"Love Is Enough"#87-16
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 15, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matthew 22:35-40
What do I have that's worth living for? I was asking myself this question. I was 20 years old and was serving in the Air Force, and I was preparing to go to combat survival training. It was a two-week training scenario, and the scenario was that we were supposed to be air crew members who'd been shot down behind enemy lines. We crashed landed, and we were on the run. We had to survive, evade, and escape. And I had heard horror stories about this training: the lack of food, the lack of sleep, deprivations of all kinds, and I was thinking about how I would respond in the situation that this training was preparing us for. How would I respond as a prisoner of war, isolated, tortured, tempted to give in? What do I have that would be worth living for under those circumstances?
I thought about the movie, The Princess Bride. It's a movie my family watch all the time, and we love it. There's the scene at the end when Miracle Max says to Westley, Westley, who's only mostly dead, he says to him, "Hey! Hello in there. What's so important? What you got out here that's worth living for?" And then Max presses on Westley's chest and outcomes the groan, "True love."
True love, maybe that would be worth living for. I imagined myself married to Amy. Amy was this girl; I hadn't even asked her out on a date yet. We knew each other when we were little, but I hadn't even been on a date with her. But on this day before preparing to go for combat survival training, I imagined myself married to her and that maybe we had a family, and I had to get back to her—that she would be worth living for.
What about you? What do you have that's worth living for? True love, maybe? Maybe that's your answer. You say, "True love." And you know that. It's deep down in your bones, in your guts, in your soul. Love, it's the only thing worth living for. But at the same time you've got reservations about this. You've got doubts about love because love is fickle. Love is fleeting. Love is short-lived.
People tell you, "Live in the moment." And you can live in the moment, but you can't live for what is momentary because after the moment passes, so does your reason for living. And so with love it, it's momentary, at least certain kinds of love. I think about affection, the affection that I had toward my first-grade teacher. Affection comes out of proximity—being close to another person, being familiar with another person. That's how affection grows, and when you're not with that person so much, the affection goes away. It's short-lived. Or think about romantic love. The first person you were attracted to and that you would say that you love them in that romantic way. And what was that like for you? You were overcome with enchantment for that person and all your thoughts, and your desires, and your inclinations were toward that person. But how long did that last? You see, that's the way love is. It comes and it goes, how could that be worth living for? There's other kinds of love though. There's love that stands the test of time. There's love that lasts.
But on the other hand, love can go bad. You think about a love a parent can have for a child, powerful love, strong love. But if that parent won't let the child grow up, if that parent needs to be needed by that child, the parent's love in that possessive way can cripple the child and make themselves miserable in the process. I think about that character in the Stephen King novel, Misery. What does she say to her prisoner? She said, "I'm your number-one fan. You don't need to worry about anything, I'll take good care of you." Love when it's possessive like that, it goes bad. And sometimes the longer it lasts, the worse it gets. And what about love between friends? Sometimes that can go bad too, right? Love is so powerful, almost God-like. And therein lies the problem.
How does C. S. Lewis say it in that book, The Four Loves? He said, "Love having become a god becomes a demon." Love can go bad. So what do you have that's worth living for? Love. I still want to say love. There's this hopeless romantic in me calling out from behind the stage. The greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and to be loved in return. In spite of the doubts, in spite of the reservations, love is still the greatest thing. Love is fickle. Love is fleeting. Love can go bad, but it's still the greatest thing. That's because there's another kind of love, a love that's different.
There was a small group of ancient Jewish people who discovered this love. They found it in relationship with this Person, Jesus of Nazareth. One of them wrote this in a letter, "In this, God's love was brought to light among us, that God sent His one and only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. And this is love. Not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent His Son to be the sacrifice—the atoning sacrifice—for our sins. Beloved, if God has loved us, we also ought to love one another." 1 John 4.
C. S. Lewis wrote this book called The Four Loves. Lewis was an atheist, later converted to be a follower of this Jesus, and he wrote about four loves. The first three are natural loves that we had been discussing: affection and friendship and romantic attraction. But there's this fourth love, this higher love, supernatural love, God's love, the love that Jesus spoke of. Jesus was Jewish, and He was raised a Jew, and the Jewish Scriptures talk about the love of God: "The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever." Psalm 106. And yet in God, there's no need to be needed. There is no hunger to be filled. There's no preferential exclusivity. In God, there is only abundant, overflowing fullness to be shared. Read the 50th Psalm. Read the 40th chapter of Isaiah. The Scriptures tell this story of the God who doesn't need anything, loves creatures into existence, not because He needs them, but so that He can perfect them by loving them.
C. S. Lewis has an analogy. It's a little disturbing, but it makes the point. God is like a host who deliberately creates His own parasites. He causes us to be so that we may exploit and take advantage of Him. And He doesn't stop there. We begin as parasites, but that is not the end. God's goal is to make us adopted children loved by Him so that we can learn to love like Him. God's goal is to make us like Jesus. God sent Jesus into our likeness so that we would be remade into His.
