In this final installment in our series, Hard to Love, we land with both feet on the biggest and most consequential truth there is: God loves you. Read on and marvel with me at how great our God is that though we didn’t want Him, He loved us still. Let this love fill you to a fullness you’ve never known before and pour out of you onto the people around you…even the ones who are hard to love.
You Are Loved
Have you ever watched somebody get something they didn’t deserve? How’d you feel about that? Did it inspire you? Did it sicken you? Were you pretty well ambivalent about it? I would guess that most of us, depending on the exact details, would tend toward feeling inspired by such a story. This becomes especially true when the person goes on to live up to the expectations of the gift. Perhaps the most classic example of this is from the beloved story by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, which Lisa and I actually got to see on stage back at the beginning of the month. It was absolutely amazing. The hero of the story, Jean Valjean, is set down the path of righteousness he walks all the way to the end of his life by the wildly unmerited gift of a Catholic priest. The 2012 film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman captures this scene really well. Take a look.
What’s so striking about that scene is not simply that the priest gives Jean a gift he in no ways deserves, but that he is undeserving precisely because he was trying to steal the very thing the priest gave him in order to save his life from the brutal authorities. Jean was to the priest an enemy—an enemy, no less, to whom he had just shown every kindness imaginable. He was someone who should have been hard to love. Think about it: say you took in a homeless man, gave him a meal and a warm place to sleep, and he repaid you by sneaking out that night with all your phones, laptops, tablets, and TVs. When the police brought him back to return your valuables would you receive them gladly and bitterly press charges or would you say, “Oh, thank you officers for finding my friend! I gave him all these things, but he ran off before I had a chance to give him the X-Box and the Play Station in the cabinet”? We’d press charges, every one of us. We wouldn’t love that hard-to-love person, we’d throw the book at him. And yet, what I want to push us to see this morning is that our heavenly Father is this priest for us, and He has indeed done for us exactly what the priest did for Jean Valjean. More specifically, He loved us when we were hard to love.
This morning we are in the final part of the series we’ve been working through for the last five weeks called Hard to Love. For some of you this is the first part of the series you have been able to catch. If that’s the case, while you won’t need the other parts of the series to make sense out of this morning, you can go to the church’s website or my blog—both printed for you there in the bulletin—and find all the other parts of the series there so you can have the whole picture of what’s been happening. Just to get everybody on the same page this morning, though, let’s quickly run back over the ground we have been clearing.
The whole idea for this series has been that we all have people in our lives who are hard to love. And while some of them are distant and fairly well anonymous for us like, say, an ISIS fighter, most of them are found among the group of people we see and hear and interact with on a daily basis. The first thing we did, then, was to establish a baseline from which to work. And the baseline was this: we have to do the hard work it takes to love these folks for the simple reason that God loves them. We love our hard-to-loves because God does too. Jesus told us to love our enemies, demonstrated what this looks like by dying on the cross for us, and so we take up His example and love the hard-to-loves in our own lives.
But, as you are all perhaps well aware, this isn’t easy. If we are going to do it, we have to become the kind of people for whom it is possible in the first place. With this in mind, we looked at some of what Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy and learned that if we are going to love the hard-to-loves in our lives—particularly when the thing that divides us is a belief about some significant matter of theology and its practice—we have to work on our own character first. From there, if we will reach out with grace while holding fast to truth, we will be able to find a productive way forward. It may only start with baby steps, but nonetheless, whenever we find we don’t agree, grace and truth will help us see.
Then a couple of weeks ago we put aside the theorizing and saw what this looks like in action. We watched as Jesus reached out with love to someone His community considered incredibly hard-to-love—a sinful, Samaritan woman—and transformed her whole community. We marveled as Mary Johnson reached out with love to O’Shea Israel, the man who murdered her son, and both of them experienced a restoration of joy and hope and life that would not have been possible in any other way. We took heart in the fact that regardless of what our hard-to-love situation happens to be—it is probably not as hard as loving the man who murdered our child—if we will inject some love into it, the potential for transformation is mind-blowing. Love transforms even the hardest situations.
