“God is Love?”
Text: Romans 1: 19-20
19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse
For the past several weeks we have been exploring the topic of the love of God. It is difficult to recap everything we have talked about, but essentially I have suggested to you that it is often helpful to think about God in non-human ways. When we look for evidence of God’s love, it isn’t unusual to begin to ask questions about what appears to us as the absence of God’s love. Human struggling, suffering, natural disasters and school shootings are just a few things that come to mind right away. There are many others. By forming an image of God that is non-human, it helps us to begin to answer some of these tough questions.
I also mentioned that we would be breaking the topic of “love” into smaller, more manageable pieces. One way to do this is to treat the word as an acronym. Last week we started this process and I looked at two words that I thought were helpful descriptors of love that began with “L”. Those two words were “limitless” and “luminous”.
Today, that means we will be moving on to the letter “O” for words that broaden our perspective and help us to understand this thing called God’s love. The two words I have chosen for today are “obvious” and “optimistic”. So let’s take a closer look, shall we?
I want to begin today with the word “obvious”. This may seem a little odd to you that it takes an entire sermon series and 6 weeks of study and conversation to define something that should be obvious to us. Well, that is sort of the point. If we were to look in the right places and understand from at least what I consider to be a healthy perspective, then the love of God is obvious. But if we fail to perceive and we fail to look in the right places, the love of God becomes elusive, indeed.
I want to reference the text I read a few minutes ago. If we are to understand the context of this text, a little background might be helpful. The first thing you should know is that Romans is considered by many theologians and Bible scholars to be the pinnacle of all the written work that is available to us from the Apostle Paul. Romans is a huge collection of theological discourse and one could spend a lifetime studying just this one letter from Paul. I don’t think it would be possible to read all the commentaries or books about this particular letter.
Having said that, a basic understanding of why the letter was written in the first place, I think, will help us understand not only the text I read a few minutes ago, but also help us with the broader understanding of our topic of God’s love.
When the letter of Romans was written there was great political strife present in Rome. There were many who hated the Jews. There were Gentiles that had become Christians, there were Jews that had become Christians, there were Jews that had rejected Christianity and almost everyone was suspicious of Caesar and the political leadership of the time. Most scholars agree this was in the mid 50’s of what is now called the “common era”. In other words, about 50 – 60 years after the execution of Jesus. Much of the letter of Romans was written to try to heal the divisions among all these different groups and the hatred and suspicion that was present among them.
With this very brief description of part of the reason Paul wrote to the church in Rome in the first place, it is understandable that Paul begins his letter by stating that God’s presence and God’s love should be obvious to everyone. Paul makes no division among Greek or Jew or Gentile or Christian or non-Christian, the emphasis in this opening passage seems to me to be about the universality of the presence of God.
So, Paul states it very plainly, and very concisely, by simply stating that the presence of God should be obvious to everyone. Because God has revealed to everyone who and what God is and that revelation has been available to everyone from the dawn of creation. It is universal and available to all. This revelation of who God is comes to us through what God has made. In my mind, that is creation, the earth, the universe, and all that is in it. God’s creation is obvious, so the love of God should also be obvious. It is everywhere we look.
So when we are looking for evidence of God’s love, we need to look no further than what surrounds us every day. The sun rises, the trees and the flowers grow, the birds fly through the air and the insects crawl around; all of this is evidence of God’s love and it is obvious. It really can’t be missed. Learning to recognize creation as evidence of God’s love may be a new experience for you and you might not think about beauty in that way at first, but with practice, it becomes a part of your own spirituality.
Learning to recognize creation as evidence of God’s love also creates within you a greater appreciation of our earth and all that is in it. That is why when we pollute or harm creation I find it so offensive. To not care for the earth is a rejection of God’s love.
The other word I mentioned a few minutes ago is optimistic. To truly understand what I mean by optimistic, you first need to understand creation and how things work in the natural world. In nature nothing ever really dies, it is recycled. Everything is useful and everything contributes to the greater good. When a plant or an animal ceases to be in the form that it once was, that doesn’t mean its usefulness has ceased. It simply means that it now has a new purpose. In this way, nature is very optimistic because with every ending comes a new beginning, with every event comes a change of purpose and with every death comes new life.
To fully comprehend this, a walk through a forest is a good teacher. As you walk through a forest, you see a number of trees that are dead, both fallen and those still standing. If you observe closely, you will discover that the dead fallen trees serve a different purpose that the dead trees that are still standing. From both kinds of dead trees, new life springs and life is sustained. The energy present in any living thing is never destroyed, it is only recycled from one form into the next. This is what eternity looks like in nature.
When Jesus was in ministry here on earth and he spoke of God’s love and the connection of that love to our own eternal presence, I’m pretty certain he didn’t mean we would never die physically. There is a rather famous scripture in John, you may have heard of it that speaks of eternal life. John 3:16 states that our acceptance of the love of God leads us to eternal life. In my mind, that also means that through an understanding of the eternal nature of creation, we can also see our own mortality, not as an ending, but rather a transformation from one purpose into the next. This is an extremely optimistic point of view. We are eternal beings and as such we are engaged in one particular type of purpose at this time, but when that purpose is over, we transition into the next purpose.
When we consider the forest again and we see a fallen tree or a tree stump that is covered in moss and lichen and mushrooms and perhaps a few new shoots of new tress are growing from the fallen tree, do we think to ourselves, “oh, how sad that the tree is no longer standing”? I don’t think we do. We view the fallen tree as a natural progression of how things work and see the fallen tree serving its new purpose to sustain the life and growth of other things in the forest. This is optimism defined.
When we consider the trees in the forest we know and understand that in a storm for example, some will stand while others may fall. Both are necessary and both are expressions of God’s love. We may view the fallen tree as somewhat tragic or perhaps a calamity if it happens to fall in the city on a car or takes down some power lines, but that is our human context projecting onto the tree an emotion that really isn’t present. A tree that is standing or a tree that has fallen are both expressions of God’s love.
Here is why this matters. As we go through life we often wish for a different circumstance or we pray things will turn out a certain way. When they don’t, we are disappointed and we question God’s love. Why is this happening to me we may ask in desperation, doesn’t God hear my prayers? What is wrong with me that God is punishing me? What did I do to deserve this?
To understand the fallen tree in the context of eternity and in the context of a new and renewed purpose is the beginning of understanding the answer to some of these hard questions. Can you imagine a tree having feelings about whether it stands or falls during a storm? Is there any emotion present in what happens in a forest? And yet, the forest is a shining example of God’s love.
Let me remind you of one other text that I believe is speaking to this level of understanding. It is found in Philippians, chapter 4, verse 16.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
We are to be thankful in all circumstances because when our circumstances change, it may mean a change of purpose and a change of service for us and that is all part of the eternity in which we participate. Without a change of purpose, without the recycling of energy present in nature, without the cycle of life displayed in the plant and animal kingdoms, eternal life would not be possible.
When God promises eternal life, God also promises that your circumstances and your purpose will change and change again and again and again. God’s love is obvious if you walk through a forest; it is also optimistic when you consider that nothing in that forest ever really ends.
Food for thought. Go in peace, Amen.