An expert in the Jewish law once asked Jesus a question to test Him: "Which is the greatest Commandment in the Law, teacher?"
Jesus answered him, "Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind. This is the greatest and the first Commandment. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. The whole Law and the prophets hang on these two commands." Matthew 22.
Jesus says everything hangs on, everything hinges on, everything depends on—love. Not the fickle, failing love that creatures sometimes feel towards fellow creatures, but the love of God. Jesus calls us to love, not like the world loves, but as God loves. What's the context for this Commandment? How should you imagine it? It's not like this—to borrow an image from Jeff Cloeter's book, Loved and Sent—it's not an orphan outside in the cold and the dark with his nose pressed up against the glass looking at a family inside, wondering what he has to do to earn a spot at the table. That's not the image that you should imagine with this Commandment. Rather, it is the child has been brought in. The orphan has been adopted and given a seat at the table and now is learning how the family lives, how the family works. Before you could do anything to try to earn this, Jesus already sacrificed His life to bring you in out of the darkness, out of the cold, to give you a seat at the table. And now He is risen from the dead. He has given you His Spirit so that you could learn the family way, the way to love as you are loved. You have a reason for living, to love and be loved as you are loved. That's your purpose. If you're a part of this family by faith, this is your reason for living: to love as you are loved.
Loving like God loves is risky, though. You might not be loved in return; you might not be appreciated. You might not be happy. Ask the average person on the street what their goal in life is, and what are they likely going to say? "To be happy." To be happy! Do you know that the most popular courses at Harvard and Yale are courses on positive psychology, on cognitive wellbeing, on how to be happy? Notice the difference between those two goals, the goal to be happy and the goal to love. The goal to be happy is inward focused. The goal to love is outward focused on others. Now, sometimes people use love to try to find happiness. But if you think about it, if love is truly others focused, if it's Christlike, sacrificial love, love that gives without expecting anything in return, there is no guarantee in this mortal life that that's going to make you happy. The cross of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign of this love. God Himself suffered immeasurably because of His stubborn love for you. And so to love as God loves, you need another kind of life. True life. You need the resurrection life of Jesus. To love as God loves, you need the life that has defeated sin and death. You need the promised life that Jesus will bring when He returns to raise the dead and make all things new. If all you want is to be happy, all you'll find is yourself centered on yourself, isolated, dark, disappointed. If all you want is to be with Jesus, to love as He loves you, then through this pain of mortal life, you will find more than happiness. I promise you; you will find more. You will find eternal joy.
Let's say that you and I take love as our lifetime goal—to love as we are loved, to be sent by the God who has come. What does that look like? How does this goal shape your life? God's love doesn't remove and replace our natural human loves. God's love shapes, God's love sustains, and completes our limited loves. As C. S. Lewis once said, "Our loves are taller when they bow to God's love." God's love allows our affection to be what it was meant to be—not needing to be needed, not petty and possessive, but warm and generous. Slow to be offended, quick to forgive. God's love deepens our love for friends without ever turning us away from outsiders or strangers. God's love sustains husband and wife, even when the fire of attraction has gone out. God's love stokes the coals of romantic love in a Christ-centered marriage. God's love does the work when romantic feelings come and go.
How do you give yourself over to this ambition, this goal to love as you are loved? You don't have to imagine yourself hypothetically in love with some person like I did when I was 20 years old, trying to find a way to be motivated for combat survival school. Just look to the people around you. Look to the people that are right in front of you right now: the people in your household, the people at your workplace, the people in your neighborhood, the people in your congregation. Start with them. Be present for them. Listen to them. Listen to their stories. Take risks for their benefit. Sacrifice your happiness for their wellbeing. Pray for them. Pray with them. Love them, and let yourself be loved by them in return.
When I got back from combat survival training, two weeks later, 18 pounds lighter, and still a little shell-shocked, I got the guts to ask Amy on a date. We went ice skating, and two years later we were married. And 18 and a half years later, I have seen Jesus pour His love into our marriage, into us, and through us in ways I could have never imagined. He just keeps giving. When we have nothing to give, He keeps giving. We are loved and you are loved because God is love. We are sent. You are sent because God has come.
Would you pray with me? Lord Jesus, by Your Spirit, let me know the height, and the depth, and the width of Your Father's love for me and Your love also—Your love that led You to sacrifice Your happiness in this mortal life, for the joy that was set before You, Your love that brought You to become a Man of sorrows that I might be loved. Let Your resurrection power be in me, that I would love as You love, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for December 15, 2019
Title: Love Is Enough
Mike Zeigler: Once again, I have joining me, my good friend, Pastor Jeff Cloeter.
