Being Welcomed by God's Love
Both Services on 13th March 2016
Christ Church, Stannington
Readings: Psalm 126
We continue today in our examination of the 4 “B”s of our mission statement. We’re still on “Beloved”, as we have been all during Lent. We’ve heard God loves us and shows that love in the various ways we’ve been hearing about over these last few weeks. As this is the final look at the series, I’d like to broaden our horizon to the sheer wonder of being the beloved of God and compare it to other important things our Bible tells us about the way we relate to God.
I’m sure we all remember that, after spending a whole chapter on spiritual gifts (Chapter 12), Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”
(1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV). Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul used all three of these in his description of how we should prepare daily to combat evil. He wrote, “… let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet (1 Thessalonians 5:8 NIV).
So let’s think about these three vital elements of our attitudes to God and to others — Faith, Hope and Love. Now we know that faith is the mainstay of our belief. It’s mentioned 458 times in our Bible — so it’s pretty important. Paul wrote to the Romans that, “just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17 NIV). Of course those who are familiar with the Old Testament will know he was quoting the Scripture written by Habakkuk (2:4), who is thought to have been a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zephaniah. Another well-known word from Paul is when he wrote to the Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 NIV). So, if we’re saved by the grace given to us because of our faith, how can anything be more important than that? Jesus healed several people during His ministry, telling them that their faith in Him had allowed their healing. But, when He visited His home town of Nazareth, we’re told that, “He did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matthew 13:58 NIV).
What about hope? Now that is mentioned 180 times in our Bible. Not as many as faith, but the number of occurrences are still impressive. We can read that sometime after the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon, Ezra was told that the people had broken the Law that God had given Moses, by intermarrying their sons and daughters with the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices (Ezra 9:1). Ezra was distraught and tore his robes (like they did in those days to demonstrate their grief). Then a man named Shekaniah said to Ezra that even though the Israelites had greatly offended God, “in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel” (Ezra 10:2 NIV). Perhaps he was thinking of Psalm 25, which says that, “No one who hopes in You will ever be put to shame” (Psalm 25:3 NIV). In other words, whilst ever we have God, we have hope. So that’s also very important.
Faith and hope will see us through many of the trials we might face in our lives. But, as we read our Bible, the word “love” appears over and over again. In fact, love is mentioned 686 times in the Bible, so it’s obviously a very important thing to God. And He wants us to show that love to others in the same way He shows it to us.
Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34,35 NIV).
How do we feel about God’s love for us? Does it change us? John wrote, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12 NIV).
Surely we can do that can’t we? Love one another? In the Morecambe and Wise Show, a feature, which started in 1969 was that, at the very end of the show, to the bewilderment of the cast, a large well-dressed lady, not seen at all during the show, would come on stage, with arms wide open taking the applause and say, “I love you all”. Her name was Janet Webb. The thing is I have to look around at all of you and say, “I love you all” and really mean it in my heart. And of course I do. But guess what? No matter what you think of me or my preaching, you have to love me, or go against the teaching of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Think about that. Oh Yes! I can feel that love coming to me in waves — well, perhaps some ripples. But whatever, thank you for your love. Joking aside, people can feel the love you have for them, or the lack of it. We should always let it show.
But Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount uttered one of the most challenging commands in the whole of the Bible, including the Ten Commandments. He said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Can you imagine how His listeners received that? For millennia they’d been brought up with their belief in “an eye for an eye”. That’s one of the reasons the Jews are often misunderstood in their actions. They don’t believe that Jesus was their Messiah, yet we judge them by our Christian values. Their enemies who openly state that their intention is to “wipe Israel from the face of the earth” believe in being the first to take the eye and then see what happens. So the reaction of those on the Mount to that statement from Jesus must have been mixed to say the least.
How do we measure up today about loving our enemies? I think being as understanding as we can is about as far as most people would go. Excuses are made for the actions of people in the world but loving them? Pretty difficult for many, impossible for some! What about those who aren’t actually enemies but fall into different categories? What are our feelings towards paedophiles kidnapping and doing terrible things to children? What about the “groomers” who do the same but by different methods? Jesus said we must love our neighbour explaining in the Parable of the Good Samaritan He means we must love everyone. God wants us to love others as He loves us — unconditionally. Unfortunately, many use that as an excuse to do things that the Bible expressly forbids. Yes, God loves us all but He doesn’t love some of the things we do. The Bible tells us that there are some things we do that He detests. Detest appears 130 times in my NIV Bible, 106 of these telling us what God detests.
You may have realised over the years that almost every quote I use in a sermon is from our Bible. That’s because I trust in what it says more than I trust what many people say. But today, I’d like to give you a few quotes about God’s love from various people. Regarding what I’ve just said about those we might regard at best as “nasty” people, this is what the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, writes of what he imagines God’s desire to be saying, ‘… what I need you to believe is that if you hate who I love, you do not know me at all. And make no mistake, "Who I Love" is every last one.’ (“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”).
