Friday, November 16, 2012

THE GREATEST OF THESE ~ 1 CORINTHIANS 13 : 1-3

"Love is the medicine for the sickness of the world.” So said noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Meninger. He summarized his therapeutic approach this way: “Love cures. It cures those who give it and it cures those who receive it.”
Love truly is good medicine. It has been said that the three most powerful words in the English language are “I love you.” When I returned to my office one day, I noticed that the voicemail light on my phone was lit. The message came from a man in another state. He called to tell me about some of the difficulties in his own life and how he was dealing with them. Along the way he mentioned that he had poured out his heart to his mentor and had told him the whole ugly story of what he had done. When he was finished, his mentor simply replied, “I want you know that I love you.” Then the man said, “Pastor Ray, I can’t tell you what it meant for him to listen to my story and then to say ‘I love you.’”
Such is the power of love. I know that our society sometimes confuses love with sex or with money or with gifts. And many people don’t understand love and are even afraid of it because they’ve never seen it done well. But even with all our counterfeits, and even with all the misunderstanding, and even in spite of the abuses committed in the name of love, it is still true that what the world needs now is love, sweet love. And not just the word “love,” we need the real thing. We need to see love and to hear it and to feel it and to experience it in our lives. And we need to know how to pass it along to others.
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A Quiver in the Liver?

In order to help us to that, we are beginning a short series of messages from I Corinthians 13. Many of you know these verses by heart. This is, after all, one of the most famous, most beloved, most beautiful chapters in the Bible. It is often read at weddings and often set to music. And yet I wonder if we have really pondered its deeper meaning. Have we heard it so often that we no longer think about what the words mean? Perhaps it will do us good to revisit this famous passage. Here is a simple outline of I Corinthians 13: 1-3 The Preeminence of Love
4-7 The Practice of Love
8-13 The Permanence of Love
Before we jump into the text, let’s talk about love for a moment. What is it?
A. A feeling?
B. A shiver in the liver?
C. An emotional attachment?
There are lots of different ways to use the word “love” today, like the man who declared, “I love my wife, I love my baby, I love my biscuits dipped in gravy.” What kind of “love” is Paul talking about in I Corinthians 13?

Four Greek Words for Love

There are four Greek words for love we need to know about: 1. Eros = Sexual Love. This word is not used in the New Testament.
2. Storge = Friendly affection. This word is used in the New Testament for the warm affection that should exist between believers in Christ.
3. Philos = Family Love. When joined with the word “adelphos” (brother), it means “Brotherly Love,” which is how the city of Philadelphia got its name. It is used in the New Testament for our love for God and for others.
4. Agape = Self-sacrificing Love. This word was rarely used before the New Testament period and uniquely describes God’s love for us. Agape love is love that reaches out to another person with no strings attached. It is love that sacrifices itself on behalf of the one loved, with no thought of what might be received in return. This is the word Paul uses in I Corinthians 13. It is love that starts with God, comes down to us, and then moves out from us to other people.
One of our problems with I Corinthians 13 is that we have heard it so often that it has lost its power to move us. Here is I Corinthians 13:1-3 from The Message by Eugene Peterson: “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t have love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”
The point of this passage can be stated in one simple sentence: Whatever I do, what I say, it is all useless without love. There are three verses and each one explains a different facet of this truth.

I. Love is Greater than Eloquent Communication. v. 1

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1). Have you tried to learn to speak a foreign language? It’s not easy to do. I studied Spanish in high school and German in college, and along the way memorized long lists of words in each language. Nearly three decades later I know Danke Schoen and Adios and that’s about it. Over the years I’ve learned a smattering of Russian and of Haitian French Creole. Come to think of it, make that a very small smattering. During a trip to India four years I listened as well as I could and didn’t understand a single word. Years ago I made a list of the languages I would like to speak someday. That list included Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Swahili, Urdu, Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, French, German and Dutch. Alas, I think I have spent too much time watching football on television and not enough time working on my language. I speak English and that’s basically it. I greatly admire our missionaries who spend years studying a new language so they can effectively minister for Christ in another culture. God bless them for their sacrifice for the cause of Christ.
And yet our text says that without love it doesn’t matter how many languages you speak or how eloquently you can communicate your message. The greatest linguist in the world is ineffective if he speaks without love.
This point would have hit home because eloquence was greatly admired in ancient Greece. We have only to think of the great philosophers of Athens who held their listeners spellbound, and of Demosthenes the great orator. And of Paul himself as he presented the gospel on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). But without love electrifying eloquence means nothing.
It’s also helpful to know that the pagan religions of ancient Greece used loud clanging cymbals to get the attention of their gods. I have heard the same thing myself in the late-night celebrations of unbelievers in Haiti and India. Let the point be clear: If you speak without love, you are no better than the pagans who do not even know the Lord.