Last week we took a turn from getting our minds wrapped around the whys and hows of loving the hard-to-loves in our lives and started working on putting in place the engine necessary to drive us to that place. And as we said then, the engine is this: We have to get our hearts and minds wrapped around the fact that God loved us even when we were hard-to-love for Him. The simple truth is that when we really understand that, we’ll start loving our hard-to-loves because at that point no other response is possible. But, really understanding this truth means facing up to both sides of it. And so last week we looked at the first part: we’re hard to love for God. Through the face-palm worthy story of Israel’s rebellion against the covenant of Law they made with God only days after making it and then a quick review of the rest of the Scriptures we were brought face-to-face with the uncomfortable fact that when it comes to God, we are hard to love. Thankfully, though, as I told you right at the end of our time together last week, our being hard to love for God isn’t the end of the story.
The end of the story is what we are going to celebrate this morning: God loved us even though we were hard to love, and He did it in the most costly way imaginable. You’re actually going to want to see this for yourselves. Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Romans 5. I want to show you three powerful truths this morning all found right here in the middle of Paul’s powerful statement of the Gospel in his letter to the believers of ancient Rome. Let’s start right in the middle of this passage at v. 6 where Paul shows us what God’s response to our being hard to love was.
Check this out with me: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” Now, perhaps you’re one who would bristle at being called “ungodly.” After all, it seems like an awfully hateful designation. But it’s not really; it just means that you aren’t god and you behave like it. Therefore, you are un-god-ly. But that’s just detail. The big idea here is that Jesus died for us when we were still weakened by sin. And that is a big idea. A really big idea. It’s an idea so huge that its very presence in this world has totally transformed it. That being said, we’re in a church…on a Sunday…that’s just the kind of thing you’d expect to hear right now. In fact, most of us are so used to this idea that we fairly well tune it out. But I don’t want to let you do that this morning.
Think for a minute about how radical an idea this is. People just don’t do that kind of thing—die for somebody else. I mean sure, on occasion you hear about it, but these are just the exceptions that prove the rule. Now, somebody might at this point be thinking about members of the military. I mean, when they are killed in the line of duty aren’t they giving up their lives on for their country—all 327 million of us? Yes, they are. And you’re right to think of them as the most notable exception to the rule. We should absolutely honor them for that. But, they are a glowing exception that again proves the rule; a rule which Paul lays out for us in v. 7: “For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die.” Do you see what he’s saying here? Under normal circumstances people just don’t die for other people. I mean, maybe if someone like the Pope needed an organ transplant that would result in the donor’s death, we could find someone willing to volunteer. But the guy at work who’s a jerk to you every time you walk in the door? No way. You wouldn’t even do it for your neighbor who’s pretty nice to you most of the time.
Think about this just a bit further, though. When that soldier gives up his life for his country, he is doing it out of love, yes? He loves his country to the point that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend her from those who would seek to do her harm. That’s awesome. But what would you say about the soldier who gives up his life in order to save the life of someone on the other side; for one of the enemy soldiers? That would be unthinkable! We’d call that person a fool or worse. Now, if you find yourself sitting there thinking that, no, you’d still call that person a hero, that just shows how much the Christian worldview has influenced the way you think about things like this because rest assured, absent that, you wouldn’t. What’s more, if you were being really honest with yourself, you don’t really think like that…you just think you’re supposed to think like that because you’re in church and you figure most of the people around you are thinking like that. What you don’t know, and they don’t want to tell you is that they aren’t either. They’re thinking just what you are: There’s no way on earth I’d do that. And the broad truth here is that’s the way everybody has always thought. We rightly recognize the selfless bravery of a soldier who sacrifices his life out of his great love for his country, but as far as we are concerned, that’s the upper limit.
But then Paul blows our minds—and if your mind isn’t blown here, it’s because you’re thinking about it like you think you’re supposed to be thinking about it. Look at v. 8: “…But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” *Head explodes* We would scarcely die for someone who was a really good person. And if that happened, we would count it an incredible act of love. So with that in mind, God didn’t simply die for us. He didn’t simply die for us when we pretty well got everything together and just needed a little boost to get over the last hump. It wasn’t even Him who simply died for us. Our heavenly Father sacrificed His one and only Son when we were still living in open rebellion against Him. When we were incorrigibly hard to love, our perfect heavenly Father pulled out every last stop, called the stop company, and told them to shut down the mill so that He could not simply inject some love into the relationship, but so that He could dump a whole ocean’s worth of love all over the thing in order to soak it so deeply it would never dry out again. In other words, the first point I want to make with you this morning is that God loves you. No matter what else is happening; no matter how big the problems seem; no matter how deep the valley goes; no matter how chaotic and confusing the world around you becomes you can hang tightly to this one anchor and it will never let you drift away: God loves you.
