St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 17th July 2011
I wonder how many people have come across the children’s book “Guess how much I love you”? It’s the simple story of Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare who as the evening draws in try to express how much they love each other. It ends up with one of them saying, “I love you all the way to the moon and back” and then Little Nutbrown Hare falls asleep in Big Nutbrown Hare’s arms. If you haven’t come across it, before then I recommend it as a present for any child or grandchild. It’s a wonderful and very simple story about that most precious gift of all – love.
For a lot of people God’s love is often a matter of guesswork. As they look out on the big wide world, they start to wonder, “Is there a God out there?” “Does God really love me?” “How can I sure?” Most people I come across, even if they don’t claim to be religious, have some sense there’s a God out there somewhere. But who is, and what He’s like, well, that’s another story. I listen to a lot of music, and I find when I can make out the lyrics, so many songs are all about people hoping, wondering, praying that there’s a god or some higher being who loves and cares for them.
And if you’re in that place this morning, if you’re wondering and hoping there might be some kind of god who actually loves you, then I have some good news for you. Because the Christian faith takes the guesswork out of God. We don’t have to stand out on a moonlight night, and guess how much He loves us. Because Jesus has come and shown us what God is like. He has shown us God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s sheer and wonderful goodness. And above all us He has shown us the power of God to change and mend broken lives by dying for us on a cross and three days later rising again.
That’s the reason why we’re gathered here this morning, as indeed why we gather on any morning. Because Jesus is alive. He has paid the price for all the wrong things I have ever thought or said or done. He has opened up the way back to God as our loving Heavenly Father. And He has given us the free, undeserved gift of eternal life. Not because of who we are, not because we are good enough, clever enough or wise enough to deserve that gift. But quite simply because He loves us. Because He loves you, and you, and you, and me as well.
Of course, that’s all very well, you may say, but can God really love me? Now, as you might expect, the short answer I am going to give is, “Yes”. But I know that behind that question lies many people’s experience of a religious institution called the church, a religious institution that hasn’t always communicated very well the fact that God loves everyone equally.
I remember many years ago taking the funeral of a man who got married in a registry office because he couldn’t read the words of the wedding service. I should add, the wedding service is a lot easier to understand to understand nowadays. But I am aware that so often the church assumes that those who attend worship have a certain level of education. You enter and are given a range of books you are expected to find your way round. You listen to a long, learned sermon discussing the finer points of theology. You hear the choir singing a wonderful work that you can’t understand, because it’s in Latin. And while I myself sometimes enjoy this kind of service, I can’t help thinking Jesus taught in the language of the street, used pictures from everyday life, and aimed to include everyone in His teaching. You do not need academic qualifications to receive God’s love.
Or again the church has so often given the impression that really it is for those who have a certain level of income or prosperity. If you get a map and look where the largest and most lively churches are to be found, they tend to be in the city centre and in the suburbs. Now many of these do a tremendous work among the needy and the vulnerable, and we shouldn’t doubt their real commitment to serving others in Jesus’ name. But the fact remains, in the needy areas, the inner-city and out on the estates, churches generally are smaller and struggling. Which is odd when you consider Jesus saw His mission as preaching good news to the poor. We have on the whole failed to follow Jesus’ command at the end of our gospel reading to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and celebrate God’s love with them. You do not need to have much at all, indeed you do not need to possess anything, to receive God’s love.
Or again the church has so often given the message that it exists primarily for people of a certain age. Now I have to tread carefully at this point, and say that we need to value and honour highly the faith and the commitment of those who are established church members. But all the national statistics tell us one thing. We are losing a whole generation of younger folk who have never had any real contact with the church. There are all kinds of reasons for this, and it’s a problem many churches are grappling with. But at the end of day one thing is clear. We need to communicate the message that God’s love is for everyone. Not just for the well-educated, not just for the well-off, not just for those of riper years.
I recently went to the meeting of the Christian Police Association. I picked up some copies of a magazine called Cops and Robbers. Despite the pictures, it’s not a magazine for children. It’s designed to be read by prisoners in their cells, to tell stories of real-life criminals, with real-life problems who came to find God’s love in prison. Because God’s love can and does extend to every single person.
And if there’s one thing I want you to take away this morning, it is this: God has no favourites. He longs to reach into every situation, into every broken, every messed up life and every sorted, every perfect-looking life, with one message: 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 him, and he with me.
