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Christ, God's Gift at Christmas

The Gift Of Love

Erwin W. Lutzer | December 13, 1998

Selected highlights from this sermon

The love of God can be difficult to talk about. Why? For example, skeptics question how a loving God could flood the earth. It can be difficult to recognize the love of God when bad things happen in our world.

Yet the Apostle John says that God is love, that God Himself defines love. Unlike our low views of love, God's love is in harmony with the rest of His attributes, including His justice.

Jesus is the example of God's just love. God got involved in our problems and provided the only suitable sacrifice for our sins. We are called to mimic this costly, active love in our churches and our relationships.

What if I were to ask you what attribute of God is the most difficult for us to accept! Is it hard to believe that God is all-powerful? I don’t think so. All that you need to do it to look into the heavens, and to see the glory of God, and especially given all that we know about the stars. And remember, He made them out of nothing. It’s not hard to believe that God is all-powerful.

Is it hard to believe that God is just? Well, I don’t think so. We don’t understand what the judgment is going to be like. We know that God is going to judge the world, and we have this innate sense that tells us that surely God is going to do things right so that throughout all of eternity we’re going to be able to sing “Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints.”

Is it hard to believe that God is holy? No, there’s something within us, our own moral conscience, that tells us that we are not holy, and so we suspect that God is very holy, that He is wholly other, that He is separate from us. It’s not hard to believe.

But the attribute that gives us the most trouble intellectually and emotionally is the attribute of love. It’s the attribute that causes me the greatest sense of (What shall we say?) tension and struggle. Let me tell you why. First of all it is because it’s so contrary to everything that we observe in the world. All that you need to do is to remember that earthquake in Mexico City many, many years ago. Sixteen thousand people were killed. Children and men and women were living in the rubble for days, and you saw the anxiety. Who can even calculate the buckets of tears wept because of that tragedy? A more recent tragedy is Honduras, and we could go on and on.

This past week I read an article about the orphanages in Romania. Now, even since the collapse of Communism, things have not improved very much economically. And I saw these little ones in the cribs and saw the kinds of conditions under which they were being raised, and then thrown out into the streets largely when they became 18 years of age, and you say to yourself, “God, how could You? How could You love the world?”

The problem is that when you turn to the Bible, especially if you have a superficial reading of it, it does not alleviate that tension, because in the Bible we discover that indeed God is all powerful, He is omnipotent, and therefore we know that He could have done something about it. He’s not the God of William James, the great American educator who said that God was finite, God was doing the best He could to rid the world of evil, and this is the best He can do, and we ought to help Him because He’s a weak God. He’d love to rid it of evil but He can’t pull it off. That’s a figment of James’ imagination. That’s not the God of the Bible.

The God of the Bible does all things after the counsel of His own will. Our God is in the heavens. He has done whatsoever He has pleased. Now you square that with the love of God. And then if that wasn’t enough, we read that there is such a thing as eternal torment or eternal punishment. And we begin to square that with the love of God and we really do have some difficulties.

For some of you this is an intellectual problem. For many of you it is an emotional one. Right here a woman said to me one time, “How can I possibly love God? He wasn’t there for me when I was abused as a child. He watched it and He did not intervene, and you want me to love God?” Boy, that’s an emotional problem, and an intellectual problem. How do we answer that? Well, I think that Christmas helps us. It really does.

But I want you to take your Bibles, and turn to 1 John. Now this is not the Gospel of John. This is the letter of John near the end of the New Testament. 1 John 4, and I shall begin reading at verse 7. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” Now notice this. “Anyone who does not love does not know God (And now we come to four words that are explosive) because God is love.” God is love!

Then if you notice again, this is in the middle of verse 16, it says, “God is love.” Just as John says God is light, God is love. Now that little phrase has to be unpacked. We have to say some things about it before we get beyond it to the rest of the text. First of all, those three words do no say everything that could be said about God. It’s not the total picture. What the words say is absolutely true - that God is love. But there is so much else. For example, the God that John is talking about is the God who gave that flood and drowned hundreds of thousands of people during the time of Noah because of their sin. That’s the God who is the God of love.

He’s the God who opened the earth, so that the sons of Korah fell in, and judged them. That’s the God of love. He’s the God who created hell for the devil and his angels, and multitudes of others who will eventually join them there, and that’s the God of love. This isn’t an entire expression about what God is. It’s easy to say, and correct to say that God is love, but it would be wrong logically to say love is God.

