This summer, this father was walking with his young daughter along a rocky coast when suddenly a great wave knocked her into the surf. He leapt in to rescue her, but they were both swept away by a second powerful wave and were lost. His grieving brother later said that the father didn't think twice about trying to rescue his girl. He said:
"He jumped in and tried to save her. And I don't think he wanted to come back empty handed."
That's love. On these autumn evenings we're thinking about what a Godly life looks like. Jon spoke about listening to God through his word, the Bible. Last week Ramzi spoke about prayer – that is, talking to God. But in the end what we do with our ears and with our lips depends on what's going on in our hearts. We will only start on and sustain a lifetime of listening to God and speaking to him day by day and hour by hour if we love him. And that's our topic for this evening.
So my title, as you can see from the outline on the back of the service sheet, is Loving God. I want to draw on different parts of the Bible. The references are there on the outline, and they'll go up on the screens. But the key section I want to refer to is 1 John 4.7 - 5.5, and it would be good if you could have that open in front of you – you'll find that on page 1023 in the Bibles. So, what do we need to know about loving God? Three things, which are my headings on the outline.
1. We are called to a life of loving God the Father.
These baptisms we've seen this evening are the outward and visible sign of the start of the Christian life. And like being born, that isn't something we can do or make happen. It's done to us. It's God's gift. You get baptised. You don't baptise yourself. Through the death of Jesus we're forgiven. Through the Spirit of Jesus we're born again to new and eternal life. But what are we to do with that life? What's it for? The apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 2.8-10:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
God has made us in Christ for a purpose. He has a plan for us. What is it? Well, that's a question that Jesus was asked. Matthew 22.35-36:
"a lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?""
The motive for asking was bad, but the question was good. You could ask it in a different way: 'Jesus, what is it that God wants us to do with our lives? What's going to please him above all?' And Jesus said there were two things. Love God. And love your neighbour. Everything else flows from these two, and the second flows from the first. We're going to be thinking about loving our neighbour in four weeks' time. Don't miss that. But it's easy to skip over the first command and want to get into the nitty-gritty of the second and what's involved in doing stuff for God. And if we do that, we'll never get anywhere. The single greatest thing we need to do is there in the first command. Love God. Matthew 22.37:
"And [Jesus] said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.""
That's a reference to Deuteronomy 6.5. Now we need to realise that the section from Deuteronomy 5 to 8 is like the very core of God's law and God's will for his people. And 6.5 is the core of the core. The key to all the rest.
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."
That is, in the first instance certainly don't be centred on yourself and your own concerns. Don't be centred on other people either. Don't even be centred on what you can do for God. Be centred on him. Him personally. And how much of us should be centred on him? All your heart; all your soul; all your mind; all your might. What does that leave? Nothing. What God wants – and the wonderful thing is that this is the only way to true freedom and blessing – is for the whole of us, with everything we are, to be loving him. That's what we were made for. As Ramzi was reminding us last week, Jesus turned that into a prayer that he taught us in Matthew 6:
"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done…"
That's what love for God the Father sounds like when it prays. I showed you that photo of the loving father with his young daughter, and spoke of the example of the father's love. But look at the daughter. She is totally absorbed in her father. At that moment he is the centre of her world. Take that as an illustration of what for us should not be a moment only, but a lifetime of being caught up with God the Father and loving him. So: be ready to commit yourself body and soul to God the Father. We are called to a life of loving God the Father.
But as soon as I say that, there's a problem. A massive problem. And the problem is that left to ourselves, we don't do it. We don't love God. What is more, we don't want to do it. So we can't do it. The pull of other things, other people, and above all ourselves is so much stronger. God the Father fades from view, if we had ever given him a passing glance in the first place. And if that continues, then we completely miss the entire purpose of our lives – like a key that's never turned in a lock, clothes that are never worn, or a book that's never read. What hope is there then? How can we learn to love God our heavenly Father? We have to have a change of heart. Hearts of stone that are dead to God have to become hearts of flesh – alive to God the Father and full of love for him. And that's exactly what God the Father does for us – as those baptisms signified. So to my next main heading, and the next key thing that we need to know about loving God.
2. We can love God the Father only because he has loved us in three interlinked ways.
1 John 4.19:
"We love because he first loved us."
This is a very inexact comparison, but let me tell you about Maisie for a moment. Maisie is a dog. A few months ago our son Ben and Sophie his wife acquired Maisie as a new puppy. Maisie is possibly the craziest puppy the world has ever known, and gets into all kinds of scrapes. I cannot even bring myself to tell you what she did in my shoe the other day. She was not my favourite animal. I was really quite upset and told Vivienne and Katy what Maisie had done. For 15 long minutes they shared my pain. But then it all got too much, they couldn't contain themselves any longer, and simultaneously they both burst into hysterical laughter. I was not amused. Anyway, for all that, Maisie undoubtedly loves Ben and Sophie to bits, in her doggy way. Given the chance, she would never leave their side. They are the centre of her life. But why? Because they loved her first. They have adopted her into their family. She shares their home and their lives. They feed her, take her for walks, play with her, look after her, let her crawl all over them. All she needs, they provide. Ben and Sophie's love for Maisie has drawn out Maisie's love for them. But their love had to come first.
