Reverse Engineering God

1 John 4:7-12 (NIV)

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

            The summer months are coming to a close. This is Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer. Soon the leaves will begin to change color, the lawn mowers will be put to rest, and the sweaters will emerge from our closets once again. Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given for staying warm on these cool nights came from my father many years ago. He told me that if I ever get cold that I should go and stand in the corner; they are usually about 90 degrees.

            The season is upon us once again. No, not back to school or even football season, though those months are indeed here as well. I’m talking about the season for the release of new electronic devices. For instance, Apple is expected to release its newest version of the iPhone on September 9th, and there is rumor that a smart watch will also be revealed. That’s right, all of the power of a smart phone strapped to your wrist. Remember those old Dick Tracy comics where the yellow trench coat wearing detective would speak into his watch to communicate with others, like someone might speak into a telephone? You might be able to do that within the next month.

            Apple has been one of the leaders in communication technology for the last decade. The original iPhone was first introduced on January 9, 2007 and was available to buy about six months later. The first iPhone was revolutionary: it was a music player, a mini computer with internet access, and even a telephone. Can you imagine that, you could actually call someone on the first iPhone?!

            In the seven years that have passed since the first iPhone was released we have seen many other companies produce similar devices with touch screens, mp3 players, internet access, and more apps than you can shake a stick at. Many other cell phone companies have matched the quality and functionality of Apple’s iPhone. Some even claim that other companies are making better smart phones than Apple is today.

            One of the reasons that most of these companies are able to produce products that are as good if not better than the iPhone is because of something that we call “reverse engineering.” Reverse engineering is a term for when a company purchases a product from a competing company to see how they made it in order to make a similar product and sell it themselves. For instance, when Apple released the first iPhone, other cell phone companies purchased iPhones and the first thing that they did was crack the sucker open. They wanted to know what was inside that thing that made it work. Oh, Apple uses the HTMX processor (I just made that up), with 8 gigs of memory and an accelerometer. Why didn’t we think of that?!

            The other cell phone company then uses what they learn from cracking open the iPhone to build their own version that is just enough different to avoid patent violations. This is reverse engineering. You start with something that is already available, already established, and use that to figure out how it works and how you can make your own version.

            Reverse engineering isn’t something that only happens in the field of electronics. Car companies try to build their new all-wheel-drive vehicles based on their research from dismantling a Subaru. Chefs try to reproduce a pie by eating another chef’s pie and trying to guess what ingredients went into the recipe. A contractor walks into a house and looks at the layout of the building, how they placed the lights, the stairs, the cabinets, and so on. Reverse engineering is a term for the practice of looking at something that is already made or already established, trying to figure out how it was made, in order to make something new.

            I wonder if we don’t reverse engineer God a little more than we should. I’ll admit right up front that reverse engineering God is perhaps the best that we can do at times when we try to understand God. We have to use words that we already know and metaphors that we are familiar with. That is a limitation of the English language. I could make something up and say “God is huffleberry!” but it wouldn’t mean anything. No, we are limited by the words that we know and use. So rather than saying “God is huffleberry!” we say “God is love.”

            The problem with saying “God is love” is that in order to understand God, we need to do some reverse engineering. We start with our understanding of love and work backwards. We say, “I know what love is, therefore I know what/who God is.” But rather than reverse engineering God based on our limited, flawed understanding of love, perhaps we would do better to allow God to define love for us.

            To say God is love means nothing because it can mean anything. To say that God is love presents even more of a challenge because love is not something that we can hold in our hands, touch, smell, or see. A couple of times in the Old Testament we find God described as a rock. This metaphor is helpful because we all know exactly what a rock is. Rocks are something we can see, touch, and taste if you really want to. Just what aspects of a rock the writers of the Bible are trying to draw our attention to is a bit confusing. Obviously, they want us to know that God is a dull, gray color and heavy. No, this metaphor is used to describe the strength of God, God’s protection, and God’s unchanging nature. Rocks are pretty steady and dependable. So is God.

            But when was the last time you held love in your hand, smelled it, or tasted it? To say that God is love means nothing because it means anything. Love as a metaphor for God is not helpful because we say that we love ice cream, love football, love our family, and love kittens.

            The point that I am trying to make this morning is that love as an abstract concept is not helpful for us to understand God better because we all mean something different when we talk about love. In order to understand love we need something concrete, something we can touch, see, smell, and hear.

            John understood this, which is why we find this in verse 10-11: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

            We cannot see love, but we can see works of love. God showed his love for us by coming to this world as Jesus. God showed his love for us by dying for us on the cross. If you want to know what love is, you look at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If you want to know what God is like, you look at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

            I want to amend what I said earlier and say, “To say ‘God is love’ abstracted from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means nothing because it means anything.”

            I think this is helpful because I hear a lot of people making overly simplistic arguments today about various issues in the church. I’m not just thinking of one thing, but feel free to apply my critique to whatever issue you would like. It is a good rule of thumb when trying to discern God’s will on something to consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

            I was having a difficult theological discussion with a friend one day and she was being critical of her church and the leaders of that congregation. She was upset that the leaders of the church were taking a stand against a particular practice and she said to me, “Jesus tells us to love everyone, right?”

            Exactly! Jesus tells us to love everyone. But just what does Jesus mean when he says to love everyone? Love abstracted from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means nothing because it means anything. So what can we learn from the embodiment of love in Jesus?