Let me say a second thing about that verse, and that is that more accurately, love does not define God nearly as much as God defines love. It’s God’s definition. Now just to clarify what I mean is this. God cannot act lovingly, as if to say that His attribute of love is all that He needs to be concerned about, if I may speak in those terms, because when God acts lovingly, he must also act justly. He must also act in concert with His holiness. All of the attributes of God have to work together in every single act that God does, so that when He is just, it is a loving justice. But His love is also a just kind of love, a holy love, so that God always acts together. And we need to see the whole picture. We can’t be like those teenagers who put up a banner at a camp that said, “God is Love,” and then they committed fornication during the week because they said to themselves, “Well, God is love.” No, no, that’s not the way John would want us to interpret that.

There’s something else that I need to say before we hurry on, and this may come as a surprise to you. God does not love everybody in the same way. I want you to know that there are some people whom God loves differently than He loves others. You ask, “Well, doesn’t He love the world? Doesn’t He love them all equally?” God is kindly disposed to the whole world. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son,” but He does love His people differently than He loves the rest of the world.

This was true already in the Old Testament. God said to the Jews, “The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than the other people, for you were fewest of all people, but it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath He swore to your forefathers, and He brought you out with a mighty hand.” God said elsewhere, “I did not love you because you were nice people. In fact,” he said, “you were stiff-necked people but I just simply chose to love you.”

Now God loved Assyria, and God loved Egypt, and God loved all of the other countries, but He loved Israel in a special way because He chose them. God loved Hammurabi, but He treated Hammurabi differently than He did Abraham. Now that’s true also in the New Testament. You see, the fact is that those who do not know Christ do not have that legal barrier between God and them removed, and so God can’t deal with them as children. He can’t love them like that. He does love them because He loves the world, but there is a special kind of love for those who belong to Him, who have had the barrier of sin removed.

Listen to Jesus in John 17. “Father, You have loved them.” Now He’s talking about us, folks. This is amazing. He says, “You loved them even as You loved Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” You see, when we are in Christ, God loves us because of Christ, God loves us in Christ, He loves us as He loves Christ. That’s amazing. And He loved us from all eternity because, you see, He knew who His people would be, and therefore He said, “You loved them as you loved Me from before the foundation of the world.” Now can you grasp that - that before the foundation of the world God loved already those whom He would redeem, and He loved Erwin Lutzer, and He loved all of those who belong to Him, and He knew us by name back then? Wow! What love! It’s mind-boggling.

You know that God loves us even though He knows that which is the worst about us. You see, the reason our friends love us is they actually think that we are the nice people we pretend to be. I mean they actually believe that, and so they love us. But God knows the dark places of the soul. He knows those caverns within our heart. He sees the serpents that lie coiled on the bottom of our heart. He sees that and yet He loves us. No wonder it says that God is love.

Well now, back to the question. What do we say to that person who says, “How can you reconcile that? Show me God’s love.” We don’t see it in the hurricanes and in the devastations that take place in Honduras. We don’t see it in earthquakes. We don’t see it in the Holocaust. “Where was God when all this happened?” we are asked. “Show me love.” Well that’s why I had you open your Bibles because I’m going to show you love.

Notice it says in 1 John 4:9, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us.” It was manifest. Remember I pointed out last time how the Word of God showed up. God showed up. Well, it’s the same word over here. This is how love showed up. We can point to it.

You’ll notice that first of all it exists in the coming of Jesus Christ. God sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. You see God sent His Son. Now all of us who were born into this world (and we all were), we just simply came, but Jesus was sent. [We would not say of little Daniel Allen that he was sent because he did not have a previous existence.] But Jesus, as the Son of God, came into the world - sent into the world with a divine appointment. And that’s the message you see at Christmas. That is the Incarnation.

Interestingly Christmas carols very seldom use the word love. I challenge you to find one that really emphasizes love. They talk about the mercy of God. They talk about the grace of God. I think Silent Night does talk about “love’s pure light,” but not too many do. But that’s the message of Christmas. That’s the Incarnation (that God sent His one and only Son) and that’s where love showed up. That’s where it appeared.

Now you’ll notice that as the text develops what he says is that God did two things. He sent his only Son into the world that we might live through Him. In other words, even though we live and then we die, we shall live forever. We were at Justin McAllister’s funeral and we laid his body tenderly into the grave, and we recognized the fact that he came from God as it were, as a gift to the McAllister family, and now he is taken. But what is the great hope? The great hope is that “though he die, yet shall he live.” He lives today in the presence of Jesus Christ – his soul does. And eventually his body shall live too. And then it goes on to say that Jesus Christ was an atoning sacrifice for our sins. That word is the word propitiation, which means that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins.

