Sunday, January 30, 2022

Sermon: “What the World Needs Now”, Jeremiah 1:4-10/1 Corinthians 13:1-10 (January 30, 2022)


Even though I stopped today’s New Testament reading at verse 10, chapter 13 actually goes on for another three verses. It compares the knowledge we have as children to the knowledge we have as adults and draws a parallel between our intellectual growth and our spiritual growth, explaining, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child.” As children, we can’t possibly know all there is to know, because we don’t yet have all the information that’s available.

When *I* was a child, everything I knew about love came from what I heard on the radio.

Well, I wasn’t exactly a child; more of a teenager. And not EVERYTHING I knew; I certainly grew up in a family that loved me very much. But as I began to understand how love can exist beyond the four walls of my home and outside the bonds of immediate family, I found myself turning to the professionals for more information: the professionals being, of course, famous musical artists.

Now, I was a strange kid growing up; my musical tastes were usually at least ten years behind my peers. I didn’t even venture beyond the local oldies station until well into high school. So one of the first lessons I remember learning out in the world about love came from the Beatles, who famously taught that “All You Need Is Love.” That made sense; people were always talking about how powerful love is, so how could you need anything else? With love, there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done, nothing you can sing that can’t be sung, nothing you can make that can’t be made, no one you can save that can’t be saved. It’s easy!

Then…my heart was broken for the first time, and I discovered that the Beatles were full of baloney. Or at least overly optimistic. Love is NOT all you need. So, I turned the radio back on and absorbed another lesson, this time coming from Patty Smyth and Don Henley two and a half decades later: “Sometimes, Love Just AIN’T Enough”. Sometimes, having all the love in the world, more than you even thought was possible to feel, doesn’t magically make life easy. The best-laid plans can still be sabotaged by logistics, or pain, or even fear. Love is a sham! Why bother?!

But then wait a minute; here comes Paul, writing from the better part of two centuries before either of these songs (my local oldies station didn’t go back quite that far), insisting that love is absolutely essential. It may not be the panacea for life that the Beatles seemed to suggest, but at the same time we can’t get by without it. Love is the gift that fuels all other gifts—in its absence, things like prophesy and knowledge and faith and generosity are all useless.

So now you’re telling me that I can’t just give up on love, because nothing works without it? Sounds suspicious. I’ve never even heard this song on any top 40 lists. Then again, lots of Paul’s greatest hits have made it into the New Testament, so he must be onto something.

Of course, Paul isn’t talking about the same kind of love that pop singers usually do, the kind that I’d been studiously investigating throughout my adolescence. No, Paul is talking about AGAPE love. Agape love is unlike other types of love (romantic, familial, collegial, and so on) in that it is utterly selfless—it’s focused entirely on the joy and wellbeing of its object. While a person might uncover enjoyment or personal benefit in agape love, it’s merely incidental and not something intrinsic to the experience. Agape isn’t based on merit or virtue or relationship; it’s entirely unconditional, universal, and given without expectation of anything in return.

No other kind of love can make these claims. In our most honest moments, we all can admit to being arrogant or rude at one time or another in our closest relationships. Few of us can completely avoid impatience and jealousy, even with those we purport to love. And I don’t care what you say, we all have a record of past complaints tucked away somewhere in our brains that magically reappears whenever those negative feelings rear their ugly heads. It's not that we don’t know how to love—it’s just that we don’t have a lot of practice with agape in particular.

See, we tend to not make it a priority in our lives. We’ve been sold on the values of personal responsibility and independence to the exclusion of all other values—including Biblical ones. So instead of practicing agape, we focus our energy in demonstrating how self-sufficient we are, how WE have it all together, and instructing others how they, too, can be as awesome as we’ve somehow managed to be.

This phenomenon doesn’t just happen on social media (although Instagram and Facebook are famous for it). Look at the default methods of evangelism these days: we talk about ourselves. How blessed we are; how much we love Jesus; how great our church is. Even I’ve been guilty of thinking that the best way to share the Good News is to demonstrate how it’s changed MY life for the better. It’s certainly not bad to share your testimony; it’s just not what the world needs most urgently right now.

