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What Love Is This?

A moment of awe

Author Philip Yancey describes an unexpected moment of awe that he got to experience while driving one day in Alaska. Just on his way between places, he happened on a number of cars pulled off to the side of the highway. Like any of us, it got his curiosity, and he pulled over to see what everyone was looking at. Listen to how Yancey describes the scene:

“Against the slate-gray sky, the water of an ocean inlet had a slight greenish cast, interrupted by small whitecaps. Soon I saw these were not whitecaps at all, but whales—silvery white beluga whales in a pod feeding no more than fifty feet offshore. I stood with the other onlookers for forty minutes, listening to the rhythmic motion of the sea, following the graceful, ghostly crescents of surfacing whales. The crowd was hushed, even reverent.

For just that moment, nothing else—dinner reservations, the trip schedule, life back home—mattered. We were confronted with a scene of quiet beauty and a majesty of scale. We felt small. We strangers stood together in silence until the whales moved farther out. Then we climbed the bank together and got in our cars to resume our busy, ordered lives that suddenly seemed…less urgent.” Source: Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything (Credo House Publishers, 2012), p. 68

Savoring who God is

That’s what this series is about: slowing down to savor God’s attributes, his perfect character traits. “Attributes” sounds cold and clinical and academic, but really all we’re talking about is getting to better know God—who he truly is, rather than a God of our imaginations or a God of misunderstandings.

Here’s why this matters: just about everyone recognizes the world is not as it should be. Where people disagree is why, and what to do about it. The greatest single starting point, I would argue, is an accurate understanding of who God is and what he values. Everything else that is good and holy and productive flows from rightly seeing God as he is, and then acting on that. The most urgent need today is not that you constantly stay on top of the crisis-driven news cycle. The most urgent need today is for us to discover or regain a clear vision of God.

Pastor A.W. Tozer agreed with that decades ago, writing…

“The decline of the knowledge of [God] has brought on our troubles …. It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as he is …. [Tozer concludes] A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing [what most ails us at the present time].”

Slowing down for what matters most

Question: What do you think most ails us at the present time? When you look at your family history or world history, what do you think we most need? What would best move us forward to better relationships and a better future?

The premise of this series is that among all the options, the single best and single most important starting point is a clear and compelling vision of who God is. Only that can ultimately reorient us in ways that can begin to reshape how we interact with others, beginning in our homes and extending out from there.

Here’s a way to think about why we’re doing this series. Irwin Braverman is Yale medical school’s director of medical residents. Dr. Braverman grew increasingly concerned about his students’ lack of attention. He noticed that high-tech, fast-paced practice of medicine was pushing aside careful physical exams and thorough patient histories. He feared that new physicians were losing their power to observe and pay attention to the obvious.

So he came up with an idea, something no other medical school had tried. Dr. Braverman brought these young doctors to an art museum to expose them to a different kind of puzzle, one they couldn’t solve instantly—and that is a painting.

Afterward learning to gaze at and observe a work of art, these young physicians’ abilities to describe patients improved dramatically. It’s now a mandatory program in which Yale medical students examine a painting for fifteen minutes, then discuss their observations with a guide and their peers.

What they’re trying to do is slow down the students, so that they ultimately see more clearly. That method with medical students studying art has now been adopted by dozens of other medical schools. Source: Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, The State of the American Mind (Templeton Press, 2015), pp. 95-96

God who sacrifices so much for us

And it’s what we want to do today. The attribute of God that I want to explore in depth with you this week is that God is self-sacrificing; God is self-sacrificing. We love and follow a God who has laid his life down for us.

I love the analogy Dan Meyer brings to this attribute of God, and it comes from a movie. Some of the best movie plot lines function like Jesus’ parables, in that the story slips behind your defenses and it’s only by the conclusion that you realize that fictitious story actually won you over to some profound truth that’s worth acting on. That’s the case with a Bruce Willis movie from the late 90s titled Armageddon.

The love of a father

It’s about the love of a father. In the movie, we’re introduced to a crusty old oil-mining veteran named Harry Stamper, played by Willis. It’s one of many movies that got low ratings from film critics but high ratings from moviegoers. In the movie, Stamper is called on to use his mining skills in a last-ditch mission to save humanity from a huge asteroid that’s on a deadly collision course with our planet.

In the plot, Harry and his peers land a spacecraft onto the surface of this roaring asteroid, drill a hole deep into its core, and lower into that hole a nuclear bomb that just might split the asteroid and spare humanity from destruction by it missing the earth.

At the last moment something goes wrong, and it becomes apparent that someone will have to stay behind and manually detonate the bomb.