All of that, though, just leads us to a question which will itself lead to the second point I want to make for you this morning. The question is simple and pretty obvious: How do we get access to this incredible love in a way that’s meaningful and lasting? I mean, sure, we can point to signs of this mind-blowing love God has for us everywhere we look, but this isn’t something for us to merely dabble in. This is something we want to make fully ours, that we want to experience in such vivid richness that the rest of the world almost looks a bit dimmer by comparison. How do we do that? Paul actually tells us this a bit before where we started a few minutes ago. Come back to the beginning of the chapter with me and check this out: “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We’ve already seen what God did to secure that peace for us—He sent Jesus to die for us in the most incredible act of love ever performed in the whole history of the world. How we enter into this peace—in other words how we are justified or pronounced guiltless of the sin that had previously separated us from God; perhaps more simply how God moved us out of the category of hard-to-love—is through faith. Now, faith is a bit of a ubiquitous concept today, I know. The word is overused almost as much as “love” and people tend to be just as unclear when it comes to its definition as far as the guys who contributed to the Scriptures were concerned. That just means we need to define our terms carefully if we are going to understand how faith grants us permanent access to this incredible love God has for us. Let’s try this on for size: Biblical faith is acting out a belief in something you cannot yet see on the basis of the things you already have.
Let me unpack that for just a minute. Many people think of faith as a kind of blind leap into the unknown along the lines of Indiana Jones closing his eyes and stepping on to the invisible platform in The Last Crusade. But that’s not faith at all. That’s just stupid. When guys like Paul call us to faith they are calling us to act on a belief in who God is and what He’s done for us that is entirely justified in light of all the things He has done in the past a great many of which are well-documented for us to see and hear. In this particular case, we are called to accept by faith that fact that after being crucified to pay the price for our sins Jesus rose to life on the third day proving true everything He said during His ministry including His claim to be God. We are simultaneously called to behave as if this were true by accepting Jesus as Lord and striving to live life after the pattern He set in place for us both personally and through the teachings of a few of His followers which have been preserved for us as the New Testament. This, of course, is not something we can do on our own, but fortunately we are not on our own. When we designate Jesus as Lord and freely give Him control of our lives, He takes up residence in us through the Holy Spirit to provide us all the help we need to do this and then some. Thus Paul writes in v. 2: “We have also obtained access through [Jesus] by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
This Holy Spirit and the new life He enables us to live is actually more than just a help for the present. He is also a down payment on the fully new life we will be enabled to live when Jesus returns one day and permanently sets right all the wrongs of this world. Now, we weren’t there to see Jesus’ crucifixion and then see Him alive again after the resurrection. Should our Lord tarry we won’t live to see Him physically return to this world either. But, because of the overwhelming amount of evidence backing up the historical claims we are making combined with the manifold evidence of people who have given themselves over to Jesus as Lord being totally transformed by this—something you will experience when you do so if you haven’t yet—our belief and ensuing behavior are entirely justified. Thus our definition of faith is an apt one.
Now, living out this faith on a daily basis in the midst of a culture that is increasingly hostile to it won’t be easy. In fact, the likelihood that we will experience persecution for our efforts will only increase in coming years (which really will only serve to bring our Christian experience up to par as far as the rest of the world goes). But this need not be a point of fear or anxiety for us, and in fact can be a point of rejoicing. Look at what Paul writes now starting in v. 3: “And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Here, you see, both our first and our second points come together. What was the first point? God loves you. Hang on to that above and before all else: God loves you. The second key point, then, is this: We can experience the full riches of God’s love by putting our faith in Jesus.
This finally brings us to the third point, and this is just awesome. A lot of folks will focus in on the fact that Jesus’ death saved us from our sins. He paid the price we couldn’t pay so that we don’t have to. This is absolutely true. As the great Gospel hymn puts it: Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. But think about this because this is what Paul has us think about next: If Jesus’ blood, His sacrifice for sins, His death could do all that…imagine what His life could do. Jump down to v. 9 with me: “How much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by his blood, will we be saved through him from wrath.” Whoa, whoa, whoa! Who said anything about wrath here? What happened to the whole “God loves you” thing?
