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1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Psalm 89:1


Kevin Miller tells this story about his early experience with Christmas: “When I was five-years-old, I first fully understood the message of these words:


He sees you when you’re sleeping,

He knows if you’re awake,

He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

So be good for goodness’ sake!


Until that moment, I had lived in this childhood bliss, in which Christmas was the best day of the year. I had always believed that the gifts at Christmastime were there because Christmas always came with gifts. You could count on them. But now I painfully understood that if I wanted any gifts at Christmas, I had to be good. It was all riding on me. There was this all-seeing, all-knowing Santa, and if there was going to be any gifts, I had better shape up. But then I thought, How good is “good”? Can a person be “pretty good”? Does Santa understand that I have a twin brother, so I have more reasons to be provoked than other kids? It was all so worrisome to me.


I grew up a little more and went on to elementary school. In the fourth grade, when I was 9, I continued to learn that all the good stuff in life depends on my effort. We had a reading program called SRA. Here’s how it worked: There was a giant box of color-coded cards on the side of the classroom. You went and got one of the cards in the front of the box, read what was on it, and then answered questions about what you’d read. If you got most of the answers right, you moved up to the next highest color—red, yellow, blue, and if you were good enough and worked hard enough, you reached exotic colors, like magenta. Moving up in SRA was all we cared about, because if you were still on one of the lower-level colors – red or yellow – you were a loser. Everybody’s goal was to move up – to work really hard and reach the ultimate pinnacle of fourth-grade glory: aquamarine. But if you wanted the glory, you had to hustle. We would literally run from our desks to the box. No pain, no gain! You had to be good enough, to work hard enough.”[i] Be good, or you’ll get nothing but coal in your stocking. You have to be smart enough, good enough, hustle enough. But what happens when you give your best … and it isn’t good enough?


When I was in college, Christian pop/rock band D.C. Talk put words to that question in the song “What if I stumble?: “What if I stumble, what if I fall? What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all? Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl? What if I stumble, and what if I fall?” Will the love continue, when my walk becomes a crawl? Will I be loved when I’m not perfect? Will I be loved when I fail? Will I be loved when I say something stupid, when I do something stupid? Will there still be a present under the tree for me?


What does it mean to love? What does it mean to be loved? In 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul describes in vivid detail what love really is. It’s one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture. But Paul is doing more than just describe love here. He wanted the Corinthian Christians to understand that regardless of how spiritual they thought they were, regardless of what spiritual gifts were present among them, if their lives weren’t marked by love, they were missing something critically important. They were speaking in tongues, prophesying in the power of the Holy Spirit. They were receiving words of knowledge. But they lacked love. They had become argumentative and rude, judging one another by the presence or absence of some of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Oh she is speaking in tongues. She must be very spiritual. He receives words of knowledge when he prays. He’s really spiritual. He, he can prophecy. He must be REALLY spiritual.


Look up at Vv. 1-2. Notice that Paul DOESN’T tell them that these other gifts are invalid. That wasn’t his point. You speak in tongues? Great! You have the gift of prophecy? Wonderful! You receive words of knowledge? You have the gift of wisdom? Good! But if you don’t have love, your words are empty. They’re noise. Why? Because without love, it’s nothing but religious performance. Empty spirituality. Love is the primary evidence of Christ’s presence in your life. And love isn’t just another gift of the Holy Spirit, a higher gift for someone to finally unlock, something for a really spiritual person to achieve. Love is a way of being that influences everything else in your life. For those who follow Christ, it is the way we walk through this world. So what is love, anyway? Look at V. 4.


Love is patient and kind. Love doesn’t get bent out of shape quickly or easily. It hangs in there with people who are hard to love. It doesn’t give up easily on people. Love isn’t envious or boastful. There isn’t unnecessary competition. Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a competitive game of golf, or that the church basketball team shouldn’t try to win games. There’s nothing wrong with friendly competition. But in relationships, there is no envy or boasting. People aren’t envious of one another’s gifts or talents, one another’s successes. Churches don’t become rivals of one another. There aren’t factions within the church that are rivals for influence and authority. And boasting? The word literally means “windbag.” Don’t be a windbag, always drawing attention to yourself.


