This sermon is part of the sermon series "Four Best Places to Live". See series.
This message concludes our series on the four best places to live. We've looked at the House of Worship, the House of Prayer, and the House of Expectancy. We end with the Place all the other places lead to—and if not, render all other places barren. The best place of the all the best places is the House of Love.
Love has its enemies. Obviously, there is hatred. Less obviously, but more potently, there is fear. But there is an enemy to love more lethal than even hatred and fear, though seldom considered: power. Our lust for power militates against our need to love and to be loved. He who loves least controls most. Love, rather, makes us vulnerable. Love renders us weak. Loves exposes our hearts to heartbreak. Loves diminishes our control. Love makes us powerless. So for reasons we rarely analyze but deeply feel, we avoid the House of Love.
I intend today to make the case that the ultimate power is not lovelessness but love. The one power that can conquer hatred, cast out fear, overcome evil, and endure beyond the destruction of all things—that one power is love.
We need power in our lives. Only, it's not the power we think we need. We often equate power with control. But what if true power was being, not in control, but under the control of a power much greater than yourself—namely, God? The Bible calls this theos dynamos—divine power—or as I like to translate it, God dynamite. Theos dynamos means Christ becomes greater and you become less. You are not in control: you're under the control of something much greater. Defined that way, there are four powers we need to truly live: The power of the incarnation, or the power of God with us; the power of Christ's resurrection, or the power of God for us; the power of sanctification, or the power of God in us; and the power of vocation, or the power of God working through us. Let me repeat: Incarnation. Resurrection. Sanctification. Vocation. God is with us. God is for us. God is in us. God works through us. These are powers God makes freely available. But here's the clincher. None can be realized without love. Without love, all four powers remain elusive. Through love, all four flourish. Four powers. One key: love.
The power of God's incarnation: God with us
Love is the key to the power of God's incarnation—God present with us. The beauty and mystery of the incarnation is splendidly captured in Philippians 2, where Paul cites an early Christian hymn about Jesus Christ: "though being in very nature God … he became a man, and took on the very nature of a servant." That's the essence of incarnation: the infinite, eternal God willingly stepped into manhood, into human smallness and fragility and earthboundedness. God is with us. God is one of us. John never recovered from the thrill of that. He opens his gospel with a celebration of it: The Word—that is, the Christ—became flesh and made his dwelling among us,—or, as Eugene Peterson so vividly renders that, "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." God is with us. God is one of us. God is no longer far removed, transcendent and remote, unknowable and untouchable. God became a neighbor, a friend, a confidante.
But there's a problem with incarnation. Jesus was only on earth a mere 30 years or so, and only doing messiah things for three of them. He confined himself to a narrow range of geography—about a 30-mile radius—and a small circle of companions, less than 20 who knew him well.
What does incarnation mean to us—2000 years on, 5000 miles distant, 1 billion living Christians and several billion dead ones later? We still believe in the present reality and meaningfulness of the incarnation, of God with us. Only, how does that become real to any one of us now? Through love. Here's what John writes: No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us.
No one has ever seen God. Let me qualify that somewhat. There are instances in the Old Testament where people saw God, saw him huge and vivid and breathtakingly close. And the New Testament clearly teaches that we see God in Christ. But actual theophanies—God sightings and encounters—are rare, and are reserved for the likes of Adam, Moses, Ezekiel, a few others. As we've already said, not many individuals within the vastness of humanity ever met Jesus face-to-face. It's likely that even among the people John wrote to, he alone was an eyewitness to Jesus. So John is announcing a general principle of human existence: no one ever sees God. Except in rare and unrepeatable circumstances, we're left with secondary evidence. We're sifting for clues, dusting for fingerprints, working with rumors.
What does it mean to say God is with us if we can't see him, can't touch him, and can't talk with him face-to-face? What does the incarnation mean if there is no God in the flesh here and now? John's answer is that God becomes present through love. This is so true. I have spoken over the years with hundreds of people for whom all the arguments for God's existence left them cold as a prairie winter. It might have made sense to their minds, but it did nothing to move their hearts. It was true enough, just not real enough. Just last week I was speaking to a man in the church who spent most of his life far from God. Now he's one of the most alive Christians in this place. I asked him what made the difference. Right away he got teary—and he's a tough guy, a man's man—"Love," he said, and went on to describe how his wife totally loved him into wholeness, into the light. His life was a perfect fulfillment of 1 John 4:12: God becomes real, the incarnation stops being abstract theology and becomes living reality, through one thing—love.