Now friends, don’t get this impression. Don’t get the impression that God the Father is harsh and uncaring and He demanded a sacrifice for sins, and Jesus was very loving and did what the Father wanted Him to do. That would be a mistake. God the Father, Himself, is kindly disposed towards us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” It was not that God was harsh. Yes, there was a penalty that needed to be paid, and God chose to pay it Himself, and now there is love. “It’s not that we loved God,” John goes on to say, “but that God loved us.”

Now here’s the remarkable thing. It’s that that kind of love was so, so undeserved. In fact, it was the opposite of what we deserved. We did not have it coming. Now in human love, normally when you fall in love with someone it is because of what they do for you. There’s a resonance there. There’s a reciprocity that takes place, but here there was nothing within us to evoke the love. We were sons of condemnation, and it says, “While we were sinners Christ died for us.” And you see, because of that, God loved us and got involved in our predicament.

A woman came and waved her finger in the face of her pastor and said sarcastically and with anger when her son was killed in a trucking accident, “Where was your God when my son was killed?” The pastor was right when he said, “He was in the same place where He was when His son was killed.”

The cross represents the fact that God got involved in our predicament. It was God, you see, who loved us. And we think of four-year old Martha, the little girl coming in to see her mommy with one doll under one arm and another doll under the other, and looking up and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, I love them and I love them and they never love me back.” That’s the kind of love that God has. It’s a kind of love that loved us even when we don’t love Him back. He goes on loving and loving and loving because He chose to love.

For the person who says, “Where is God when all this is happening?” I don’t have an explanation. I don’t have an explanation for Honduras. I can’t explain Mexico City. I cannot explain the orphanages around the world. I cannot explain war and human suffering, but when I go into that sense of despair, saying, “God, how could you?” I go back to the cross. And at the cross I see love. I go to Bethlehem and there I see that the Word became flesh, and then I go to the cross, and I see that the Word became sin for me, and I say, “Now there is something I can hold on to. There is love.”

I think that Fred Lehman was not exaggerating. You know, as a child we used to have to sing this song because you sing whatever the song director asks you to sing. But I used to think as a child, “You know this is really an exaggeration.” Maybe it was an exaggeration when he wrote,

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above

Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Maybe that’s how it is when I look at the cross. I see there the love of God. So where can you see God’s love? Where does it show up? You go to Bethlehem, and you go to the cross. Where else? You see it in the lives of those that belong to Him.

You’ll notice in the next verses what John does is he begins to use that little word abide (or live), and he uses it five times. Beginning in 1 John 4:13 he says, “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 Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides (notice that) in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected in us, so that we may have confidence for the Day of Judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

Now, you’ll notice it says, “Whoever is born of God loves” in verse 7. So here’s what happens now. God loves. We see that. Now what God wants is to have His people begin to reflect who He is and to show love.

And if you want to know the second place where you can see love in the midst of a cruel, harsh, unbending world, it is in the lives of God’s people who have been born of God and have His nature. And he that loves not knows not God. If you are here today and you don’t love God, and you don’t love anyone beyond your immediate circle, except with that human love that everyone has, the text would say that you are not born of God because if you are born of God, there is the nature of God, and it is God’s nature to love.

Now I think about Church history, and I discover that the early Church eventually convinced the world of the truth of the Gospel by their love. They did not always win it through clever arguments, though God knows we need them. They did not always win it because they had political power, though later on they had that. But initially in weakness they won the world through love. I think of Tertullian, the flaming thunder of North Africa, who lived (What shall we say?) in the 300s, who said, “It is our care for the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents.” “Look,” they say, “how they love one another. Look at how they are prepared to die for one another.” Now there is love.

You’ll notice in 1 John 3:16 it says this (same book here – just go back a few verses). We all know John 3:16. This is 1 John 3:16. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Now there is love. Jesus is our pattern. Jesus is the One whom we follow.

A missionary to Kenya wrote this letter. He said, “When I was there and I saw all of the people who had been mutilated, and many of the people died, their relatives and friends, as believers, I am constantly humbled by their patience and lack of bitterness which springs from the acceptance of the cross in their lives.” That’s love.

And I look at Church history and I look at Moody Church and I see love. I see people doing things that are beyond what could be expected. I see people doing things that are supernatural as they serve, many of them in unlikely places without receiving any appreciation or any kind of stimulus oftentimes – just serving the Lord and just loving. That’s where we should be able to point when people say that God does not love the world. We should say, “Yes, at the cross He proved it and at church you can come and see it.” That’s what should happen.

