I would venture to say that the best known verse in all of the Bible is probably John 3:16:
"God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that every one who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life."
Five hundred years ago a Roman Catholic priest in Germany named Martin Luther, from whom the Lutheran church gets its name, called John 3: 16 "the Gospel in a nutshell". And still today, in football stadiums and hockey arenas all over North America, fans unfurl banners proclaiming "John 3:16: God so loved the world..."
The central message of the Gospel is the good news of God's universal, unlimited and unconditional love for all people; and the good news of God's love is the most important message any and all of us can ever hear! God's love is the cornerstone of creation; and it is the source of your life. God's love is the motivation behind every faithful sermon ever preached, and every faithful life ever lived! But if I could unfurl a banner proclaiming the promise and power of God's love today, my Gospel in a nutshell would be "Matthew 13:45":
"The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."
Jesus' parable sounds, at first, like good spiritual advice: "Seek the right path to salvation; recognize it when you find it; and fully commit yourself to following it once you have found it." In a world that tells us our personal value depends on our health, wealth, and success, we are tempted to seek fulfillment - spiritual or otherwise - in working hard, doing good, being smart, getting noticed - but, above all, in how young and good we look.
But Jesus' parable is not about human beings seeking and finding fulfillment in a personal relationship with God. Although a personal relationship with God holds the surest promise of personal fulfillment in life, Jesus' parable of the pearl merchant is about God seeking us - and finding God's own divine fulfillment - in personal relationship with us! Imagine, the fulfillment of almighty God's own eternal life and divine being is rooted in God's gracious love for us! In Jesus Christ, God has given up every divine right of power and glory to consummate a covenant of mutual love much like a marriage - God's love for us, and our love for God. An early Christian hymn quoted by the first century apostle, Paul, expresses God's sacrifice most eloquently and profoundly:
"Though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross..." (Philippians 2:5-11).
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, reveals the infinite extent to which the self-giving love of God will go to seek you, to find you, and gather you into the holy communion of God's own divine, eternal life.
YOU are the one pearl of great value in whom God invests his own most precious possession - the fullness of God's only and eternally begotten Son's divine being! In the divine humanity of Jesus Christ, God loves you as if you are God's one and only beloved child! God loves you with a love that no one in this world can promise, and nothing in this world can ever take away from you!
That may not be a new message for you - I hope it isn't! But whether you've heard it a thousand times before, or for the very first time today, the message of God's love is the most important message you and I will ever hear! And it's a message I hope you will remember every day of your life - especially the tough days - because the love of God is the most precious possession you and I will ever have, and will have forever: You are God's precious child! You are a person of priceless worth! God's love for you is everlasting!
In June 1967, The Beatles ignited what came to be known in pop culture circles as the "Summer of Love" when they recorded his song "All You Need Is Love". Nearly five decades later , the overwhelming consensus remains that love is the world's - as well as each and every human being's - most important need in life. And that's hardly a new insight. Throughout history, people have understood the importance of love. According to the Bible, love is the very essence of God's divine being; love is the very purpose of Jesus' ministry; and, as the previous sermon in this "Most Important Sermon Series" series claims, love is the very core of the Gospel message: "You are God's precious child. You are a person of priceless worth. God's love for you is everlasting."
Knowing that we are loved by others - by our parents and children, by our family and friends, as well as by God - is vitally important for our growth from infancy through childhood and into mature adulthood. But even more important to the fulfillment of our human being than our need to be loved by others is our own need to love others. That's how human beings reflect the image of God, whose own divine nature is itself fulfilled in self-giving love.
But it's not because God needs us to fulfill his divinity; but because we need God to fulfill our humanity! In order to fully develop and reflect the image of God within each and all of us, we human beings need to grow in our love for others more than we need others to grow in their love for us!
