The Love of God
These days most people know very little or nothing about God. It is only decades ago that Scotland was described as a ‘God fearing nation’. Some of us here however will remember being told about God in childhood. There has been a collapse of such knowledge of God. Scotland’s Protestant Christianity was serious for centuries. It would be harsh to describe it as ‘loveless Christianity’ because it produced many great people like David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, James Clark Maxwell, David Black and countless other humanitarians. But it was cerebral, strict and disciplined both in growing up and throughout adulthood. Crucially, the Reformers Calvin and Knox gave equal weight and value to the Old and New Testaments. They drew parallels between the Chosen People of the Old Testament and the Reform Christians of Scotland as the new Elect of God. They had a sense of destiny under God now wholly lost in the Church of Scotland and in public politics. The Old Testament God was never portrayed fully, properly or positively. The idea that Christianity is about love might have been missing a lot of the time. But the Old Testament often speaks of God's love.
'The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin'. (Ex 34:6-7)
'The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down...The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made'.
In particular, God's love and concern for people who are disadvantaged is frequently mentioned throughout the OT. The law contained several rules for treating orphans, widows and foreigners fairly and providing for their needs (e.g. Dt 24:10-22).
'But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless...You hear, O LORD , the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that people, who are of the earth, may terrify no more'. (Ps 10:14, 17-18)
Much is made of God's wrath and punishment in the Old Testament, but when God punishes, it is with reluctance:
'Rid yourselves of all the offences you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!' (Ezek 18:31-32)
'For people are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to his children'. (Lam 3:31-33)
'Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city'. (Jer 5:1)
'"Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing - grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God'. (Joel 2:12-14)
'Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea'. (Micah 7:18-19)
'My child, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the child he delights in'. (Pr 3:11-12)
There is a significant and qualitative difference between the New and Old Testaments on the subject of love. This is because Jesus was God’s love incarnate. It was demonstrable in Jesus’ lifestyle and example, teaching and healing demonstrated to the extent of his self-sacrifice on Calvary. The New Testament has a lot to say about love. One the most convincing evidences for the resurrection of Jesus is the conversion of Saul from hate-filled anti-Christian zealot to the man who wrote 1st Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 13 'Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become [as] sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal….Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres….And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love'.
Paul also wrote Romans 5:8 - 'But God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us', and Galatians 5:22-23 - 'But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith'.
The apostle John wrote about the love of God. John 3:16 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life'. John 13:34-35 - 'A new commandment I give you, That you love one another; as I have loved you', John 14:15 - 'If you love me, keep my commandments'. 1 John 4:7-8 - 'Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God'. 1 John 4:16 - 'And we have known and believed the love that God has to us. God is love; and whoever dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him'.
How much love has been shown in congregations over the years? How much love has been shown in Kirk Session meetings over the years? We Protestant Scots are not given much to Christian sentimentality. We do not understand the expressions of joy and ecstasy that Catholics have for The Pope if they are close to or in his presence – even if they are part of a million at Mass. We work and witness for the Lord but we do not accompany our labours with many signs of affection. If we have feelings or sensitivities we keep them well hidden. We offer little recognition or encouragement.
And the New Testament has bouts of realism too. Hebrews 12:6 says 'My child, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his child'. The early chapters of the Book of Revelation describe the chastening of the Risen Lord Jesus to new Christian congregations. 'To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches'.
And here is the great Christian offer – the Christian promise – the personal love and friendship of Jesus. It is the best gift that any of us can receive in this life. As the hymn says:
'I want to walk with Jesus Christ all the days I live of this life on earth, to give Him complete control of body and of soul: Follow Him, follow Him, yield your life to Him, he has conquered death, He is King of kings. Accept the joy which He gives to those who yield their lives to him'. This is testimony to the truth of Jesus’ promise of his joy given to the disciples before he was taken from them for trial and judicial murder.
'I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other'.
God chose you out of his love for you. Hold on to the Lord’s love all the days of your life. It will strengthen and guide and protect you. God’s love will be there for you always. And you will find it fulfilled in eternal life.