Before moving on to the next point, I would simply say that this is a love that we don't need to wait around to receive from others before we start to show it to others. We have already received this love through Christ's death on our behalf. "We love," John says, "because he first loved us." So if you are saying, "Well, if only someone would love me like that, God would become real to me," I say this to you: You love like that; God will become real to you. The power of the incarnation, God with us, comes through love.
The power of Christ's Resurrection: God for us
The power of Christ's Resurrection, God for us, comes through love as well. The Resurrection is the linchpin of the Christian story. It is the event that validates the entirety of the gospel. The death of Christ is what makes good our salvation. The Resurrection of Christ is what authenticates the saving effect of his death. If Christ is not risen, Paul says, we have believed in vain. The whole Christian story is a sorry hoax—a fairy tale—if Jesus didn't just die but also triumph over death.
We have overwhelming historical evidence for the Resurrection. More than one skeptic throughout history has approached the historical evidence for the Resurrection in an attempt to disprove it, only to be convinced by it. That is Lee Strobel's story. He was a hard-living investigative journalist in Chicago whose wife became a Christian, and he was spittin' mad about it. So he brought all his skills and tenacity of investigative journalism to the Resurrection. He was going to do a Fifth Estate kind of expose on it. But it exposed him. The evidence overwhelmed him. Not only did he become a Christian through that, but he is now one of the best selling Christian apologists of all time, with books such Case for Christ, Case for Easter, and Case for a Creator. He's become our modern day C.S. Lewis.
So the Resurrection is true. It happened. Awesome. But how does it become real to us? How does objective truth become personal and living truth? Through love. 1 John 3:14 says, "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers." We know we have passed from death to life when we love. Love imparts a tangible experience of the Resurrection. This only makes sense. It's when we love deeply that we get a taste of a realm and a reality that transcends earthly existence. When we love deeply, the very notion that we're born, we live, we die, end of story—that becomes increasingly absurd. When we love deeply, we awaken to the instinct that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, we have eternity in our hearts. We know deep down there is more. We begin to know that this life is only a dress rehearsal; this life is only a prelude.
Love unlocks eternity. Love confirms that we have passed from death to life. Hollywood has secularized and sentimentalized this hope. They keep cranking out sappy stories about romantic love enduring beyond the grave. What they grope for in the dark, we lay hold of in the light. Jesus is alive, and he is with us and for us. Because he is the first fruits from the dead, we too will live with him forever. Even Lee Strobel, who came to that truth through the facts, had it made real to him through his wife's love and the love of the church she joined. Just as the power of incarnation, God with us, is unlocked through love, so the power of Christ's Resurrection, God for us, becomes real through love.
The power of the Spirit's sanctification: God in us
A third thing, the power of the Spirit's sanctification, God in us, is released to us through love. There are two deeply related but clearly distinct dimensions to being a Christian. The first is conversion—being called out of darkness into light, released from our captivity to sin into glorious freedom. We're no longer hell-bent but heaven bound. It's an awesome thing, but it's just the start. Conversion is the beginning of new life. That's why the Bible calls it being born again. You get a whole new run at life.
For the rest of your life there is the imperative of sanctification. Conversion is coming to Jesus. Sanctification is becoming like Jesus. Conversion takes place in a blink. The second you take one step toward God, God leaps infinity and breaks forth from eternity to welcome you home. Sanctification takes a lifetime to finish and daily commitment to move along in. It is walking with God, in season and out, in sorrow and joy, in youth and decrepitude, in our moments in the sun and our years in the shadows. Billy and Ruth Graham were driving some years back though a construction zone of the highway. It was an inching along process. After several miles they finally got to the other side of it, where there was a sign: "Construction Ended. Thanks for your patience." Ruth turned to Billy and said, "That's what I want on my tombstone: Construction ended. Thanks for your patience." This process is lifelong. It is daily. It requires effort on your part, but it's not about trying harder. The effort is all directed toward one thing: coming more and more under the influence of the Holy Spirit that lives in you by faith. As you turn more control over to the Spirit, allowing him to lead, to give words, to reveal, to shape the attitudes of your heart, more and more the Spirit changes you to be like Jesus. That's what sanctification is. The key, though, is love.