Of course, being only human, loving others more than we love ourselves is not as natural for us as it is for God. Even the self-giving love parents naturally have for their children - or the romantic love of most intimate companions - can be difficult to sustain when the stresses of time, energy and finances, or conflicting values and goals, stretch the limits of our physical, mental or emotional strength. As Jesus' summary of all God's commandments teaches, love that extends beyond what is natural for us has to be learned, nurtured, and practiced: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength". Only when love for God becomes our highest priority in life is it possible to "love your neighbour as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31).
That's why God established the covenant communities of Israel and the Christian church.
Our faith community is the place where we learn, nurture, and practice the art of loving God and our neighbours. God reveals his divine presence in the world through his chosen people - in Israel and in the church - and God has called this congregation to reflect his gracious love in the community around us. Born again by the water and God's word in Holy Baptism, nourished and sustained by the body and blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, the church - this congregation - is the visible sign of God's promised future - a promise expressed in the very name we share: "Advent".
As God's Advent people, you and I have received, and continue to receive life's most important gift of all - the self-giving love of God, revealed to the world in the cross of Jesus Christ, and given to us personally in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, in every celebration of the eucharist - the Greek word for 'thanksgiving'. And, as the people of God at Advent, we are called to outgrow our love for self, and grow into the fullness of our humanity as God's children by loving others as God, in the divine humanity of Jesus Christ, loves us all.
For the love of God we have received, continue to receive, and will yet receive; for the love of God we have shared, continue to share, and will yet share; for the love of God we have given, continue to give, and will yet give, thanks be to God - today, tomorrow, and forever.
As the sun rose above the horizon east of Jerusalem on the eve of Passover in the year 3,792 of the Jewish calendar, the curtain rose on the most important day in the history of the world - the day on which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified! At the moment of Jesus' death, the Gospels tell us, the curtain in the temple restricting entry into the inner sanctuary of God's holy presence was torn down. In his death, the ancient promise God gave Adam and Eve before exiling them from the Garden of Eden was fulfilled. In the sacred blood of his only-begotten Son, God gave human beings a new lease on life. And in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, you and I are given unrestric-ted entry into God's holy presence to share in the full harvest of God's salvation.
The day of our baptism is the most important day of your life and mine! We may not remember it; we may not even know the date on which it happened, but it is the most important day of our life because, whether we remember it or not - even if we haven't been baptized yet - baptism lays the foundation for our eternal life, just as it did for Jesus himself!
Yes, Jesus' baptism was the most important event of his life too. Of course, all the other watershed moments of his life (pun intended) - his birth, his temptations, his transfiguration, his death and resurrection, his ascension - were important as well; but they were more important for the benefit of others - "for us and for our salvation", as our creeds say. In terms of Jesus' personal benefit, nothing was more important than his own baptism!
At his baptism, Jesus received the Holy Spirit's gifts of faith, wisdom, and courage - which he needed to understand, accept, and fulfill the divine mission to which God had called him. He also received the assurance of God's everlasting love: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (see Mark 1:11). And it was the affirmation of God's love that sustained Jesus in his dark times of doubt and fear, and strengthened him to endure suffering and death for the salvation of the world!
And the same is true for us. In the water and God's word of our own baptism, God declares that you and I are also God's beloved children. The same Holy Spirit gives us the gifts we need to make our own unique contribution to the fulfillment of God's divine mission. We receive the same assurance of God's everlasting love to sustain us in our own dark times, and to inspire us to take up the cross in faithful discipleship. And in baptism, we are given our own personal place within the Holy Communion of God's saints - including those we have known and loved personally.
Baptism is the most important day in our life because it connects us with the most important day in the history of the world - the day on which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Jesus' death brings God's divine immortality into our human mortality. His cross is the new tree of life in God's new garden paradise, where the new humanity of God's children shares the new and eternal life of Jesus' resurrection in holy communion with God, with one another and with all creation. As Psalm 118:24 says: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" - now, today, and forever!
