For The Love Of God Is Empowering
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."
"For The Love Of God Is Empowering"
(Matthew 22:36 -40, John 4:1-32)
I heard about an executive who was given a prank gift for his birthday, a penguin. He decided just to accept it in the spirit in which it was given, so he called in one of his employees and said, "Will you please take this penguin to the zoo?" The employee never returned to work that day. That night, however, he appeared at the executive's house, with the penguin. Exasperated, the business executive said, "I thought I told you to take the animal to the zoo."
"I did," said the young employee. "He enjoyed it so much, tomorrow I'm planning to take him to the museum!" (1)
At the last Church I served, one day we received a memorial gift to the Church. There was a short note written on a beautiful little card that described who the memorial honored. It said the usual thing, "Enclosed you will find a check to be used as a memorial for, Mr. So and So" Unfortunately, the person who sent the memorial forgot to sign the note and they forgot to enclose the check. Not only that but the card had been purchased from the Altzheimer's Foundation. It turned out to be very real, but I thought it was a joke from one of the pranksters in the Church.
Gifts and presents come in all kinds of shapes and sizes don't they? And we all like receiving gifts and presents. I really like to give presents but I also like to receive them. I don't know anybody who doesn't like to get presents, do you?
Now imagine, if you will, one of those special days in your life. It might be your birthday. It might be your anniversary or the day you got a promotion. It might just be one of those surprise sort of special days that come along in life. But it's one of those special days, everything about it is right. To top it off, like icing on the cake or ice cream on your pie, you get a package. And not just any package but a very special package.
The minute you see it you know it's special. You feast your eyes on it and you know it's something unique. Your eyes light up. It feels like Christmas as a child again. Your heart feels all fluttery, your face grins all on its own. You feel right on the verge of being all giggly and silly. The package is so beautifully wrapped and decorated that you don't want to open it. But it's so inviting and enticing that you can't wait to open it. Filled with all the anticipation of Christmas and birthday rolled into one; just as carefully as your excitement will let you, you open the package. You peel the paper off slowly . . . . look inside . . . . and it's empty.
You get that horrible sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Your heart physically aches from the disappointment. We all know that feeling don't we? We've all experienced that kind of disappointment at some point in life. Some of us are dealing with those kinds of feelings right now. We've all had the experience of opening the box and finding it empty. We don't like that feeling of disappointment nor the emptiness that it leaves in our soul.
I. THE GIFT:
Some of us have looked at the gift of life or our life situation and it looks empty. That's NOT what God intended. We have been given the most precious gift of all. Through God's unconditional, creative love, we have been created in the very image of God. That is one of the most wondrous gifts, one of the most beautifully wrapped gifts anyone can be given. And it is ours personally. It has our name on it and no one else's. It can never be anyone's but ours. You and I are created in God's very image. There is a family resemblance. Our worth, our value doesn't come from the things that we own or the talents that we have or how much we make or how much we give away. Our worth, our value comes from this wonderful gift God has given each of us, the gift of ourselves, created in God's image.
Unfortunately, some people don't know that. They have looked at the gift of life and for them it's empty. For some the reason is simply that they never heard of the gift. No one ever told them they were created in God's image and therefore very very special to God and to themselves. To them the wrapping paper even looks tawdry and plain.
Some people have heard this marvelous message, they've seen the glitter of the wrapping paper but only out of the corner of their eye. For some reason they can't quite focus on it long enough to see just how beautiful it really is. In part it's because they don't want to believe that they are of value to anyone. Or they can't believe they are of value, especially to God. They simply haven't accepted the gift
There are those who can't accept the gift. They can't accept the idea that a loving God would do something like this, without any strings attached. They've never experienced unconditional love and so they don't have any point of reference. For them, it really is too good to be true and so they open the gift and it appears to be empty, like all the other promises that have been made and broken in their lives.
For others, at some point in time, the gift was very real. They cherished it. And gloried in it but throughout their life it was slowly stolen away by the cruelties of life. Bit by bit, little by little, the gift was stolen. An unkind word slipped in and took its share. A disparaging phrase carried off some more. Unmet expectations by others came back time and time again and ran off with piece after piece, until finally, the gift was empty and there was nothing left but the wrapping paper. And it sat there as a crumpled reminder of the gift, a reminder of what used to be but seems to be no more.
Then there are those who have bartered the gift away. They accepted it totally and completely but they got distracted. They looked out at the world and saw all the sparkly things and heard the whispered promises of more and better. And suddenly they weren't satisfied. This wondrous gift from God wasn't enough for them. And so they began to trade it piece by piece, bit by bit for the sordid adventures of life. They became self indulgent. Besotted by booze; dazed and dazzled by drugs, they bartered and traded and used up the gift until one day it was empty. Even the wrapping looked worn and old and frazzled.