II. Love is Greater than Spiritual Gifts. v. 2

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:2). Here Paul mentions three spiritual gifts that he had previously discussed in I Corinthians 12. Prophecy refers to the ability to declare God’s truth in a powerful, life-changing way. Knowledge involves the deep understanding of the Word of God. Faith is the unique ability to trust God for great things. These three gifts are all from the Holy Spirit, and yet without love the person who has them is “nothing.” Here is how the New Living Translation renders this verse: “If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would I be?” The phrase “everything about everything” is striking. You could literally have total knowledge about all things, but that alone is not enough. You must have love also.
So let me ask you a question: Would you like to be really smart? I mean extra-smart beyond ordinary smartness. What if you had an IQ of 500? That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? Would you like to be super-smart, so smart that you could answer all the questions on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and never use a Life Line? Let’s suppose you really were that smart, and let’s also suppose you were the most gifted speaker in the whole world so that whenever you opened your mouth everyone stopped to listen to your words. And let’s suppose that you were brilliant in math, science, history, language arts, and in every other realm of human knowledge. And on top of that, what if you had the knowledge to cure cancer so that you could go from patient to patient and from hospital to hospital clearing out the cancer wards. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And let’s suppose that on top of all that you could bring about world peace so that even in the Middle East they put down their guns and decided to become friends.
Suppose all that were true of you. According to our text, God would say, “It’s not enough!” Without love all the rest of it doesn’t matter. At this point the words of Matthew Henry are so important. Writing 300 years ago, he noted that “it is not great knowledge that God sets a value upon, but true and hearty devotion and love.”

III. Love is Greater than Personal Sacrifice. v. 3

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:2). Here Paul mentions three spiritual gifts that he had previously discussed in I Corinthians 12. Prophecy refers to the ability to declare God’s truth in a powerful, life-changing way. Knowledge involves the deep understanding of the Word of God. Faith is the unique ability to trust God for great things. These three gifts are all from the Holy Spirit, and yet without love the person who has them is “nothing.” Here is how the New Living Translation renders this verse: “If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would I be?” The phrase “everything about everything” is striking. You could literally have total knowledge about all things, but that alone is not enough. You must have love also.
So let me ask you a question: Would you like to be really smart? I mean extra-smart beyond ordinary smartness. What if you had an IQ of 500? That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? Would you like to be super-smart, so smart that you could answer all the questions on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and never use a Life Line? Let’s suppose you really were that smart, and let’s also suppose you were the most gifted speaker in the whole world so that whenever you opened your mouth everyone stopped to listen to your words. And let’s suppose that you were brilliant in math, science, history, language arts, and in every other realm of human knowledge. And on top of that, what if you had the knowledge to cure cancer so that you could go from patient to patient and from hospital to hospital clearing out the cancer wards. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And let’s suppose that on top of all that you could bring about world peace so that even in the Middle East they put down their guns and decided to become friends.
Suppose all that were true of you. According to our text, God would say, “It’s not enough!” Without love all the rest of it doesn’t matter. At this point the words of Matthew Henry are so important. Writing 300 years ago, he noted that “it is not great knowledge that God sets a value upon, but true and hearty devotion and love.”

III. Love is Greater than Personal Sacrifice. v. 3

“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (I Corinthians 13:3). This verse poses a problem because it asks us to ponder activities that we automatically consider noble. Giving to the poor is a good thing to do. And dying for your faith in Christ is the ultimate sacrifice. But good as these things are, without love they do you no good. So let’s ask another question: Would you like to be rich enough to be generous? As we enter the final few days of 2000, we will all receive numerous requests for funds from many worthy institutions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had enough money to give millions of dollars to worthy causes? Here in Chicago there are many agencies working in the name of Christ to alleviate human suffering and to spread the Good News of the Jesus Christ: Circle Urban Ministries, Inner-City Impact, Care First Pregnancy Centers, the Lawndale Community Outreach, Breakthrough Urban Ministries, Prison Fellowship, Am I My Brother’s Keeper?, Koinonia House, and many others. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had so much money that you could fully fund all those worthy organizations? Suppose you could wipe out homelessness in Chicago. What if you could end poverty in Haiti and India? What if you could guarantee that every person on earth would have enough to eat and no one would ever go hungry? Would that not be a wonderful thing to do?
God says, “It’s not enough.” If you do it without love, you gain nothing. The truth is, we may give to worthy causes for unworthy reasons. We may give out of guilt or because we want to follow the crowd or because we seek the praise of men or for some other earthly goal. If we give for those reasons, the people on the receiving end will be blessed, but it will gain us nothing at all.
Would you be willing to die for Christ? From time to time we send out new missionaries for the cause of Christ. Do we understand that many of these wonderful men and women are going to dangerous parts of the world? Some of them will face uncertainty and possible arrest every day. Has it hit us that we are sending missionaries to live in places most of us would not care to visit? Some of them may end up paying the ultimate price for their faith. Are you willing to be persecuted for the gospel? Are you ready to be ridiculed and slandered for your faith? Think carefully before you answer.
And still God says, “It’s still not enough.” Without love even sacrificing yourself for Christ will profit you nothing. Giving to the poor and offering yourself to be burned at the stake are both noble actions, but they are useless and even dangerous without love.
I can summarize these three verses this way:
Love is greater than eloquent communication.
Love is greater than spiritual gifts.
Love is greater than personal sacrifice.
Without love …
I say nothing,
I am nothing,
I gain nothing.

