When I was growing up, and before I became a Christian, I loved to listen to a certain rock group from the other side of the Atlantic, named after some kind of insect. Or was it a car? One of their songs claimed, “All You Need Is Love.” What about that? Is love really all you need? And if that is true, what is love?
Prison guards who work on death row share an odd, inside joke. Death-row inmates have an easier time getting dates than do the guards. Now why would that be? Sociologists and psychologists have verified the fact that death-row inmates, even those convicted of the most gruesome crimes, often receive bags of mail from sympathetic women. Some of our nation’s most notorious serial killers, like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, received dozens of marriage proposals while in prison. According to Sheila Isenberg, author of “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” women sometimes pursue relationships with death-row inmates because these relationships are “low maintenance, highly dramatic and easy to control.” —“Jailbirds make attractive lovebirds to some” by Amy Green Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 21, 2000, B1 and B3. In other words, they seek an easy kind of love for the simple reason that one of the hardest places to live that Scripture admonition to “love one another” is in our homes.
Right now, think of the people in your family who are hard to love at times. Maybe, in your opinion, all the time. A spouse, a parent, a child, a brother or a sister? Maybe even-- yourself?
The greatest passages of Scripture ever written about love were written by individuals, think of it, who were once extremely hard to love. Remember the story of Paul, the author of First Corinthians 13, and the hard-heartedness that characterized his early life as a persecutor? Talk about someone who was hard to love. And the other one, called “the Son of Thunder” came to be known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Who was that? That’s right, John.
Five times John speaks of himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” If you have something to write with and you want to write something in the bulletin, on the back or some piece of paper you have, write these references down. These are the times that John refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the first chapter is, of course, Gospel of John. They’re all in the Gospel of John. The first one is chapter 13, verse 23. And then also, chapter 19, verse 26. And then, chapter 20, verse 2. And then 2 times in chapter 21. In verse 7, and then in verse 20. In fact, the encounter of Jesus with John is really a classic study in how God’s love can make a difference.
Let’s look at some “before” and “after” snapshots of John.
The image that some painters have used to portray John is a shy, gentle young man. It’s even common to think that Jesus loved John because he was so meek and kind and good. This particular picture comes from either the late 15 hundreds or the early 16 hundreds. But in fact, the overall portrait of John in the Gospels is quite different. John was a rough, coarse, high spirited young man. His untamed spirit and violent temper is why he got the nickname “Son of Thunder” or we might say “Thunderman” That’s in Mark 3. Mark 3, verse 17.
You see, John possessed a spirit of criticism. He was racially and religiously prejudiced, and jealous for his own group. That’s like no one here, right? No one here is like that. John was hot-tempered and easily angered, and he was not by nature humble and yielding. You remember that it was John who was angry and indignant and ready to fight when the Samaritans were inhospitable to the Master. In revenge, he wanted to call down fire upon them to destroy them. That story is in Luke, chapter 9.
And he craved power and authority and he craftily plotted to be the chief among the disciples. He even attempted to manipulate Jesus to grant him the highest position in His kingdom by having his own mother request it. Imagine that! What a sly one.
John was evil-tempered, critical, proud, violent of spirit, combative, and indignant. Not a pretty sight. And despite all that, he was the disciple whom Jesus loved. Does that give you hope?
That was the “before” snapshot. Let’s look at the “after”. His writings give us a glimpse into his changed attitude.
I invite you to open your Bibles to the epistle of John, First John, and we’ll look at chapter 3 and chapter 4. I’ll be reading from the English Standard Version. First John, chapter 3, verse 18. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Does that sound like the John who wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritans? It doesn’t. And then go to the next chapter and look at verses 7 and 8. First John 4, verses 7 and 8. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Does that sound like a Thunderman? What kind of love would make a difference like that? What did Jesus do?
Well even when John was unlovable, Jesus provided John with that for which his heart craved. Redemptive love. Love that has compassion for the brokenness that people feel inside. Love that accepts people with no strings attached. Love that comes as a gift. Love that forgives freely, and willingly. Isn’t that all we crave as well? That’s what we want.
