See What Love the Father Has Given Us

April 22, 2012

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One summer Saturday morning about nine years ago I was working in the front yard, as were several of our neighbors. We had just moved to Charlottesville and our neighbors were still sizing us up. They had heard I was a priest and my family felt under a microscope.  My four-year old son Paul was playing in the yard and he asked me if he could have a Diet Coke. “Sure,” I replied.  He went to the kitchen and grabbed what he thought was a Diet Coke. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him come back out the front door and sit on the front step, but I wasn’t really paying attention.
A few minutes later he said, “Dad, this tastes weird.”  I didn’t bother looking up, just told him it was fine and kept working. A few minutes later Paul continued, “Dad, this Diet Coke tastes really yucky.” I looked over and saw that it wasn’t Diet Coke he was drinking…it was Coors Light.  I laughed and told him, “Uhh…that’s not Diet Coke, son—that’s beer.” I remember wondering what the neighbors were thinking as they watched their new priest neighbor’s four-year son pounding Coors Light on the front porch . Of course the upside is that they probably weren’t surprised—after all they knew we were Episcopalians .
We don’t always pay close attention to our kids—that’s the bad news.
The good news is that God always pays close attention to His children, and that God loves His children more than they could ever know.
This morning I’m preaching on just one verse from the First Letter of John in which he writes, “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God” (3:1).
See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God.
John was the youngest of Jesus’ twelve disciples, perhaps a teenager during Jesus’ earthly life. He outlived all the other disciples, all of whom were martyred, except of course Judas.
In fact, John lived to be quite old and in his last years he wrote five books included in the New Testament.  Toward the end of his life John became so infirm that he was literally carried to various churches, where he would always address his fellow believers as “Little Children.”  John would always preach about the same thing: God’s love.
This is the case with his New Testament writings as well.  Love is the main theme of John’s writings.
It is John who recorded Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16).
It was John who recorded Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
It was John who wrote, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4:10).
And it was John who wrote simply, “God is love” (I John 4:8 and 16).
Several years ago a crabby older man wanted to take me to lunch. I knew something was up, but I accepted his invitation anyway. (Perhaps you know the joy of being invited to that kind of lunch). We met at a restaurant and after the initial small talk the axe fell and he unloaded on me, “Why do you always preach about God’s love? People need to hear about God’s judgment and wrath. People need to straighten out their lives.  People need more than touchy-feely sermons— they need ‘balanced’ preaching.” He was definitely on a roll. You could say his crabbiness was in overdrive.  It was a delightful meal .
I listened to him, but I disagreed with him. I still do.
The heart of the gospel is God’s love, and God’s love is anything but “balanced.”
“Balanced” preaching has nothing to do with the gospel. People are unable to “straighten out” their lives, and the gospel is that God loves us so much that on the cross God in Jesus Christ took the judgment and wrath of God upon himself, in our place.  The Bible is explicitly clear that love and compassion motivated of Jesus’ ministry. Those who really think the gospel is about straightening out people’s lives can become…well, crabby—and can ruin an otherwise perfect lunch.
The heart of gospel is the love of God in Jesus Christ—a love that transcends all bounds, a love that is unconditional, a love that cannot be measured or bullet-pointed in a dry theological textbook—a love for sinners whose lives are a complete train wreck—a love with no ulterior motives, no strings attached, no catch—a love that sounds too good to be true and yet is true—a love that gives hope to the hopeless—a love that brings relief and comfort to the beat-up, the bedraggled, and the burned-out—a love that makes all things new.
That’s why the gospel is good news.
The love of God is too great for us to even begin to comprehend. Writing from prison to the Christians at Ephesus Paul put it this way, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
Did you catch that? Paul is praying that the Ephesians can know something they’ll never begin to know—“to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” .
The love of God in Jesus Christ is the heart of the gospel—and John never got over it.  For John the love of God is always front and center.
And it was this love that John wrote about in today’s lesson—“See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God.”
When it comes to loving and paying attention to their kids, earthly parents often fall short, no matter how hard they try. That’s why it’s so important to teach kids about forgiveness—as I saw on a poster recently—“Teach every child you meet the importance of forgiveness.  It’s our only hope of surviving their wrath once they realize just how badly we’ve messed things up for them .”  (That’s certainly helpful for me with my kids ).
When a dad pays close attention to his kids, it can have a huge positive ripple effect in their lives.
In the mid-fifties there was a sixth-grader who lived in Queens, New York City and whose dad was a college professor. He became obsessed with rock ‘n roll.  Unlike many parents, who scoffed at the interests of their awkward middle school
kids, this boy’s dad supported him. The boy wrote a song called, “The Girl for Me,” and his dad, who often worked until late at night, still found the time to write out the words and music for his son and his friend to use as they sang it. It became quite a hit at the middle school dances.
Meanwhile there was another sixth grader who lived in Minnesota and whose dad sold appliances and furniture. He too became obsessed with rock ‘n roll and so his dad built a large antenna and mounted it on the roof of the family home so his son could hear radio stations from all over. He especially liked the blues of the Deep South.  He too began to write songs and play at school dances.
The boy from Queens was Paul Simon and his friend, of course, was Art Garfunkel. The boy from Minnesota was Robert Zimmerman, who later changed his name to Bob Dylan.
Both Paul Simon and Bob Dylan had dads who supported their sons in just the right way at just the right time—and certainly their paying attention to their sons has had quite the ripple effect.
