"God Has Never Stopped Loving Us”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – December 4, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Isaiah 40:1-11

    Ever since we were children, our parents and Sunday school teachers helped us to memorize John 3:16.  The verse begins with five words that symbolize just about all the theology we need to know to understand the true nature of God. “God so loved the world.”  A more meaningful translation comes from the spirit of the Greek language, “God so intensely loves the people living in the world that he sent his son to them.  Those who follow his son’s teachings will begin living in eternity now.”  This morning we are going to consider the nature of that intense God.

    Have you ever wondered why for thousands of years our faith-tradition has labeled people as fallen angels?  We have been labeled sinners, lost and people who have gone astray.  In fact, the Apostle Paul taught that even our best deeds can never be good enough. (Romans 3:23)  Did God create those labels or were such judgmental references the product of those who were composing our Scriptures?    

    On our first Sunday in one of the churches that I served, a mother and her three children came through the line to greet us.  As she was introducing them, she said of her one daughter, “Now this one is the dumb one.  My other two are going to make something of themselves.  We don’t know about this one.” 

    Lois and I watched the young girl wilt as she did her best to smile. When she extended her hand to welcome us, both of us wanted to put our arms around her and reassure her that she mattered to us.  To this day we have not forgotten that incident.  Would God’s love for us be any less in spite of where we are in our journey here?  Would God ever label us?                 

    The Hebrews countered this notion of original sin by establishing numerous laws that actually measured righteousness.  The Ten Commandments and the Hebrew Covenant Code are filled with “Thou Shalt Nots.”  We were created in God’s image.  Did believers get it right by thinking that obedience to laws made God’s loving spirit become visible?  Perhaps God has been sending a much different message.

    In 1977 there was a movie entitled, Oh, God, and it starred John Denver, who played the role of an assistant grocery store manager.  The gentleman that played the role of God was actor, George Burns.  The movie was filled with commonsense theology, the kind of theology that could make people stand up and cheer.   

    One of the humorous incidents took place when these two characters were riding together in a car.  God was trying to convince this young man that he was, indeed, God, the creator of the universe. The young man felt that God would not need eyeglasses to see.  He said to God, “Okay, if you are God, I want you to create a thunderstorm right now.”  This request came on a day when there were no clouds in the sky.

    He continued talking about how absurd such an idea was that this old man was God. Then there was a rumble of thunder.  The young man began to hesitate with his words.  Suddenly the rain started pelting down as a streak of lightning shot through the car.  The young man stopped talking.  He blurted out, “You made a thunderstorm happen inside my car!”  God said, “Why should I ruin everyone’s day when you are the one doing the doubting?”  The movie is an absolute delight to watch. 

    God’s purpose for coming was to invite this young man to spread the word that God loved all the people on earth in spite of where they were in their spiritual growth.  The major theme of the movie was that very few people believed that God would speak directly to a grocery store assistant manager.  The critics said, “God talks to very unique people like Bishops, theologians and pastors – people who are normally and vocationally tuned into God.”   During the movie God quickly dispelled such a notion. 

    Since God was routinely appearing to the store manager, a group of theologians and scholars gathered and created a series of questions for God to answer. They sequestered the young man in a hotel room, posted a guard at his door and cut off all outside communication.

    God appeared and the young man told him his plight.  God opened the envelope and said, “These guys are pretty slick.  They have written the questions in Aramaic.” (the native language of Jesus)  One of the questions was, “Is Jesus Christ your son?”  God answered, “Yes, Jesus was my son.  Buddha was my son. You are my son.  Everyone is my son and daughter regardless of what people have been taught.” 

    God said, “The reason I have come to you is that I want to set the record straight.  Please tell everyone that I am not angry at people.  I am not going to destroy everyone. People must learn to grow beyond their fear of me.  I am not going to ever hurt anyone.  Tell them that I love them and have given them everything they need to live a wonderful life.”  

    When we think about God trying to communicate to us, what would that look like?  How does the Spirit of God communicate to lesser spirits that are sealed inside physical bodies?  Not only are we self-enclosed entities, but we also have our own opinions, perceptions, beliefs and attitudes that make all of us different.  Many of us are distracted by issues that have nothing to do with the dimension of spirit.  Is it possible that God has been communicating since the dawn of civilization?  Is it possible that only a few people have recognized God’s language?  Absolutely!

    The prophet Isaiah was one of the prophets in our faith-history that became intimately connected to the dimension of spirit.  He wrote about what people should do to prepare for God’s coming:  “Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord!  Clear the way in the desert for our God! Then the glory of God will be revealed so that everyone in the world will see it.”  (Isaiah 40:5)  What was Isaiah talking about?  How would God come?  How were people to prepare for God’s coming?  Such questions prompted the need for a movie like Oh, God.

