By Paul Koch –
It has been an incredible week here at our church, Grace Lutheran. Now to be honest, this week of Vacation Bible School is often a week that is stressful and exhausting and marked by a certain amount of fear and trepidation. After all if you don’t have all the volunteers, all the support and all the donations, the whole week could be a disaster. Your once quiet evenings are now marked by shouts of incredibly loud children. But, when you see the smiles on the faces, when you see the children playing the games, working hard on their crafts and singing songs, you begin to forget a bit about the stress and worry and simply enjoy the fun of the moment. As a matter of fact, when I see the smiles on the faces of all of our great volunteers I think that even if there were only 10 kids that came, it would have been worth it.
The theme for this year’s Vacation Bible School was “Camp Discovery.” At the heart of what the children did, behind the crafts and the games and the songs, was a story from Holy Scripture. Each day they made certain discoveries from the Word of God. There was a wide range of discoveries made; we read about David defeating Goliath, the faithful judgement of Deborah who trusted in the Word of God, the stalwart witness of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego even as they were cast into the fiery furnace, the healing of blind Bartimaeus who was given faith to believe, and the sending of a reluctant Ananias to Saul.
These stories, some well-known some not so well-known, introduced us to some of the great heroes of our faith. We once again marveled at the incredible workings of our God who chooses the lowly and unassuming things of this world to shame and bewilder the wise and strong. The young shepherd boy named David who goes to the front of the battle to bring his brothers some food finds himself standing before the mighty giant Goliath armed with only a sling and five smooth stones. We learned how an unknown prophetess, Deborah, led Israel to victory. Or how three unassuming men turned the tide of the kingdom by trusting in the Words and promises of God, and walked unscathed out of a fiery furnace. We were reminded of our Lord’s gift of faith, not because of our greatness and not because of our abilities, but solely because of His grace and mercy. Over and again as we read His Word we discover the miraculous working of our God who turns the power structures of our world upside down.
It amazes me how deep and rich the Word of our Lord is. I’m sure you’ve probably done the same thing I have; you read over a text that you’ve heard or read maybe a dozen times or more in the past, but this time when you read it and meditate upon it something entirely new jumps out at you. It’s a new discovery, a new joy found in the Word. In fact, the theme verse for this whole VBS week is a verse just like that. 1 John 4:19 is a verse most of us have heard before. It’s routine and commonplace, but it doesn’t quite jump out at us anymore. It doesn’t seem like a great discovery. But when we slow down a bit, when we take some time to consider what is being said, this verse reveals the greatest of discoveries.
The text is simple; “We love because He first loved us.”
Now, love is something we know a lot about as Christians, or at least we ought to. After all, love is one of those things that we spend a lot of time talking about. Love of God, love for our neighbor, even love for our enemies. There are missionary endeavors, works of compassion and caring, from the feeding of the hungry to the building of orphanages, all motivated and shaped by love. If there is anything that Christians ought to be doing, if there is a simple principle that we ought to fall back upon even when everything else fails, it is love. Like the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
But what happens when our love fails? Now I’m not talking about the emotions of love. We’ve all been around long enough and witnessed enough divorces to know that emotions ebb and flow like the tides. What I’m concerned about is what happens when our actions of love, our love lived out for others, for our God, for our neighbor, and even for our enemy, what happens when we fail to love as we ought? Though love is so central to our faith, at times it can be the most difficult thing to do.
The things is all of us, no matter our background or our current vocation in life, are aware of the limits to our love. I can see it on the faces of parents when they speak about their children. There is this fear that they aren’t’ doing enough. There is a sense that they could love more, if only they had the energy, the patience, and the time. At times you can hear the limits to love in the voices of spouses when they speak about how they have not done what they could. They have not lived sacrificially for the other but selfishly and at times even resentfully. And our limits to our love are easily evident with regard to our God. We have not placed Him first in our lives. We have lived at times as if He did not matter, but as if our desires and our passions were what was of most importance.
Now we are tempted to think that because we can see the limits of our love, because we know where we fail, that we are at least better off than those who don’t even know. But are we? I mean, knowing the limits to our love means that we simply redouble our efforts, doesn’t it? We try harder and we work more diligently. While that may seem noble and courageous, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will solve our problem of love. In fact our redoubled effort will lead us deeper into despair. If we knew of our failures to love and then focused in on fixing them, yet still came away without perfect love then where is our hope? Our assurance that we are children of God, our confidence that we are the redeemed, the saved, the saints of the Almighty begins to erode even as we work to fix it.
And then we discover this verse again. This is a verse about the root of our love, about our confidence and our hope, “We love because He first loved us.” See before our acts of love, before our attempts at faithful parenting and upright Christian behavior, there is the love of Christ. Before our desire to send out missionaries, to feed the poor, the shelter the orphans, there was the love of the one who bore our sin to set us free. Before Vacation Bible School, before the stress, the laughter and the songs, there was the one who rose victorious from the dead to give us life.
The grand discovery of this simple little verse is that it establishes the flow of our life of faith. It doesn’t begin with you. It doesn’t start with your desire, your success or your failures, it begins with the love of God who first loved you. So His love is not dependent upon your love. His love is not hindered by your limits to love. Rather His love finds you this day in your frustration, your doubt, your repentance and your eagerness and he says, “I still love you, I forgive you. Go then you are free. Free from condemnation and free to love as you have been loved.”