(Preached at Alger First UMC on 9/20/2015)
Scripture: 1 John 4:7-12
Have any of you ever gotten obsessed with a someone famous, like a movie star, athlete, musician or band, or anything like that? Not in a creepy way, but you just get in this mood where you want to know everything about them? Has that happened to anyone? It has to me.
In high school, I was obsessed with Miles Davis. Does anyone know who that is? Miles Davis was a jazz trumpet player who started playing in the late ‘40s and kept performing all the way up until the late ‘90s. He made a lot of really good music. I discovered him in high school, found that I liked his music, and started listening to more of his music, learned some about his life, and found out that he led a fascinating life, and started getting kind of obsessed with listening to his music, finding out about his life. I read his autobiography through twice during my senior year. So I knew a lot about Miles Davis-I knew what kind of trumpet he played, what kind of mouthpiece he used, the names of all his major albums and the other musicians he played with. But I never claimed that I knew him. You see the difference?
I had a friend in college named Matt. We were both music majors, we were in a lot of the same classes and ensembles, and we ended up rooming together for the last two years of college. Now I knew a lot about Matt-he had a peanut butter allergy, he was obsessed with Dr. Who, loved to eat bacon just like me. But I also knew him as a person. Beyond knowing about him, I really knew him and who he was. You see the difference?
Now I’m sure that you’ve had the same kind of experience, maybe not to the level of obsession. But maybe at some point in time you’ve tried to find out everything you can about someone famous. Especially with the presidential campaigns heating up, maybe you’ve tried to find out a lot about your favorite or least favorite candidate’s life. But even if you know a lot about them, you still don’t really know them, right?
Now, think of your best friend. You probably know a lot about them, right? Their job, their hobbies, their interests, things like that. But you also know them as a person, right?
See, I think too often in our faith in God and Jesus, all we want to do is know about God, you know? You want to know things about what God says in the Bible, how God has worked in other people’s lives, things like that. But I think that many times, we stop short of letting that knowledge seep past our brain. I have four weeks of seminary under my belt and I’m already learning a lot about And that’s good and necessary-I need that. But our faith says that we can know God like we know our best friend. The God we worship is a God we can know.
So we’re on week 3 of this series we’re doing on this thing called evangelism. And what we’re talking about this week is that living an evangelistic life requires knowing God. The message that we have for people is that they can know God and be known by God. So let’s see what the Bible has to say about that, alright?
Could you turn with me to 1 John 4:7-12? While you’re turning, I want to point something out. While I’m sure that a lot of us want to know God, past knowing about God, I think we can all agree that that’s not an easy task, right? God is not physically present. I mean, we can talk about how the Holy Spirit is in this place and is present with us in the truest sense-and that is true. But we can talk about that all we want, but the truth is that God is not physically present with us, so that makes it a little difficult to get to know God, right? But I think we’ll find some help in this passage from 1 John.
“Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.
Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.” (1 John 4:7-12, CEB)
So what 1 John tells us is that we can know God through love, right? That’s simple enough to say, but I think we have to unpack that a little bit
The passage is basically saying that God is love. When love is present, God is present. When love is not present, God is not present. Therefore, if you want to know God, then you’ve got to love. If you don’t love, you don’t know God and you won’t be able to know God. Can we get our minds around that?
Now, love is kind of a funny thing. There’s a theologian named Frederick Buechner who has a really great thought about love that I’d like to share with you.
“Love is not really one of a person’s powers. Humans cannot achieve love, generate love, wield love, as they do their powers of destruction and creation. When I love someone, it is not something that I have achieved, but something that is happening through me, something that is happening to me as well as to [the other person]. To use the old soap-opera cliché seriously, it is something bigger than both of us, infinitely bigger, because wherever love enters this world, God enters.” (Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat)
Through God entering the scene in the act of loving, we can know God. That’s the truth here. In loving each other, we come to know God because God has already entered the scene. As we love more and more, we come to participate with God in the work of loving more and more, and through that we come to know God. Does that make sense?
Now, understanding this whole bit about knowing God through love is great, but how does that play out? It seems like a really heady concept, how do we get a handle on this? John Wesley, the found of Methodism, answered this question by saying that in order to know God through love, we had to practice what he called works of mercy and works of piety. So let’s unpack what those mean, ok?
So works of mercy is just another way of saying doing nice things for people-showing love to others, right? For the individual, this means doing things like visiting people who are sick or are in prison, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, doing works like that. When we do works of mercy, we love others with the love that we’ve experienced through God. And in that, God has entered the scene. So doing works of mercy helps us to know God more by helping us to grow in our compassion, they help us to learn to receive as well as to give, and they help us to see other people as God sees them-beloved children of God. And through that, we come to know God more through love.