Without hesitation Harry Stamper chooses that job. In the final moments, Harry speaks by video to his daughter, Grace, by video, giving her his last words. With tears streaming down her cheeks, Grace tells  her dad, “Everything good I have inside of me I have from you. I love you so much. I am so proud of you. And I’m so scared.” Harry replies, “There won’t be anything to be scared of soon…I love you, Grace.”

Harry kneels on the surface of the asteroid as it violently shakes with volcanic eruptions. Struggling to maintain hold of the detonator, he watches the spacecraft escape. Then Harry stares with longing at earth in the distance, quietly rotating quietly in space. He gently smiles and whispers, “We win, Gracie,” as he presses the detonator.

Suddenly the screen fills with a flow of images as seen through the love of this father’s eyes. We see back in time to a sunny day when Harry is pushing his laughing little girl on a backyard swing set. There’s  a blur of images reflecting the amazing early moments of human life. There’s a glimpse into the future when Gracie will be a radiant bride on her wedding day.

And then the bomb detonates, fracturing the asteroid violently and its halves hurl away from planet Earth, as the population cheers wildly.

The love of our heavenly Father

As Meyer points out, Hollywood long ago learned to draw its best themes from the Bible’s storylines. It’s not a coincidence that the father’s daughter’s name is Grace. In what her father did for her, she is truly graced. All of humanity in that movie plot are graced by a love that is willing to self-sacrifice for them.

And what that movie portrays fictionally, God has done in reality, for us. John, the closest follower of Jesus, never got over it, writing with wonder in 1 John 3:1…

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).

It’s as though Grace took the line straight from John when she said to her father, “Everything good I have inside of me I have from you. I love you so much.” That’s us. That’s you and me.

The Bible teaches that God saw the consequences of sin and evil racing at human life with frightening force. And so at a level of love infinitely greater than what’s portrayed in movies, God acted with compassion for us and intervened with unfathomable self-sacrifice.

That movie takes place in some unknown future. If you and I could go back in time and lived as Jews before the time of Jesus, we would have understood that God is holy, as we’ve explored in this series. We would have grasped that God is trustworthy, as we unpacked last week. And we would have believed that the Lord is compassionate, as we explored in depth in our previous series on living out of the love of God.

But…there’s no way we could have imagined the lengths to which God would go in order to rescue us from our sin and its consequences. To grasp that, we have to lean in on passages like this paraphrase of Philippians chapter 2, where rabbi Paul tries to help us to fathom how much Jesus Christ sacrificed for us, to bring us to peace with God. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Philippians chapter 2 to say of Jesus…

“He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Can you begin to get a sense of how amazing is the self-sacrifice that Jesus offered for you?

Seeing clearly for the first time

Here’s a different picture for you. Sometime, look up videos with this search: Enchroma glasses reaction. I’ll say it again in a moment. Here’s what you’ll see, and it’s powerful. Opie Hughes is featured in one video. Opie has red and green colorblindness. He’s an adult who had never seen what you and I see.

But then in the video, his family did a fundraiser to get him a pair of these enchroma glasses. In Opie’s video and the others you can find, you get to see the overwhelmed reaction of people seeing colors for the first time: the intense green of leaves on the trees, the real eye color of their own children or spouse, wonder at the vibrant colors of party balloons they had never realized looked like that.

That’s what it’s like to step by step come to understand God’s true attributes. The colors come alive. And with this attribute, the lights coming on should bring awe and wonder and appreciation and love—to grasp that God himself voluntarily lowered himself to our level, and sacrificed himself, in order to lift us up out of sin and its consequences.

How else could we come to truly know God?

How else would we truly know God, except that he became one of us in the person of Jesus? Rebecca Pippert is a favorite writer of mine. She grew up an agnostic: didn’t know or care if God exists or if so, who he is or what he’s like. And there was one question that bugged her: How can finite limited human beings ever claim to know God? How do they know they are not being deceived?

It’s a totally fair question. People deceive themselves all the time about all kinds of things, including trying to recreate God in their own image. Rebecca Pippert writes:

One sunny day I was stretched out on the lawn … when I noticed that some ants were busy building a mound. I began to redirect their steps with twigs and leaves. But they simply bounced off and started a new ant mound. I thought, This is like being God! I am redirecting their steps, and they don’t even realize it!

At one point, two ants crawled onto my hands and I thought, Wouldn’t it be funny if one ant turned to the others and said, “Do you believe in Becky? Do you believe Becky really exists?” I imagine the other ant answering, “Don’t be ridiculous! Becky is a myth, a fairy tale!” How comical, I thought–the hubris of that ant declaring that I don’t exist, when I could easily blow it off my hand. But what if the other ant said, “Oh, I believe that Becky exists!” How would they resolve it? How could they know that I am real? I thought. What would I have to do to reveal to them who I am?

