Saturday, May 30, 2015

What we forgot (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13)

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends. 

Have WE forgotten WHY we exist... WHAT church is about??? I have often wondered, what the Lord thinks about the modern church? If He paid us a visit on any given Sunday, and sat down in one of our services… would He be pleased? If HE addressed US, like He did those 7 churches in the Book of Revelation, what would He say? Would He chastise us like He did the Church at Ephesus… who forgot the love they had at the first?

Tennessee Williams wrote a story of someone who forgot his first love... one Jacob Brodzky – a shy Russian Jew whose father owned a bookstore. His father wanted Jacob to go to college. But Jacob wanted nothing more than to marry his childhood sweetheart, Lila – a lovely girl filled with life and personality that balanced his seriousness.

A couple of months after young Jacob went to college, his father fell ill and died. So Jacob returned home to bury his father and marry his one true love.

The young newlyweds moved into the apartment above the bookstore and Jacob took over its management.

The life of books fit him perfectly – but it cramped Lila. She longed for adventure – and she found it when she met an agent who praised her beautiful singing voice and encouraged her to tour Europe with his vaudeville company.

Jacob was devastated. At their parting, he reached into his pocket and handed her the key to the bookstore. “You better keep this,” he told her, “because one day you will want to come home. Your love is not so much less than mine that you can get away from it. You will come back and I will be waiting for you.” She kissed him and left.

To escape his pain, Jacob withdrew to his books and took to reading as someone else might have taken to alcohol. He spoke little, DID little, and could most times be found at the large desk near the rear of the shop, immersed in his books - waiting for true love's return.

15 years passed. It was Christmastime – and Lila remembered her love for Jacob – longing for the quiet of their little lives in the bookstore. She mustered the courage to return home, remembering Jacob’s promise that he would “always be waiting for her.”

But when she walked through door, Jacob didn’t recognize her. He rose from his desk as if she was any other customer and asked, “Do you want a book?”

That he didn’t recognize her – startled her. But she gained composure of herself and said, “Yes… yes I want a book, but I’ve forgotten the name of it.” THEN she told him the story of childhood sweethearts… of a newly married couple who lived in an apartment above a bookstore… of a young ambitious wife who left in search of fame – but could never relinquish the key her husband gave her when they parted. She told him the story SHE THOUGHT would bring him to himself.

But his face showed NO recognition. Gradually she realized that he had lost touch with his heart’s desire, that he had forgotten the purpose of his waiting.

“You remember it! You MUST remember it - - the story of Lila and Jacob???”

After a long, bewildered pause he said, “There is something vaguely familiar about that story…but I’m not sure I have it.” Stunned and heartbroken, she dropped the key and ran out of the shop. Jacob returned to his desk, completely unaware that the love he had waited for all this time – had come and gone.

Jacob reminds me of the Church. When the Lord Jesus left this earth, He promised He would come again… and that during His absence, we must be about His business and until He returns.

During the wait, however, it seems we have forgotten WHAT that business IS. We have made it about buildings, programs, money, and entertainment – all the while forgetting the one thing that makes us different from all other human organizations – we have forgotten the LOVE we had when we FIRST gave our hearts to Jesus – our love for God … for each other… for lost people.

The Church at Corinth had forgotten too. Their focus, over time, turned inward – and whenever a group of people, no matter how well intentioned, loses their FIRST love – they become petty and weak.

Think back over our study. How many different things divided the church at Corinth? Remember how they fought about which preacher they loved the most? The fought about their rights to participate in questionable activities that might hurt the consciences of those who are weak. In chapter 11 they fought about the Lord’s supper and the role of women in the church. And NOW they are fighting over spiritual gifts – something intended by God to bring unity and strength - had only brought faction and friction.

THEIR problem was a LOVE problem. They, like many Christians today, had forgotten the love they had at the first.

Now let’s think about US for a moment. Think of all the difficulties this church has encountered in its relatively BRIEF history. Some of those problems have been minor – little things that are a part of working with people. Other times the issues seemed so large that it brought strife and separation. Of ALL the conflicts that you have faced as a church, how many of those came from outside sources and how many were caused internally? Hands down, our greatest conflicts are INTERNAL. WHY?? Because without the love we had at the first, we are destined to pettiness.

It was true of Corinth, and it is true of Stonebridge. When a church forgets their first love – their unity and purpose are lost. So Paul takes the Church at Corinth back to the subject of love and shows them three things.

1. Last week - he showed them the Excellency of Love in vv. 1-3. In everything we do - from our message, to our ministry, even to our gifts of money, love must be the THING that drives all we do. If we would serve the Lord Jesus and enjoy the power of God in this place, we must ... have ... love.

But after the Excellency of Love, Paul moves to…

2. The Essence of love in vv. 4-8 – what love IS. He shares 15 different qualities of love in those verses. Each one dependent upon the other. These are not merely adjectives – describing what love IS – no, they are VERBS showing us what love DOES. There are 7 positives and 8 negatives – describing in vivid fashion what love DOES and DOES NOT do.

