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Knowing and Loving God

God's love creates value in us.


Have you noticed it's often very difficult to talk rationally and logically about the things that are most real to us? Great beauty, great love, great pain, great fear, great joy: it's hard to talk about them, hard to get them into words. God—have you ever noticed how hard it is to get God into words? That's because he's too big for our words, too big for our thoughts. He wouldn't be God if it weren't like that.

There is a story told about a former preacher in a past generation who used to write in the margin of his sermon notes detailed instructions to himself about how the sermon was meant to be delivered: "quietly and persuasively," "with power and passion," and so on. (Not a procedure I teach to my own students at Fuller Seminary.) But with refreshing honesty, there was one instruction that he used to write in the margin at least as frequently as any other. It read: "Argument weak here. Talk fast."

I often find myself talking very fast when I'm preaching, but I don't find it unduly embarrassing. Sometimes things that are most real to us, the things that are most precious to us, are the things that it's terribly hard to talk about logically and rationally. Like why you love people: husband, wife, parent, child, close friend. It's hard to talk about it logically. I mean, it's hard to explain why they're any different from anybody else's husband, wife, parent, child, close friend. "Argument weak here; talk fast?" I think not. The heart has its reasons, and anyway, there is a kind of loving that is, at the very heart of it, illogical.

That's why when you talk about loving, it's so hard to be logical, because love does not live by the rules of logic. Often, thank God, you and I are loved not because of what we are; that would be logical. Often you and I are loved in spite of what we are; that is illogical. But it happens; thank God, it happens. Anyone who thinks he or she is loved because of her virtues is looking for trouble. Most of us know that we're loved in spite of our faults: blessed assurance.

One type of love creates value in what it loves.

There are so many kinds of loving. I speak of only two. There is a natural, logical kind of loving that loves lovely things and lovely people. That's logical. That's natural. That's lovely. But there is another kind of loving that doesn't look for value in what it loves but that creates value in what it loves. Some things are loved because they're valuable, but some things are valuable because they are loved.

Like Rosemarie's rag doll. Rosemarie is my youngest child. She's no child now; she's in her 20s. But when Rosemarie's rag doll entered her life and the life of our family, Rosemarie was just three. We had just traveled from Britain to Australia, the first time we'd done that as a family. When we reached Melbourne Airport, there was a group of people who had come to greet us. Among them was a lady who very sweetly had realized there was going to be a little girl arriving on a plane, jet-lag silly, and who had brought for her a gift—a little rag doll that she had made specially for the occasion.

When we got to Melbourne Airport, sure enough, Rosemarie was just quietly crying, not out loud, just the tears of exhaustion streaming down her face. The kind lady gave her the rag doll. Rosemarie was too tired even to say thank you, but immediately the rag doll went to her face to hide the tears. That night she went to bed still quietly crying, still hugging the rag doll to her face. The next night the tears were gone, but not the rag doll. Nor the next night, nor the next week, nor the next month, nor the next year.

You know about the rag doll. Everyone's got a rag doll in the family. Linus's blanket in "Peanuts" is a rag doll. Radar's teddy bear in "M*A*S*H" is a rag doll. The Velveteen Rabbit is a rag doll. Everyone knows about the rag doll. As the years went by, the rag doll became the most precious thing that child possessed. She had other toys that were of course extrinsically far more valuable than the rag doll, but none that she loved like she loved the rag doll.

As the years went by, the rag doll began to create certain problems. It became more and more rag and less and less doll. It also became more and more dirty. If you tried to clean up the rag doll, it became more ragged still. And if you didn't try to clean up the rag doll, it became dirtier still. The sensible thing to do, the logical thing to do, was to face facts: the rag doll had in fact never been worth much, had never been more than a bundle of rags. And now it had become a bundle of dirty rags. The sensible thing to do, the logical thing to do, with a bundle of dirty rags is to trash the rags. But that was unthinkable and blasphemous, even for anyone who loved my kid. If you loved Rosemarie, you loved that rag doll. It was part of a package.

Illogical? Maybe. But boy, it happened. Thank God it happens. Some things are loved because they're valuable. But some things are valuable because they're loved.

Against that background, let's remember again these two illogical passages we read, Old Testament and New Testament. Hosea's indictment of Israel: God furious with his people, as a man might be furious with a wife who had sold herself to other men, as indeed the prophet's wife had done. Gomer, the prophet's wife, was a prostitute. Of course, Hosea is outraged and angry and repulsed. He knows if he did the logical thing, if he did the just thing, he would trash Gomer as the soiled rag doll she'd become.

But he finds to his amazement that he can't do that, because there is a bond between him and his soiled rag doll—a bond of love, a marriage bond, a covenant that nothing but nothing can break. "Now I know what God feels like," the prophet says. "Now I know what God feels like with Israel," his beloved Israel with whom he has entered into a solemn and sacred covenant; with Israel, who has become the soiled rag doll of God. "Now I know what God feels like."

If God did the just thing, if God did the logical thing, he would write Israel off and tell her to go to hell her own way. "But God can't do that," says the prophet, "any more than I can write off my Gomer," because there's a bond of love between God and his people, a covenant between God and his people that nothing can break. Do you see?