And those verses about John being the one that Jesus loved were written late in John’s life when he reflected on the over-and-over-again quality of Christ’s love for him even when he knew he didn’t deserve it. The sense of the Greek verb for love in these verses is “kept on loving.” Isn’t that what we call “unconditional” love? And John experienced that and he also observed how Jesus related to others every day.
Let’s think of some of the examples of Jesus’ love toward others that John would have been there. He watched it all. He saw it. He observed it. He experienced it.
There’s the story of the madman in Mark, chapter 5. Despite the hopelessness of his case, Jesus did not turn away, but ministered to his needs. He clothed him. He demonstrated confidence in him. He entrusted him with a mission to tell what God had done for him.
And remember the story of the paralytic in Luke, chapter 5? Jesus assured him of forgiveness, called him “friend,” and met his physical needs by healing him.
There’s also the story of the Samaritan woman. It was evident to her that Jesus knew all about her and yet He showed care and compassion for her. He very sensitively and skillfully and yet humbly started a conversation with her, indicating acceptance of her, as a person, as a human being. He was unmindful of His own reputation in associating with her, but as He talked with her He elevated her status as a human being. She was argumentative, but He reasoned carefully and calmly and patiently with her. And when He spoke of her sinful lifestyle, she didn’t feel condemned.
And you remember Zacchaeus. Jesus called him by name. He gave him eye contact. He spoke directly to him. “Zacchaeus, come down, for I must eat with you today.” So Jesus fellowshipped with him over a meal, a significant demonstration of friendship. And furthermore, He allowed Zacchaeus to work out his own solution to his problem, the problem of his ethical lapses. And then Jesus assured him, a despised tax collector, a place in the spiritual family as a son of Abraham.
And in the case of John the disciple, Jesus invited him into the inner circle of friendship with Him. He opened Himself to John, granting special insights and revelations about Himself, such as that on the Mount of Transfiguration. And He said to John and all the other disciples, “I don’t call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for I have shared with you everything that I’ve heard from my Father.”
And then in Gethsemane, the Savior asked for John’s support and encouragement. And as Jesus hung on the cross, He entrusted John with the honor of caring for His mother.
These were powerful portrayals of Christ’s love for him that touched his heart. At the cross, as John sees the greatest picture of Love dying as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, even his own sins, it changes him. There on the cross hangs John’s untamed spirit, his hasty temper, his prejudice, his thirst for revenge. The Son of God was made to be sin for John, made to be the Son of Thunder, unlovely and unlovable, that in Jesus, John and all of us, might be made righteous, might be made loving and loveable. From that cross flows redemptive, transforming love, that provides for the deepest needs of John’s soul. And ours.
So what difference can God’s love make right here, right now, for you and me?
I’d like to invite you to open your Bibles again to First Corinthians, chapter 13. And I’d like for us to read verses 4 through 7, and I’m going to read from the translation that’s called “God’s Word.”
First Corinthians 13, looking at verses 4 through 7. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn’t jealous. It doesn’t sing its own praises. It isn’t arrogant. It isn’t rude. It doesn’t think about itself. It isn’t irritable. It doesn’t keep track of wrongs. It isn’t happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up.” And this is how God treats us. And it’s how God wants us to treat others. So do you know someone who needs this kind of love? Unconditional love. Maybe it’s a rebellious child. Maybe it’s a hurting neighbor or stressed-out co-worker. A demanding boss or struggling, single parent.
How about trying this.
Ask them this simple question. “How can I pray for you today?” And then pray for them and with them if appropriate. And here’s an idea for those who are married. Since today is February 14, share this gift with your spouse. Each of you take a piece of paper and list seven simple, loving actions that make you feel loved by your spouse. Now, it’s important that you make sure that they are not expensive and certainly that they don’t cause any conflict. That would be defeating the whole purpose. And then you can exchange lists with each other and do at least one or two on the other’s list each day for the coming week.
For example, a husband might write on his list, “Communicate confidence in me.” Or, “Show affection.” Because those make him feel loved. Or a wife might include on her list, “Write me a love-note.” Or, “Listen intently to me.”
