Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Staying in Love

Preached on Sunday, January 24, 2016

Scripture readings: Acts 10:1-23; John 15:9-17

There’s a kid I know who’s in the pep and marching bands at the University of Montana. A few days ago he posted, on Facebook, a video made by a girl who also plays in the band. She made a one-second-long video every day of 2015, and she put them all together to make a six-minute-long video of the year in her life.
Photos Taken Walking by Crab Creek, Grant County, WA
January 2016
The second-long segments fly into each other. There’s the campus, her dormitory room, her friends, the band, ducks in a pond, a farm that might be her home. And there is this one boy who must be her boyfriend because he is in almost half the segments. So if you watch her video I think you can pick out the one she loves.
I wonder if he will be the one. At least all the pictures show that she’s in the crazy first stages. It’s a thing you could call “first love”.
There’s a verse from The Book of Revelation in which the risen Jesus gave a message to one of his churches. It was a warning. “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen. Repent and do the things you did at first.” (Revelation 2:4-5)
There are things you do at first. There is this enormous happiness to be with the one you love, and you would like to be with them all the time, and you probably find ways of doing just that. My greatest love happened when I was a junior in college.
I was insane; but of course I was also a nineteen year old turning twenty. I was happy, and excited, and scared to death at the same time all the time.
As she and I sort of got used to being together we got more serious about what we shared about ourselves. I think things began to go wrong when I started giving her advice. She would tell me about difficult things and I would try to help her sort those things out. But I think that’s not why women talk to men.
I also think that’s not why God talks to us, but the more we are together with God, the more we try to give him advice and help him sort things out.
Things change after the first signs of love, yet knowing that other person in a whole new way might bring you back to your first love for that person. Knowing God in a new way, knowing what you never knew before, brings your love for God back to your first love, even if you seem to have known him all your life.
We don’t see usually God, but his presence wears a face that is better than any other face. We don’t usually hear God with our ears, but his voice holds a kind of wonder for us, like music. Everything makes you think of him, and you see him in everything.
You find that other people know that you love him, and some of them might be amused or even annoyed at you, and you don’t think you’ve said anything about it at all. My family apparently knew when I was in love, and I wasn’t aware of having told them at all, except that there was this girl.
With Jesus, there is this first love and there is a secret for keeping yourself in that first love. Jesus said, “Abide in my love. Remain in my love. Make your home in my love.” (John 15:9; RSV; NIV; “The Message”)
With Jesus, it’s easy to know what it means to abide, and to remain, and to make yourself at home in his love. I think it’s easy to know. What would you say it was? What does it mean to “abide”?
I would have said that prayer was the way to abide in Jesus and his love. But prayer could also be like the thermometer that measures the warmth of our love.
My girlfriend and I talked a lot, but it changed from our first love: or I changed. She wanted me to be willing to do nothing but listen, and I wanted to give her advice. In our first love with Jesus maybe our first lesson in prayer is to do nothing but say “I love you” and then listen; but we slack off and we forsake the prayer of first love.
The other ways of abiding in Jesus work out in similar patterns. In our first love with Jesus, the Bible is simply his wonderful voice. When we forsake our first love, the Bible becomes our textbook for sizing up what other people say, or for finding out what we’re supposed to think and do. It sounds very grown-up for us to read the Bible this way, and it even has a kind of passion; but not the passion of first love.
The worship that abides in our first love for Jesus is probably more like resting our head on his shoulder, or manfully shaking his hand. When we forsake our first love, worship becomes more about our style, and our preferences, and the quality of the performance.
The words of Jesus that we have read from the Gospel of John, this morning, surprised me with a way of abiding that I had never put together before. We abide in Jesus when we never hesitate to do what he said about other people. Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
I clearly remember that, in the great revival of my first love with Jesus, I simply loved other Christians. I loved the other followers of Jesus and I didn’t question them. I simply enjoyed them.
I think I still do that. I am sort of afraid of people, because I am painfully shy and introverted. But I know (from having been in love) that love and fear can gladly go together. I think I gladly love other Christians at first sight, until they scare me in a way that is different from the fear of shyness. I don’t have to size them up.
Different experiences can make us forsake our first love with Jesus. We can learn caution that steals our passion. We can let other people teach us that, since such things as prayer, and the Bible, and worship, and fellowship with other Christians is a duty, that we must take them very seriously.
I remember a young couple I knew, and how we were walking together in the park. The girl put her arms around the boy’s neck from behind, and he grabbed up her legs in his arms and ran with her, piggy-back, across the park. They were in their first love.
Of course, as they have grown older, they might not do that anymore. But they might carry each other in different ways. They would do that for love, and they would love doing it. A love like that will bear much fruit. Their love would still be their first love.
