This is the last sermon from my Advent series. I preached it a week late, on this past Boxing Day, because of the previous week’s snowstorm.
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent his Son as the world’s Savior. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God—God remains in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.1 John 4:7–16
It’s the most well-known Bible verse of all time, so well-known that people at football games would hold up banners just with the Bible reference. You know it well: John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Another translation puts it this way: For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.And at the heart of John 3:16 is God’s love made known in the sending of the Son into the world to bring everlasting life.
And here we are. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. We’ve lit the last candle, the candle of love. And of all the themes of Advent, love is at risk of being the most sentimentalized and misunderstood.
When we think of John 3:16—and especially the part where it says For God so loved the world—we want to be careful to define love by understanding who God is—and what the Bible says—rather than define God (and his love) by our human experiences of love.
Often in our world love is defined as an emotion, by how we feel about this or that person. We say things like, “I love you SOOOO much!” That’s an expression of emotion. And while our emotions are a part of love, love is much, much more than that.
C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” Think about that definition: Love is . . . a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good. That means that God’s “steady wish” for us—his ultimate will and desire for us—is to have eternal life, to be with him forever. Jesus comes into the world to make this happen. And all of this because God loves.
In our passage from 1 John 4, the apostle says this: God is love. God not only loves; he is love. Love is at the heart of who God is.
And so if want to understand what this love is like, we listen to what he did out of the overflow of his love. 1 John 4 continues: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Sounds just like John 3:16.
The Greek language in the NT has several words for love, because there are different kinds of love. There’s the love between friends. There’s romantic love. But the word used of God is agape. David Nelmes explains it this way:
“Agape love [is] unconditional love that is always giving and impossible to take . . . It devotes total commitment to seek your highest best no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not.”
This is the love that God reveals in the sending of the Son, our Lord Jesus. This is the love that God is. And so it is with this kind of love that God loves you.
Do we believe God loves us? I mean, really believe it? Do we believe his love is unconditional or that he only loves us when we behave or perform?
Working on my message this week, I came across these words from Joseph Langford:
“The same God who loves us as we are also loves us too much to leave us as we are. Perhaps because we tend to hold to ideas about God that reflect our own suppositions and fears, more than God’s self-revelation. We reduce God to our own dimensions, ascribing to him our own reactions and responses, especially our own petty and conditional kind of love, and so end up believing in a God cast in our own image and likeness.”
Because here’s the thing: while I don’t think most of us believe God’s love is conditional, I also doubt we believe his love is unconditional. Not completely, anyway. Because I think we often live as though God’s love is semi-conditional. We say we believe his love is unconditional and that it doesn’t depend on our good behavior or how well we perform. Yet I think we often live differently. We live as though the way we act has an effect on his love for us.
For instance, do we ever avoid praying because we haven’t prayed in a while? Do we ever feel like maybe God is angry at us or disappointed with us?
Or to put it another way: Have you ever felt frustrated with God or even angry at him because even though you always go to church and put money in the offering plate, someone you love still got sick or something in your life went wrong?
In both cases, aren’t you basing God’s love for you on what you do, on how you live or behave? Either that your poor behavior keeps God from loving you or that your good behavior guarantees that he will? And does that sound like unconditional love to you? Aren’t you putting conditions on God’s love that God doesn’t? But isn’t this how we live sometimes?
I heard someone say this once: “Nothing you do (or don’t do) can make God love you more or love you less.” That’s unconditional love. That’s what it means to say that God is love.
So let me ask: Is this how you see God? Is this how you relate to God? Do you see God’s love for you as unconditional? And what might it mean—and how might it affect you—to believe that God’s love for you is unconditional?
Every day I tell my kids I love them. Most days, anyway. And often when I do, they will say, “I know. You tell me all the time.” I just want them to be sure. But making sure they know means more than saying words. I want my love to be perfectly unconditional. But it can’t be. Because I am flawed. I am sinful. I am broken. I show them I love them, yes, but imperfectly. Thankfully, God is perfect. Thankfully, his love is unconditional.
And ultimately, this is first and foremost how God loves. By perfectly showing us. By perfectly acting to bring about our ultimate good. As John 3:16 says, God loved the world in this way. How? By the sending of the Son into the world.
This is why the love candle is the penultimate candle in the Advent wreath (the last candle is traditionally the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve). The greatest of these is love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13. And we know this precisely because by how God acted upon his love.
The coming of Christ into the world through the incarnation—which begins with the manger and ends with the cross and empty tomb—is both miracle and mystery. It’s simple enough for a child to grasp but yet deep enough for us grown-ups to forever ponder.
I’ve always loved how Eugene Peterson translated John 1:14: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Best Christmas Bible verse ever. God loves you so much that he wants to move in next door. Better put, he wants to move right into your house.
To show us his love God came into our world. The second Person of the triune Godhead took on flesh, blood, and bone, confined himself to time and space, in order to demonstrate his love for us. The Creator entered his creation. The Painter entered his painting. 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once said, “The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.”
And here’s the truth: this was the only way for us to come to know and experience God’s love. Only through the Son of God coming into the world. Only by God becoming human in Jesus. Only by Jesus going to the cross to remove the barrier between ourselves and God. That is the perfect, complete, and ultimate expression and demonstration of the love of God. To know Christ is to know God’s love.
By becoming one of us, God the Son pursues our ultimate God. By becoming one of us, God shows his unconditional love. By becoming one of us, God shows he is love.
While I am unable to comprehend this adequately or completely, I can receive this beautiful, wondrous truth and absorb it into my life. In fact, I can only receive it, trust it, and put my faith in it. I can’t wrap my mind around the God who was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But I can kneel. I can repent. I can worship. I can allow this love of God to take hold of me—or pray that God will take hold of me with it.
What about you? What keeps you from receiving or experiencing the love of God? Is it past or ever present hurts? Feelings of guilt or anger? Have you perhaps imagined God to be other than he is, as a tyrant looking to trip you up rather than as a Father looking to embrace you? Or as a distant, cold deity rather than as Emmanuel, God with us? Or as a legalistic rule-maker, rather than as the Good Shepherd who wants to lead you into wide, green pastures?
How do you need to experience the love of God this Christmas? Where does the light of his love need to shine into your life? Do you need his perfect love to dispel your fears? To bring you comfort?
If nothing else, Christmas ought to remind us that God is love. Christmas ought to remind us that God went to the utmost to give us his utmost. Christmas ought to remind us that God gives us the gift of himself.