And since listening well is itself a form of love, here’s a good tool for listening to your spouse, or your child, for that matter. Ask two questions. Number 1. What are you concerned about? And number 2. What do you wish? And then actively listen without interrupting. —Chip Ingram, “How to Experience God’s Dream for Your Marriage.” See http://livingontheedge.org Get some duct tape if you need to, and put it on your mouth if that’s the only way you’re not going to interrupt. And maintain good eye contact. And overall, remember that what is most effective is unconditional love which is giving what the person needs most when they deserve it least.
Lynda Berry tells how she “grew up on the last street before a garbage ravine where people from other places drove up to dump old refrigerators and mattresses and deposit their dead animals and other trash.” Her physical surroundings weren’t the only parts of her life in disarray. Things weren’t going so well in her family either. She had seen her father make a bedroom for himself in the basement, and though few words were exchanged, she knew that could not be very good.
And about that time a family moved into the neighborhood, and that family was different. They were poor like everyone else, but there was something about Mrs. Taylor and her home that drew kids like a magnet. When they brought her flowers, even if they were only weeds torn up by the roots, she seemed genuinely delighted. She smiled, and hugged a lot, and she took the kids to church and talked to them about God, and she even knew how to make work seem fun.
As Lynda tells it, “Most of the kids on my street saw things like this on TV or read about it at school, but for the most part it seemed like a lost practice from an ancient tribe. Almost all of us had parents who were deep in various sorts of trouble and they could not remember how to do this anymore.” Mrs. Taylor was about the only remaining evidence of purely affectionate contact between adult and child, with no strings attached, and Lynda says, “I have no doubt that a lot of credit for the sanity of the kids who grew up in my neighborhood are because of her.”
Early one morning, drawn irresistibly to the Taylor doorstep, Lynda knocked and invited herself to breakfast. Surprised, but not disturbed, Mrs. Taylor set an extra plate at the table. And Lynda remembers, “I’ll never forget that morning, sitting at their table eating eggs and toast, watching them talk to each other and smile. How Mr. Taylor made a joke and Mrs. Taylor laughed. How she put her hand on his shoulder as she served the food and how he leaned his face down to kiss her hand. And that was all I needed to see. I only needed to see it once to be able to believe for the rest of my life that happiness between two people can exist. Even if it wasn’t happening in my house, I knew that just being near it counted for something.”
Now Mrs. Taylor was an artist. At least she made posters and backdrops for the church. But in the minds of the children who flowed through her home, she was a Michelangelo. Once when she let Lynda make one of the shining lines coming from the cross, Lynda vowed that she was going to grow up and be an artist just like Mrs. Taylor. And she did. But far more significantly, she grew up like Mrs. Taylor in more important ways. And faith passed from one generation to the next. — Adapted from Lynda Barry, “Guardian neighbor,”Newsweek, Special Edition (Summer, 1991) pp. 70-73. That is an example of the power of love to change people. How do we get that love?
The Apostle John himself writes, “We love because He first loved us.” So I ask you, and I ask myself, do we continually refresh our minds with the good news of God’s love for us? And do we ask the Holy Spirit to give us whatever we need so that we can love our spouses, our children, our families, and our fellow believers, our fellow human beings? Even when they are unlovable?
Let’s choose to make God’s love transform us and soften us and make us more caring and kind with each other. And let’s allow God’s powerful love to renew our family and other relationships, that it might be true of us, as Jesus said, quoted in John’s gospel, “By this will all men know that you are My disciples if you love one another.”
Our closing song is often thought of as a song for children, but it teaches something very important. So let’s all be kids this morning and let’s sing hymn number 5 hundred and 79.
Our gracious God in heaven. Shine upon us. Show Your grace upon our lives and upon our minds and our hearts and in our families and in all our relationships. May You be glorified. In Jesus name, amen.
Hymn of Praise: #191, Love Divine Scripture: Ephesians 4:32 - 5:2 Hymn of Response: #579, 'Tis Love That Makes Us Happy
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McDonald Road Sermon transcribed by Steve Foster 2/27/09