The Power of Numbers

Perhaps a simple illustration (suggested by Pastor Leith Anderson) will help get the point across. Consider the power of numbers. What do you get when you add 10 + 15? The answer is 25. Now suppose we multiply 10 X 15. The number now becomes 150. Let’s take a really big number. Suppose you multiply 1,000,000 X 1000. You end up with one billion: 1,000,000,000. What number comes above a billion? Answer: A trillion. What comes above that? I didn’t know until I checked it out this week. Above a trillion there is a quadrillion. Above that is a number called a quintillion, which is one followed by 18 zeroes. Now that’s an enormous number. So let’s multiply 25 quintillion times zero. What do you get? Answer: Zero. Okay, let’s do that the way children would do it. Let’s start with the biggest number in the world times the biggest number in the world. Whatever that number is, multiply it by zero. What do you get? Zero. It doesn’t matter what you start with on the left. If the number on the right is zero, the answer will always be zero. God is saying that life without love is zero. You can pile up all the good deeds, all the education, all the spiritual gifts, and all the noble works that you like. Without love, it still equals zero. You can be smart, beautiful, strong, wealthy, educated, multi-lingual, rich and famous but without love it still equals zero.
When William Barclay came to the end of his comments on this passage, he noted that it calls for a searching personal self-examination. These three short verses challenge us to evaluate what we do and what we say in the light of agape love. If we are honest with ourselves (which is not easy in the best of circumstances), we must eventually admit that we all have a long way to go in this area. Many of us struggle with difficult people and painful circumstances. As I write these words we are just a few days past Thanksgiving and a few weeks away from Christmas. This season is often very painful because we have to spend time with family members and relatives who take every opportunity to put us down. In those moments when we have been deeply hurt by those closest to us, the temptation is often overwhelming to respond with anger and bitterness. Sometimes we want to get even with those who have treated us so cruelly. We may even resort to threats of violence. In our desperation it is easy to sink to the level of those who have attacked us.
But there is a better way. God calls us to love our enemies, and life being what it is, our “enemies” will almost always be those closest to us. Love means doing things God’s way. It means responding in kindness when we have been repeatedly mistreated. It means refusing to nurse our grievances against those who are truly guilty of sin against us. Love finds a way to reach out to heal the breach if possible. But this kind of life is not easy. Jesus embodied God’s love and his own people crucified him. If you follow him, the same thing may happen to you.

“Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight!”

In preaching a sermon about love, as we come to the end there is an enormous temptation to conclude like this: “Now let’s all go out and really love other people. Come on, gang. Let’s give it the old college try and love everyone we meet this week.” I don’t object to that line of thinking because there must come a time when we put shoe leather to what we have learned from God’s Word, but I think it misses the point and puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Love isn’t about us; love is about God! Since God is love, all true love starts with him and comes down to us. If we want to be more loving, we must get to know God better. As we come to know the God of love in a personal way, his love will supernaturally flow through us as our hearts are transformed. How can we learn to love? John 3:16 has the answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one-and-only-Son.” Jesus is the proof of God’s love. Run to the cross. Behold the bleeding form of the Son of God. “See from his hands, his head, his feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Spend a day at Calvary basking in the shadow of the cross. There you will see love made real before your eyes. During the 17th Century Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, sentenced a soldier to be shot for his crimes. The execution was to take place at the ringing of the evening curfew bell. At the appointed hour the bell did not sound. Upon investigation it was discovered that the soldier’s fianc� had climbed into the belfry and clung to the great clapper of the bell to prevent it from striking. When she was summoned by Cromwell to account for her actions, she wept as she showed him her bruised and bleeding hands. Cromwell’s heart was touched and he said, “Your lover shall live because of your sacrifice. Curfew shall not ring tonight!”
Through his sacrifice, Christ has stayed our execution. The judgment bell will never toll for us. The proof of his love is in his bruised body and bloody hands. Because of his love we live.
I now end where I started—with the words of Dr. Karl Meninger: “Love is the medicine for the sickness of the world.” Indeed it is. And if we want to know what love looks like, we can go to the cross and see love made flesh and dying for us. Would you like that kind of love in your life? It is yours for the asking. As with everything else in the spiritual life, you can experience God’s love if only you will ask for it. The love of God is powerful medicine for the terminal disease inside every heart.
To live in love is to be like Jesus.
Heavenly Father, You have shown us what love is and you have told us that love must be our greatest aim. Help us to remember that without love our words don’t matter and our knowledge is empty and all we give is insignificant and all we accomplish is inadequate. We thank you that the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. As we have been loved, help us to walk in love this week. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

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