Most of you have probably heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you forgot it, that’s okay. I’ll tell it to you.
Jesus walked a lot of miles and taught a lot of stuff. In his last year on this globe, as he was making his last trip to Jerusalem—because he was going to die—he used parables to make his talking points stick. One of those points was that unnatural, uncontrollable, unconditional, and unmistakable love for others is the quintessential mark of a Christian.
When a smart-alechy lawyer tried to test Jesus by asking him about eternal life, Jesus responded with a question: “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?“
The lawyer fired off: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
That sounded good. Lawyers like a clear plan, but they’re also sticklers for details, especially when they’re trying to justify themselves. Wanna know how to win an argument? Start playing word definitions; bog the conversation down in the dictionary. You’ll win every time. And that’s what this bloke did: “Who is my neighbor, Jesus?” That’s when Jesus lays this parable on the smart-alech.
“A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” (Luke 10:25–37)
Think these instructions are easy? They’re not! Think about it . . . Jesus isn’t telling you to merely love the person next to you whose elbows are spilling over their arm rests; he’s telling you to love the Judas’s in your life, those who’ve wounded and betrayed you. “That’s impossible,” you say. It might be.
But if you only take one thing home today, take this: Unnatural, uncontrollable, unconditional, and unmistakable love for others is possible when God has captured your heart with his love for you!
Patience with the person in the checkout lane at Kroger who is struggling with the credit card reader; understanding for the person who stopped awkwardly at a green light; respect for a person of a different race or religion; forgiveness for your ex-spouse who really hurt you; unconditional acceptance for your child who made an unauthorized use of your car and parked it on top of someone else’s. You don’t possess the love that covers all of that. Yet when you realize how deeply loved you are, something supernatural is birthed within you.
The mark of authentic Christianity is being so swamped by God’s love for you, that his love selflessly and spontaneously overflows the reservoir of your heart and gets others wet. I desire that this would also be our distinctive mark at NorthPointe.
It’s Hard to Love the Unlovely
Love always costs you something. “The-Man-Who-Got-Beat-Up” wasn’t lovely. If you helped him it would cost you something . . . maybe time, maybe money, you might get blood on your jacket.
Love asks at you to forgive when it’s easier to hate. Love asks at you to listen when it’s easier to talk. Love asks at you to stay when it’s easier to leave. Love asks you to give when it’s easier to take. Love costs.
Love always makes you vulnerable. Few of us are willing to make a risky investment without a reasonable rate of return—and love promises no return. We’re all interested in getting a return, but such an interest runs opposite to loving others. This means that to love is to be vulnerable. So, if loving is downright difficult, then loving the unlovely is unbearable.
Have you heard about the wealthy man and his son who loved to collect rare works of art? They had everything in their collection and often sat together admiring them. Then, the son got sent to Vietnam and died while rescuing another soldier.
About a month later, just before Christmas, there was a knock at the door. A young man with a large package was there. He said, “Sir, you don’t know me, but your son saved many lives that day. He was carrying me to safety when a bullet struck him in the heart. He talked about you, and your love for art.” The soldier held out his package: “This isn’t much. I’m not a good artist, but I think your son would’ve wanted you to have this.”
The dad stared in awe at the way the painting captured his son’s personality. He hung the portrait over his mantle, and when visitors came over he showed them the portrait of his son first.
When the dad died, many influential people gathered for an auction, excited to see and purchase a one of the great paintings. On the platform was the painting of the son.
The auctioneer pounded his gavel, “We will start the bidding with this picture of the son. Who will bid for this picture?” Silence.
Then a voice in the back of the room shouted. “We want to see the famous paintings. Skip this one.” But the auctioneer persisted. “Will someone bid for this painting? Who will start the bidding? $100, $200?”
Another voice shouted angrily, “We didn’t come to see this painting. We came to see the Van Goghs, the Rembrandts. Get on with the real bids!”
But still the auctioneer continued. “The son! The son! Who’ll take the son?”
Finally, a voice came from the very back of the room. It was the longtime gardener of the man and his son. “I’ll give $10 for the painting.” It was all he could afford.
“We have $10, who will bid $20?”
“Give it to him for $10. Let’s see the masters.”
$10 is the bid, won’t someone bid $20?” The crowd was becoming angry. They didn’t want the picture of the son. They wanted the more worthy investments for their collections.
The auctioneer pounded the gavel. “Going once, twice, SOLD for $10!”
A man sitting on the second row shouted. “Now let’s get on with the collection!”
The auctioneer laid down his gavel. “I’m sorry, the auction is over.”
“What about the paintings?”
“I am sorry. When I was called to conduct this auction, I was told of a secret stipulation in the will. I was not allowed to reveal that stipulation until this time. Only the painting of the son would be auctioned. Whoever bought that painting would inherit the entire estate, including the paintings. The man who took The Son gets everything!”
It’s hard to love what’s unlovely because we want a return on our investment. But loving is moving towards another without a thought of what you might get in return—it’s self-forgetfulness. Sometimes you get nothing—that hurts. Sometimes you get everything.
It’s Deadly Not to Love
But without risk, you run the chance of loosing everything.
