Sunday, May 3, 2015

If God Had a Name, What Would It Be? (1 John 4:7-8)

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.


This afternoon at 3 pm, a worship service will be held in First United Methodist Church in Newton, just this side of Hickory.  It will be the service to celebrate the life of my father, who joined the Church Triumphant on April 15.  In planning the service with Dad’s pastors, as I have done with many of you, there is a challenge in that – to adequately sum up and capture somebody’s life in scripture and song and the few words that will be spoken.  I had the same challenge in writing his obituary, as well as selecting the picture that would accompany his obituary, and the one to be displayed next to his ashes at today’s service.


It’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible.  It’s said “a picture is worth a thousand words;” get the picture right, and the whole story will unfold from it.


That’s true in the life of faith, as well.  With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into place. Today, we are beginning a series of messages designed to help us get the picture of God right.  Throughout the month of May, we’ll be focusing on the right picture, and what that picture means as we live out our faith.  The right picture serves as the starting point for our understanding of who God is and how we relate to God, which is why it’s important to take the time to get the picture right.


Last week, we set this series up by talking about how the root of a plant determines its fruit.  Remember, we said, Root determines fruit, and using today’s analogy of finding the right picture, the root and the picture both refer to the same thing.  They are both the foundation from which the rest of it stems and grows.


So, what’s the root?  What’s the picture?  What’s the foundation? If you remember nothing else from today’s sermon, if you remember nothing else about the Christian faith, remember this: God is Love. 1 John 4:8.  That’s the picture, the foundation, the root, the starting point: God is Love.  Everything else is rooted in that, stems from that, grows from that.  Friends, start with the understanding that God is Love – that’s the picture from which the whole rest of the story unfolds.


Why does this matter?  Because there are other images of God that would paint themselves, other roots that would try to take hold.  Some start with an understanding of God as angry, or wrathful.  Some see God as a power-hungry tyrant, an arbitrary despot, a strict judge.  Some view God as an absentee landlord, distant, mysterious, and unapproachable.


These pictures of God are like propaganda pieces or political advertisements.  Have you ever noticed, in political attack ads, that they find the worst, most awful picture of the candidate they are attacking?  Weird facial expression, maybe looking tired, grumpy, or aloof. It’s a picture all right, but one intended to cast a person in a less-than-favorable light.


We all know what that feels like.  Ever have someone say things about you that weren’t true?  Or misconstrue or misrepresent something you did or said?  Know what that feels like – how frustrating it is?  Imagine how that must be to God, when pictures of God are put forth that make God out to be arbitrary, sadistic, and angry.


Indeed, these pictures of God are fairly well-rooted in some places in our culture, and even among some in the Church.  But, they are less-than truthful statements about who God is, and they do more harm in God’s name than they do good.  They are like a smear campaign against God, and they serve to drive people away from God.


They’ll say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who gives people cancer or kills people by causing accidents and natural disasters.  They see a picture of God being painted by self-aggrandizing “Christians” whose message emblazoned on their signs is that God hates this or God hates that.  They say, “I just can’t believe in that.”


And neither can I.  Neither should you.  I refuse to believe that God is a jerk: a sadistic, power-hungry, tyrannical, self-aggrandizing monster.  The Bible tells me, Christian tradition tells me, my experience in faith tells me, my intellect tells me that God is Love.  And so, all of the arbitrary, hurtful, awful things just described, I have to ask myself, ‘Does that sound like Love?’ and I answer with a resounding ‘No.’  No, no, a thousand times, NO!


God is Love.  John Wesley, in his commentary on this 4th Chapter of 1 John, said, “Love is God’s reigning attribute.”  That means Love is primary.  Love dominates the picture.  With all these false images of God out there vying for primary place, even being rooted and nurtured and cultivated by people of faith, sometimes; friends, we are called to witness to the reality and primacy of God’s love, and to double down our efforts in doing so.


Remember, if you get the picture right, then the rest of the story will flow from that.  Our picture is that God is Love.  This is the root from which the rest of it stems and grows.  Remember, root determines fruit.  And if the root is love, the fruit is love.


But, perhaps you ask, “What about God’s holiness?  Isn’t God also holy?”, and that’s a great question.  Of course, God is holy, but do we understand what the word, “holy” means?


“Holy” is a word that simply means “other.”  “Set apart.”  “Distinct.”  And so, when people of faith have used the term “holy” to describe God, that’s simply a way of saying that God is “other” than human, “distinct” from humanity.  It’s a way to say that God is not exactly the same kind of being as we are, and can you guess what sets God apart from humanity?  It’s Love.  God is “other” because God has the inherent capacity for love in a way we don’t – on our own, we just don’t have that kind of Love within us. 


Another way to think of the word “holy” is “perfect.”  And you can think of the word “perfect” in one of two ways, either: 1.) “without flaw” or 2.) “complete.”  The first definition suggest an emptiness, while the second suggests a fullness.  When the Bible talks about perfection, particularly in the New Testament, it’s not talking about flawless purity.  It’s talking about fullness and completeness and wholeness.  Yet, some still want it to mean flawless.  A flawless, picky God is attractive to picky people.  Picky people want a picky God who makes them feel holy to be picky about other people’s shortcomings.  You know, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, from whom Jesus came to save us from becoming.  Friends, a picky and flawless God is an empty God, and any faith built around notions of flawlessness is just as hollow.


God is holy, not because God is flawless, but because God is complete.  Completely full.  Perfectly full. Filled to overflowing with perfect Love, and the Bible says perfect Love casts out fear, and we’ll come back to that before this series is over.


But it all starts in Love.  Love is the root from which the rest grows.  Love is the foundation upon which the rest is built.  Love is the primary picture.  There are other pictures available about who God is and how God relates to the world, but they’re distorted images, and they take us to radically distorted places.  That’s why it’s so important to get the picture right.  Get the picture right, and the whole story will unfold from it.


Starting with God’s Love doesn’t lessen the reality of human sin and the presence of evil in the world, but it does give us the confidence that God’s primary interest in us is not to fix us, but to relate to us in a loving way.


God’s holiness is his perfect love, a love that welcomes sinners rather than shuns them, a love that is sacrificial rather than self-serving, a love that pursues us in order to transform us in, by, and through that same love.  Perfect love is our assurance that God wants the best for us and calls us to treat others with the same benevolence regardless of how flawed they are, which is what the Scripture is getting at when it says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.”


The way to heaven isn’t about doing right or being right.  Not about doing good and being good.  No, the path to salvation begins in the realization that God is Love, and loves us with an unquenchable love, and that the way to eternal life is to bask in that love, be filled with that love, and radiate that love so it’s shining out of us in every direction.


It’s a matter of getting the picture right.  With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into place.  So, picture this: God is Love.  Full, complete, perfect Love.

Friends, if God had a name, that name would be, “Love.”

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