1 John 4: 7-12
Here we are, four Sundays into Lent, and I realize that almost every weekly theme and sermon title has required a disclaimer of sorts, a theological, cultural, or psychological asterisk that explains what the title does not mean.
Therein lies a good part of the challenge of speaking about spiritual things—or anything, really: To frame the subject broadly and openly enough that the framing opens a door to new understandings and, at the same time, to frame it narrowly enough that listeners don’t get lost, bored, or, even worse, end up going down some very unpleasant rabbit holes.
On top of all that, I can’t possibly know how you are feeling this morning—whether you’ve come straight from an argument with your teenager and can’t stop thinking about it, whether you’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week and don’t want to think about anything, whether you’re depressed to the point of despair about the state of the world, whether you woke up feeling excited, or whether you were tempted to stay in bed.
Even when I speak with some of you during the week, even when I know some of what you’re dealing with in your life, I can’t know everything that’s going on with you, and I may have no clue as to where your mind and heart are this morning.
What I do know is that these past two years of pandemic life have taken a toll on all of us. Another thing I know is that many of us have a fair amount of religious baggage, a certain resistance to God language or certain scripture passages, a basic discomfort with Jesus, or all of the above.
And here’s a little secret: Even when I don’t know exactly what’s going on with you, and even when I’m fairly sure it has nothing directly to do with God or church or me, I’m pretty good at reading body language. I know how hard it can be to risk opening our world-weary hearts or our jaded minds, and sometimes I can get a sense of how open or closed a heart is from a facial expression or other body language.
Sometimes it seems fairly clear to me that there will be no reaching some of you on a particular day, and when that happens I say another prayer of thanksgiving that whether or not you hear the good news doesn’t really have that much to do with me, because the Holy Spirit is at work within you—loving and healing, comforting and transforming, empowering and enlivening—no matter what I say or do.
Sometimes it seems like the most important thing I can do is not get in the Spirit’s way. What I want to do is to help create a clear path, to help open all the doors and windows to your heart so that the Spirit can flow freely in and through you.
So with that in mind, before I go any further, before your protective heart (or mine) has much of a chance to begin shutting down, I want to be very clear about the focus of our “Made for Love” theme this morning.
Sure, I could spend the next few minutes reminding us all of what Jesus called the Greatest Commandment: That we were made to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and, furthermore, that we are made to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We could consider some of the countless ways that countless neighbors need us to love them right now. I could tell you that Cornel West says we should “never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” and then we could consider all the situations in our world—the world God so loves—that need a big dose of justice-love, and we could think about what our role is in delivering it.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I surely believe all of that is both true and important.
But this morning I want to talk about the another way in which we have been made for love: that God has also made us to receive love.
In case some of you are thinking you’ve misheard me, I’m going to say that again:
God has made us to receive love, to let ourselves be loved, to let Love have its way with us.
[It’s interesting how some of the body language in this space changes a little bit when I say that a couple of times.]
The poet William Blake put it this way, using the male-centric language of his day:
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love …
Hear those last two lines again:
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love …
How is that great course in spiritual education going for you? Are you learning to bear the beams of love? Do you understand how very many beams of love are knocking at the door of your heart right this minute?
Think about it: Based on what the gospels tell us about Jesus, did he spend more of his ministry telling his followers to love others, or telling them (often in stories and parables) how much God loved them?
(Here’s a hint: What he said about the Greatest Commandment, that thing about loving God and loving our neighbor, was a response to a question from a religious person who, hoping to trip Jesus up, asked him to name the greatest commandment. It was an unscripted moment.)
Jesus seemed to spend most of his time flipping the religious script: Instead of telling the religious types how to be good, moral people, he focused on showing and telling the people who’d been rejected by the religious types just how much they were loved.
Think about just a few of Jesus’ most famous speeches and stories:
The Beatitudes are nothing if not a large set of love-beams aimed at the least and the lost:
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for their work for justice.
So many beams of love and blessing to take in.
Think, too, about the parable of the prodigal son: The moral of the story is not to be a good person or to get your act together. The moral of the story is that even when we’re coming home to God for all the wrong reasons, before we have repented, and while we’re still a long, long way off, our parent God—the God who is love—will come running to gather us up into those everlasting arms. And while we’re busy reciting our wooden repentance speech and trying to be good, God will be weeping with joy and orchestrating the grandest celebration we’ve ever seen.
Powerful beams of extraordinary love.
There are many other Jesus stories we could consider, but for now let’s focus on just one more: Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader so concerned about his reputation that he has come to Jesus under the cloak of night.
Nicodemus is pretty sure Jesus must be close to God, but Jesus is not at all what Nicodemus expected of God, so he wants Jesus to help him make sense of it all. What Jesus tells him is that no one can make sense of God’s ways unless they’re born from above, which is to say: born of the Spirit. Jesus goes on to say that he has been sent by God to the world God so loves so that, through Jesus, God might love it even more. So that, through Jesus, our hearts might be opened to receive that love, and that in receiving that love we might be transformed, or born again.
Jesus flips the script again, saying that his love has come into the world not to condemn it but to love it. We are reborn when we receive that love and let it have its way with us.
God’s love is manifest is countless other ways, of course. God’s love-beams shine on us in and through creation and other people—especially children, through animals and music and every kind of beauty, through community-building, the resilience of the human spirit that we see in the people of Ukraine, and the strength of the human spirit that we see in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
I could go on and on—and maybe we can share some of our own love-beam experiences during our Lenten Lunch after worship.
God is love, and we are made to receive God’s love. According to First John, it is in our receiving and sharing God’s love that God’s love is made complete. It is an organic and amazing spiritual process: We take in so much love that we can’t help but let at least some of it flow through and out of us to others.
Beloveds, let us learn to bear the beams of love, let us decide to let God love us, and to receive that love. For God is love, and we are made for love.