In the summer of 1999 Paul Simon and Bob Dylan went on tour together.  I went to the concert they did in Raleigh, North Carolina. They both played individual sets, as well as a joint set. I’ll never forget that concert. The last song they played together during their joint set was Paul Simon’s masterful The Sound of Silence. A hush fell over the crowd as these two rock ‘n roll icons began, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…”  (I’ll quote from a Bob Dylan song in a few minutes…).
Even if you have supportive parents you can still go through times when you feel alone in the darkness, times when God is silent, times when you wonder if your Heavenly Father is paying any attention to your life at all.
The good news of the gospel is that God is paying close attention to you because He loves you and cares about every detail in your life, even if He is silent.
Sometime ago a friend of mine died after several years of battling a degenerating disease. He was an amazing husband and dad, and loved by many in the community. One of his sons was a lacrosse prodigy, a prolific scorer who went on to play in college.  My friend went to every one of his son’s lacrosse games, even
as the disease progressed and his health regressed. Even after he lost his ability to walk and talk his loving wife still took him to each of their son’s lacrosse games.
And after each game his son would walk over to his dad, now silently watching from a wheelchair, and do you know what his dad would do?  He would smile and somehow manage to hold up the same number of fingers as the number of goals he had just seen his son score. He wanted his son to know that even though he could no longer walk or talk, he still loved him, he was still proud of him, he was still fully aware of what was going on in his life.
And even if God is silent, He still loves you…and He is still fully aware of every detail in your life. While Scripture is silent about God keeping tally of how many goals you’ve scored, the Bible does tell us God knows the number of hairs on your head (which in my case is becoming easier for Him )—and the Bible does tell us that God holds every one of your tears in a jar—for some of you, it’s a really big jar, but not too big for God.
Maybe there have been times when you really felt loved by God, times when you really knew He was paying attention and moving in your life. However, for many people that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
As finite human beings we are confined to time, matter, and space. We can’t go forward in time to do or undo things we wish we could. We can’t change into something that we aren’t. We can’t be in two places at once.
But God is beyond time, matter, and space. God pays attention to you and loves you during every moment of your life—your first breath, first birthday, first ice cream cone—your first scraped knee, first kiss, first broken heart—your proudest moments and most embarrassing moments—your moments of youthful idealism, middle aged cynicism, and elderly perspective. From the moment you are helpless at your birth to the moment when you are equally helpless at your death, and every single moment in between, God loves you and pays attention to you.
And when God is silent, when we wonder if God really loves us, if God is really paying attention to us, when can always look back to the ultimate demonstration and proof of God’s love: Jesus’ death on the cross for us.
When Jesus was dying on the cross and He cried out in dereliction “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God the Father was silent. And yet of course Jesus’ Heavenly Father loved Him and was paying attention, and of course His heart was breaking too.
Any of you who have watched your children hanging onto life by a thread in a hospital or be made fun of or bullied because of something they can’t help, know that there’s nothing worse than watching your children suffer… except of course watching them die.
The longtime Yale professor and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his twenty-five year old son, Eric in a mountain climbing accident. In his moving book, Lament for a Son, he wrote this about his son’s funeral:
“I buried myself that warm June day. It was me those gardeners lowered on squeaking straps into that hot dry hole, curious neighborhood children looking down in at me, everyone stilled, wind rustling the oaks.  It was me over whom we slid that heavy slab, more than I can lift.  It was me on whom we shoveled dirt. It was me we left behind” (p. 42).
And that is what happened on that Good Friday—God the Father’s heart broke as He watched His only beloved Son die at the hands of sinners.
And yet even though God the Father was silent as Jesus was dying on the cross, Jesus’ final words attest that God the Father still loved Him and was paying attention.  Otherwise Jesus would not have gasped, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
And there was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples who saw all this happen, one who stood for hours at the very foot of the cross… John.
John watched Jesus suffer.  John stood next to Mary as she wept. John listened to the labored breathing of Jesus, until His breathing stopped.
And John stayed at the cross for awhile after that and watched as the Roman soldier speared Jesus in the side to confirm his death.  John saw the separating serum and hemoglobin of Jesus’ blood exit pour onto the dusty ground.
In other words, John personally witnessed the full extent of God’s love for His children—“See what love the Father has given us.”
No wonder John never got over the love of God. No wonder he never stopped preaching about the love of God. No wonder that for John the love of God was front and center.
Many years after Jesus’ death John wrote this in the prologue of his account of the gospel: “To all who received (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12).
And that is our response to the unbalanced love of God—to believe and receive.
The final song on Bob Dylan’s 1979 album Slow Train Coming is about Jesus’ Second Coming and is entitled “When He Returns.” In the final verse he shows us what it can look like to believe and receive the love of God in Jesus Christ:
Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask
How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns
And when Jesus, the King of Love, returns He will indeed set up his throne, His throne of love, or what Scripture calls His throne of grace.
We will join the millions upon millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ as we experience firsthand the joy of the unbalanced, immeasurable love of God—and we will experience to the fullest extent the truth of John’s words: “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”
Amen.

Bible References

  • 1 John 3:1

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