01-26-2014 message by Pastor Rich Doebler

Since the beginning of January, we’ve been talking about having hearts that are “open” to God. And really, that’s an attitude we need to have all the time! Throughout the year—whatever the season, whatever is on our plate—we should aim to keep our hearts open to God.

A lot of people have hearts that are “closed” to God, which is just a way of saying that they have shut them out of their lives. They might respect him, but they don’t want him intruding into their affairs.

So he’s knocking, but they’re not about to let him in. They’re afraid he’s going to come in like an unwanted, over-bearing guest who insists on having his own way. They’re afraid he’s going to stay for dinner and ask for a certain kind of food (no carbs, gluten-free)—probably even tell them to change their eating habits. They’re afraid he’s going to rearrange their furniture, clean out their closets, and even pick TV channels he prefers.

A heart that is “closed” to God has walls around it, locked doors and windows. A closed heart wants to be independent, in charge, in control. A closed heart keeps up its defenses. It’s guarded. It doesn’t want to be vulnerable.

So if you’ve ever felt afraid that God might want to be in charge of your life—afraid that he might ask you to do something difficult—well, that’s a symptom of a closed heart.

If you’ve worried more about what he might take from you instead of wondered about what he might give to you—well, that’s a symptom of a closed heart.

The problem is that closed hearts—defensive, guarded, independent—have shut the door to the better things that God wants to do in them and for them. Closed hearts have limited the blessings and joys.

It’s like spiritual agoraphobia. Studies estimate that approximately 2.2% of Americans (3.2 million) suffer from agoraphobia—where they are so anxious about being in public or crowded places, that many of them shut themselves up at home and refuse to go out—sometimes for years at a time.

That’s what some people do spiritually. They shut themselves up to the possibilities of a life with God—an abundant life, lived to the full. They isolate themselves from God’s blessings.

Do you know that some theologians describe hell as “eternal separation from God”? If that is true, then the person who closes his heart to God is choosing a little “hell” now—and is on a path that will lead to an eternal separation from God.

We don’t want that! We don’t want closed hearts. We want “open hearts”—

We need hearts open to what God is doing. Open to step out in faith. Open to believe for God’s best. Lam 3:40-41 (TEV) “40 Let us examine our ways and turn back to the Lord. 41 Let us open our hearts to God in heaven and pray…”

So today I want to shift gears just a bit and begin to explore how having our hearts open to God can also improve our relationships with others who are around us.

If we can grasp more of what it really means to be open to God’s love—if we can be influenced and shaped by his love, that understanding will spill over into the way we think, the way we live, the way we act toward others.

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in Sunday school: My cup is full and running over. And that always seemed weird to me! I mean, if I poured milk at the dinner table until the milk ran over onto the table, that wasn’t good. It made a mess! I had to clean up the spill. So why would we want to overfill our cup and spill the milk? It’s because we’re talking about God’s love—not milk.

When David wrote (in the 23rd psalm) “my cup runneth over” (v 5), he was talking about an overflow of God’s blessings and provisions—he wasn’t talking about a mess.

When he wrote “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (v 6), it was a picture of carrying a bucket so full of mercy that it was always splashing out on to others—he couldn’t walk down the path without spilling mercy all around. Mercy and goodness followed him everywhere.

So if we truly open our hearts to God’s love—if we let down our defenses and welcome him in—then we can expect an amazing, abundant, overflow of his supernatural love. And when we experience his love to the full, it can’t help but spill over on to others.

So for the next few weeks we want to talk about The Look of Love from the perspective of God’s Word, focusing on several key relationships…

  • Love your neighbor
  • Love your spouse
  • Love your enemy
  • Love your God

Love! You could look it up in a dictionary and find a lengthy, wordy definition. I’m guessing it would be a pretty good description.

But that clinical definition—dry, sterile words on a page—will not come anywhere close to capturing the sensation of love: the giddy, light-headed emotions; the heart-pounding, hormone-fueled, magnetic attraction that we call “falling in love.”

Poets have tried for centuries to describe the feeling of being in love. Singers have sung countless songs about love and romance. Psychologists have tried to analyze it and understand it.

Men have fought and died for love. Nations have gone to war for love. Legend says that love for Helen of Troy sparked the Trojan Wars—that the beauty of her face launched 1,000 ships.

