in you
from the world                                    from God
does not listen to us                            listens to us
spirit of error                                       Spirit of truth
does not love                                       loves one another
does not know God                             born of God, knows God

    1. Look at the table above, summarizing the contrast in 1 John 4:1-11 between the world (left column) and the children of God (right column). What separates one from the other? What words and actions define each?
    2. What is the primary aim of the false prophets or the spirit of antichrist? What do they deny? 1 John 2:22-23; 2 John 7.
    3. On what does our confidence rest, of victory over the devil and the world? John 12:31-33; 16:31-33; Romans 8:31. How will we overcome the world? 1 John 5:1-5
    4. What does it mean to be “from the world?” (1 John 4:5—see parallel in v. 3). What are the characteristics of “worldliness?” 1 John 2:11, 15-17; 5:19; James 4:4; Galatians 5:19-21.
    5. Christ made John and His other apostles spokesmen for God and the truth. How did Jesus express this? Luke 10:16. What crucial test must be made to any prophet or teacher or pastor’s words? 1 John 4:1, 6; Acts 17:11.
    6. Where does genuine love originate? 1 John 4:10, 19. Why  must Christians also manifest Christ’s love? 1 John 4:8;

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