Jesus is timeless. There is always that first love, in him, for us, as he holds all time in his heart. He has not forgotten his first love for you.
His first love is really always first. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit: fruit that will abide (fruit that will not spoil).” (John 15:16)
In my first church there was a woman named Margaret. She was in her eighties and she had long been a widow, but her face lit up as she told me her first memory of the man she would marry. One day, when she was young, she was walking down the street, and there were two men leaning against a storefront and looking at her, and she heard one of them say to the other, “I’m gonna marry that girl.”
He chose her before she chose him, and she had a fruitful life that was full of love and sorrow, and love and thankfulness. It was fruit that did not spoil.
When Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) This makes me think of Jesus and his cross. Dying for us is Jesus’ way of seeing us, loving us, choosing us, calling us, and empowering us. It’s why I am afraid to say “no” to him. It comes from my first love. It’s as if Jesus tattooed my name on his wrists by having nails driven into them.
This always puts me in mind of what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said, “Let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
This focus on Jesus and his love is at the heart of true Christian prayer and all our abiding in him. Prayer always looks, and always sees love, and always returns that love. There are times when you don’t know how to do anything else. It may sound strange, but this is our first love for Jesus, and nothing should ever replace it.
With this first love you see Jesus in prayer, in the Bible, in worship, and in your brothers and sisters in Christ. Without this love nothing is quite right.
There are a couple of strange verses in the gospel of Matthew. They are about prayer, but mostly about the kind of prayer that deals with sin, and forgiveness, and our fellowship together. Jesus said this: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (or set loose) on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) This has to do with prayer for the forgiveness and the putting away of sin from the followers of Jesus, but it also hints at some things about all kinds of praying.
Prayer can set the gospel free. Prayer is for setting loose the kingdom of God. Prayer can empower Christians to do and be what they pray to be. It’s like the fruit that Jesus talks about; and the first love and the abiding that enable us to ask anything we want from the Father.
Here is what I would say about prayer and abiding and asking. When I first came to this place, I spent my first couple weeks abiding at Ruth and Cliff’s house. I think it was because they were so completely hospitable and gracious to me, as hosts, that I never thoroughly learned the contents of Ruth’s refrigerator and cupboards. Ruth and Cliff would wait upon me out of the abundance of their refrigerator and cupboards. So asking depended on what they knew, and not on what I knew.
Prayer is like that, even in your first love, and in your first love you don’t really care. Our asking depends on what the Father knows and not on what we know.
The Father can give you anything he wants, and you are in love so anything he wants makes you happy. When you abide in Jesus and keep abiding, then you learn what he has in his refrigerator and cupboards.
Jesus, in his love that’s always new, knows what you are inclined to ask for. But he also knows what’s best for you and me. You and I are still learning what’s best for us, and for others. In our first love for Jesus, we will never be afraid to ask, and we will never be afraid to learn, and we will also learn the best fruits that Jesus and his Father want to give us.
The Book of Acts is full of prayer. There is a lot of answered prayer, and there are a lot of places where God says “no”. He blocks the way. He makes people move. The prayer never stops; and the first love, in most of the people there, never stops.
If you look closely, you will see a continual element of surprise in prayer. People have no idea what their prayers mean, or where their prayers will take them.
In the tenth chapter of Acts you have different people, in different places, praying as usual, and the Lord interrupts them and tells to think about something else. The Lord tells them to do something that was never part of their plans or in their prayers.
The Lord said to Peter, “Simon (Simon was one of Peter’s many names), three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
The Lord interrupted Simon Peter’s prayers to tell him, first of all, what he ought to be praying about. Then the Lord told Simon Peter to do something that he never would have done. The Lord told him to visit and work with people he would never have chosen to work with. Peter didn’t hesitate because he was living in his first love.
When you ask the Lord to guide you and help you to grow and serve him, the Lord may tell you something on that order. The Lord may tell you to think and pray about something else. The Lord may make you change your plans or your expectations. The Lord may tell you to do something you didn’t want to do. The Lord may require you to love and work with people you thought you were free to not love and work with.
When you are abiding in your first love for Jesus, you do it.
If you want to talk about the power of prayer, that is the real power of prayer. It’s true that prayer changes things; but it takes the most powerful of all prayers to change you and me and how we live and work together.
That’s what we must be ready for, or else we have become too ready to give advice and not to take advice. We have become estranged from our first love.

God gives us this strange power for setting him loose only if we are willing to set God loose on us. We will receive this power only if we are willing to forgive, if we are willing to change, if we are willing to love others and put ourselves on the line for them, and if we are willing to abide in the heat of our first love for Jesus.

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