Suddenly I realized: the only way to reveal who I am, in a way that they could understand, would be to become an ant myself. I would have to identify totally with their sphere of reality. I sat upright, and I remember thinking, What an amazing thought! The scaling-down of the size of me to perfectly represent who I am in the form of an ant! I know; I would have to do tricks! Things that no other ant could do!

Then it hit me: I had just solved my problem of how finite creatures could ever discover God. God would have to come from the outside and reveal who he is.

Source: Rebecca Pippert, Stay Salt: The World has Changed Our Message Must Not, (The Good Book Company, 2020), pp. 39-40

This is what God has done in the person of Jesus. Throughout his life, moment by moment, Jesus voluntarily laid aside all the privileges he had known for all eternity past, sacrificing in order to make God known to us. And then all of those self-denials for us came to a head when he allowed us to send him to the cross.

I love how Meyer explains it:

When the moment of ultimate choice came, when his enemies were hurling insults at him and cheering with each agonized breath Jesus struggled to draw while writhing on the cross, when all it would take was a thought to zap them like…bugs…when he had to choose between the obliteration hurtling justly at the human race or the obliteration of his own life to pay the price that would save them, Jesus fixed his eyes on the joy set before him. Somehow, he was able to look past all those wicked faces distorted by hatred and see that blue planet spinning in space. Somehow, he was able to think back in time to that day when he pushed Eve on the swing set of Eden. Somehow, he was able to look forward in time and see the Bride (his redeemed church) as she would look on her wedding day. And Jesus pressed the detonator.

In a cosmic reaction that remains something of a mystery still, there was a great shudder in the invisible realm as all of the righteous judgment upon sin was absorbed by Christ, his life was snuffed out, and the awful destiny hurtling toward us broke in half. Death’s final victory on one side and Evil’s final curse on the other side passed us by, leaving us with some shockwaves still but graced nonetheless with the gift of new life—if we choose to accept that gift.

This is what God is like; He’s like Jesus. If I can say it this way, he’s like an oilfield worker who volunteers to travel across space, set himself down on a chunk of hurtling hell, and lays down his life so that others may live. He’s like the greatest mind and heart our brains can imagine, who volunteers to leave the halls of heaven to walk among us, and to lay his life down to save us from the evil that would otherwise steal our souls. God is like Jesus. Jesus is God, voluntarily sacrificing himself so that you and I “may have life, and have it to the full,” as Jesus himself said (John 10:10).

How should we respond to such a God? The only logical response to One who loves us this much…is to love him back, to pursue the God who at so great a cost pursues you.

I think New Testament scholar Tom Wright hits the nail on the head in his reply when he was asked what he would tell his children on his deathbed. That’s a legacy question. What would you tell your children, your extended family, if you knew you had minutes to live? For all his scholarly knowledge, here was Tom Wright’s reply, what he would say to his kids on his deathbed: “Look at Jesus.” I would say the same.

And then he explained, saying, “The [Person] who walks out of [the pages of the Gospels] to meet us is just central and irreplaceable. He is always a surprise. We never have Jesus in our pockets. He is always coming at us from different angles … If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. And go on looking until you’re not just a spectator, but part of the drama that has him as the central character.” He who willingly sacrificed himself…for us. For all who will trust in him.

Source: Marlin Whatling, The Marriage of Heaven and Earth (CreateSpace, 2016), page 129

Do you see the lengths to which God has gone for you? Are you responding to the self-sacrificing God with your love and devotion? Listen to The Message paraphrase of Romans chapter 12. This is what the Holy Spirit led the apostle Paul to write as the right response to the radical, self-giving, self-sacrificing love of God. Here’s how we are to respond:

“Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.” (Romans 12:1-2)

Will you do this? Will you join me in daily offering yourself gladly in response to God who has so sacrificed for you?

If so, would you pray with me right now?

Our Father in heaven, how can we ever thank you enough for how deeply you sacrificed for us? Your whole salvation plan, from beginning to end, you did it all so that rebellious people could be set right with you. You wanted us to walk with you again. And you did everything needed to make it possible.

We believe that Jesus lived the life we were meant to live, flawlessly loving you and loving people.

We believe that his death on the cross wasn’t a tragic accident, but was the sinless substitute who exchanged his perfection for our flaws.

We receive what he has done for us.

And in grateful response, we offer ourselves to you.

Continue your good, good work in us today and in the days to come.

Breathe a new season of in-person ministry to us as a church, we ask, as we relaunch in the Fishers YMCA. Bless us and make us a blessing, we pray.

And we will give you all the glory, honor, and praise, for you are worthy! Amen!