For others, the gift has simply been lost. Through neglect or through overuse, they have somehow forgotten their purpose. They have forgotten the glory of the gift. They can't even remember what it looked like. Or where they put it for safe keeping. They've settled not for living but for mere existence.
And maybe the worst of the bunch are those who wholeheartedly accepted the gift but have never opened it up. It still sits there. They admire it's beauty and the perfect symmetry and skill of the one who did the wrapping. But they have never taken the opportunity to open the gift. They've never taken the chance to look inside. Consequently, that which could have given their life meaning and purpose and happiness sits unused and undiscovered. Their lives remain shallow and empty.
B. The gift I'm talking about, of course, is the gift of self. We have been created in God's image, fashioned in the likeness of the creator. And the gift that accompanies that wonderful aspect of creation is the ability to love ourselves for ourselves. As I've illustrated, many of us don't love ourselves. And that's the problem.
Jesus said the two greatest Commandments were "to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. And to love our neighbor as ourselves." But how can we love our neighbor if we don't love ourselves? You see, we need a healthy dose of self love in order to be able to love others. You have to be able to care for yourself before you can care for others.
There have been many sermons preached on overdoing this self love. We all know too many people who think ONLY of themselves. They don't just belong to the "Me First" club, they're card carrying charter members, with a gold key. They're close to joining the "Me Only" club.
Calvin and Hobbes are walking in the woods talking one day and Calvin says: "A lot of people don't have principles, but I do. I'm a highly principled person! I live according to one principle, and I never deviate from it." Hobbes looks impressed and asks: "What's your principle?"
Calvin says: "Look out for number one." (2)
Isn't that a sad commentary on life and on our concept of a principled life? That's not what God intended. God doesn't want us to live by the kind of principle that grows out of a corrupted sense of self love and self-centeredness. God doesn't want us looking out number one only, and to blazes with everyone else. We all need the right amount of self love. Too much self love is pride, conceit and self-centeredness. Too little and life becomes unfulfilling and has no meaning.
II. THE WOMAN:
A. Look at the Samaritan woman Jesus encounters at the well in the Gospel of John. She was that kind of woman. Words like "tramp" and "trollop" were whispered behind her back as she walked by. None of the other women in town were very kind to her at all. They made comments about her makeup, the way she dressed and the company she kept. They were all loud enough to hear but not loud enough to identify the one making the comment. It really didn't matter who made them, they all stung, they all wounded, even the ones she pretended not to hear. She got tired of it all. That's probably why she came out to the well in the middle of the day instead of early in the morning like the rest of the women.
This day she went out and there was this Jewish rabbi sitting there, all hot and sweaty. She could tell he was Jewish and not a Samaritan by his clothes and his prayer shawl. The first thing that ran through her mind was, "What's he doing here." Jews thought the whole region of Samaria was unclean and most of them wouldn't even travel through the area unless the absolutely had to. Jews and Samaritans didn't mix, it was sort of like putting cats and dogs together. There was a long standing religious dispute about where they were supposed to worship. They were both stiff-necked and hard-headed and neither group would give in or open up to see the other's point of view. Things were always tense when a Jew and a Samaritan got together.
Not only that but men and women didn't mingle in public. Most men didn't have a very high opinion of women. Women were queen of their homes but men were the rulers of everything else. Consequently, this Samaritan woman was surprised when the Jewish rabbi asked her for a drink of water. And then he began to tell her all about herself.
Most people who knew her story treated her like dirt. They treated her like she had a scarlet "A" branded or tattooed on her forehead. But not this guy, not Jesus. He treated her with kindness and patience and love. He treated her like a real person and not like a loser. And that's what made all the difference in her life. That's all she needed, to know that she had value. To know that someone thought enough of her to actually love her without asking for anything in return. She thought she had found that in every one of her five relationships, but they all wanted something from her. All Jesus asked for was a drink of water and then he offered her the water of life. And she saw that the gift wasn't empty. The wrapping was a little worn and rumpled and the gift had seen better days, but it was still there. She grabbed it with both arms and clutched it to her and never let go. She was so excited about finding the gift again, that she went and told everyone in town what Jesus had done for her. How Jesus had allowed her to love herself once again. And all because Jesus acted out of love and compassion toward her. And she didn't even give him that drink of water he had requested. Jesus turned a loser into a winner and a child of God.
