Experiencing God's Love

Luke 7:36-47

I don’t spend a lot of time repeating myself.  I assume you’re listening the first time and it’s insulting to keep saying the same thing over and over.  I never bought into that old speech making rubric – tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.  I’m more of the “say it and sit down” school of thinking.

But I’ve realized that there are some things you can’t say just once and assume they sink in.  And that’s true of keeping our purpose and our mission before us.  If we don’t keep thinking and talking about who we are and where we’re going and what we’re about, then it doesn’t take very long before we’re heading off somewhere else.  We need to keep reminding ourselves of the things that are most important so that we focus on those.  It gives us a filter through which we look at everything we’re doing to keep us on track.

When I first moved here six years ago, I began with a series of sermons on what I see as our mission in the church – three things that are what we major in.  Three things we want everyone to know about this church.  Three things that, if we do them well, everything else will fall into place.  Three things that, if we don’t do them well, it won’t really matter what else we do – we won’t be about God’s work.

And that, in essence, is what a mission statement is.  It keeps first things first.  But it has to be memorable, and it has to be remembered.  Every member of this family has to know what it is – it’s not good enough that I know it or the elders know it – everyone of us has to be able, when someone asks us about the Glenwood church, to say, this is who we are and what we’re about.

If it’s too long, if it has too many words, if it tries to cover too much ground, it’s not a good mission statement.  It has to be something you can tuck in your brain and pull out at a moment’s notice.

So, here’s what I shared with you six years ago, and which I believe more strongly every day is what we should be about:  We are a church where everyone can come and  experience God’s love,   grow in God’s family, and serve in God’s kingdom.  In fact, you might not realize it, but that’s what has been on the top of the front page of the bulletin every week for the last six years.

When I first preached the series, I spent several weeks on each of those elements:  1) experiencing God’s love; 2) growing in God’s family; and 3) serving in God’s kingdom.  I’m not going to be that exhaustive this time around.  I want to spend two weeks on each as kind of a refresher course. 

So, let’s start this morning by talking about what it means for a church to be a place where people can experience God’s love.  And I want us to turn to a story in Luke 7:36-47.

There she was – a hooker at the preachers and elders dinner.  Nervous glances, embarrassed whispers, indignant stares – “What’s she doing here?  Doesn’t she know she’s not welcome?”  But she doesn’t care.  She didn’t come for them.  She came for him.  And as she reaches him, she falls down on her knees and begins weeping.  And those tears flowing from her eyes become the basin of water she uses to wash his feet.  Her tears bathe his feet, and with her hair she dries them.  Then from a pocket she draws a vial of perfume – probably the most valuable thing she owns – and she pours it out and begins to massage it into his feet – the aroma fills the room. 

Well, how do you follow that?  Suddenly, talk about attendance figures and budgets and new curtains for the synagogue seem a little irrelevant.  Everybody’s thinking what Simon’s thinking – “Some prophet Jesus is – he doesn’t even realize what kind of a woman this is.”

We’re grinning because we know what’s coming – we love it when Jesus puts the self-righteous Pharisees in their place.  But they were really scandalized by all this – this is a woman they wouldn’t have even acknowledged if they passed her on the street.  Yet, here she was, crashing their private party – fawning over their guest of honor.  (Reality check – lest we get all full of ourselves – if she showed up this morning, we probably wouldn’t act much better).

Jesus has a story and a question.  Two loans – two debts forgiven – it’s a simple 3rd grade math problem.  Who would love him more?  The one with the greater debt cancelled.  A+ answer, Simon.  But you flunked the test.  I showed up and nobody greeted me at the door or offered me water to wash my feet or oil for my hair, but this woman comes in and washes my feet with her tears and anoints them with perfume, and hasn’t quit kissing them. 

You haven’t shown me common courtesy, but she has been extravagant with her outpouring of love.  Let me do the math for you Simon – the one who has been forgiven much loves much, but the one who is forgiven little loves little. 

Let me tell you why some people have a tough time passing God’s love on to other people – it’s because they’ve never experienced God’s love for themselves.  You can’t share what you don’t have.

Preachers spend a lot of time telling churches – “love each other, serve each other, go out and spread the good news of God’s love to others, we’re a family” – and we try, but it just doesn’t feel very comfortable, so we assume he’s talking to someone else.  And people come in and we talk about how the church is a place where everyone can experience God’s love while they sit alone over in the corner and no one even talks to them, and they go away thinking “words are cheap.”

And I could stand up here and scold us for not being more loving, but the problem may be on the other side of the equation.  In order to share God’s love we must first have experienced God’s love ourselves.  I need to tell you how much God loves you.

Let’s go back to Simon’s dinner party.  You would think that if anybody would have a grip on God’s love, Simon would.  He’s the preacher, he’s the student of scripture, but when it comes to showing love he’s harsh and distant.  On the other hand, this woman who can’t show her face among respectable people can’t be kept from showering her love on Jesus.  Simon’s love is calculated and stingy.  Her love is extravagant and risky. 

What is the difference between the two?  Jesus says it is how much they have been forgiven.  Simon may be the expert on God’s love, but she has experienced God’s love.   And the problem is that Simon doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.  He’s preached a hundred sermons on God’s grace, but he’s never once thought that he needed it himself.  People like Simon don’t need grace – they analyze it.  Simon doesn’t think he has that much that needs forgiving – it’s not that he couldn’t be forgiven – he just never asked.  And people like Simon who don’t think they need forgiveness are pretty stingy when it comes to extending it to others.