Love IS – “patient.” People who love are patient people. They stay under control - they are NOT easily riled. In Corinthian society, much like our own, patience was seen as a sign of weakness. To THEM, a noble person had every RIGHT to be demanding. It was a virtue – a sign of strength – to retaliate when injured. But the love God requires the opposite. Those who would be like Christ do not seek vengeance when abused or insulted. As Paul said in Romans 12:17, we do not “repay evil for evil,” but as Jesus said, when slapped on the cheek we should offer them the other. Love is patient.

Love IS – Kind. While patience is willing to take from others what they give to us – kindness is what we give to others whether they deserve it or not. To be kind means to be gracious. It is a life that not only desires good for others – it labors for it.

Love rejoices with the truth. Those who say ‘love is blind' are wrong. Love always rejoices in truth – never in falsehood, it never condones wrong or compromises holiness.

Love BEARS all things – it protects. If you share something with me in confidence, I should protect that trust because I love you. When others attempt to malign you or criticize, I am to protect your reputation – I am to be YOUR defender - because that’s what love does.

Love believes all things – this is not suggesting that love is gullible – no, love chooses to believe the best about people. I shouldn’t be cynical or suspicious – accepting every bit of gossip as though it is fact. Too many Christians are quick to jump to wrong conclusions about people because they’ve lost the love they had at the first.

Love HOPES all things – we should never give up on people. When people fail, love doesn’t allow us to wash our hands of them. We should be hopeful… believing they can RISE ABOVE their failures.

AND Love endures all things – ‘endure’ is a military expression that literally means ‘doesn’t break rank.’ When the enemy assails… love never retreats, it never bails out or runs away from difficulty. RELATIONSHIPS can get messy sometimes - BUT love doesn’t disappear when life gets hard.

THOSE are the seven positive actions of love.

BUT, there are 8 things love DOESN’T do:

Love is not jealous. There are two types of jealousy – one where I want something you have – another where I don’t want you to have something you have. Sometimes it is something that is material like a house or a car. Other times it is something immaterial, like a relationship or the respect you might have. If I am loving, I should never want to take from you something that is yours.

Love does not brag – it does not parade its accomplishments. It is not conceited. While jealousy is wanting something someone ELSE has, bragging is an attempt to make someone jealous of what WE have. Jealousy pulls others down. Bragging builds up self. The two often go hand in hand with each other.

Love is not arrogant. The Corinthians were puffed up – they were arrogant – having no regard for how their actions and attitudes affected others.

Love is not rude. RUDE people only think of themselves. You show me a rude Christian – whether it is in church or in a restaurant - and I will show you a person whose heart isn’t right with God.

Love is not selfish – when people are self-centered - demanding - hard to please – they aren’t showing love.

Love is not easily angered or hot-headed – If the slightest thing sets you off… you’ve got a love problem.

Love ‘does not keep record of wrongs.’ Logizomai, a bookkeeping term that means to record a transaction in a ledger as permanent record. While it is important in business to keep good books, it is wrong when we file away every little cross word or grievance we have with others – locking it away in our memory to use it against them in the future. Love practices forgiveness.

And finally, love does not rejoice at wrongdoing. We must never celebrate evil. We must never rejoice when someone’s sin leads to their ruin. We must never be glad when our adversary is shamed.

Basically, Paul is showing us how trivial the things that divide us really are when compared to the power of love. If we would commit ourselves to loving people, the issues that seem so important to us now would fade into obscurity and we would be more concerned with unity than with our personal rights.

This is the Essence of love.

3. And then finally, after mentioning the Excellency and the Essence of love, Paul shows us the Eternality of love when he says, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

So many of the things that we get excited over are temporary. But the things that last are those things done in love.

I want you to think back over your life. Remember the stuff that really matters to you. The people who had a positive impact on you - those gestures that made you the person you are. If you could reduce them all to one quality, you’d see it was love that made that thing so special, that memory so precious, that act so life-shaping. The people in your life that really matter are the ones who love you. The people you really look up to – yep – it was an investment they made in you because they loved you.

When people think of you – how will YOU be remembered? Will your kids talk about your love long after you’ve gone? Will your neighbors, co-workers and church family recall your love? In the end, how much stuff you have, all the successes you achieved, the respect you command – means nothing. At the end of the day, how you loved is what people will remember.

Paul says - love is the GREATEST - because your love will outlive you - it will continue impacting lives LONG after you are gone.

Several years ago, I had a right-hand-man. A man old enough to be my father. We would go out on Tuesday nights and invite people to church. We were a team.

Fred became terribly ill.

As he laid on his deathbed, heavily medicated to mask his pain, I found his son standing by his bedside when I came for a visit. The son LOVED his dad. He cried as I shared what his dad meant to me. Then I looked him in the eye and said - “You want to bless your dad? You want to honor his memory? Get into church… get your heart right with God. Because it is the ONE THING your dad prayed for every day!”

Guess what??? He rededicated himself to God and got back into church!

Love did that.

Maybe it’s time we got back to the important things. Maybe it’s time we asked God to help us love people. Do you need to do that right now?