“For God so loved the world.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
It happened on Aug. 24, 2006. That was the day that a story hit the presses that had to have been one of the biggest news items to come out of the world of astronomy in a long time. And it had to do with the most distant planet in our solar system, the planet Pluto. Remember what happened? Pluto got bumped. Pluto got demoted. Pluto got ousted. The headline of National Geographic News stated: “Pluto Not a Planet, Astronomers Rule.” One astronomer by the name of Mike Brown was quoted in that article as saying: “Whoa! Pluto is dead…There are finally, officially, eight planets in the solar system.” The article went on to say: “In a move that’s already generating controversy and will force textbooks to be rewritten, Pluto will now be dubbed a dwarf planet.”
Poor Pluto! No longer on the first team. No longer makes the planetary cut because one team of scientists from Prague, Czechoslovakia, decided that it doesn’t fit the qualifications for a planet.
I wonder how many of you here today can relate to what Pluto has gone through. Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt as though you were plutoed or overlooked? Somebody somewhere decided that you didn’t have the right shape, the right size, the right skin color, the right resume, the right qualifications, the right whatever to be on their team. I have to confess that’s how I felt when I was a junior in high school and the votes were being cast among our teachers as to which students should be allowed to be part of the National Honor Society. I was ranked 3rd in a class of nearly a hundred. I had participated in lots of extracurricular activities. So I thought I had a pretty good chance of making the first cut for this rather prestigious honor. But I got plutoed. When the list of students was released, my name was not on it. The top 2 in our class were there, as well as numbers 4 and 5. And then I noticed that even our 6th ranked student had made it ahead of me. But then I remembered who that 6th ranked student was. He was the son of one of our English teachers. So I’ve always felt as though I got plutoed because of a bit of favoritism on the part of the teachers. It turned out ok though because I did get selected for the National Honor Society the following year. But I will say that getting plutoed was no fun. It kind of hurt.
So what do you do when you get plutoed? Well, you can get angry and bitter, but that really doesn’t accomplish anything. You can grumble and complain, throw a big pity party for yourself, but that doesn’t usually win you any friends or supporters. So what do you do? Well, God offers a better option that can be found in the first verb of the passage that we’re working our way through in a sermon series that I have entitled “The Gospel in a Nutshell.” That passage is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Today our focus will be upon the word “loved.”
We’ve just about worn that word out, haven’t we, especially after Valentine’s Day this past week? We’ve used it for so many things and in so many different ways that it’s lost some of its punch, some of its pizzazz. Why not too long ago I realized I had used the word “love” twice in the same evening. Once I directed it to my wife and once I directed it to the taco soup she’d made for supper. But obviously I don’t love them in the same way. I’ve never proposed to taco soup. And I would never give my life for taco soup as I would for Marilyn, though I have told her I would like to see this item on our menu more frequently because it is sooo good and I love it soooo much. Sadly, the English language is a bit deficient when it comes to the word “love.” But the Greek and Hebrew languages which are the languages the Bible was written in offer a much greater variety of words to help us better understand and distinguish between different levels of love. So today we’re going to examine two of those words – one in Hebrew and one in Greek – which in turn will teach us three things about God’s love.
The first thing we want to note about God’s love is this: You can’t win it. You can’t win it because it’s not a competition; it’s not an award; it’s not a prize that goes to the person who does the best. And listen to this, my friends. Another reason you can’t win it is because you already have it. God’s love is not an affection you deserve, but a decision God makes. Therefore, his love depends not on you, but on him. In Deut. 10:15, for example, Moses tells the Israelites: “Yet the LORD chose your ancestors as the objects of his love.” Now when we hear those words, especially the word “love,” it kind of warms our hearts, doesn’t it? But when the Israelites heard them, it probably caused them to jump for joy because they heard something much deeper in their language than what you and I hear in ours. They heard that the Lord had chosen their ancestors to be the objects of his hasaq. That Hebrew word means to be attached to, to be tethered to, to be anchored to. This is a love that won’t let go of the object of love.
Now did God love the Israelites that way because they were so loveable? If you know anything about the history of the Israelites then you know the answer to that question. They were anything but loveable. And elsewhere Moses makes it very clear to them that God did not choose them because they were bigger or better or more important than any other nation. Rather he did it out of nothing but sheer love, sheer hasaq. This is a love that will not let you go. This is a love that a fellow by the name of George Matheson discovered.
He was studying to be a minister at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1861. But during the course of his studies he found out that he was going blind. Thanks to his sisters who helped him and tutored him, he was able to finish his studies. It’s a good thing they were there for him because by the time he graduated he was completely blind. Amazingly, though, he adapted well to his sightless world. But he didn’t adapt very well to his broken heart. You see, when his fiancée heard that he was going blind, she broke off the engagement and returned her ring with this note: “I cannot see my way clear to go through life bound by the chains of marriage to a blind man.”
