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"I Love You to Death"

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          May 9, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: Romans 5:1-11

1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.  11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Strange Turns of Phrase

It's hard to express certain things in words. Whether we're trying to describe a stunning sunset, or a profound feeling of gratitude, or a gut-wrenching emotion, words often seem to fail us. That's why we often fall into hyperbole - the technical term for exaggeration. "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," we say, without really thinking we could consume a thousand pounds of food, or without any desire to hurt some poor animal, or without any particular love of horsemeat.

Speaking of love, here our words quickly run out of gas, leaving us stranded on the highway of affection. So we end up saying things like, "I love you so much I could just eat you up." Often we say this sort of thing to young children, which worries me a bit. You know, they do go through fairly literal stages in childhood. The "eating you up" part might be rather off-putting to some toddlers.

Sometimes when we're filled with adoration for someone we say we say, "I just love you to death." I wonder what exactly we mean by this? Are we back in the "eating-up" mode? I love you so much I could kill you? I doubt it. Don't we rather mean something like, "I'll always love you, until the day I die" or perhaps "I love you so much I'd give my life for you" or maybe even "Death itself can't make me stop loving you"?

God Loves You to Death

Today's sermon has a simple point: God loves you to death. That's it. God loves you to death. And how can you know this to be true? Because Christ died for you.

That's what we learn from Romans 5. Let's examine a few verses from this text. First, we read, "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (5:6). Here's the spiritual diagnosis of your condition outside of Christ: weak and ungodly. You are weak in that you can't save yourself, you can't set yourself free from sin, you can't earn a relationship with God on your own merits. Moreover, you are ungodly in that you think and feel and live in ways contradictory to God's will for you. To paraphrase verse 6, "Apart from Christ, you've messed up your life and there's nothing you can do to fix it."

Yet this is when the good news breaks in: "at the right time Christ died for the ungodly." When you were drowning in deep water, flailing away without hope, at just that time Christ reached out to save you. Of course he didn't merely throw you a rope, but rather exchanged places with you, drowning in your ocean of sin so that you might enjoy his place of safety.

At this point in Romans 5 Paul tosses in a thought that seems almost an aside: "Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die" (5:7). Here is a true observation on human nature. Some folks might actually risk or even give their lives to save someone worth saving, but not to save someone who was truly evil. Of course Paul isn't wanting to get into a debate about the probability of self-sacrificial altruism here. He's really just setting up the next verse.

This next verse is one of the greatly loved and most frequently memorized verses in all of Scripture, and for good reason. It puts in a nutshell one of the greatest of all truths, including the reason for Christ's death on a cross. So here's the verse: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (5:8). Now you see the point of the previous verse. If we were really great and wonderful and virtually sinless people, it might be possible to understand Christ's sacrifice as something we actually deserved. But in fact we're not that kind of people. We're sinners. We're people who have chosen to disobey God and to dethrone him from his rightful rule over our lives. Even more strikingly, as we read in verse 10, outside of Christ we are God's "enemies." We oppose God and his ways.

Therefore, Christ's death for us is not something we in any way deserve. Quite the opposite is true. So the fact that Christ died for us proves that God loves us. Only his love explains such an extraordinary and undeserved sacrifice.

So this is the point. The problem is that we can grasp this point with our minds yet miss it with our hearts. How, I wonder, can the truth of this good news penetrate to the core of our being? Sometimes, it seems to me, human examples and stories have the power to take the truth from mind to heart. That's one of the reasons why Jesus told parables. So, in the remainder of this sermon I want to tell three stories which, I hope, will help you fully to grasp God's love, or, rather, fully to be grasped by God's love for you.

A Mother Who Loves to Death

It was just about bedtime when my phone rang. There had been an emergency call to the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, and I was the pastor on call. The operator informed me that Mary, a member of the church, had asked for immediate pastoral assistance because her child had just died.

Jumping into my clothes, I sped off in my car to a hospital several cities away. I was thankful that I had some idea who Mary was. In a church of over 4,000 members you couldn't count on this. But Mary had been involved in the young adult group, so I knew her enough to say "hello." Yet I couldn't ever remember seeing her with a child, so I was shocked to hear that her child had died.