You know there are boilers that are filled with water and you don’t know how much water is in the boiler, but there are gauges oftentimes on the outside of the boiler that give actually the depth of the water because as the water in the boiler decreases or increases the gauge goes along with it. Do you know what the Bible would say? It’s that the measure of our love for God is determined by the measure of our love for one another. We wouldn’t want to leave this out, would we? It says in 1 John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates some brother out there (We should pause here and ask if there is anyone here who fits that category. Well, listen to this.), he is a liar.”

One of the things I like about the Bible is that it’s clear at many points, and this I think would be one of them. Verse 20 says, “For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” There it is in the text. You argue with the text. So what do we say to people who say there is no love in the world? What do we say to people who cannot reconcile the love of God with reality? We point to the cross, and then we point to the people of the cross.

I’d like to help us nail this down by making three very important lessons that John would agree with, and actually the lessons arise from the text.

First of all – number one, love is costly. God loved the world and He sent His only Son among us! You say, “Well, it didn’t cost God that much because Jesus Christ was a man, and it was Jesus, the man, that was dying.” Oh no, no! You need your theology tweaked at this point. Did you know that when Jesus, the man, died, it was the God-man who died? It was God who suffered on that cross. Many people say, “Well, God can’t suffer. He can’t be a victim.” Of course, He wasn’t a victim because it was voluntary suffering, but it was God who suffered.

Well might the sun and darkness hide
And shut its glories in
When Christ, the great redeemer died
For man, the creature’s sin.

In Italy there’s a picture of Jesus Christ dying on the cross that a painter made, and he has nails, of course, through His hands, but as you look at the picture, behind the cross you can see the shadow of God the Father, and the same nails that go through the hands of Jesus go through the hands of God. You read the book of Hosea, and God bleeds and God hurts and says, “Ephraim, how could I give you up. You are My son and now look at what you have done to Me.” Love hurts. Love has a price tag. And if it cost God, why should we think that we are getting off free?

For some of you, do you know what love involves? Love will involve forgiving somebody who has wronged you. You say, “Well, I don’t want to forgive.” I know you don’t want to forgive. None of us wants to forgive, but it’s not as if God gives us a choice and says, “Now can you choose to forgive or not.” God says, “Forgive!” You lay down bitterness even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you, and you lay it down and you do not pick it up again because love is costly. There are some people when you love them it is costly.

You know I think of Brazil where they had festivals sometimes and they had these religious festivals, and when you are at these festivals you need some religious trinkets. And there was a sign where you could buy these trinkets, and the sign said, “Cheap crosses for sale.” And that’s the way we are. We want a cheap cross.

Who is there that you are finding hard to love? It may involve forgiveness. It may involve going beyond your circle of acquaintances, and you go and it is costly, and it is not where you like to be, and it’s outside your normal comfort zone, but you go because love costs.

Second, love is active. Do you know what our problem is? All of us think that we are loving people. All that you need to do is to ask us and we’ll tell you that we are all loving. We all love humanity. Like Linus said, “It’s just people that we can’t stand.” (laughter) Wasn’t it C.S. Lewis in Screwtape Letters who said that one of the demons said, “Look, get Christians to think of love in general terms so that they will all think that they are loving, but help them to never think of it in terms of particulars.” In other words, we love humanity, we love Honduras, we love Africa, we love places that we’ve never been and will probably never visit, and we really love them, but it’s our neighbor. He’s the problem, especially the one who plays loud music in the condominium late at night. Yeah, I know about that kind. We once lived in one of those places too. “Now he’s the problem.”

But oh, we all love humanity, and we love to sing about it, but it’s the child in the ghetto, and it’s the person who is politically on a different side of the fence than we are, and we want to set them straight. And we see these barriers between us, and so all of those problems, you see, enter in. But love is specific. It has to do with individuals.

Now listen! When God loves you, He doesn’t just love you in a general way. He loves you in a particular way. He loves you by name. The Good Shepherd calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. You say, “Well, yeah, God is love but He has overlooked me.” No, He knows you intimately and He loves you anyway. You! You! You He loves. Let’s say, “Yes, thank you.” (laughter) I’m glad that somebody was listening.