The apostle John had to say about all of this. In the 4th chapter of his letter, John said:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
In other words, when you meet God personally—not learning facts about God—the result is love.
Now, why does John bother to tell us to love each other if love is the natural outcome of knowing God? Why tell a person born of God to do what they cannot help but to do, or, vice versa?
John is giving us a hard word. He’s saying: You should love, but you don’t, and if you knew God you would! Most of the time the only thing you love is yourself.” . . . Ouch John’s diagnosis is sharp.
Brittany and I went to Asheville a few weeks ago. We thought we needed to get spiritual, so we went to a seminar titled: “How to Be Right Without Being Insufferable.” It was a good trip, except for the 90 mins in which we each thought we were right and were very insufferable.
It took us 90 mins until we realized we were stuck in a vicious polka dance. One of us said something, the other one felt small. So the other one said something, which made the other one feel small. We were caught in a flat spin like Maverick and Goose in an F-14 Tomcat. The engine of love flamed out, we were pinned up against the canopy, unable to pull the ejection cords. If the self-love didn’t stop, Goose was gonna die . . . again.
Not loving is deadly!
I’ve heard so much about self-love, and you know what . . . most of it is from the pit of hell and smells of smoke. You don’t need to love yourself more. You need to think about yourself less. But it’s hard to forget about yourself when you’re caught-up obsessing over how well we’re doing.
My cousin, Mike, is a pastor and about 20 years ago he planted a church. But a few years ago he told me how the wheels fell off his wagon.
At night he would lay awake in bed thinking about how to grow the church. By day he demanded twenty hours a week from volunteer leaders. If they didn’t produce, he replaced them—leaders revolved through the ministry faster than horses on a carousel. Mike was spinning out of control.
Finally, he broke. He couldn’t remember his phone number or address; more than once he found himself curled in a corner crying uncontrollably; and he was thinking about suicide. That’s when his wife called the senior pastor who didn’t shilly-shally. He removed him from ministry—and many rejoiced—sent him on a three-month sabbatical to get his life sorted, and forbidden him to have contact with the church.
The first month of his sabbatical he spent resting under the watchful eyes of family at a beach house in Nags Head, North Carolina. During that month he oscillated between crushing despair, brought on by guilt and shame, and an all-consuming numbness. It took 10 days before he could even sleep through the night, and God still seemed beyond reach.
The second month he spent in a prayer sanctuary in Kansas City, Missouri, where live worship music echoed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet even there the shadow remained.
Most of the time he was critical and angry. There Mike sat, one week turned into two—still no fireworks.
But something was happening: the visionary and church planter was dying. As he accepted that his ministry was over, something else stirred in his soul: a desire to live, and a desire for Christ. His turmoil continued to burn like an unquenchable torch, and through tears he pleaded for God’s presence.
Only after he’d been consumed by grief, only after he truly died, wanting nothing but Christ himself, did it happen: God began to call his attention to scriptures he’d blown past. God pressed into his consciousness that he was pursuing Mike like a bridegroom pursues his bride. God wasn’t mad. Rather, God was desiring Mike.
Mike told me, that was the moment he truly awakened. Love flooded his soul, washing him, setting him free. Gone was the need to measure himself against others or his own standards. He was free to just be a loved son.
One night when leaving the prayer sanctuary in Kansas City, he bumped into a group of young adults. They saw his flushed face, and one of them said, “Hey man . . . you alright?” “Oh yeah,” Mike replied, “I just spent two hours of my life sitting at the feet of Jesus doing nothing, and it felt great! When I meet Mary of Bethany one day, I’ll tell her, ‘I finally got it!’”
It’s Transforming to Be Loved
Mike was saying that it wasn’t his success at being good, or his success at being religious, or his success as a youth pastor, or his success as a church planter, which caused God to love him. He finally got it: Jesus, not Mike, determined if God liked him—and God liked him!
John tells us that those who do not love, do not know God. John didn’t say that those who do not love aren’t religious, or moral, or successful. Mike was all of those; in fact, he was very zealous for God, but he still didn’t know God. Oh, he knew about God, but he didn’t know God. He didn’t feel the rhythm of God’s heartbeat; he hadn’t experienced the dance of the Trinity around him; he was unaware of God’s rejoicing over him.
Mike’s failure to love flowed from the stress to produce. It took the bottom falling out of his life, before Mike was broken enough to see how deeply he needed mercy and grace and love, and then for him to realize that Jesus was exactly those things to him. That’s knowing God, that’s personal revival.
Our text says:
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9–10).
You don’t fall in love with someone because they stare you down and say, “Love me!” You fall in love because someone stares you down and says, “I love you.”
From time to time Brittany has asked me why I love her. And I’ve said, something really intelligent like, “I don’t know, I just do.” And it’s true. I can’t say, “Well, Babe, it’s because of this or that. Because if I said something like that, then my love would be a reward, it would be something deserved, payment—it wouldn’t be love.
We’re told to love each other, and if we don’t it proves we don’t know God—that’s the law
But friends, John knows that giving us the law—telling us to love—won’t produced love. So he continues, telling us how much we’re loved: “God sent his son to be the the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Result: “We love God because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love, not law, begets love.