When I got to the hospital, I was directed by the nighttime staff to a dark, quiet corridor. There I found Mary, just outside of her son's room.

"Thank you so much for coming," she said. "I really needed to pray with someone." As Mary and I sat in the hall, she told me the heartbreaking story of her son, Jimmy. He had been born with multiple physical and mental handicaps. His life of seven years had been marked with countless surgeries and therapies. Mary had spent much of her life in hospitals and long-term care facilities, comforting and encouraging Jimmy. He wasn't able to be around other people, so that's why I had never seen Mary with him at church.

After we talked for a while, Mary and I went into the room where Jimmy's body lay. All the tubes and wires were still connected to him, and I was shocked by what I saw. He was tiny, much smaller than a normal seven-year-old boy. His little body was badly twisted and deformed. I found it difficult even to look at him without wincing. But not Mary. She looked upon him with eyes of uncompromised love. She touched his face and spoke quietly to him, even though he couldn't hear anymore. She tenderly kissed his cheek many times. Mary told me how much he had meant to her, and how much she would miss him.

As I stood there, I realized that she loved with kind of love that was far, far beyond any love I had ever given to anyone. It was the undeserved, unabashed, unquenchable love of a mother for her child. Whereas I saw Jimmy as someone marred in his appearance, almost beyond human semblance, Mary saw him as a beautiful, lovely human being. Jimmy had not earned her love with his handsomeness or his human achievements. Mary loved him simply, freely, graciously, all of Jimmy's life. Had she been able to do so, Mary would have exchanged places with Jimmy that night, dying so that he might live. Mary loved her precious son with all she had. Truly, she loved him to death.

Sisters and brothers, in Mary's love for Jimmy I saw a stirring picture of God's love for you and me. God loves us, not because we're beautiful, not because of what we've accomplished, not because of anything we've done, but because he is a God of love. In fact, God is Love, according to 1 John 4:8. This means that no matter how ugly you might feel today, no matter how unworthy, no matter how imperfect, God loves you. He sent his son to die for you. That's the proof.

A Father Who Loves to Death

Of course the story of Mary and Jimmy doesn't quite fit our text from Romans, because Jimmy was a terribly wounded but otherwise lovable little boy. In his short life, and in spite of his many limitations, he had received his mother's love and loved her back.

That's not how it is between us and God outside of Christ. Romans 5 makes it clear that we are "ungodly" and unworthy of God's love. We are, in fact, God's enemies, rebelling against him and his authority over our lives. We have done countless things to insult God, rejecting his love and counsel. And yet, even then, Scripture tells us, God loves us so much that Christ died for us.

As a pastor I've also seen a human picture of this kind of love when a father came to visit me in my office at Hollywood. He wanted to talk about the challenges he faced concerning his grown son. This boy, now around twenty years old, was the classic "bad boy." Early in life he had been rebellious, always getting in trouble at school and impossible to deal with around the house. In his teenage years he began to dabble with drugs and promiscuity. Soon he was smoking dope all the time and selling it to others. His sex life was a scandal. Though his parents were strong Christians and active in church, he had nothing to do with their "stupid God" and "stinking Christianity." (His language was actually not nearly as clean as mine.)

When this father came to see me he was a broken man. He knew he'd made many mistakes as a parent, mistakes for which he had repented time and again. He knew his son had made choices that led to many of the hardships that had come his way: legal trouble, disease, heartache. This father did not come to complain to me about life's unfairness or God's seeming distance from the situation. Most of all, he wanted me to pray with him for his son, to ask God for mercy.

And so we prayed. As we did, this father began to cry. As I listening to him weep before the Lord, I witnessed a love that astonished me. Even given all that his son had done to dishonor and hurt him, this father loved his boy with all his heart. He cried out to God for mercy for his beloved son. I think he would have literally given his life if his son could be saved.

My friends, this is how God loves you, just like this father, only many times more. Now I realize you may not like this analogy. "Hey, I'm not so bad as that son," you may want to so. And from one perspective this may be true. But from God's holy perspective, your sin has separated you from him and, believe it or not, has been an attack on God himself. Yet, as horrible as this may be, God still loves you, and not just a little. He loves you so much that Christ died for you. He loves you to death.