Love isn’t arrogant (that word could also mean proud) or rude. Rude here means “to behave shamefully.” Instead, love treats others with respect and dignity. It never seeks to humiliate someone else. Never seeks to make someone think or feel that they are less than, unimportant, or ashamed. That means love never shames. There’s a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is the right attitude of someone who has done something wrong and knows it. But it is focused on the action. When I feel guilty, it is because I have done something wrong. When I am guilty before the law, it is because I have done something against the law. The focus is on the action, the behavior. Shame doesn’t say, “I did something wrong.” Shame says, “I am wrong.” Guilt says, “I did something stupid.” Shame says, “I am stupid.” When Ohio State lost to Penn State on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, the local reporters covering the game were shocked. They weren’t supposed to have lost that game, even though it was a road game. It wasn’t supposed to have been close, but it was. Close enough that a single play beat them. During the post-game press conference, head coach Urban Meyer was answering questions about what happened. One reporter must have asked him what he said to the team after the unexpected loss. He said, ““You lose a game, you’re not a loser. If you lose a game, you accept it. That’s the message to our players. We work so hard so that doesn’t happen. It happened; move on.” Guilt is focused on behavior. Shame is an identity. Love doesn’t shame. It isn’t arrogant, proud, or rude.


Love doesn’t insist on its own way; isn’t self-seeking. When I am loving, really loving, I seek what is best for you, not what is best for me. I want the best for you. And love isn’t irritable or easily angered and resentful. It isn’t easily provoked. Love doesn’t have a short fuse, angry and irritable all the time. Always fuming, assuming the worst about everyone. Why? Because when I am loving you, I am focused on you. When I am angry, I am focused on me. Try this. The next time you get angry, notice the number of times that the words “I, me, and mine” pop into your head. When I love, I am not easily angered by those around me. And I don’t rejoice when you fail. Love doesn’t rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love takes no delight in evil at all, whether it be something happening globally like the destruction, rape, and murder happening in Aleppo, or closer to home, when someone I know stumbles and falls. Remember the words to the song, “Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl? What if I stumble? What if I fall?”


Now, look at V. 7. Love is tenacious! It bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. This doesn’t mean that we believe the best about everything and everyone when the evidence points a different way. It doesn’t mean we’re naïve. And it doesn’t mean that we enable someone to continue hurting themselves or someone else. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is say “You can’t keep hurting me. I won’t allow it.” And take the steps necessary to stop the abuse, the harmful behavior. It forces the person you love to face and deal with the dark parts of their life. But it does mean love keeps pouring itself out, that there is nothing that love cannot face.


You see, feelings come and go. They’re transient, blowing through your life like white clouds in the sky on a warm summer’s day. We have lots of feelings every day. Some are more persistent than others, but feelings come and go. Love? Love stays. Love is a constant. Because love is an action. Love isn’t good intention. Love isn’t just an emotion, although it sometimes has a healthy emotional component to it. Love is a verb. Love is action. Love is behavior. Period. It isn’t even a motivator for behavior. It IS the behavior. When we love one another, we are acting in love for one another. Love doesn’t drive us to action. Love is action. Period.