God doesn’t love you because you came to church today. God doesn’t love you because you weren’t a jerk yesterday. God’s disposition towards you doesn’t ride on how well you’re living out the lifestyle commands in the Bible—and it certainly has those. God loves you because he freely chose to do so in Jesus.
But this begs the question: Why does the Bible command good works if I can’t use them to negotiate my relationship with God or to twist his arm to bless me? If my relationship with God isn’t transactional, then what on earth are good works for?
There is a really good answer to that question; here it is . . . Good works are for your neighbor!
God does it need your good works, but your neighbor does. God’s unconditional love for you doesn’t eliminate good works, it just places them on a different plane.
Think of it this way . . . the relationship between God and us—the Vertical Plane—is sorted out by Jesus. But the Horizontal Plane—the relationship between you and me—needs our good works.
If I go and park my car in the middle of your front yard, you’re not going to be pleased with me. You’re gonna open the front door and yell at me, “Move your car, you idiot!” I doubt it would make much difference to you if I say, “Hey, I’m righteous in Jesus, God isn’t mad at me, why are you.” Yeah, no, that’s not going to cut it.
The Bible’s lifestyle commands aren’t rungs on a ladder for you to climb up to God. Rather, they are descriptions of how you love your neighbor. The Bible is giving you a description of what a human looks like, sounds like, and smells like, when they have come to the deeply realization that they’re a rat bag sinner, but God really loves them anyway.
My friend Tullian Tchividjian put it this way:
“Good works are not things to be done to get God’s favor, or just settle accounts with God; good works are done in service to your neighbor. . . . Forever freed from our need to pay God back or secure God’s love and acceptance we are now freed to love and serve our neighbor. The apostle Paul describes the free life as a life of self-forgetfulness” (Liberate 2015, “It Is Not Finished”).
All of the love, all of the approval, all of the acceptance, all of the worth, all of the value, all of the significance I long for and look for “in all of the wrong places”—to quote Kenny Rogers—in a thousand different places and people that are smaller than Jesus, or already mine in Jesus! When this truth roosts in my soul, I’m set free to give you everything without needing anything from you in return.
Friends, that’s a freedom! That’s self-forgetfulness. That’s risky and vulnerable, but that’s love.
A lot of us have had experiences in life that have caused us to think: “If I don’t fight to get to the front, fight for the respect I deserve, and fight for the recognition I long for, I’ll not be valued and validated, dignified and justified as a human being—my life will be meaningless.” But that’s not freedom; it’s a life of bondage. A life of freedom says, “Everything I need I possess in Jesus, so now I am free to think about what you need.” This is exactly John’s point when he said, “God sent his only son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).
I read a story recently that pictures well this overflowing of love. It’s a story about a man named Ted.
When Ted was a young he stunk at school; he didn’t like it and it didn’t like him. His appearance was sloppy, and he was expressionless and unattractive. In fact, his 5th grade teacher, Ms. Thompson, enjoyed putting red X’s on his work. If she had only looked at his school records closely, she might have had more compassion. They read like this:
1st grade: Ted shows promise with his work and attitude, but has poor home situation.
2nd grade: Ted could do better. Mother seriously ill. Receives little help from home.
3rd grade: Ted is good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year.
4th grade: Ted is very slow, but well-behaved. His father shows no interest whatsoever.
At Christmas the kids piled elaborately wrapped gifts on Ms. Thompson’s desk. Ted brought one too. It was wrapped in brown paper.
As the children crowded around, Ms. Thompson opened each gift. Out of Ted’s package fell a gaudy rhinestone bracelet, with half of the stones missing, and a bottle of cheap perfume. The children snickered. But she silenced them by splashing some of the perfume on her wrist, and letting them smell it. She put the bracelet on too.
At day’s end, Ted went to Ms. Thompson and said: “You smell just like my mother. And the bracelet looks real pretty on you. I’m glad you like my presents.” After he left, Ms. Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her and to change her heart.
The next day, the children were greeted by a new Ms. Thompson—she was committed to loving each of them, especially the slow ones like Ted.
Time came and went. Miss Thompson heard nothing from Ted. Then, one day, she received this note:
Dear Miss Thompson: I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class. Love, Ted
Four years later, another note arrived:
Dear Ms. Thompson: They just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be first to know. University has not been easy, but I liked it.
And four years later:
Dear Ms. Thompson: As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year.
Ms. Thompson attended Ted’s wedding. She sat where his mother would have sat. It might seem like it was her love that changed him, and I’m sure it did. But it was Ted’s love that actually moved her first.
I want to finish today by simply reading the last two verses of our passage: the apostle John finishes his thought saying:
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:11–12).
Steve Brown has said: “You can’t love until you have been loved, and then you can only love to the degree to which you’ve been loved” (Approaching God). God’s love is kinda like Ted’s for Ms. Thompson. In Jesus, God’s love for you is unnatural, uncontrollable, unconditional, and unmistakable. So you better be careful, if you let him love you like that, you might just catch the disease and spread it to others.