One Other Picture of Parental Love

I couldn't preach this sermon without mentioning one other picture of parental love. This one is fictional, but it's the kind of fiction that can pierce your heart and change your life. It's a story told by Jesus, the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son, which should really be called "The Prodigal Father."

I'm sure most of you remember the gist of the parable. A son decides it's time to leave his father's household and make his own way in the world. In the time of Jesus, this by itself would have been quite an insult to the father. But then the son makes an astounding request: "Let me have my part of the inheritance right now," he demands. The implication, one that surely isn't lost on the father, is: "I don't want you, Dad, I want your money. In fact, I'd just as soon consider you as dead. So fork over the dough!"

Just about any father in the time of Jesus would have boxed his son's ears and told him to shape up or he wouldn't get any inheritance. But in Jesus' story the father does an astounding - one might say, prodigal - thing. He gives his son his portion of the inheritance. Of course the son charges off, living lavishly and lasciviously for a season. But when his money runs out and the friends he had previously bought run away, the son ends up virtually starving to death while feeding the pigs.

Then, ever the self-absorbed one, the son devises a plan. He'll return to the father and ask to become one of the father's servants. Now this might seem humble enough, but think about it again. If the son's plan works, he'll be continually there to remind the father of what had happened. The neighbors will talk about the scandal in the household, the son who lives as a servant. The father's honor will be even more besmirched in this case. But the son never thought all that much about his father's interest in the past, so why begin now? All he cares about is himself. He's the last one on earth to deserve the love of the father.

But what happens when the son returns home? Let me use Jesus' own words here because they are so incredibly powerful: "But while [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him" (Luke 15:20). My friends, this has to be one of the most astounding, profound, and moving verses in all of Scripture. What a picture Jesus paints of the father: seeing the son while he is still far off, implying that the father has been looking and looking for his son, scanning the horizon for months and months in the hope of seeing his beloved boy again. And when he sees him, then what? Righteous anger? A plan to put to boy in his place? A ploy to make the son come and beg? Nothing of the kind! Rather the father runs to his son. Runs! Nothing that an older, honorable man in that culture should have done. Yet he runs with abandon, runs with joy, runs without outstretched arms to embrace his boy and kiss him.

This, Jesus says, is what God is like. This is how God sees you. This is a picture of God's desire for you, as you come back to him. You come to God in repentance; he comes with joyful forgiveness. You come to beg; he comes to give. You come to bow; he comes to embrace. You come in fear; he comes in perfect love.

A Perfect Picture of Love

In all of Scripture, this picture of the father in Luke 15 is one of the most powerful, poignant, and precise pictures of God's love for you. In fact, I'd argue that this is the second most compelling picture of divine love in the whole Bible. There's only one other image more gripping than this, it's the image of Christ on the cross. It's the picture of Christ bearing your sin so that you might be forgiven. The cross is the ultimate statement and symbol of God's love for you. "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." There it is. That's why Christ died. He died to express God's love for you. And he died to show you just how much God loves you.

My friends, there is nothing better in life than knowing God's love given through Jesus Christ. If this is something you don't know, then I'd urge you to be like the Prodigal Son, and turn to God. When you do, the Heavenly Father will run to embrace you, to forgive you, and to invite you into fellowship with him. If you haven't done so before, turn to God today!

And if this is something you've done before, then let me encourage you to keep on living each day in God's love. It's so, so easy to you're your relationship with God into a legalistic enterprise whereby you try to earn his love. But this is not God's way. We live according to his standards, not to earn his love, but as a response to that love freely and fully given in Christ. Moreover, when we live each day in the love of God, then we'll give it away to others. We'll be people of patience, compassion, and forgiveness. We'll love others, not because they deserve it, but because we ourselves are filled with the love of God, poured into our hearts through the Spirit. So, my friends, if you've come to know God's love through Christ, live in that love!

Why did Jesus die on the cross for us? What was the point? "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." There, that's the point!

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