Jeff Cloeter: Thank you, Pastor Ziegler.
Mike Zeigler: Jeff, one of the things that I appreciate about your book is that you allow space for tragic stories. And one of the places you do this is at the end of the love story you're telling about meeting your wife Bobbie and being counselors at camp together and falling in love. But then you talk about losing a child through miscarriage. And, in the midst of that, you say that that love is proven during a time of trial. So what got you in Bobbie through this time of trial?
Jeff Cloeter: The short answer is God's grace got us through. But what did that look like? I think of very specific things. I think of the sustained hug from a sister in Christ who didn't say anything, she just was present and just hugged. When we all try to say something or make something up to say, she didn't say anything. And I remember that distinctly, and that was God's love given to us in a person. I think of the tears that we cried, but they were tears of grief with hope, not grief without hope. And those tears were actually healing in a way. We had a little memorial service, and I think of a rose on an altar and words of resurrection spoken. And the resurrection took on new life for me and really became, if I had to say why am I a Christian, you could list things, but one of them would be because of the resurrection of the dead. I am so compelled by the resurrection of Jesus and what that means for our own resurrection and this person that I've lost or any of us have lost that God is in the business of life.
I'm a fan of wine in moderation. And there's the saying that stressed grapes make good wine, so that when grapes are in tough soil in California, or actually have a little bit of drought, that actually stresses the grapes, and it makes better wine. And I find that in relationships, too. When we've gone through things, my wife and I, we go through those times, it binds us together, and we have a depth of love that we couldn't imagine.
Mike Zeigler: So love is proved in the time of trial. How would you counsel any person who's at a transitional point in their life to seek their purpose?
Jeff Cloeter: Two things in particular as it relates to calling. One is, first of all, calling means that someone else is doing the action, someone is calling you to do something. And so, as Christians, we believe God is calling us to do something. So it's not just that I get to fulfill my hopes and dreams. I really want to know what God wants me to do. Take that seriously. And then second, a question that I find helpful, a clarifying question is, what is it for which, if I don't do it, no one else can or will or very few people can or will? So it's a question of what are you uniquely qualified for? Now, easy one might be if you're married, no one else can be Bobbie Cloeter's husband except for me. I am uniquely qualified for that job. So, that's a calling.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Jeff Cloeter: But now, if the field is wide open, then it's a matter of certainly prayer, of listening to others around you who know you well, who know your blind spots, who know your gifts, and asking that question again and again: what has God built me for uniquely that no one else or very few people can really do? It's based on my place, where I'm at, my experiences, my skill sets, and I just find that a helpful and reflective question.
Mike Zeigler: At the end of the book, you reveal this practice of yours to imagine the future. So as you do that for the Christian church in North America, what do you imagine?
Jeff Cloeter: I am not a prophet in the sense that I see or can speak definitively of the future. I am incredibly excited about the future. So we're living in the 21st century, I think the future looks more like the first century than it does the 20th.
Mike Zeigler: In what ways?
Jeff Cloeter: In the 20th century in the West, we're talking about Europe and United States, North America, we had a place of privilege. We would call it Christendom, to some degree a Christian nation, you might say. Certainly, now we're more and more to the margins. We're living in a diverse marketplace of ideas and thoughts and backgrounds and religions, and that looks a lot more like the Empire of Rome. Now, many Christians throw up their hands or are panicking about this. I find it incredibly exciting. I live in no other age than this one. This is where God has placed me. I was not born in 1850. I was born for this time, as are any of you who are listening. And so that should be an incredibly exciting prospect for us. And it returns us to the first missionaries of the Christian church, to look at Paul, to read Acts anew, and see it as an adventure that the Spirit of God would work mightily in a context that we might see as difficult. We see already in some young people there's a greater zeal, a greater seriousness, with which they take their faith because they don't take it for granted because they know what they're up against. And I think our children, Pastor Ziegler, you and I, our children, are growing up in that, and we take that task seriously to raise them as missionaries for this new context.
Mike Zeigler: I like your hope. I like your optimism.
Jeff Cloeter: Most days.
Mike Zeigler: It's contagious.
Jeff Cloeter: Most days. There are days.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, you have that, one of your blogs, I think you wrote, on every tenth day I want to quit.
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah.
Mike Zeigler: Or something like that.
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah.
Mike Zeigler: So I feel that too.
Jeff Cloeter: We all have our tenth days.
Mike Zeigler: But those nine days in between, I'm usually, I feel the same. I have a lot of hope for the future of the church where we are.
Jeff Cloeter: Yes.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for writing this book and for letting us use it through this season of Advent, and God bless you in your Christmas celebrations coming up.
Jeff Cloeter: Thank you. And honored to be here and to participate.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Advent Candlelight Carol" by Page & Shafferman. (Alfred Publishing) Used by permission.
"Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)