Well, come on now. When we were in sin, we were essentially taking all the blessings God has poured out on us and throwing them to the side in disgust. How was He supposed to feel? Remember how you felt the last time your own kids did something really, really stupid? Even if it wasn’t directly aimed at you it was nonetheless an offense against you because you taught them better than that. How did you feel? It may not have affected your love for them, but that didn’t mean you weren’t still angry about it; that you weren’t filled with wrath over it. It’s the same thing with God but on a much bigger scale. We blew it and He was angry. He was justly set to punish us when the time was right, but because of that great love He has for us, He made a way for us to avoid the punishment by reaching out as Jesus, God the Son, with an offer of peace. We were hard to love, and He loved us anyway. In doing so, we were saved from His wrath. But again, the truth is better than just that.
Verse 10: “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Do you see it? If God did all that amazing stuff through Jesus when we were His enemies, what do you think we’ll get now that we’re not anymore? Way, way too many folks think that the Gospel is about being saved from our sins now and living forever later and that the time in between doesn’t really matter. But, come on, you know as well as I do that should our Lord tarry to return we have a lot of living to do between now and then and a great deal of it is hard. Sure there are good days along the way. Hopefully you have more of those than the hard ones. But still, even on the good days we sometimes bear the stress of the hard ones. And occasionally we get stuck in a string of hard days that seem like they’re never going to end. Christians sometimes rightly get accused of forgetting about this time that most of us call “life.” But if we do that, we do it in ignorance of the clear proclamation by guys like Paul that the Christian life is deeply concerned with what happens between the moment we finally say yes to Jesus and the day He comes back.
Look, if you are sitting in this room right now and in that quiet place in your heart that nobody else can touch you know that you haven’t made Jesus the Lord of your life, let me give you the unequivocal assurance that your life will be better lived with Him in that place than it will with Him anywhere else. Yes, I want you to be saved from your sins, and yes, I want you to live forever in heaven with Jesus, but I want your life now to be all that it can be. Jesus does too! That’s why He said that He came so we can have life and have it to the full. And the simple truth is that if you’ll put that first and last piece in place by receiving the full riches of God’s love through faith in Jesus it will be. This is the third point: God’s love, received by faith, will transform your life right now. All of this because God loves you. God loves you. No matter what: God loves you. No matter where: God loves you. No matter how: God loves you. And if you will receive that love by faith you can have the life you’ve always wanted.
Now, just so we’re clear: I’m not talking about the life our culture and the media that proclaims it have convinced you you’ve always wanted. You know, the one where you’re healthy, wealthy, and powerful? The culture’s ideal life and the things it takes for you to get there are a dish wildly over-promised and always under-served. I’m talking about the life you’ve really always wanted; the life in which you are entirely content, totally at peace, overflowing with joy, buoyed by hope, immersed in love, filled with life. It’s a life you can have because God loves you. Will there still be trials and tribulations and sufferings and hard stuff and petty stuff and frustrating stuff? Will there still be people in it who are hard-to-love? Will some of them be the very people who you would have otherwise thought should have been the easiest to love? Yeah, there will be. But, Paul already told us that! What’s more, he told us what those things will accomplish in us when we stay rooted in God’s love received by faith. Will it be bitterness and anger and brokenness? Nope, it’ll be endurance, character, and hope.
The God who loves us and is sovereign over His world will use those things to make us more like Him so that we can live even more abundantly than we could before them. They may have been intended for our harm, but God had bigger plans. Why? Because He loves you. God loves you. He loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to pay the price for your sins by dying the death you should have died and then raising to new life on the third day. And because He lives, we can face tomorrow, yes, but we can face today too. We can face today, and tomorrow, and every other day between now and when He returns, all because God loves us. God loves you. Even though you were hard to love, He still loves you. The choice now is yours: What will you do with this love? Will you receive it by faith and have the life you’ve always wanted? Or will you continue reaching and striving and trying to do it on your own? Whatever you choose it won’t change the fact. God loves you. I only ask you this one thing: if you had the chance at living, really living, instead of just playing at life, why wouldn’t you take it? God loves you. Receive it by faith and live.