Some have gone insane because of love—others merely became slightly unhinged.

They say, Love is blind…What the world needs is love…Love makes the world go round…

They say, You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince…

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said: “My advice to you is to get married. If you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher.” (There’s no record of what Socrates’s wife had to say about that.)

Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics: “A bell’s not a bell ‘til you ring it / A song’s not a song ‘til you sing it / Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay / Love isn’t love ‘til you give it away!”

CS Lewis examined ancient Greek words translated as “love” in the NT to describe four kinds of love: (1) deep friendship, (2) affection or fondness, (3) romantic love, and (4) unconditional love (agape).

So when we say we’re going to talk about love, we should acknowledge right up front that we’re only going to skim the surface of the topic.

We live in a world obsessed with the idea of love. The world uses the word, love, to describe all sorts of behavior and feelings—and the world often distorts the concept!

So “love” for pizza sounds the same as “love” for country—only I don’t think many would be willing to die for pizza. Someone says, “I love that movie,” and a mother says “I love my child,” but you cannot compare those two feelings in any way.

With “love” used in all those ways, it’d be good if we could come back to an understanding of what God has to say about love. Three base line observations:

1. God is love. (1 John 4:8)

We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Without God, we would be unable to love.

Left to own devices, we’d be loveless. We’d be completely self-absorbed and inwardly focused. Sin, which is our natural, fallen condition, compels us to put ourselves first—pushing and shoving to the front of the line. Our nature is to look out for #1.

However, God intended for us to live a better way—to love others by reflecting his love: to love by giving to others, by caring for others, by lifting others up—to love by looking beyond ourselves and our own interests so we can fulfill God’s higher calling.

We love because he first loved us. Without God, we’d be unable to love.

If we can see the light of the moon, it’s only because the sun is shining. Without the sun, the moon would be dark. Moonlight is only possible because of the sunlight. In the same way, without God’s love, we’d be dark as well. No light—no love—can shine from the person who has not been touched by the light of God’s love.

We talk about loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength—the most important commandment (which we’ll come back to later in this series of messages).

When Jesus reminded his followers of that OT principle, he also said that the second most important commandment was to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27).

Which leads us to a second truth…

2. If we love God, we’ll love people. (1 John 3:16-17; 4:8,11-12)

In fact, we can say that our love for others reveals how much we really love God! When you love those around you, you’re demonstrating your love for God.

If I don’t love my neighbor, you can legitimately question my love for God.

So you’re probably thinking, “That’s all well and good, but how far do we have to take it? Who is my neighbor? What’s the best way to show love? How can we tell if we’re doing enough?”

3. Love your neighbor as yourself.

So let me ask you: How do you love yourself?

Self-love is not generally a problem for most people.

  • Self-focus is automatic. Our world view or persective begins with a self-centered point of view.
  • Self-preservation is instinctive. We are wired for survival—to protect ourselves.
  • Self-promotion is natural. We thrive by competition—coming out on top.

Jesus wasn’t really telling us that we ought to love ourselves. He was assuming that most of us already love ourselves quite well.

When we do something wrong, we’re a lot more sympathetic to our own weaknesses. We’re more understanding. More patient. We extend grace to ourselves in situations where we wouldn’t normally extend grace to others.

When one of my kids was quite small, we were shopping one day in a large Fleet Farm store in the northern suburbs. As we were pulling away from the parking lot, I discovered that my child had picked up some candy in the check-out line without paying for it. I hit the roof! My 4-year-old was turning into a shop-lifter, a thief, a kleptomaniac. “We’re going to have to go back,” I announced.

I turned back into the parking lot so this kid could face the consequences as soon as possible. So instead of parking on the far side of the lot, and knowing that we were only going in for a minute, I parked in the handicapped parking spot right next to the door. Sure enough, some guy yelled at me, “Hey! You can’t park there! That’s for handicapped parking only.”

By this time I was fuming. Really irritated. So do you think I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll go find another parking spot.”

No. I went on the defensive immediately. I could easily rationalize why I should park there. I felt I was justified. That guy didn’t understand what I understood. He didn’t know that only extreme circumstances would ever cause me to break the law. He didn’t know that we were at that moment teetering on the edge of juvenile delinquency and a life of rebellion.

