On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ [Deut 6.5]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[Lev 19.18]” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” –Luke 10:25-28 “For God so loved the world …” –John 3.16a How often have you heard those words, “For God so loved the world …”? But have any of us really heard that amazing, good news? “God so loved the world …” More to the point, “God so loved …” you. But let’s be honest – what’s there to “so love” about the world? For that matter, what is there to “so love” about any of us? Oh, sure we all have our pretty good days. Everyone loves to hear diamond-in-the-coal-heap stories of human love weathering bitter life-storms. But it seems that for every sweet story of human love, a dozen bitter tales of human frailty follow. School shootings, political intrigue, wars – and rumors of them … Even the seemingly “good” people who show human love for a season eventually devolve into abuse and hatred. Human love is, sadly, unsustainable. It comes and goes. A husband is kind in the morning and a monster at night. A celebrity takes a stand against injustice on Friday, and is exposed as a sexual predator on Monday. A star scientist wins the Nobel Prize for her research, and years later is discovered to be a fraud. Brennan Manning, in his increible book, “Abba’s Child,” says that’s what we all are – frauds. Imposters; pretending to be good boys and girls on the outside, but desperately wicked on the inside. Acting like we are found when we are actually completely lost. Even those of us who have made it our aim to go against the flow and “surrender all” in the name of love find ourselves floundering to respond to rejection with love even a fraction of the time. The kind of love that we as humans can generate on our own, human love, is simply unreliable, unpredictable, and unsustainable. The weeping prophet Jeremiah deftly prosecuted our unreliable hearts when he said: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17.9) When all pretending is stripped away, when you tally up your own personal record of rights and wrongs, I have a hunch that you – like me – will come to the same conclusion: we are, on the whole, miserable and, ultimately, honestly, tragically, unloveworthy. Not unlovable; unloveworthy. If we can muster the courage to drop the charade and be honest with ourselves, we will ultimately realize that there is not so much for God to “so love.” That’s pretty bad news. Who am I kidding? That’s awful news! It’s the worst diagnosis you could ever get: heart cancer! And yet, those ageless words still pierce our darkness: “God so loved the world.” God’s Word never lies – and there it is, written in permanent marker: “God so loved ... “ you. And me. And the husband who is a monster at night. And the celebrity who is a stalker. And the scientist who stole their credentials. And every other scoundrel and fraud on the face of the earth. Which means that God so loved the world. Which means that God so loved all of us. Which means that God so loved you. Something to Prove I am a pastor. I am given the honorable yet difficult task each week of carefully studying the sacred and stirring word of God as revealed in the Scriptures, soaking my feeble and dry mental comprehension in the living water of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and delivering a word or two that will, by God’s grace and power, hopefully encourage His people. This week, I was preparing to talk about our mission as the people of God as revealed in Luke 10.25-28 – to love God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As I was preparing a dear friend warned me, “You cannot begin to love God or neighbor until you know that you are loved by God.” She was speaking through the Holy Spirit. It would be a mistake to think that human love has any capacity to love God and neighbor. Because human love is frail and unsustainable, we cannot even talk about loving God and neighbor until we first learn to be loved by God. Human love cannot do this. Divine love can. So today I want to step back from exploring our mandate to love God and neighbor, and start at the very beginning: the source of everlasting love that triumphs over feeble human love. THis is what you must hear the Spirit say to you today: you are beloved. “God so loved the world...” (John 3.16) The very important thing I notice about that verse is that there is no “because.” And if you can wrap your mind around this, it will knock you to the ground. When it comes to God “so loving” you and me, there is no because. You are simply beloved. Human love always has a “because.” “I love you because you are so kind to me.” “I love you because you are beautiful.” “I love you because I hope you will change.” Human love always has a string attached. There is always a reason up the sleeve of human love. Compared to human love, the love of God is foreign and rebellious. God’s love, holy love, is different and alien. With God, there is no because. There is no reason. In fact, there is every reason to NOT “so love the world.” But God does it anyway! God the Father is the ultimate rebel without a because. So what does that mean to us, the church, the ragtag, wounded people of God who are gathered here today? Well, I think it should be obvious – do you know that you are “so loved” by God? Do you know that He loves you without a because? That you being here, doing your religious duty today, does not have any affect on His love for you? The apostle Paul says that religion – if God’s love is missing from it – is like a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor 13.1b) Which always makes me think of The Gong Show. As a kid growing up, I loved watching “The Gong Show” on TV. It was like a low-budget version of Star Search. You don’t know Star Search? Star Search was like a low-budget version of American Idol. You don’t know American Idol? American Idol was like a low-budget version of The Voice. History always repeats itself – only with a bigger budget. On the Gong Show, amateur performers would sing or dance or tell jokes before a panel of three judges who had an enormous gong behind them. If the judges didn’t like the act, they would bang the gong and a giant hook would come out and drag people off stage. It was funny – unless, of course, you were the one getting gonged. Paul says that religion without God’s love is basically the gong show. We are the performers, doing our numbers, desperately trying to avoid the hook, afraid of being dragged offstage -- yet none of our performances are really that impressive. Religion loves to mercilessly drag people who don’t perform good enough away. But God’s love has no gong. The Holy Love of God is not based