Thirdly, love brings inner healing to the soul. You’ll notice that the text says this: “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear.” He’s talking about the fear that some people have of God, the fears that they have in this world. In Medieval Times, Mary was presented as a person who was inviting people in, and Jesus was a figure of judgment. He was one to be feared. Well, if you love Him, you see, you will not fear Him.

And I need to say this candidly. Let’s suppose you really knew that you were really loved by God. Let’s suppose that the Holy Spirit showed that to you, that you were really loved by God. Think of the pressure it would take off of you. It would alleviate all of the pressure that you and I have to somehow make a good impression on other people, and living with the pressure of these expectations. It would free us of the desire to sin because we’d say, “Anybody who loves me like God loves from before the foundation of the world and loves me as He loves Jesus deserves my worship, my yieldedness, my faith, and all that I have I give to somebody who loves me like that.” And in the process there is inner healing.

Some of you were brought up in homes where there was no love, like the lady who was accused. And you have that vacuum in your soul, and you know that even when others try to love you, somehow the vacuum is still there and it is never filled. Would it make a difference to you if you knew that you can come to the God who created the heavens, the King of the Universe, the God who lives and dwells, who knows you by name and loves you intimately and directly, and that you can learn to love Him, and the two of you can live in one another? That’s what the text says and I’m not making it up. That’s what it says. It says, “We can live in God and God lives in us.” Wow! You can face the future.

You can face hardship if you know that you are loved by God. And it all goes back to the wonder and the beauty of what Jesus did on our behalf. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, but what about that woman? I am still not happy. Here’s a person who is abused.” You have to say to them, as I have said on occasion, “Look, let’s suppose – let’s pretend that it was God’s intention to prove that there are some people who are going to love Him and trust Him even if they have gone through those periods of hardship when He appeared disinterested though he was interested, but He appeared disinterested. And they believed and loved God so much that they are going to love Him and trust Him even if they think He wasn’t there for them during those moments of trial.”

There was a man who had a dream one time, and in this dream he saw Jesus and a whole bunch of people, and Jesus was blessing every one of them. Jesus was giving this man a blessing, He was giving that man a blessing, and that man a blessing. And then Jesus got to him and backed off and said, “You know, I’m not going to bless you because I know that you’ll go on loving me anyway.” And then He went to the next person. Have you ever felt like that? People are standing up and saying, “Oh you know, God has done so much for me that if He does one more thing I won’t be able to take it.” And you are sitting there saying, “Duh, not me!” (laughter)

What if God says, “Look, I know you are going to love Me anyway, even if you don’t get the same blessings that others do because you are going to be basking in the wonder and the completeness of my love?” And there are some of you listening to this message who need to simply back off, relax and let God love you, and accept the fact that He does, and revel in it. What a barrier that would overcome! What healing it would bring to the soul!

On Friday Mary Whelchel, the director of our Women’s Ministries, was bringing us a devotional, and she quoted the words of a song that I’d like to also quote. These are the words of George Robinson, who was a Congregational minister in the late 1800’s, and a man by the name of James Mountain who wrote the music for the song and actually was greatly influenced through the ministry of D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey in Great Britain. I want you to listen, though, to the words of this song.

Loved with everlasting love,
Led by grace that love to know;
Gracious Spirit from above,
Thou hast taught me it is so!
O this full and perfect peace!
O this transport all divine!
In a love which cannot cease,
I am His, and He is mine.

His forever, only His:
Who the Lord and me shall part?
Ah, with what a rest of bliss
Christ can fill the loving heart.
Heaven and earth may fade and flee,
Firstborn light in gloom decline;
But, while God and I shall be,
I am His, and He is mine.

Wow! Listen! When did love show up? When was it manifest? It was manifest in Bethlehem. It was manifest at the cross, and it is manifest in the people of God because God is love. And that’s the message of Christmas.

Let us pray.

And our Father, today, who of us is sufficient for these things? What words can we say to affirm the wonder of Your love, to know that there is nothing that we could say if we understood ourselves better and we knew You better? We’d be even more overwhelmed by the fact that in this is the love of God manifest that He sent His Son to die for us.

Now I think of two categories of people today. There are those of you who just need to simply accept Christ’s love for you, to confess your sins, and to say, “Father, I don’t understand it; I know for sure I don’t deserve it. My tendency is to flee from you but I draw near and affirm your love for me.”

There may be those of you who do not know Christ as Savior. You are not born of God. John says, “If you are not born of God, you do not know God and you do not know love.” What you need to do is to just reach out today. Say something like this. “Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I accept you as my Savior. I turn to You and receive the gift of eternal life. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”

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