John clarifies that Jesus makes inseparable the life of fruitfulness from the life of obedience. He also makes the life of obedience inseparable from the life of love. To love Jesus is to obey Jesus, to obey Jesus is to love others, to love is to abide in him, to abide in him is to bear much fruit, to bear much fruit is to glorify God.
The abundant and obedient life only happens with love. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians, if I possess every other kind of spiritual power, knowledge, gifting, and influence, but I'm loveless, I'm nothing. It's all smoke and mirrors. It's only noise and commotion. Love alone impels us toward true wholeness and holiness. You simply cannot have a transforming relationship with God, with Christ, with the Spirit, without love being the lifeblood. Pride can make you religious. Guilt can make you moral. Duty can make you decent. But only love can make you holy. Only love can make you look and act and be as Jesus. Just as the power of incarnation, God with us, is unlocked through love, and the power of Christ's Resurrection, God for us, becomes real through love, so the power of sanctification, God in us, becomes effective though love.
The power of God's vocation: God through us
There's one last thing. The power of God's vocation, God through us, is released through love. Vocation is simply and wonderfully this: God has something for you to do. God calls you to it. God wants his sanctifying, transforming life released in a kingdom work. Put plainly: you are called. God has spoken. He addresses you personally. He says: I didn't just make you my own and make you like my Son for the exercise. I have big plans. I have an assignment for you to carry out. I want you to spend time with me to know what that is. When you know what it is, I want you to walk with me to accomplish it.
A Kurt Vonnegut story ends with a statement one character makes to another: "You were sick. Now you're well. And now, there is work to do." That's a description of every Christian's experience. I was sick. Now I'm well. And now there's work to do. God in his infinite love doesn't just save us, clean us, and dump us. He saves us, cleans us, and employs us.
I met with five men last week who are starting a Teen Challenge—a ministry to teenage drug addicts—in the area. We were in my office and getting excited together about this thing. I said, "It will be so good to have ready a ministry where people addicted to drugs can get out of that and get healthy." John, the Teen Challenge director, said, "Oh, Mark, it's so much greater than that. Do you know that five of our graduates this year are heading off to train as pastors? Our vision only begins with helping people get off drugs. We want people whom the devil was so smugly confident that he'd already destroyed—people the devil got bored with and left for dead—to be turned around to go kick the devil's scaly backside." You were sick. Now you're well. Now there's work to do.
This past month I have been visiting various people in this church and saying, "I've been praying about thus-and-such ministry, and I feel God would have me just tell you what it is and see if that rings any bells." So I describe what I see. Over and over, I see the eyes of the person across the table light up. I can almost hear their heart racing. After a few minutes, they are almost coming across the table at me. Little flecks of spittle start forming at the corners of their mouths. All I'm doing is helping them hear the voice of God. All I'm doing is helping them find their vocation.
Here's my point: what really awakens us to vocation is love. The apostle Paul, telling the Corinthians about his own call to a costly yet rewarding ministry, says, "the love of God compels me." As I experience more of his love, as I learn to live in it, I get more and more zealous about finishing my assignment. I would just point us back to the passage from John 15. Love motivates obedience. Obedience nurtures love. Together, love and obedience produce fruit. God does kingdom work through those who love.
Do you want more of the power of the incarnation—God with us—and the Resurrection—God for us—and sanctification—God in us—and vocation—God through us? Love is the key.
Over a century ago, a stranger came to the studio of a renowned British artist Gabriel Rosetti and asked for a few minutes of his time. Rosetti agreed. The man opened a portfolio of drawings he had recently done. He asked Rosetti for an honest opinion of their worth. Rosetti, as kindly as he could, let the man know that they were worthless. The man thanked him for his frankness. Then he asked Rosetti if he could show him just a few other sketches, these pieces the work of a student. He displayed several drawings, and Rosetti leaped up in a fever of excitement: "There is real talent here! Who is the student—I must meet him." The man said, "It was me. But I found working under a teacher too demanding, so I gave it up. And now look what I've become."
God is with you, God is for you, God is in you, God desires to work through you. That's life to the full. That's power. And what is your role? To remain in the House of Love. I wonder if it's time for you to move.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.