This woman has no doubt about her need for forgiveness – every single day of her life was lived with guilt and shame.  And I don’t know when the moment was that she decided – maybe she had heard about the woman who was dragged before Jesus to be stoned but walked away forgiven – perhaps she was there when Jesus healed the woman with the flow of blood and said, “your sins are forgiven” – or saw the leper walk away clean.  She knew where she needed to go, and what she needed to do.  And when Jesus looked her in the eye and said, “Your sins are forgiven” her life was never the same. 

God’s love wasn’t an abstract theological concept, God’s love was like a river into which she had plunged and been swept away.  She didn’t just sip out of the cup of God’s grace – she had picked up the punchbowl and gulped until her thirst was quenched.  Simon didn’t even realize he was thirsty.

This church will never be a place where everyone can come to experience God’s love until we ourselves have experienced God’s love.  Most of us have grown up knowing “God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son,” but we’ve never really quite grasped that he loves me.  We know all about God’s grace, it’s just that we’ve never thought that we were the one that needed it.

The first step toward loving others is to have experienced that love yourself.

·         “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

·         “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us” (Eph. 5:1-2).

·         “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).

Do you want to be more loving?  Look at how much God loves you.  Do you want to be more forgiving?  Consider how incredible God’s grace has been toward you. 

Here’s the bottom line – if you and I have not really explored the depths to which we ourselves have experienced God’s love, then we cannot possibly be the conduits through which God pours his love into the lives of others.  If we have never really come to grips with how desperately in need of God’s grace we ourselves are, we will never be extravagant in dispensing it to others. 

How do you experience God’s love?  Begin by looking in the Word – page after page, story after story of God’s personal commitment to you.  There is not any length to which he has not gone, any price he has not been willing to pay to make you his child. 

·         He has poured out his love so abundantly that we cannot miss it.  And even if we have traveled far away from him – know this – that like a shepherd who has 99 other sheep safe in the fold, he is out there looking for you – like the father whose son left him to go to the far country, he is waiting for you to come over the horizon and he will come running to welcome you home. 

·         Paul writes that God’s love for you is so deep and so strong, there is nothing that can separate you from his love – “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Do you need a more tangible demonstration?  Look around you. 

·         I look around and I see family – people whom God has put into my life to be God’s hands and feet and mouth. 

·         When they love me, there’s always a little glow around the edges revealing where the source of that love really is. 

·         I’ve got people in my life whose words of encouragement are the very words of God’s love. 

·         There are people in my life that buy me lunch or bring me a gift, or write me a note, or call me up and say “let’s go fishing,” or “let’s go golfing,” or simply say “let’s spend some time together,” and I think how much God loves me to give me a friend like that.

·         That’s why God put us in the church – to love each other on behalf of God.

When I think of everything God has done and said to tell me that he loves me, I am overwhelmed.  That God would send his son to die for me.  If I were the only one who needed it – he would have gone to the cross to rescue me from hell. 

And when you look in the mirror every morning, you are looking at one who is so precious to God that he let his only son be beaten and humiliated and crucified in your place so that you could have an honored seat in his family.

I don’t want anyone to leave this morning unsure that God loves you.  There is nothing you have done, no distance you have gone, no depth to which you have sunk that God’s love has not gone there with you.  And no price he has not already paid to have you home.

And if God loves you that much, and if God loves me that much, how do you suppose he feels about the folks out there who have never experienced his love?

Illustration – Roy Riegels 

On New Year's Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played University of California in the Rose Bowl. Late in the second quarter, a California player named Roy Riegels recovered a Georgia Tech fumble and began running for the end zone… the wrong end zone. One of his teammates, Benny Lom, ran him down and tackled him just before he scored for the opposing team. When California attempted to punt, Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety which was the ultimate margin of victory.

As the teams filed into the dressing rooms at halftime, everyone was asking the same question: "What will Coach Nibbs Price do with Roy Riegels in the second half?" The U of C players sat down on the benches and on the floor, all but Riegels. He put a towel over his head, sat down in a corner, put his face in his hands, and wept uncontrollably.

There was no half time pep talk, no chewing out.   Coach Price looked at the team and said simply, "Men the same team that played the first half will start the second." The players got up and started out, all but Riegels. The coach looked back and called to him again; still he didn't move. Coach Price went over to where Riegels sat and said, "Roy, didn't you hear me? The same team that played the first half will start the second." Then Roy Riegels looked up and his cheeks were wet with a strong man's tears. "Coach," he said, "I can't do it to save my life. I've ruined you, I've ruined the University of California, I've ruined myself. I couldn't face that crowd in the stadium to save my life." Then Coach Price reached out and put his hand on Riegel's shoulder and said to him: "Roy, get up and go on back; the game is only half over." And Roy Riegels went back, and those Tech men will tell you that they have never seen a man play football as Roy Riegels played that second half.

Years later as Haddon Robinson told the story he said, “When I think of this story, I think, ‘What a coach!’  And then I think about all the mistakes I’ve made in life and how God is willing to forgive me and let me try again.  I take the ball and run in the wrong direction.  I stumble and fall and am so ashamed of myself that I never want to show my face again.  But God comes to me and bends over me in the person of his son Jesus Christ, and he says, ‘Get up and go on back; the game is only half over.’  That’s the gospel of the second chance, and third chance, and hundredth chance.  And when I think of that, I have to say, ‘What a God!’”