Works of piety is just the 18th century way of talking about spiritual disciplines-personal or communal acts of worship that open ourselves up to experience the love of God. Wesley talked about several specific works of piety-studying and meditating on the Bible, praying, fasting, attending worship, Communion, and being in relationship with other Christians.
It’s kind of like your relationship with your best friend. To stay friends, you have to be present with the friend, right? You have to spend time together, talking, listening, hanging out, right? That’s what things like praying, fasting, and attending worship do-you’re present with God, hanging out with God, talking and listening to God.
But with your best friend, as you hang out with them and talk and listen to them, you find out more about their story, who they are, what makes them who they are, right? That’s what things like studying and meditating on the Bible, participating in Communion, and praying do-you find out more about who God is, what God’s story is, what God’s like, all that stuff. Does that make sense?
Now, while we’re talking about these works of mercy and works of piety, it’s important to understand that we do not practice these things to earn us points-we don’t do these things to earn God’s love. This is the work we have to do for us to stay in a relationship with God and know God. If you only talked and paid attention to your best friend for maybe an hour a week, how long would you stay best friends? Not long, right? So what do you think happens when we do that to God? So that’s why we do these things-praying, fasting, studying and meditating on the Bible, attending worship, participating in Communion, staying in relationship with other Christians-so that we can stay in a healthy relationship with God.
But now we have to ask why we do those things. Why did Wesley put so much importance in the works of mercy and piety, and why have United Methodists continued to do so? Because this is how we know God-through loving others and through loving God. The God of the world, of the cosmos, of the entire creation, the all-powerful all-knowing God who is in all things, the God who is powerful enough to create galaxies with a blink of the eye, we can know that God. Is that crazy to you? Because that’s insane to me. But I want to take it a step further.
Not only can we know God, we can be known by God. That amazing, expansive, unfathomable God of love and grace and glory and mercy and justice, we can be known by that God. In fact, we are already known by this God. This God knows us-I mean really knows us. This God who we worship here already knows you better than you know yourself. And for me, that’s what makes this whole idea of knowing God matter. Because it’s great that I can know God like I know my best friend through doing those works of mercy and works of piety-it’s great that I can know God, but unless I know that God knows me and wants to get to know me, then it doesn’t matter. Unless I know that God knows me and wants to get to know me better, unless I know that God wants to be friends with me, then I’m not really interested in getting to know this God. If God didn’t want to know me, then this would be a one-sided relationship, right? I’m trying to get to know God more and more, but if I’m not getting anything from God, then I’m not going to try very hard.
But see, the beauty of our faith is that God knows us. God knows us to the core of our being-God knows your joys, your pain, what gives you life and what kills you inside. God knows what you struggle with. And it’s not that God knows in a creepy and condemning big brother type of way, right? It’s not that God knows all of this and is saying “Wow, you really messed up there.” No, the beauty is that God knows you past all of your baggage. God knows you past all of your insecurities and fears and worries and problems. God sees past all of that and sees who you really are-as the wonderful, beautiful piece of creation that you really are, the absolutely loved daughter or son of God.
That’s the beauty of our faith. The fact that we can know God AND that we are known by God-that’s amazing. That’s groundbreaking. That’s revolutionary. You are intimately known by the God of the universe, and you can know this god as well.
So why does any of this matter? We’re still in our series on this thing called evangelism, so how does this apply to what we’ve been talking about? The first week of this series, we talked about how Jesus has called us all to share with others our experience of transformation in the Gospel. We are called to share our faith. Last week, we talked about how this thing called evangelism, sharing our experience of transformation and salvation, happens within a community, and it’s a community’s job to practice this thing called evangelism, not the individual. But this week, I realized that none of that can happen if we don’t know this God we’re supposed to be talking about.
The message that we have for others when we share our faith is that they are known by God and that they can know this God. But in order to really share that, we have to know this ourselves.
So my question for you is this: Do you know that you are known by God? Do you know that God already knows you, accepts you, and loves you? Whether or not you even believe in this God that we talk about or in Jesus or anything that any church or Christian talks about, you are known by this God. Do you know that?
Another question: Do you know God? Or do you just know about God? Has the knowledge of God seeped out of your brain and penetrated your heart? Or do you just know a lot about God without really knowing God?
Think of all the discord and problems that are caused by people searching for someone to know them and trying to make themselves known. Think of all the problems that are caused by the insecurity that a lot of us feel that might be caused by us simply not knowing that we are loved. And think of all the problems that could be solved if we would stop searching for someone to know us and rest in the fact that God knows us and loves us and we know God and love god. Think of everything that would go right if we knew that we were really and truly known. I think that’s revolutionary, don’t you?