So far in this series on what is "most important" in life, we have heard the most important message we will ever hear: "You are God's precious child. You are a person of priceless worth. God's love for you is everlasting." We have reflected on baptism as the most important day of our life, because baptism connects us with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the source of our salvation. And we have considered that our most important need for fulfillment in life is not the need to be loved, but rather the need to love. Today our series concludes with the claim that the most important thing you can do in life is worship God - not in a general sense of anywhere or anytime, but in the very precise time and place to which God invites you, "here and now", as it were!
God calls the people of Advent Church, for example,to worship on Sunday morning, at ten o'clock, in this building at 2800 Don Mills Road in Toronto, Ontario. Today, human beings all around the world - each and every man, woman and child created in God's divine image - are being called together for worship in God's holy presence. This is the day; this is the time; this is the place God has appointed for worship.
God created human beings for the primary purpose of living in deep intimate relationship with God's divine being. Within that marriage covenant - as the Bible often characterizes it - God commits the full holiness of his perfect eternal love to us; and God invites the same commitment of love on the part of imperfect mortals in order to nurture our spiritual growth toward becoming the wholly and holy, fully human beings God created us to be, God in Jesus Christ redeems us to be, and God's Holy Spirit promises us we will be! And the weekly worship gathering of God's people - on this day; at this time; in this place - is where, when, and how, our covenant relationship with God becomes as close, personal, and intimate as it can be in this world!
Now that is a claim that most people in our world - certainly no other religion, and perhaps even many members of Christian churches - may not accept. In fact, the most common argument I hear against the primary importance of Sunday worship goes something like this: "I don't have to go to church to worship God. I can worship God anywhere at any time - on the golf course, in a sunset, under a harvest moon, or even tending my garden. I can even worship God in my heart! After all, God is everywhere." That is, of course, true.
God is everywhere - just as my wife, Rosarie, and our children are always with me in my heart, in my thoughts, and in the pictures of them I carry in my wallet. But there is no satisfactory substitute for the real flesh-and-blood, face to face, presence of their smiles, voices, and hugs and kisses - as any soldier returning home from a tour of duty in foreign lands will attest!
Yes, God is present everywhere - and, as our Holy Communion liturgy affirms, God deserves our worship "at all times and in all places." But in the divinely appointed time and place of weekly worship, God is present in a unique form, and for a unique purpose, distinct from the divine presence we may know at all other times and in every other place. Christians believe that that God's ultimate self-revelation is seen in the divine humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. In our weekly Holy Communion with God and one another God is truly and fully with us, in the real presence of Jesus Christ, to accomplish what God is unable to accomplish at any other time or place, by any other means! In our proclamation of God's word and our celebration of God's sacraments we meet God in a way we do not meet God in any other time or place!
On this day, at this time, in this place God satisfies humanity's spiritual longing for fullness of life through his presence in, with and under the material substance of earthly life and the physical limitations of mortal life. At Advent Lutheran Church, on Sunday morning, at ten o'clock - and in every divinely appointed time and place of worship around the world - God re-presents the divine vision, renews the divine promise, and restores our human hope for a whole new world living in a whole new covenant relationship, revealed and established in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Worship is the most important thing we can do - you can do - in life because in worship we remember that everything we have rightfully belongs to God; and we learn to give God the obedience and commitment God expects and deserves, and to resist the worldly idols power, wealth and fame that daily tempt us to serve them instead of God.
In worship we hear, once again, the most important message we need in life: the message of God's love. In worship we strengthen our marriage covenant God consummated with us on the most important day of our life: the day of our baptism. In worship we learn that our most important need in life is to love others as God loves us. In worship we fulfill our life's most important purpose: to glorify God, which extends beyond this day, time and place to sharing God's love with others in word and service every day, and inviting them to fulfill their life's purpose by joining us, and all God's precious, priceless, beloved children in the Holy Communion of worship - here and now; anywhere and anytime; today, tomorrow and forever.