B. When I was much younger, before I joined the service or got married, I occasionally ran with a pretty rough crowd. I knew quite a few bikers. They had wonderfully descriptive names like, Leg. (he had a limp); Speed & Shakes, (they were both methamphetamine addicts); and Forger, (guess what he did). A lot of these guys got tattoos. Some of them said things like "Born To Ride." or "Born to be wild." Many of them got their girl friend's name tattooed on their arm. But there's one I remember that really took all the romance out of the biker culture for me, even back then. A biker by the name of Poet had it put on the his right forearm in big letters. You knwo what it said, "BORN TO LOSE."
I've thought of that tattoo off and on ever since I saw him get it. He's wrong and so is everyone else who has ever thought that. No one is Born to Lose. We are all born to win. We are all born to love ourselves with the proper amount of love, not because we're the perfect shape and size; not because we can do everything right; not because we can build anything or do any problem; not because we're educated; not because we have a charming personality. But simply because we are created in God's image and God's says we are loveable.
John, in his first letter tells us, "We love because God first loved us." Our lives find their strength and power and purpose through God's love. We find our value in God's love. And we find the gift of self, the wrapping may be a little worn and ragged but the gift isn't empty. And through God's love as expressed in Christ, we are empowered to love ourselves as God loves us.
III. THE GOOD NEWS:
A. And that's the Good News. God tells us we are loveable. That we've been wrong about ourselves and about the gift. It's not empty. It's not useless. It's from God. And God loves us. And to prove that love; to prove the depth and breadth and height of God's love for us, God wrapped Divinity in flesh and blood and stepped down into our world as Jesus.
B. The mother of a family was celebrating her birthday and the rest of the family was treating her to a party. When the time for the presentation of the gifts arrived, she was instructed to sit in her favorite living room chair. One by one, the father and the two older children came in from the kitchen bearing their gifts on a tray. They each solemnly presented their gift to their mother as if she were royalty. The smallest girl, was really too little to have had much of a role in the gift selection, so she had been left out of the joyous plans. But watching the process, she rose to the occasion. Just when the others thought the party was over, she appeared from the kitchen bearing the empty tray. Approaching her mother she placed the tray on the floor, stepped in the middle of it, and with a childish wiggle and giggle of joy said, "Mommy, I give you ME!"
In Jesus God was saying to the whole world and to each of us:
"I give you ME!" This is how much you are worth to me. I give you ME! This is how much I love you! I give you ME!" (3)
That uncompromising, unconditional, sacrificial love of God empowers us with the ability to love ourselves with the proper amount of self love. And we are then enabled, empowered to love others. Our lives are empowered to accept God's great gift of self, and be all that God intended for them to be. CONCLUSION:
I know you've probably seen or heard the commercial for the U. S. Army. Their theme song is, "Be all you can be, in the Army." Jesus, the Son of God, God in the flesh, came and walked among us. In giving himself for us God said, "I give you ME!" Through Jesus, God shows us, models for us the very best of humanity. Jesus calls us to be all that we can be. Jesus calls us to be Christ like. But Jesus doesn't cut us loose to have to do it on our own. Instead, the Son of God fills us with the Holy Spirit, empowering our lives to be able to accept the love of God. Empowering our lives to be able to accept the gift of self. And empowering us to live the faith. The two greatest Commandments are: "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself." It's hard, sometimes to love our neighbors because we don't know how to love ourselves. And we can't love them without first loving us. The ultimate expression of God's love proves to us that we are loveable. And that love empowers us to love ourselves with the proper amount of love, freeing us from self-doubt and freeing us to love others. The Son of God strengthens, upholds, guides and directs us. At times, when the going gets so rough that we can't possibly go on, the Son of God even carries us.
The Woman at the well couldn't love herself until she knew she was loved. We can't love ourselves with the right amount of love or the proper kind of love until we know we are loved. And we can't know that love without Christ. Christ Jesus, The Son of God gives us the gift of ourselves reminding us that we are all born to win.
Maybe you've looked at your life lately and it has looked empty. It doesn't make any difference how the gift of self was lost or how you came to that empty feeling. What matters is that you have come to the right place to have that emptiness filled. Through Christ, God says: "I give you ME!" And all you have to do is accept and let Christ empower your life. All you havee to do is say: "I accept and I give you ME! in return."
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. From THE SOURCE OF JOY, a sermon by Rev. Eric Ritz, DYNAMIC PREACHING APRIL/MAY/JUNE 1992.
2. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson, 11-27-90.
3. Charles Krieg, St. Joseph's Seminary, Princeton, NJ. Parables, Etc., March 1987.