Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Love (Dec. 20. 2015)

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:39-45, and Hebrews 10:5-10

 Jesus told us that the most important commandment is this:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  But how do we love God?  

 Several years ago I read a book called The Five Love Languages.  Perhaps some of you have read it as well.  The author makes the point that there are five ways in which people demonstrate love.  One is quality time spent with those you love.  The second is physical affection.  The third is affirming words.  The fourth is meaningful gifts, and the last is acts of service.  

 Each of us speaks at least one of these languages.  Some of us are multi-lingual and speak two of them.  And there are at least a couple love languages that we don’t speak.  And it creates confusion when two people speak different languages.  So for example, if a wife speaks the language of quality time, and the husband speaks the language of acts of service, then she might say, “You don’t love me.  You never spend time with me.”  And he might respond, “What do you mean I don’t love you?  I changed the oil in your car last week.”  

 Can we apply this idea to our relationship with God?  I think so.  We can spend quality time with God:  reading his word, prayer, other acts of devotion.  Physical affection is a little more difficult.  It’s hard to give God a hug, being a spirit and all.  I guess the disciples had the chance when Jesus was with them in the flesh.  Can we speak affirming words to God?  Yes, that’s what worship is.  Can we give God meaningful gifts?  Yes, again.  We give God our tithes and offerings.  We can offer what we have for God’s use.  And we can certainly love God with acts of service.  We demonstrate our love for God by doing his will.  

 But which one of them is God’s love language?  Well, God being God, I’m pretty sure he is multi-lingual.  But what I read in the Scriptures is that God’s first love language is acts of service, obedience to his will.  

 In the days of the Old Covenant, it seems that people understood the giving of gifts to be the primary way that love for God was demonstrated.  Specifically, God was honored through the giving of sacrifices and burnt offerings.  

 It’s not that there was anything wrong with that system.  God did command it, after all.  But it does seem that often it was used as a substitute for genuine love for God.  It often became nothing more than empty ritual.

 One problem is that the sacrifice of animals was ineffective.  It could not take away the guilt of sin.  The author of Hebrews devotes a lot of time and attention in his letter to making the case that the old system of sacrifice just couldn’t do the job.  It couldn’t set people free from sin.  At best, it was a reminder of the ever-present problem of sin and it pointed forward to the future hope of a savior who would offer an effective sacrifice.  But at worst, the sacrificial system was a sham.  It was a way of appearing to be religious without really being so.  

 This was a frequent lament of the prophets.  Over and over again, they cried out that people did as they pleased, cheated one another, neglected the poor and powerless, even worshipped idols, and then they made their sacrifices and pretended that they were truly God’s people because of that.  There was awareness in the prophets that this would not go on forever.  

 In Hosea, God said, “I want you to be merciful; I don’t want your sacrifices.  I want you to know me; that’s more important than burnt offerings.”  (Hosea 6:6)

 Micah said, “What can we bring to the Lord?  Yearling calves?  Thousands of rams?  Ten thousand rivers of oil?  Our firstborn children?  Would any of that please him?  No, the Lord has already told you what is good and what he requires:  Do what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6:6-8)

 And there are many more examples of this same sentiment in the prophets.  

 The author of Hebrews quotes a prophecy from the Psalms about the Messiah:  “You did not want animal sacrifices and grain offerings.  But you gave me a body to obey you.”  God is most honored through our obedience, when we surrender our will to his.  That is the sacrifice that honors God the most, when we sacrifice our will and our ambitions, and submit to his will.  

 One of the best ways that we can understand sin is that sin is self-will, the demand to choose right and wrong for ourselves, the demand to have our own way rather than God’s way.  

 One of the best stories from Scripture that illustrates this is 1 Samuel 15.  In 1 Samuel, the people demand that God give them a king, so they can be like the other nations.  The first king of Israel is Saul.  Saul starts off alright.  At first, he seems to be humble, merciful, and ready to do God’s will.  But perhaps he was corrupted by the power of his position.  After a while, he stopped listening to God and started doing everything his own way.  

 In chapter 15, God sends Saul to destroy the Amalekites.  The Amalekites were one of the tribes that lived in the land of Canaan before the Israelites.  They were notorious for their idolatry, their sexual immorality, and their cruelty to others.  On the way from Egypt to the Promised Land, they repeatedly sabotaged Israel, attacking them, and seducing them into their worship of idols.  So God sends Saul to wipe them out completely, even to the point of destroying their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.  We could talk about the morality of this command another time, because that’s a whole other discussion.

 Saul disobeys.  He wipes out the Amalekite army, but he spares their king, Agag.  That was the custom of the day.  If you vanquished a foreign enemy, you would take their king home to live in your court, so you could “show him off” as a status symbol of your strength and military prowess.  And they spare the sheep and cattle too.  When the prophet Samuel confronts Saul about this, Saul gives the excuse, “Well, we were going to offer them as a sacrifice to God.  Wouldn’t that be better?”  Samuel responds, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.  Listening to God is better than offerings.  Rebellion is as bad as idolatry.”  

 Compare that to Jesus, who in the Garden of Gethsemane agonized over the will of God, knowing that it would cost him everything.  But in the end, he prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.”  

 Since today is the last Sunday before Christmas, we can also compare Saul’s actions to Mary and Joseph.  In their culture, Mary and Joseph were taking a significant personal risk to be a part of God’s plan.  Mary could have been disowned or even condemned to death for unfaithfulness.  At the least, her reputation was destroyed in a culture that highly valued a good reputation.  Joseph also lost his good reputation by taking her home as his wife.  But they were willing to sacrifice of themselves out of their love of God.  

 In John 14, Jesus said, “If you love me, obey my commandments…  Those who obey are the ones who truly love me.”  

 In the Greek language, the love of God is expressed by the word AGAPE.  AGAPE is the kind of love that denies oneself for the sake of another.   It is the sacrifice of self to serve another.  It is the example Jesus gave us, and it is the command of Jesus to us:  “As I have loved you, so you should love one another.”  

 We love God by denying ourselves to serve God.  And since God has no needs, he asks us to serve one another.  In Jesus, God has given us the very best Christmas gift of all.  And if we want to return God’s love, then we do it through loving and serving one another.  

 Jesus also told us that while the first and most important commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, the second was of equal importance:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  

 So if you want to show your love for God, this is how you do it:  Obey God.  Do the things he wants you to do.  Love one another.  Serve one another.  Forgive one another.  Help those in need.  Stand up for the cause of the weak, the oppressed, and the powerless.  By doing God’s will and loving each other, we also love God.

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