As I say, that's a completely inadequate comparison, but you get the point. We love God the Father – and we can only love him – because he first loved us. How did he do that? In three ways.
i) First, by sending his Son to die for us. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 5.8:
"but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
What does he mean by 'sinners'? He says we were enemies of God. Very far from loving God, we were living lives either as if God was dead or we wanted him dead. That's pretty much the definition of hatred. When we want God dead – the living God who made us and provides for us and sustains us – then we deserve death. But God the Father's love for us, in that state of lovelessness, was such that he sent his Son who loved us by dying the death we deserved, so that we might be forgiven. 1 John 4.9-10:
"In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins."
In other words, the righteous anger of God the Father that should have fallen on us, he took on himself in the person of his Son, at the cross. That's love.
ii) Secondly, God the Father loved us by giving us his Spirit.
"God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us…"
1 John 4.13:
"By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit."
God loves us by coming to us now in the person of his Spirit and living among his people in the church, and living in us, so our spirit and his Spirit are side by side, so to speak, in our souls. So there is the closest union between the believer and our gracious God. He has given us his very self, first in his Son, and secondly by his Spirit. That's love.
iii) Thirdly, God the Father has loved us by adopting us into his family.
Though he made us, we were not his children in this intimate sense until he adopted us into his family through faith in Christ his Son.
"For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!""
1 John 4.15:
"Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God."
Michael Gove is a politician who doesn't always instil the warmest affection, it seems – and I'm not sure David Cameron or Boris Johnson would say they love him. But I was interested to hear him being interviewed the other day, when he touched on the fact that he is an adopted son, adopted out of local authority care. He spoke of those he called 'my parents' who he called 'wonderful people', and of all that they had done for him, which had rescued him from a potentially loveless childhood and transformed his life.
By the mercy of God, we have been drawn in to the Triune life of God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God becomes our Father as he is the Father of his Son. The privilege of that is unspeakably glorious. That's love. We can love God the Father only because he has first loved us, by giving his Son to die for our sins, by giving his Spirit to live in us, and by giving us a place in his family. So: be open to receiving God's love for you.
If your whole life remains locked against God's love, isn't it time to throw open the doors and the windows, and gladly receive this love that your life depends on? If there are rooms in the house of your life that you keep tight shut as if you can keep them away from God's sight, isn't it time to unlock them, and let in the light of God's great love? We will never be able to love God, which is the very reason for our existence, if we don't first get on the receiving end of his love for us. But if we do that, and we find our stony hearts softened and warmed by the love of our heavenly Father, and we begin to love him back, what, then, should be the shape of our love for him? How do we love a heavenly Father who we cannot see or touch? Well, that's a big subject, and a lifetime of learning, but let me just touch on some of the things that John speaks of in this First Letter of his. So finally and:
3. There are four things that are inseparable from our love for God the Father:
i) Our love for the Holy Trinity. 1 John 4.8:
"Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love…"
God is a Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. His love is Triune, as we've seen. And our love for God needs to be Trinitarian in return. The Father, the Son and the Spirit are inseparable. They are one – three persons in one God. And we cannot love the Father without also loving the Son and the Spirit. The God we love is one in three and three in one.
ii) Our obedience to God. 1 John 5.2-3:
"By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments."
Obedience and love are not exactly the same thing, but we cannot love God without obeying his word, and we cannot obey his word without loving him. As someone has said, love without obedience is sentimentality. Obedience without love is legalism. They must go hand in hand.
iii) Our love for one another. 1 John 4.11:
"Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."
1 John 4.20-21:
"If anyone says, "I love God", and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother."
Those are strong words, which make our love for God earthy and real. Just as we cannot be forgiven if we won't forgive, so we cannot love God without also loving those he loves. Of course not. It would be a nonsense. We're going to think further about loving others in four weeks.
iv) Our witness to the gospel. 1 John 4.13-14:
"By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world."
Malcolm Gladwell in his characteristically fascinating book Blink reports some interesting research on marriage. He says that the strength of a marriage can be detected by careful listening to how a husband and wife speak about one another. And what is potentially fatal is contempt.
If we love God, we will not be ashamed to speak about him. He has called us to tell the world about his Son. He is helping us to do that by his Spirit. Our love for God has to be reflected in how we speak about him to the world that has turned its back to him, but that needs his love as a matter of eternal life and death. Loving God, then, must involve loving God in all his glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and obeying all he commands; and loving those he loves; and telling the world about him. So: let's be learning to love in those four dimensions. Be ready to commit yourself body and soul to God. Be open to receive God's love for you. And be learning to love in all its many-spendoured ways. That's love.