Ezekiel 36:22-32, I Corinthians 13
February 19, 2017
I have always loved this passage from Ezekiel, “I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give to you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36) That’s part of the future restoration of Israel, and it’s about how God was going to change them. From their history, that was apparently not an easy thing to do! God said of the Israelites that they were “ever a stiff necked people.”
We can also hear strains of this in Jeremiah’s vision of the restored Israel. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (They were in exile in Babylon at the time.) “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with your whole heart.” (Jeremiah29:12-13) I almost used that one for today’s reading!
But in this case, it’s even more here in Ezekiel. The “restoration” he is talking about here is also about restoring God’s image in the world. In this passage God says that he wants to “vindicate the holiness of his great name, which has been profaned among the nations.” And he wants to do it through his people. He wants the nations to see his holiness through them. That’s the way God worked then. And I believe it’s how he’s still working now.
I also had us read Ezekiel, because it was also about the future “plan” of God. He planned in Jesus, to come here himself, and to show his people how to seek him, to show them how to change their hearts. He wanted to show them how to love as he loved. He called them, and us, to be the light of his love to the world.
So, as we talk about sharing that love, about “loving like Jesus,” the first thing I want to remind you of today about the love of God is that “Love” is the “motivation” for our “salvation.” In other words, why did God “send his only begotten Son?” Why did he want to want to “save the world?” Because he “So loved the world.” And again, as I’ve “prompted” you to say many times, it was not, “For God so loved his people…” It was not, “For God so loved those who loved, or would come to love, him…” It was, “For God so loved… the world!”
That’s the first thing. The second thing I want to remind you of is that having God’s love is not as easy as it sounds. If we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes we think, “How could God love such and such a person.” How about Hitler, Bin Laden, that guy who cut us off in traffic… And again, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that it’s hard to conceive of God loving certain people because we cannot conceive of loving certain people!” At such times, we need to realize that God’s love is much bigger than ours!
As we think about “moving forward,” this is one thing where growing is always possible. We can always grow, we can always “move forward,” in the way we understand and live, God’s love. Because it is so far above us! And I believe we are all called to do just that.
So I’ve called this segment of our journey “Loving like Jesus.” And the third thing I want you to think about here is that “Loving like Jesus” is a good indication that we are “being like Jesus,” which we were talking about a few weeks ago. And that’s a good indication of our “moving forward” in our faith, which is where we started.
And guess what! “Loving like Jesus” is not as easy as it sounds. “Jesus’ love” has been described as a “radical love.” It is love that was even “unexpected” at times. Jesus reached out to people he “shouldn’t have.” (Quote unquote) When he did, it was shocking to the people of his day. Even the religious leaders, who should have known better, criticized him for speaking with, and even eating with, sinners!
A few weeks ago, I asked you to think about who were the outcasts, the downtrodden of our world. I asked you to think about how we might reach out to them? I ask that again, because I’m pretty certain that’s what Jesus would do! If he were here today, he would have been with them!
We had a good example of this last year. Do you remember what happened when Pope Francis was here? He was in Washington before he came to Philly, and while he was there he addressed congress. But after that, he passed up having a dinner with them so he could visit a soup kitchen, and bless the poor and needy. That’s what Jesus would have done! I’ll bet Jesus would have ridden around in the Pope’s Fiat, too!
That’s the love of God! That’s loving like Jesus! Loving like Jesus is having a selfless love. It is about taking ourselves off of center stage, and out of the spotlight. It is taking up the cross – the greatest example of love ever! Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend!”
Paul came to understand that kind of love. And recognized how important it was. I Corinthians 13 is said to be the greatest statement about love ever written. And it is amazing! It’s about a selfless love, a love that is not “jealous, boastful, arrogant, or rude.” It’s a love that does not “insist on it’s own way.” It does not “rejoice in the wrong.” “I told you so” has no place in the love of God!
One of the things I like the most about this passage is where it comes in Paul’s letter. The people of the Church in Corinth were having trouble getting along. They had disagreements on the issues. They were at odds over how to order things in their community. They even had different leaders that they followed. Sound familiar?
Some scholars have suggested that this passage is out of place. They’ve said that it was inadvertently placed here in the middle of this letter. I strongly disagree with that. Because this letter is all about trying to give those people some guidance and some answers. It was about imploring them to be unified, despite their disagreements. It was chapter after chapter of dealing with all of that, and then after chapter 12, I picture Paul setting down his pen, sitting back and thinking a bit, and then writing, “Nothing I’ve written so far, and nothing I can write after this will make any difference at all unless you understand the love I am about to describe.” Paul called that love “a still more excellent way.”
He said, if I do all the things that are great in the faith, if I speak in tongues, if I prophecy and gain understanding, if I am even be so sacrificial that I give my life at the altar, but have not love, I am nothing, zip, zero, nada… bupkis! (That’s the first time I’ve ever used that word in a sermon!) None of this will work! None of this will be seen by others as sincere, none of this will show God to the world, without love! Just imagine this once mean, crotchety, persecuting old Pharisee talking about love in this way! Truly his change, his metamorphosis, was complete!
“Love,” he tells us, “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Not only that, but all those other things they thought were important will “pass away.” “All of those things – speaking in tongues, knowledge, prophecy,” maybe even our most precious doctrine and polity, “someday they will be gone,” he says. “And what will be left? “Faith, hope, and love!” But then, at the very end of our passage, he compared those three things, and he concluded that “the greatest of these is Love!”
Compare all of that to the “world’s” concept of “love.” And isn’t it interesting that this part of “moving forward,” this part about love, came the week of “Valentines’ Day.” This is one of those “non-coincidences!” The world’s concept of love is perpetually tied to self-centeredness. It is usually about the desire to be loved. It is usually about a person wanting the other to love them. Paul turns that on its ear. He takes the word “love” and he boils it down to its very essence. And he tells us about that love which is pure and selfless, a love that is far beyond the world’s understanding!
That’s the love of Jesus. It’s a “radical love.” It is love without expectation of return. It is love, whether or not you love me. It is love that reaches the unloved, the unexpected, the undeserving. That’s the love we need to strive for if we are “moving forward.” If we are striving to “be like Jesus,” one of the biggest indications of that is that we are “loving like Jesus.”
Eternal God, we are grateful for your amazing, unbounded love. And we ask for the strength we need to love as you loved, and to love as Jesus loved. Let your light so shine through us, so that the world will see your love. May they truly see that we are yours by our love. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.