Septuagesima Sunday February 22, 1998
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
344, 530, 349, 473
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” So far our text.
In Christ Jesus, our loving and love-inspiring Savior, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
You may be aware that this Friday is Valentine’s Day. What you may not know is that there’s a long, strange history behind the celebration of Valentine’s Day. It began, way back before the time of Christ, as a pagan holiday—it was called “The Feast of Lupercalia.” Around the year 270 AD, the holiday was Christianized in memory of a martyr, whose name was Valentine. During the middle ages, the day came to be associated with love, and St. Valentine came to be thought of as the patron saint of lovers. In the past couple of centuries, Valentine’s Day has pretty much reverted back to a secular holiday—it doesn’t really have anything to do with Christianity anymore.
Perhaps it should, though! Nobody can deny that Valentine’s Day is about love. You’ve probably heard the word “love” more times in the last two weeks than for the whole year before that. But what is love? Everybody’s talking and singing and writing about it, but just ask somebody what it is, exactly—you’ll probably get a blank stare in reply. No other human trait is so misunderstood, so hard to define. Sorrow, joy, hatred—anyone here could say what those words mean, with no problem. But the exact definition of “love”—people have a tough time with that one! And where do they go to find out more about love? They write to Ann Landers. They call up Larry King. They watch Oprah Winfrey. But that’s like “the blind leading the blind,” and nobody gets any closer to finding out what love really is.
You and I won’t be caught in that trap, though. We don’t have to go round and round searching for the meaning of love, because we have a book that defines it. The Bible—God’s inspired truth. It defines love so clearly that even the littlest child can understand it. It’s a happy coincidence that one of the historic epistle lessons for the pre-Lenten season happens also to be one of the best sections in the Bible on the subject of love. So let’s cut through the myths and uncertainties, and see what God has to tell us, this morning, about LOVE. Our theme:
When I was considering the call to serve as pastor of my first parish in South Dakota, it was described to me as “a small, quiet parish, where nothing much happens from year to year.” I soon found out that that wasn’t true. One thing that surprised and delighted me was that I was called upon to perform quite a few marriages—some twelve or fifteen in the ten years I was there. As you can imagine, I ended up spending a lot of time finding out what the Bible says about love. I can tell you, I got a big surprise. What God’s Word says about love doesn’t sound anything like what all the songwriters and Valentine’s cards say about it!
In the first place, real love is much more than just a “feeling.” To deny that love involves feelings would be silly, of course. Most everyone, at one time or another, has had the experience of feeling romantically attracted to someone. Sometimes it’s a very strong feeling. It’s what the songwriters call, “falling for somebody.” And that’s a great thing. Unfortunately, what our society keeps telling us in movies, TV and radio is that that’s ALL love is—a special feeling, which is just plain wrong. Saying “love is a feeling” is like saying “a pickup truck is a carburetor.” Now, a pickup’s got to have a carburetor—but it’s got to have a whole lot of other things, besides!
One of my favorite quotes on the subject of love comes from the famous Christian scholar, C. S. Lewis. He said, “love is not so much something you feel as something you do.” The Bible tells us that love is an action word! Did you notice anything about the text I read just now? It doesn’t say a single word about what true love feels like. Rather, it tells us how true love acts. “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Can it be that true love is always kind? That true love never involves pride or jealousy? That true love is never suspicious, and never hurts anyone? Can it be that true love always lasts forever? To me, that doesn’t sound much like the “feeling” of love everybody’s singing about these days!
Love is an action word. And if you want to see a perfect example of love, there’s only one Person to look to—our Savior, Jesus Christ. Love is what Christ did for us. Notice I said, “…what Christ did for us,” not “…what Christ felt about us.” Jesus’ love for sinners wasn’t just some kind of warm, fuzzy emotion in His heart. If that’s all it was, He could have stayed in heaven and “loved” us. No, Jesus’ love was ACTION! He knew just what kind of sinners you and I were, and He knew that something had to be done about our sin. So He did something; He took action. “Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus said, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jn 15:13. And that’s exactly what our Savior did. He came to earth to pay, with His own life, the ransom-price for our sins. Thank God Jesus’ love for us was more than a feeling, because without that payment you and I would one day be meeting each other in hell, instead of in heaven!
Perhaps the most amazing thing the Bible tells us about true love is that it has no illusions. So often we hear about someone who “fell in love at first sight” with somebody else, only to “fall out of love” later on, when they their illusions about that person were shattered, and they found out what he was really like. But the Greek word in our text for love is agape, and “agape-love” has no illusions. To have agape-love for someone means that you know everything about that person—his sins, his weaknesses and his shortcomings—and you love him anyway. The actions Jesus took in His agape-love for us are even more amazing when we realize that he was doing it for people He knew were absolutely “unlovable” sinners! In fact that’s exactly how Paul defines love in Romans 5: “Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” Rom 5:6-8.
Whenever I’ve had counseling sessions with couples who are considering marriage, we always flip to I Corinthians 13 our text for this morning, and talk about love. They always seem surprised that God would set such high standards for true love. And they are high standards—they seem almost unreachable! But I always try to remind them that there is one Person who reached those high standards of love, and surpassed them—Jesus Christ. I like to have the couple read the passage out loud, and for every time the word “love” occurs, substitute the name “Christ.” Let’s try it: “Christ suffers long and is kind; Christ does not envy; Christ does not parade Himself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek His own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; Christ does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Christ never fails.” It fits perfectly, doesn’t it? The action word love is what Christ did—and does—for us!
Love is more than a feeling. It’s what Christ did for us. And—love is what we are to do for others. True, action-style love is the greatest gift it is possible for a Christian to have. All through this part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is talking about different spiritual gifts that God gives to Christians. But love, he says, is the most important of them all. He says that if he could “speak with all the tongues of men and of angels” but didn’t have love, he’d be no better than “a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” If he were the greatest prophet in the world, the wisest man in the world, had the strongest faith in the world, but didn’t have love, he would be NOTHING.
Remember, true love is something you DO, not something you FEEL. When you get home from church today, why not try an experiment? Look up the sermon text and try substituting your name for the word “love” in those passages. I guarantee you’ll see where your work as a Christian is cut out for you! Jesus wants us to take our cue from Him. He said, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you!” Jn 15:12. And that’s a tall order. It means acting out the love we have for our fellow Christians and our neighbors in general. It means, first, applying the example of Christ’s love in the way we treat our spouses and family members, regardless of how they treat us. It means supporting the work of the Gospel—beyond a few dollars plunked in the collection plate on Sunday. It means getting involved with the troubles our fellow-members may be having, and doing our best to sympathize and help. It means showing concern for those in our community who desperately need the saving Word of life, and haven’t been getting it. According to the Bible, love is an ACTION word, so let’s take action!
It’s been centuries since Valentine’s Day was a true Christian holiday. Perhaps it’s time we made it so once again! Let’s resolve that, not only on February 14th but every day, we will remember the knowing, acting, agape-love of our Savior. And let’s resolve that we, in our lives as Christians, will carry that active love to others. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.