George Matheson never married, but he did become a pastor. In fact, a very beloved pastor in Scotland. He was known as the poetic pastor because he had such a way with words. Twenty years into his ministry he found himself performing the wedding ceremony for his sister, which brought back all kinds of painful memories from the break up with his fiancée years before. So after the wedding he retreated to his office, sat down at his desk, and wrote the words of this hymn: “O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee; I give Thee back the life I owe, That in Thy ocean depths its flow May richer, fuller be.”
God has in essence handcuffed himself to you, my friends. He will not let you go. So you can’t win his love. And if you can’t win it, then that also means: You can’t lose it. Tucked away in the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament there’s a great book that demonstrates this truth. It’s the book of Hosea. I’d encourage you to read it sometime this week. Hosea prophesied for God during the 8th century B.C. at a time when the Jews were being anything but faithful to God. So God instructed Hosea to take for himself an adulterous wife – some translations say a prostitute – to serve as kind of a picture of what the Jews were doing to God. So that’s what Hosea did. Her name was Gomer. And Gomer had the morals of a jack rabbit in heat, hopping from relationship to relationship, from bed to bed. She broke Hosea’s heart. She spurned his love, just as the Jews had done with God. And in the process she ruined her own life until she was finally put up for sale at the local slave auction. But guess who stepped from the shadows to buy her back? Hosea, who never removed his wedding ring.
His undying love for Gomer is a picture of God’s unending love for you and me. This is the kind of love that we see in John 3:16 where we transition from the Hebrew word hasaq to the Greek word agape. “For God so agaped the world.” This is a love that is more of a decision, more of a resolve on God’s part than a feeling. It’s a love that is willing to make sacrifices for the object of that love.
Whenever I do my premarital counseling with couples, I really try to hammer home this kind of love that is absolutely essential for a marriage to be successful. And I love to share the story of an elderly gentleman who went to the doctor one morning to have some stitches removed. He seemed to be in a hurry, so the nurse who was working with him asked if he had an appointment somewhere. He said that yes, he did. He had to go to the nursing home to have breakfast with his wife. When the nurse asked him if his wife would be upset if he was late, he said that wouldn’t be a problem because she had not known him for the past 5 years. Surprised, the nurse then said, “And you’re still going every morning, even though she doesn’t know who you are?” To which he replied, “She doesn’t know me, but I still know who she is.” That, my friends, is agape love. Unselfish. Self-giving. Self-sacrificing. It’s a love that goes the extra mile. It’s a love that can’t be won and it’s a love that can’t be lost.
This is the love that your Heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus, has for you, my friends. And if you want to see a picture of that love, in your mind’s eye just take a journey to Bethlehem and gaze into that straw-filled manger and realize that that’s God lying there in infant form – the same God who could hold the universe in the palm of his hand. What would cause him to voluntarily leave the glory of heaven behind, enter the womb of a teenage peasant girl, and swim in that amniotic fluid as a human embryo and fetus for 9 months? One word…love. Agape love.
Or if you want another picture of that love, climb to the top of a skull-shaped hill just outside the city of Jerusalem walls and gaze upon Jesus during the last hours of his life as his creation mocks him, beats him, spits on him, condemns him, and crucifies him. What would cause him to willingly subject himself to such brutal and humiliating treatment? Again, there’s only one answer to that question. And that is love, agape love.
You can’t win a love like that and you can’t lose a love like that. But we’ve got to be honest and say this: You can resist it. That’s what the rich young ruler did when he came to Jesus one day with a question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus, sensing some self-righteousness in this man, laid out the law for him. He started reciting the 10 Commandments, no doubt hoping that this man would see how far he had fallen short of keeping those commandments perfectly and how much he needed a Savior. But instead of responding with repentance, the rich young ruler responded with arrogance. He said, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” So Jesus tried another tactic. In essence, he said, “Well, if you’re such a saint, then try this. Sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.” After which we read these words: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.”
Please note what that passage does not say next. It does not say that Jesus ran after him. It does not say that Jesus got on his knees and begged and pleaded with him to reconsider his decision. It does not say that Jesus twisted his arm until he cried “Uncle.” Rather Jesus let him walk away, not because he didn’t love the man, but precisely because he did love him. I Cor. 13 says that love does not demand its own way. Because Jesus loves us so much, he will never force himself on us. Ignore God’s love, resist his love, and he’ll let you. But the big question is, why would you? Why would you turn away from the particular love that God reserves only for his children? You see, though God loves all the people all the time, he does not love all the people all the same. He has a special love reserved for those who call him Father and Jesus Lord. And he has special gifts for them. He adopts them into his family through the waters of Holy Baptism; he gives them the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper; he forgives their sins; he allows his Holy Spirit to dwell within them; and most of all, he gives them the gift of eternal life. There is no limit to what his love will do for those who call him Father and Jesus Savior.
So understand, you can’t win a love like that. And thankfully you can’t lose a love like that. I pray that you’ll never resist a love like that. You’ve been plutoed enough, my friends. So listen as the most definitive and authoritative voice in the universe says to you, “You’re still in. You’re still mine. And my love, my hasaq, my agape is still yours and always will be.” Amen.