That verse from the book of Revelation is pretty easy to understand, isn’t it? But it also makes a very simple and very important point. Because God is love, He generally doesn’t tend to force His way into our lives. Sometimes, as some of you here can testify, He can break into a situation in a very real and very dramatic way. More often than not, though, He knocks at the door of our heart. He asks us to let Him in, to allow Him to take control of our thoughts, our desires, and our will. And if we decide, although I can’t for a moment imagine why, to slam the door in His face, if we reject the offer of peace and forgiveness and eternal life, then He will go away. At least for a while. Or at least until we come face to face with Him again at the end of time.
But you may ask, what does it mean to ask God into my life? Again, people can get very confused with the whole idea of prayer, as if God only listened to complete sentences or correct theology or the right accent. But God simply wants you to ask, in whatever way is most natural to you. And if you’re not sure what words to use, don’t even worry about the words. Just spend a moment looking at a cross. Think about the amazing love God showed you by sending Jesus to die in your place for your sins. And as you think, silently invite Jesus to come and be real to you. You might then be amazed what happens next.
God has no favourites. His love is for everyone, and His greatest desire is that each and every one of us here this morning receives that love. Not because we are good enough or clever enough, but simply because of all that Jesus has done for us.
Now I know there are many people here who have heard this message before. You know about God’s love. You have a story of how Jesus became real to you. But please don’t think there isn’t a challenge in all this for you.
Because when we welcome Jesus into our lives, when we receive His gift of forgiveness and eternal life, we are making a serious and life-changing commitment. And what is that commitment? To show the same kind of love to others that God has shown to you. That is what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. For once you know how precious you are in God’s sight, then you have an obligation to treat others as equally special and equally precious. For how are other people going to know that God loves them unless the followers of Jesus show them that real, genuine, no strings-attached kind of love that only Jesus brings?
In our two readings James and Jesus both give an example of what this might mean in practice.
Example number one: You are in a church meeting. Two people walk in. One is dressed in the latest Armani fashion and is dripping with bling. The other has obviously done his shopping at the charity shops, and he looks, frankly, a bit of a mess. How are you going to treat them? Do you show Armani man the best seat in the house, and put charity-shop man somewhere at the back, where no-one can see him? The kind of welcome we give sends out the strongest possible indicator how far we have really grasped this good news of God’s love.
For while the world might judge people on their appearance, that is not the way God works. In verse 5 James asks this question: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? If we are serious about following Jesus, then we need to learn to adopt God’s values, and to see people as God sees them. And if we’re to do that, we need to let His Holy Spirit work at the very deepest level in our hearts, changing our attitudes, our priorities and our judgements.
Or again example number two: You have been invited to a posh do. There’s been some confusion about invites, so you don’t know where to sit. Do you sit down at or near the top table which is all nicely laid out with the best refreshments? Or do you sit on the table near the door which just has a few nibbles and a bottle of plonk? Jesus tells us: When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.
But, again, doesn’t that go so much against the spirit of the age? The message we hear so often is to look after number one, to make sure you get ahead and get as much as you can while you can. Well, we’ve seen where that attitude has led to with the recent banking crisis. Yet in many smaller, more subtle ways it still persists. For there is something deep within our nature – the Bible calls it sin – that puts self at the centre of our lives, puts our needs, our wants, our desires first. And if we’re serious about following Jesus, we need again to let His Holy Spirit work deep within us, so that He becomes the focus of our lives, that we love Him more than anyone else, that we allow His love to so shape us that in a very real sense we become a new creation.
We do not need to guess how much God loves us. He has given us Jesus who died in our place for our sins. And when we look at Jesus, we can see that God’s love is vast, eternal and yet so deeply personal. For there is no-one whom God does not love. But it falls to us, to each and single one of us, to accept that love and to ask Jesus to come into our hearts. It’s not something difficult, it’s not something complicated. It just involves asking Jesus to come and be real to us, and to become the centre of our lives. So I ask, have you made this step of faith already? If not, then maybe this morning is a chance for you to take that step of faith for yourself.
And if you have, then I challenge you today to think about the commitment you have made. No-one after all can ever say they perfectly love their neighbour as themselves. But today ask that Jesus will do a new work in your heart so that you can show that same love of God more fully to others. Let Him take His rightful place right at the very centre of your life. Let Him open your eyes to how He sees those around you. And as you do, pray that through you many more will discover the wonderful, unending love of God that really is for each and every one.