    It has always been up to God to make himself known.  For example, listen to what God said to the prophet, Jeremiah: “I chose you before I gave you life, and before you were born I selected you to become a prophet to the nations.”  (Jeremiah 1:4).  

    Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, appeared to need no divine prompting. Joseph intuitively knew God was with him as a 17-year old.  He was so confident of God’s presence that he knew he could bloom anywhere he was planted and believed that whatever happened to him had a divine purpose. (Genesis 45:5)

    At a burning bush God said, “Moses, Moses!  I am the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am sending you to Pharaoh.  I want you to tell him to let my people go and after that, lead my people out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:4f) 

    It appears from these examples that God has been communicating to humanity generation after generation. Why don’t we receive God’s message?  Jesus once named the problem when he told the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law that for centuries God has been trying to communicate his love for his people, but their ancestors killed the prophets and the messengers God sent.  (Luke 11:47f) 

    This morning the Candle of Love was lighted because God so loved the world that he gave us a light to brighten our path.  Whoever chooses to follow that lighted path would begin to live in eternity now.  Following John 3:16 we have the next verse, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.”  If we cannot understand the symbols God uses to communicate to us, does that mean that we are lost for all eternity?  Sometimes we do get lost.  Would love ever punish someone for that?

    One afternoon I was trying unsuccessfully to find a particular box of cereal along a long aisle filled with every conceivable variety on both sides.  Midway in the aisle there was a little boy facing the cereals with his hands over his face.  He was crying. I went over to him and got down on his level and asked him if he was lost.  He shook his head that he was.  I softly asked, “Are you here with your Mommy?”  He shook his head again.  I said, “Why don’t you and I find your Mommy?”  He gave me his hand and we walked toward the cash registers. 

    He never looked at me.  But as soon as he saw his Mommy, he ran to her.  Mommy was sobbing hysterically as the two embraced.  She said, “Oh thank you!! I was only distracted for a moment and I turned around and he was gone. I checked several aisles and he was not there.  My mind raced with my worst fears.”

    Little boys and girls wander off all the time and the reason they do is because they are curious.  They are impulsive.  As they continue to learn about life, so many things attract them. God has the same understanding about all of us.  Our biggest “sin” is that we do not know the meaning of things.  Jesus said this from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they are very limited in what they understand.”  When we begin to understand the nature of God’s love, life changes quite dramatically.

    We love the hymn Amazing Grace.  The first verse tells the story of the author’s life. “Amazing Grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  That verse puts to music the truth of God’s infinite, unconditional love that we only miss seeing because we are not looking for it.

    John Newton wrote those words in 1779.  Why? What did Newton experience that would inspire such remarkable words?  John had been the captain of a slave ship.  One day he awakened to an understanding that his human cargo, rotting beneath the decks of his ship, was also a group of God’s children.  That awareness changed his life forever. 

    The problem faced by humanity is not that we were born into sin.  God would not create damaged goods.  The problem we face is that we miss the mark on so many levels of life because we do not know how to interpret and define our experiences like Joseph did – he always knew he was where he needed to be.  We are curious beings.  Even in the Garden of Eden, the story was not just about disobedience, it was also about curiosity.

    I have often wished that all of us could die, leave our bodies and then be successfully resuscitated. Those who have had a near death experience often returned to this world completely changed because of what they experienced on the other side of the curtain. 

    God has a purpose for hiding the world of spirit from us.  There are lessons that we need to learn here by using the powers that we have.  All of us reveal our spiritual maturity by how we use that power.  If we cannot use our power wisely and lovingly while living in this form, having another form after our transition from this life will not equip us with skills we never developed.

    Some of you may have read stories about Steve Jobs, one of the founders of the Apple Computer Company.  Some authorities have labeled him as the greatest genius that ever lived.  His visionary skills gave the world computers, cellular phones, portable I-Pads and a host of other products that have made the term global truly a reality in terms of linking humanity together all over the world. 

    During his memorial service several weeks ago, his sister, Mona Simpson, told her listeners some intimate details of Steve’s life.  At the end of her eulogy she said, “Steve’s last words were these, “Oh Wow!  Oh Wow!  Oh Wow!”  We can only imagine what Steve was responding to.

    The big question for us is, “Are we receptive to God’s love?”  The answer is:  Maybe and maybe not.  Perhaps we are among those that need more evidence.  We want proof.   The truth is that God’s love will not stop communicating even when billions of people continue to live in ignorance. 

    What we do know is this:  In time everyone will know! (Jeremiah 31:34) Until that time, God’s creative and loving energy will remain steadfast in its guidance and faithful to every individual that ever lived. In celebration of one form of that love, we have lighted our Second Advent Candle in anticipation of the arrival of Christ Jesus.