on your performance. You don’t earn it. You don’t lose it. God so loves you. No because. No manipulation. No scorecard or record of rights and wrongs. He just loves you. Bandages Off Brennan Manning calls our gong show performance costumes “bandages.” Glittering with the cheap sequins of seemingly good deeds and the cracked rhinestones of human righteousness, our costumes are not at all impressive to God. In fact, the Bible calls even our most righteous deeds “filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64.6) In order to really understand the “so love” of God, we need to get out of our costumes, peel off the bandages, and step out of our filthy rags. We need to stop trying to impress God and one another; stop being imposters, and start simply being loved – “so loved” – by God. At the shrine of religion, jacket and tie are required. Layers and layers of jackets and ties, in fact. But at the Cross of Jesus Christ, all such ridiculous bandages are meaningless and must be stripped away. God took the first step – He is shamelessly vulnerable on the cross. No jacket. No tie. Utterly without pretense. When you have the courage to set foot on Calvary hill, where both death and the Garden collide once again … When you remove your religious costume and take off the bandages of spiritual attempts to earn God’s love … When you simply come to the cross you will discover what it means to be loved without a because. At the cross, in that shameful, shameless naked and vulnerable place, all that remains is you -- the real you, the one underneath the smothering coverings of duty, accomplishments, obedience and other such pathetic attempts to earn love. At the cross, where God’s love is demonstrated once and for all, every “because” we can concoct is baseless and a fraud. There is no because good enough. You are simply beloved. We know from 1 Corinthians 13.5 that love “keeps no record of wrongs,” but did you also know that God’s love doesn’t depend on your accomplishments? Many of us while away the hours at the endless spinning wheel of achievement, trying to earn God’s favor and the approval of others. But because there is no “because” attached the love of God, we miss the fact that our achievements don’t do anything but get in the way of God’s love. You are beloved, because God loves you, and never because of anything you have done. We are like gold miners, chipping away deep beneath the ground in deep, dark pits of human effort, in a futile attempt to extract God’s love – when gold nuggets are just lying around on the surface for anyone to receive. Even children understand this, and they are rich – until they fall for the lie that there is more gold in the ground. May we become like little children again! Fool’s Gold Foolish miners. We are chasing after ore that will bankrupt us. There are three kinds of fool’s gold in the worthless mines of human effort. Wealth, wisdom and works. First, let’s ponder whether you can bribe God to love you. There is nothing you have that coerces God to love you. “Let not the rich boast of their riches” (Jeremiah 9.23) You can’t buy God’s love. The Joneses next door might be impressed with your car and your clothes, but God yawns at such trivia. We live in a world where human love is bought with money or other provisions. But one day the scriptures promise that everything you possess, everything in your hoard will either melt or burn – no other option. Then what will you have? But God’s word will stand forever. And His word promises that God “so loves” you. We are living in a material world, but God is looking for immaterial girls and boys who understand that His love is not based on anything they have. Next, let’s consider whether human wisdom can persuade God to love you more. There is nothing you know that convinces God to love you. “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom” (Jeremiah 9.23) Knowledge, degrees, and letters after your name are much to be desired in this world, but they mean precious little in the sight of God. While the world heaps praises on the smart and the gifted, God gives the ultimate gift to those who simply know that they are loved. No persuasive essay can sway God one way or the other. He loves you. No diploma can ever be written that secures His favor more than the cross on which your name was written in His blood. No written test is required to permit His love to cruise with you down life’s highway. Human wisdom and knowledge are utterly fallible. God’s love never fails. Finally, let’s consider whether our works – our good deeds and good behavior – can possibly compel God to love any of us more. There is nothing you do that compels God to love you. “Let not the strong boast of their strength” (Jeremiah 9.23) We know that we are saved by grace through faith, and not of deeds that anyone should boast. But we boast anyway, don’t we? I know of some churches that issue press releases whenever they feed the homeless or do a good deed. They shout their own accolades from the street corners and from their instagram accounts. While it is good to be good, they have their reward. The only reward worth pursuing is to be loved by God. There is nothing else that compares to the priceless gold of being loved by Him. All of our deeds mean nothing without the becauseless love of God. Welcome Back to the Garden Well, I suppose I have been pretty hard on wealth and wisdom and works. Each one actually has its proper place in the service of God. But they must never be mistaken as the ticket you need to earn God’s love. At the cross all are stripped naked, and shame is done away with. All resumes are burned. All possessions are removed. All clearances are revoked. All accomplishments are obliterated. All achievements are evaporated. Everything good (and bad) you have been (and done) is meaningless. You are simply, profoundly, mysteriously, and completely loved. You are beloved because God loves you, not because of any scorecard you have tucked away in your back pocket. Until you learn this you can never, ever really love anyone at all. Before we can begin to talk of loving God and loving our neighbor, we must first recover our true identities as beloved children of God. This is the kind of love the world needs now. More importantly: this is the kind of love that you need now. Will you end your attempts to bribe God through religion, through wealth, through human wisdom, and through man-made works, and simply beloved without a because?
Love without a Because - Luke 10.25-28, John 3.16
This blog is written by leaders of SVCC. The people who write here are not perfect or "holier than thou." They just strive to seek after God with all their hearts.
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