Dr. Seuss said it pretty well, “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” In fact, love can be pretty dreamy. Like when in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring the immortal elf Arwen decides to give up her immortality for love of Aragorn. She says, “I would rather spend one lifetime with you, than face all the ages of this world alone.” That’s poetic and beautiful and touching – even though it’s fiction. But poetry is part of the reality of love. The philosopher Plato said it in his Symposium, “[Love] is also the source of poesy in others, which he could not be if he were not himself a poet. And at the touch of him every one becomes a poet…” And, in ways like that, you’d probably agree that love can be transcendent, beautiful in edifying ways, and – as in far above human expectations and sometimes seeming to tower to the heavens – love is divine.
The question is, though, how does one get it? Because it can be rather not divine, rather very human and broken. If you can’t find it at all… or it’s left you… or you’ve watched love grow cold, you know that love can hurt and be missed or elusive. And, even when you poll a panel of couples with extravagant love, their recipes might be similar, but the details will differ. So, it’ll always be a question, to some degree – how does one get/keep/have this divine love?
And, that is the question for this morning with St. John again. What is love? We’re asking, “How does one get/keep/have this divine love?” And we mean “godly”, “from God”, and “shared by the people of God” kind of love. Because, in the sinful world generally, just like the world of romance and belonging, love doesn’t always work – Christian love sometimes fails because people fail. But John does give us the answer to the question in chapter 4. From John this morning the bold assertion that love is divine…
When the spirit is right.
I don’t mean that to get divine love you gotta set the mood – candles and rose petals and such. Nor does John mean in any way to imply that divine love is ambiguous – catch the spirit. Actually, love from God that is astounding and shared among people for astounding results, is very direct and specific. True love that is godly “acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” The right spirit for divine love is the one that says that Jesus is the Christ – the Son of God who has been, is, and always will be, but who entered human existence as God’s Chosen One and took on human flesh – became in real time at once 100% God and 100% man so that, living under God’s law in the place of hapless, hopeless sinners, and facing the punishment of death for their sins, he might rise to life and victoriously ascend to eternal rule. The spirit is right for love when it confesses straightforwardly that this is the essential truth of Christianity and life: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world; he has come in the flesh; that status hasn’t changed: he still represents human beings in his glorified human nature; and he has won the victory over sin, death, and devil and gives that victory freely to people like us out of pure mercy.
Now I know the temptation, I think. It’s like those ads that come up on Instagram, about Jim: he’s happy – you know why? – he figured out the secret to investing. And all I have to do is give my email address and maybe a social security number and download this free ebook and I too will find the secret… wealth and happiness from flipping Chinese investment properties that I don’t have to buy with real money or ever see in person… The temptation is to say, “It can’t be that simple – there’s got to be some secret rule, some tactic, some trick, a fix…” And we’re tempted that way because there’s a whole world out there that speaks and lives from a different viewpoint. The world’s view encompasses words like intersectionality, wealth/security, cryptocurrency, fulfillment, “privilege”, social justice, actual justice, fairness, equality/equity, retirement, expectations… Nothing John just said about the essence of the right spirit for love had anything to do with the world’s viewpoint. John spoke from God’s viewpoint – that the world with all its words is in crisis, and the answer for the world is God’s Word in Christ.
But there are “spirits” – maybe demonic forces, at the very least human “ways of operating” – that say, “The spirit of truly divine love will be where we don’t confess Jesus like that because that doesn’t incorporate all the words we like and think are important…” And, my friends, you can throw a rock and find churches that teach it. Some who call themselves Lutherans say, “It doesn’t matter if Jesus really existed as a human being – what matters is that we love the community in all its words…” And then they adopt those words – all of them – into some kind of anti-intellectual, anti-biblical, anti-Christ mix that defines love by what we all do. The other kind says almost the same thing: you order yourselves under this one guy, allegiance to him, and then you’re saved — and, really, according to their doctrinal statements the only people who will be damned to hell are the ones who believe in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and not by human works or connection to any human office. A decidedly anti-Christ spirit. And it’s the same spirit that comes from your brother-in-law and your coworkers or your friend who says, “Whatever anyone believes is just fine…” and “Let’s don’t start with that salvation is found in no one else than Jesus stuff…that’s unloving.”
So John says, “You test the spirits that are out there, because true, divine love comes only from the Spirit of God who shares Jesus.” In fact, test your own spirit. Put away any thought, any desire, any feeling that says any and everything is just fine and right. Confess those sins where you’ve given in to the fear of the world’s words and its power, the fear of losing a family relationship or a friend and confessed something other than Jesus as the defining force, the center of life, real love. And instead rest in the power of Jesus Christ who, by coming in the flesh, conquered the devil and demonic forces and human spirits and gave you his Spirit in victory with forgiveness and peace – and say as much – because acquainting the losing side with actual victory, that’s love. “You…have overcome them,” John says, “because the one who is in you [by faith] is greater than the one who is in the world [that dastardly devil].”
In fact, that’s the essence of the thing. The Spirit of God, the spirit that’s true, confesses Jesus Christ as come in the flesh to save. Everyone who listens to that spirit, who tests and finds that spirit, already knows divine love. Because when you confess Jesus come in the flesh – you know God – and love is divine when you know God. John says in v.9, “God is love.” But again, he’s very specific, v.10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This is the essential message this morning. If you’re looking for divine love – testing for it, seeing what the spirits out there say – divine love will not be defined by what you say or do. It’s defined by what God has done for you. And it says that what we’ve done on our own is terrible. An “atoning sacrifice” is necessary, where Jesus “laid down his life for us” (3:16), and “shedding his blood” (Ro 3:25), removed the guilt of our sins before God. So that, John says in v.9, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” Beyond his sacrifice that averts our death, Jesus’ coming enables our living. Finally “[by faith in Christ at the brink of eternal life we will be]…confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” (1 Jn 2:28) But he also enables our living in this life, where there is lots of imperfect loving we do and see, even so, that we might be unashamed even right now.
Isn’t that the big thing about real love? A part of it is that someone chooses you. They love you as you are. I don’t mean if you’re an axe-murderer they feel like that’s okay… But they want you and they’ve seen you with all your worts and rough edges and they’ve committed themselves to you. When that’s there – the promise from a spouse in marriage, say, for faithfulness come what may – that’s an unashamed-making thing, a confidence-building thing. In fact, most couples with extravagant love (by our outside measure) wouldn’t have any secret recipe more than doing whatever gave their loved one the confidence that they were for them and with them and that they would do everything to keep it that way – and that promise moved them to love.
That’s how John says love is divine among us this morning. When we know God as the one who sent his Son as the promise that God is for us (in our place) and with us (in this life) and that he has done and will do everything to keep it that way… That in him we live full of promise – free of sins’ guilt and unashamed when he comes back and victorious over the world in the meantime… When we hear Jesus say: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you… Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends…” When we know God is like that – all full of promise and action that fulfills it and commitment and grace…then there’s no magic trick or secret investment formula to find for love. What God is and shares, we also be and share.
So, we’ll say with John in v.11, “Ones who have been loved like this, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…” And it won’t be the obligation we have, as in, “You know, we really ought to get together for dinner…” It will be simple and beautiful – “Let’s do this…” We’ll talk like John, naturally: “Ones who have been loved like this, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” And we’re born of God and know God and love God… And, in point of fact, the details will be different in you than me and different today than in 20 years but, at the same time, in essence it’ll be just the same. It will be among us every little thing that shares the promise that Jesus is for me (a sinner) and for you, and therefore that without fear I can be for you too… It will be love that we share. And it will be divine.