In a nutshell, he’s saying that God loves everyone, which is something we should believe and accept. If we don’t believe that, then we’re in trouble because that might mean we believe we’re worthy of God’s love but others are not. In answer to that, I quote the author Ann Tatlock, who says, “Here's the paradox. We can fully embrace God's love only when we recognize how completely unworthy of it we are.” (“The Returning”).
This statement sounds so much simpler that it really is. The prophet Isaiah, when speaking to the Israelites after they’d returned to Jerusalem from their long exile in Babylon, was berating them because even then they were sinning against God, which was what had caused them to be exiled in the first place. He said even when they tried to do good, “… all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV). That was how he compared man’s good deeds to the goodness of God. So what Ann Tatlock is saying is that we must never think that any amount of good we do somehow makes us worthy of God’s love. Or as she puts it, we’re “completely” unworthy. God gives His love to us freely and unreservedly. We can’t earn it.
We can also fall into the trap of interpreting the way God’s love works by our own standards. The author and evangelist Leighton Ford says, “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.”
This quote is self-explanatory but so true of most of us some of the time. There are many who only ever read bits of the Bible (mainly to be found in the New Testament). These will be the passages that give a picture of God as they’d like Him to be. Anything not fitting in with this image is dismissed as something that has been mistranslated or made up.
So, here we’ve seen a wider aspect of God’s love for us. To home-in on a particular facet of God’s love for us, we going to look at its ‘welcoming’ aspect. To consider this in a very small but real way, there can be few things more welcoming than coming in from a cold winter’s night and seeing a nice warm fire waiting for you. I’m just going to use one more non-biblical quotation, this time from the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who says that experiencing God’s love is “Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire. You don't have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you.” So you don’t have to be a globe-trotting evangelist, or a gifted healer or a great speaker to feel how warm God’s love can be. You can just rest and feel the welcoming warmth and it doesn’t only warm the outside but fills your whole body.
Sometimes the world can seem to be a very unwelcoming place and you feel that you are surrounded by those who are against you for whatever reason. For times like this, God gives us one of the best welcomes we can find. David sometimes felt like that and he praised God saying, “You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honoured guest and fill my cup to the brim” (Psalm 23:5 GNB). That’s God telling us not to worry about what’s going on around us but to just trust in Him.
Many years ago, my wife Jean and I were looking for a church we could call home. We were advised that reasonably close to us there was a very progressive church with a large congregation and great preachers. So we went. What had been told to us was indeed true. What we hadn’t been told is that, as soon as the service finished, everyone gathered into chatting groups and were obviously having a really good time. But no one approached us or even glanced our way. After a while, we realised that the people were just happy chatting amongst themselves, so we left and didn’t go back.
When my Dad died, a Curate from another church came to see us and talked us through what the cremation service would be like. He was great both then and at the service. The following year, my Mum passed away and we were informed later in that year there would be a memorial service at that church and were invited to attend. There were tea and biscuits after, which we stayed for. I regret to say that once again, no one seemed to notice us. We certainly didn’t feel welcome there.
We were told that there was a great preacher at another church, a little farther away. We decided to give that a try. Not only was the preacher really great but we were straight away made to feel like members of the family; well and truly welcomed. That’s so very, very important. The outcome of these occurrences was that I was set on the path of training to become a Reader.
Unlike the other aspects of love we’ve heard about, there aren’t many instances of the word welcome in our Bible. When Jesus entered Jericho, He looked up and saw Zacchaeus in a tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. (Luke 19:5, 6 NIV). I’m pretty sure we’d welcome Jesus if He said He wanted to come to our house. In a way, as Christians, we already have — our “house” being our heart.
In more advice about welcoming, the Letter to the Hebrews said, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2 NIV). You wouldn’t want to miss that!
When Jesus sent His disciples out to go and spread the word and heal people, staying in their homes and accepting their hospitality, He told them to let their peace rest only on homes that were deserving. If a home or town wouldn’t welcome them they were to shake the dust of that town off their feet. He also said that, at the Day of Judgement, it would be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah than it would be for that town or home (Matthew 10:13-15 NIV). Do we need to go out and buy a welcome mat?
In our Gospel Reading, we heard that Jesus said, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to me.” (v.37) Jesus is often pictured with His arms outstretched in a “Come to Me and Be Welcomed” attitude. Of course the last time anyone saw Him in that pose was on a cross, giving His life so that we might be saved. Just think of what it will be like when we finally get to see Him with His arms reaching out for us to join Him in His heavenly kingdom. Now that’s a welcome to look forward to. Amen.
Thinking of what happened when Jesus visited Nazareth (Matthew 13:58), is it the measure of a person’s faith that determines the success or failure of their healing? How does this fit in with the invalid by the pool at Bethesda? (John 5:1–9)
Regarding the quote by Leighton Ford, do we see our God as we want Him to be or do we try as hard as we can (in prayer, reading the Bible etc.) to see Him as He is? Are we willing to accept that our view of Him might be incorrect?
How welcoming do we think we are: as a church? as an individual?
Think of examples of our successes in this.
When and by whom do we feel most welcomed? How and why do we think we are made to feel that way?