You see, when it comes to loving ourselves, we’re much more patient and understanding. If the roles had been reversed, I could easily have denounced him for parking in the handicapped spot—without stopping to ask myself, “I wonder if he’s having a bad day. I wonder if he’s just gotten some devastating news. I wonder if he just suffered a major setback.”

So God, who knows our nature, gave us a standard: we should love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves: with patience, understanding, empathy—with good assumptions instead of bad.

In spite of the more typical self-centered view, however, some have difficulty loving others because they cannot love themselves.

  • Unable to forgive themselves, they are caught in a cycle of self-loathing and self-hatred. They look in the world’s mirror (a mirror ruined and broken by sin) and see only a distorted image of themselves. They feel unworthy and worthless—exactly opposite to how God sees them.
  • And when people feel inferior to others or otherwise inadequate, they often react to others with envy, jealousy, bitterness, and anger.
  • Others go further—beyond a distorted view to a destructive view. They feel they deserve to suffer somehow. They can become caught up in depression, addictive behavior, self-destructive habits, abusive relationships. And if they’re about to be rescued or turn a corner, they may even sabotage their own turn-around. They think they don’t deserve anything better.

Here’s the lesson for both kinds of people—for those who love themselves too much and for those who love themselves too little:

Love (for neighbor and for self) flows from a Spirit-led understanding of God’s love: He loves and accepts and forgives us just as we are! So we can love others because he first loved us.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking what he needed to do to inherit eternal life.

Jesus was often challenged by people who wanted to put him to the test. In fact, it was part of the first-century Jewish culture—to question and debate each other. This time, however, Jesus turned the tables on him and said, “Well, what do you think? How do you read the law of Moses?”

And the man answered by quoting the Shema—the central prayer of Judaism, taken from Deut.6:4-5 —which we’ve already referred to: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.”

Then he added a phrase from Lev. 19:18: “And love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said, That’s right. I can’t argue with that. Which should have been the end of the discussion, but on the expert felt a little chagrined, a bit embarrassed that he had tested Jesus with something so simple that there was nothing to argue about. So…

Luke 10:29-35 (NLT). 29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. 31 By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. 33 Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, “Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.”

Then Jesus turned to the expert and asked him, “Which of the three do you think was a ‘neighbor’ to the man who was attacked by the bandits?”

And the man said, “The one who had mercy; the one who showed compassion.” So Jesus said, “Go and DO likewise.”

In that moment, Jesus turned the man’s question on its head—instead of asking, “Who is our neighbor?” we should ask ourselves, “Am I a neighbor?”

Jesus says you are a neighbor if you have compassion—or, more accurately, if you show compassion. If you ARE compassionate, then you will DO compassion: Go and DO likewise.

So here are some ways to measure your love for others:

  • A neighbor DOES something—he doesn’t just talk.
  • A neighbor shows compassion for the hurting. (v 33) The priest and the Levite—religious people—avoided the victim. They went around him on the other side of the road. Maybe they were busy. Maybe they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. Maybe they had an important meeting or appointment they were trying to get to. Maybe they felt like the man got what he deserved. Whatever the reason, they had no sympathy, no concern, no compassion. They were religious, but they had no mercy. Meanwhile, to the shock of all the Jews listening to Jesus’ story, the one who showed compassion was the Samaritan—despised and criticized because their worship was “off” and their ethnic heritage had been “tainted” by foreign blood. They were half-breed sinners—and no one would ever expect one of them to do anything good. It would be like you having a flat tire and all the preachers in town drive by and leave you stranded, but the one who stops to help is the burly, long-haired, tattooed, leather-clad, stud-pierced Hell’s Angel.
  • A neighbor pours oil and wine to heal the hurting. (v 34)
  • A neighbor bandages the wounds of the injured. (v 34)
  • A neighbor lifts up on his donkey those who can’t walk on their own. (v 34)
  • A neighbor cares for those unable to care for themselves. (v 34)
  • A neighbor gives his resources to help those with no resources. )v 35)

Let me ask: Based on the example in Jesus’ story, are you a neighbor?

Or maybe the question should be, have you opened your heart to God’s love so that his love in you spills over on those around you. Does “goodness and mercy” follow you all the days of your life?

Let’s pray for hearts open to God’s love—because that’s the way we can love our neighbor.

Love Your Neighbor