Read. Vv. 4-7. That’s a far cry from “He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows if you’re awake, He knows if you’ve been bad or good, So be good for goodness’ sake!” isn’t it? Real love, love at its best, is a beautiful thing, isn’t it. It inspires poets and songwriters and artists, it moves us to make incredible sacrifices for those we love. But for most of us – probably all of us – love at its best is a fleeting thing. Isn’t it. We catch glimpses of it. We have experiences of it. But none of us, not one of us, is capable of loving us perfectly this way all of the time. And because of that, not one of us has ever known completely pure love fully in any relationship. Even the best marriage, the best friendship, the best sibling relationship is sometimes marred by selfishness and bitterness, anger and resentment. That’s why we have to work to pull those things out, like weeds out of a flower bed. The best relationships struggle sometimes. The worst? Abuse. Unfaithfulness. Treating you as an object instead of a person. Constant self-centeredness. But no matter how loving we are, we cannot love perfectly all the time. We just can’t. Substitute your name for the word love in this passage and you’ll see just how far below the mark you fall, even on your best days. You see, this description of love is written as an absolute. It has the sense of “always” and “never.” We are capable of any of these things sometimes. But love “never fails.” But put our name in here in place of the word love is exactly what Paul invites us to do. Why? Because we follow Jesus.


You see, there is one who is capable of real love, pure love, love at its best, all of the time. There is one who loves perfectly. There is one from whom love flows like a fountain. In 1 John 4:8 the Bible says “God IS love.” And 1 Corinthians is targeted at the body of Christ BECAUSE God is love. In fact, the first part of that verse says “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8). Love is the primary mark of a follower of Jesus because love is the primary characteristic of God. God is holy, and just, and mighty, the ultimate judge, with wrath toward all that separates us from him, because God is love. But John goes on to say that “We love,” we are capable of real love, “because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). We are supposed to love like this, because WE ARE LOVED like this. But how do we know? How do we know that God loves us? Take one more look at John 4. Look at Vv. 9-10. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Love is a verb. Love is action. The God of love sent his Son into the world to identify with us, to live like us, and to die for us. And in Christ, the God of love is living his life in me. The love that I am able to show, in my finite, human existence, I have because he loves me. You. Are. Loved. Period.


And maybe you’re sitting there right now thinking, “Man I want to be loved that way. But I’m not sure I’m worth it. I’m not worth that kind of love. I don’t deserve it.” So St. Paul takes his description of God’s love one step further. In Romans 5 he says “ … while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – (there’s his description of human love: inconsistent, sort of, sometimes, maybe) but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6-8). While we were still sinners, enemies of God, Christ, Emmanuel, God With Us, died for us. He didn’t die for his friends. He died for his enemies. While we were still sinners, separated from God by sin, he died for us. That is love. At Christmas we celebrate and marvel at Emmanuel, God with us in the baby in the manger. At Easter, he is still Emmanuel, God with us, and we gaze in amazement at a bloodied cross and an empty tomb. The cradle and the cross. You really can’t separate them. They are two sides of the same coin. They are love. They are perfect love. They are the evidence that you are loved. That you are important. That you are valued and cherished. Emmaunel. God with Us. God for us.
Read. 1 Cor. 13:4-7 with God in place of love.


In spite of his best efforts, surgeon Richard Selzer had to cut a nerve in the young woman’s cheek in order to get at the tumor. The result was that her mouth was permanently misshapen. Dr. Selzer was uncertain as to how her husband would respond to the change. Therefore, he was encouraged when the young man came in and was warm and caring to his wife, even joking about her new cute look. But when he saw what happened next, Dr. Selzer’s encouragement turned to awe. The young husband bent down towards his wife, twisted his lips to fit her crooked mouth, and gently kissed her.


Christmas is all about the Incarnation; about the Divine Word “emptying himself, by taking the form of a servant,[a] being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). In so doing, God bent down, ‘twisted his lips” and kissed the crooked lips of a world, misshapen by sin and despair, with His love and grace.[ii] That is what it means to be loved. You are loved. Even when you aren’t perfect. Even when you fail. Even when you say something stupid, do something stupid. Even when you stumble and fall. You are loved. No matter who you are. No matter what you have done, there is a present with your name on it underneath the Christmas tree. That’s the message we want our kids to understand. That’s the message we all need to understand. That we are loved. Perfectly. Unconditionally.

[i] Kevin Miller, executive vice president, Christianity Today International

[ii] David McCullough, Trivialization of God (Nav Press, 1995), pages 47-48