            Love eats with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. Jesus was often criticized for spending time with those who were outside of the religious system. He touched the untouchable, ate with the unclean, and healed the Gentiles. This is the kind of love that cuts through those external obstacles to see the beauty of each and every human being. You/we/they are loved by God simply because we were created in God’s own image. God made us, God loves us, and through the Jesus we find in the New Testament we see that God does not allow sin to be a barrier that keeps us from God. God doesn’t look at us and say, “Holy mackerel! Did you see the sin on that guy? I better keep my distance!” No, Jesus ate with, touched, and loved on those sinners, of whom I am the worst.

            This is what my friend was speaking of when she said that Jesus wants us to love everyone. But who among us would say that Jesus wanted the prostitutes to continue to prostitute themselves or the sinners to continue on in their sin, whatever that sin might be? Of course not! Just because we don’t always read about Jesus saying something directly against their sinful actions does not mean he supported those actions.

            To say that God is love does not mean that everything and anything is pleasing to God. As I was preparing for this Sunday’s sermon I tried to turn to today’s passage from 1 John 4 and accidentally turned to John 4. 1 John 4 is the “God is love” passage. John 4 is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

            John 4 tells us that Jesus is hanging out at the well during the hottest part of the day. There is nobody around because people tend to get their water either in the early part of the morning or the latest part of the evening, when the temperatures tend to be a bit cooler. If you’re going to carry a day or two’s worth of water through the desert, you want to do it when the sun isn’t beating down on you. But as Jesus sits by the well a woman comes to draw her water for the day.

            She comes at noon because he is an outcast. The others don’t want to associate with her, and perhaps she doesn’t want to deal with their ridicule. So her normal practice is to come to the well when she doesn’t expect to see anyone else.

            But there sits Jesus, and he is in a chatty mood. They talk about matters of faith, and Jesus comes to the reason she is considered an outcast: she has had five husbands and is living with a man who isn’t her husband.

            We don’t know all of the details about this woman and her situation, but Jesus talks to her in a loving, caring way about her relational issues. He doesn’t say, “Turn or burn, you sinner!” But he also doesn’t say that she can keep on in this relationship because God is love.

            Yes, God loves her. Yet sometimes love means saying things that make us uncomfortable.

            Some of you may be familiar with the television series “How I Met Your Mother,” which ran on CBS from September of 2005 and came to an end this past spring. It isn’t what I would call a “good Christian” show, so don’t go watching it for theological insight (but it is pretty funny). This show follows the lives of five friends, Marshall, Lily, Ted, Barney, and Robin as they grow, mature, fall in love, and get married. One of the ongoing jokes in this television show is the occurrence of “interventions.” When one of the friends is doing something that the other friends believe to be detrimental to them or someone else, they get out their sign, hang it in the living room, and invite the friend over for something. Then, when the unsuspecting friend arrives, they all get out their prepared statements and tell the other friend why their actions are hurting them and others.

            These interventions are sometimes funny, but often have a serious note to them as well. There is an intervention held for Marshall because he won’t stop wearing a silly hat and another for Barney because he is doing too many magic tricks, particularly ones involving fire. Spoiler alter: he accidentally burns the intervention banner during the intervention. But there are also interventions for friends that have a drinking problem, relationship problems, financial problems, and so on.

            The point that I am trying to make is that when you love someone, you don’t allow them to continue to do things that are harmful to themselves, to others, or to their relationship with God.

            I love my children, but that doesn’t mean that I let them do whatever they want to do. If I let my children do what they wanted to do they would eat popsicles all day long while watching cartoons. To say that God is love is not to say that anything and everything is acceptable to God. To say that God is love is to admit that there are things that God does not want us to do because God wants what is best for us. And if we are to love others as God loves us, we too will speak into the lives of our loved ones in ways that may make us all feel uncomfortable.

            I want to consider one more passage that helps us to better understand what John means when he writes that God is love, and that passage is Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

            This passage is especially meaningful because it provides an order of operation for us. Paul specifically writes here that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Before this he mentions that some people may be willing to die for a righteous person. Maybe you would put your life on the line for your best friend, your spouse, or your children. But for someone who you would call a sinner? An outsider?

            There aren’t a lot of people that I consider to be my enemies, but let’s look at broader Christianity for a bit. Christians do a wonderful job of making enemies. Who do Christians generally consider to be sinners and who do Christians generally consider their enemies? The doctor who performs abortions and the woman who receives them? The soldier wearing the other nation’s uniform? The ISIS combatant? The racist, the sexist, the person trying to do away with traditional marriage and Christmas?

            As followers of Jesus, we cannot pick and choose what it means to love sinners or our enemies. Love is a very abstract word. But Jesus is a very tangible and concrete example of what it means to love and to be love.

            When John writes “God is love,” he is not suggesting that everyone is loved by God like we love ice cream and kittens. He is stating without hesitation, reservation, or equivocation that God loves you, God loves me, God loves both the Christian that died and the ISIS member that killed him. That doesn’t mean that God approves of all of our actions. Love is not the same thing as approval. But love does mean that you are willing to die, to give of yourself, to go the extra mile for someone, even while they are yet sinners.

            I’m not sure what all of this means for us today, but I do know what it looks like. Love looks like a cross. It looks like a person who is willing to give of themselves for a sinner such as me and you.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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