Even worse, consider those who try to share the “Good News” with signs or diatribes declaring, “You are a horrible sinner!” and listing the things that you should stop doing because God (ostensibly) hates them. Certainly, we should examine our own lives and turn away from the things that God ACTUALLY hates, like injustice, greed, hubris, and apathy. But the world doesn’t need more self-proclaimed morality police right now, either.

People don’t need a sales pitch or criticism to bring them to Jesus. Lord knows there’s plenty of that in the world already. THAT’S what Paul is trying to tell us. But don’t just take his word for it. Take it from Jackie DeShannon or Dionne Warwick—after all, they’ve both been on the radio:

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love;

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love—

No, not just for some, but for everyone.”

The world doesn’t need more boasting or bragging; as the song goes, “There are [already] sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine.” The world doesn’t need more to-do lists; “There are [already] mountains and hillsides enough to climb.” And not just for the people we get along with, the people who’ve earned it, or the people who believe the “right” things, “but for everyone”.

That sure sounds like agape love to me.

Even though this song was written back in the ‘60s and reflects sentiments written by Paul almost two millennia earlier, THIS is the message that needs to be spread throughout the world right now, this universal love that puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, and endures all things. Not because of any benefit we might gain from it, but for its own sake. It may not be ALL we need, but it’s certainly at the very top of the list.

I do have one complaint about this song, though. The verses all appeal to the Lord to provide us with this love, as if God is withholding it from us. But that’s not the problem at all. Agape flowed freely throughout the world in creation, became embodied in Christ, and will endure beyond the end of time, because it’s a fundamental part of who God is. There is no existential shortage of agape. The problem is OUR inability—or unwillingness—to allow it to work through us.

Guess it takes more than the wisdom of famous musical artists to teach us everything we need to know about love.

In this, the most famous passage about agape in the entire Bible, Paul isn’t concerned with our being the RECIPIENT of this kind of love. To him, that’s a given. Instead, he’s trying to help the Corinthians understand the importance of EXPRESSING agape, using it to ground everything they do. All too often, we assume that God has a monopoly on agape love and that we don’t have the capacity to offer it to others. “I’m not Jesus!” we say as an explanation for this supposed limitation, smug in the false confidence that our apparent humility excuses our inaction.

We shouldn’t let an underestimation of our abilities keep us from doing what God is calling us to do—although that doesn’t mean we won’t try. In the First Testament, prophets repeatedly protest with the tired refrain of “Not me, Lord; SURELY you can’t expect me to do that!” Jeremiah’s resistance to his call echoes our own: “I’m only a child, God; what do I know about love?”

But this excuse doesn’t hold any water with the Lord. “I’m putting my own words in your mouth,” God says, “I knew you before I created you; I set you apart before you were even born to be a prophet to the nations.” Agape love is the primary ingredient of our creation—it’s a part of us; it’s in our DNA. As 1 John 4:19 proclaims, “We love, because God first loved us.” We don’t need to be tutored by popular music from across three decades to figure this out; we don’t need to wait until we spiritually “grow up”. We already know agape love in the deepest parts of who we are. We have no excuse.

The world doesn’t need more prophets of doom and gloom—there’s way too many of those around already. What the world needs NOW is prophets of agape love. We have ALL been called to this important role—not of receiving, but of proclaiming and sharing this divine love. The single best way for us to bring others to Christ is not by arguing them into it, but by demonstrating what God’s love is really like—unmerited, unwavering, unlimited, and unconditional. Just as you are loved (and yes, you ARE loved), you are called to practice this love in all that you do to the very ends of the earth.

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become an adult, I’ve put an end to childish things (or at least, I’m working on it). My understanding of love goes much farther now than what I learned from the songs on the radio 20-some-odd years ago. And although I certainly haven’t perfected my practice of agape love, I no longer believe that it’s merely something that I passively receive from God. It’s our collective job, all of us together, to take the breathtaking, challenging, impossible love that God has poured out on all creation and make sure that everyone knows what it feels like to be loved in this way. It’s what the world needs right now—love, sweet love. No, not just for some, but for everyone. Amen.

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