It's the same story when you turn to the New Testament to Paul's letter to the Romans. This time the prisoner in the dock, the prisoner who stands before the judge, is not just Israel but the whole of humankind. That means you and me. And again, logic says: "They've blown it. Write them off." You wait for the natural therefore of God's judgment, and it seems to be coming, just as it seems to be coming in the Hosea passage. Hosea says: "Back they shall go to Egypt. The Assyrians shall be their king because they have refused to return to me." Paul says, "All have sinned and come short of the divine splendor."

Then crazily, illogically, Hosea responds to that natural therefore of God's judgment with the irrational nevertheless of God's love: "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I surrender you, Israel?" So with Paul, waiting for the natural therefore of God's judgment, incredulously we hear, "For all have come short of the divine splendor"; nevertheless, "all are justified through God's free grace alone through his act of liberation in the person of Jesus Christ." At the very heart of the Christian gospel that you and I profess and try to live, there lies not a natural therefore, but a miraculous nevertheless.

We are the new Israel, you and I, God's chosen people. Chosen not because of what we are, but in spite of what we are. You see your calling, brethren. We're a pretty mixed bunch, just like the first disciples. Some of us are not all that good, not all that brave, not all that religious, even.

Nevertheless, we are chosen by God. Nevertheless, thus says the Lord to us, his people: "It was I who taught you to walk … " wasn't it, when first you learned to walk with him; "I who harnessed you in leading-strings … " when first you felt his gentle discipline; "I who took you in my arms … " when first you knew his comfort; "I who lifted you like a little child to my cheek, who bent down to feed you … " to feed you with his Word and with his love, didn't he?

"Yet you have refused to return to me." He's talking to us. Haven't we? "Surely the sword shall be swung over your blood-spattered altars and put an end to your prattling priests, bent on rebellion as you are." He's talking to me: "Prattling priest, prattling priest!"

Nevertheless, thus says the Lord: "How can I give you up, Ephraim, how can I surrender you, Israel? How can I make you like Admah or treat you as Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me. My remorse kindles already. I will not let loose my fury. I will not turn round and destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst." And he's talking to the new Israel. He's talking to the church.

We are God's rag dolls.

He's talking to you and to me, and you'll see what it means. It means that you and I are God's rag dolls. "All our righteousness filthy rags," says the prophet. So? So you and I are trash? Don't you believe it. We are of infinite worth because there is a divine illogicality about the love of God that does not look for value in us but creates value there. Whatever is lovable in you or in me is there because we've been loved, just as whatever is unlovable in you or me or our neighbors is there because they have been starved of love. We've been loved. Thank God for it, for it is a gift of his grace. We've been loved by other people, sure, and that helps make us loving people. But beyond that, we have been loved by God, and that's what makes soiled rag dolls like you and me of absolute and ultimate worth. Nobody dares trash God's rag dolls.

"All have sinned and come short of the divine splendor." Nevertheless, "all are justified through God's free grace alone"—rag dolls that we are, loved to life and to a value past all computing. Paul calls it "imputed righteousness."

"Beloved," says John in that marvelous first letter, in the fourth chapter of it, "if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another." The loving know God, says John. Knowing by loving, do you see? The unloving, says John, know nothing of God: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother or sister, he is a liar."

"Love me, love my rag dolls," says God. "Don't dare trash any of my rag dolls, not even the rag doll you see when you look in the mirror." Love God, your neighbor, yourself. Don't dare trash anyone whom God loves. Who are the people—hey, let's be honest—who are the people you and I in our secret hearts would like to trash? Ethnically? Politically? Nationally? Theologically? Morally? Personally? Who are your favorite trashy people? I don't dare. You're dealing with one of God's rag dolls. "For all have sinned and come short of a divine glory and all are justified by God's free grace alone."

The language of love, you see—the language of God's love, God's crazy, illogical love—is not the language of the logical therefore, but the logic of an illogical nevertheless. "My song is love unknown / My Savior's love for me / Love to the loveless shown / That they might lovely be." Romantic love can live for a little on therefores and is very beautiful, but the love that lasts is the love that rests secure on that miraculous nevertheless.

In the old musical "Show Boat," there's a song sung by a woman deeply in love with a very imperfect man. She says, "Maybe he's lazy, maybe he's slow, maybe I'm crazy, maybe I know … " but nevertheless, "I can't help lovin' that man of mine."

I think God must like that song a lot and sing that song a lot. "Can't help lovin' that man of mine," says God. "And that woman—my dear Adam and Eve, Mr. and Mrs. Adamson and all the kids—can't help lovin' 'em all," says God.

Thus says God, "How can I give you up, Ephraim, how surrender you, Israel?" Ephraim. Israel. What does that mean? You know. It means the new Israel. It means Christ's church. It means this church. It means you and me.

© Ian Pitt-Watson
Preaching Today Issue #40
A resource of Christianity Today International

The late Ian Pitt-Watson was professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, and is author of A Primer for Preachers (Baker).

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Sermon Outline:


I. One type of love creates value in what it loves

II. We are God's rag dolls