1 John 4:7-21
It still happens from time to time that a stranger will stop to ask us for directions. But it’s a rare occurrence, these days. Thanks to the personal navigation device, just about anyone can get to just about anywhere from just about wherever they happen to be. The GPS has saved a lot of time, and a lot of marriages. If Moses had had a GPS, it wouldn’t have taken him 40 years to get from Egypt to the Promised Land.
You can find anything these days – even if you don’t have an address. If the place has a name, it can be found. Whether you’re looking for St. Andrew UMC, or Union Station, or the Lincoln Memorial, tap a few keys on your GPS and you’ll be given options for the fastest route, the scenic route, for driving or walking or traveling by train, bus or bike. There’s nothing you can’t find these days.
I pulled out my iPhone this week and typed in the name of what I was looking for. I didn’t have the actual address – just the name. And the name that I typed into my GPS was God. You’re already thinking that I’m making this up, but bear with me. I was looking for God, so I typed in, “God,” and my GPS app produced several options: “Lord of Hosts,” “Yahweh,” “The Almighty One,” “Holy of Holies,” “Everlasting God,” “Harold be thy Name.” I chose “Alpha and Omega,” just to be thorough. My quest to find God came up with multiple destinations, so I made haste.
I was led first to the holy city of Rome, the birthplace of Christendom. I visited St. Peter’s Square and gazed upon the cut stone and curved colonnades of the Piazza, the dome of Michelangelo, and the great obelisks stretching heavenward. I toured the Sistine Chapel, with its awe-inspiring frescoes on the barrel-vaulted ceiling, and visited the ancient catacombs of the saints. I’d never been so moved and inspired. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t God.
From Rome I traveled to Dublin, Ireland. I sat in a pew at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and later climbed the Croagh Patrick with hundreds of other spiritual pilgrims, arriving at the summit where Patrick fasted for forty days and nights more than sixteen centuries ago. It was a holy place, to be sure. But it wasn’t God.
And so I traveled to Israel to look for God, first to Bethel, where Jacob met God in a dream thousands of years ago; then to Shiloh, where Samuel heard the Voice of God calling him to be a prophet. It was so quiet, but I didn’t hear the voice of God. I went to Jerusalem and prayed for peace at the Western Wall, then walked the corridors of ancient synagogues. I went to Bethlehem, to the Church of the Nativity, and walked down the long, stony steps to the grotto below, where I found the fourteen-point silver star, two-feet in diameter – the marker that’s said to be the exact place where Jesus was born. It was beautiful and inspiring, but it wasn’t God.
My GPS gave me one last destination – a small village in Nepal, beyond the old temples in the Katmandu Valley where, at the end of a narrow dirt road I could see a small hut perched high in the hill, and a thousand granite steps leading up to it. I climbed the steps, one at a time, until I reached the very top. I knocked gently on the door of the hut, and after a long silence the old door slowly opened with a creak. The wise man inside looked to be two hundred years old, with white hair, a long, greyish beard, and an understanding gaze. We sat on the floor and talked for hours over hot tea and bread. But when I asked him if I’d find here what I had come looking for, he said, quietly but confidently, “No. Not here.”
But if not here, if not in any of these places, then where? Where can God be found? I’d traveled thousands of miles through the deep recesses of my over-active imagination this week in search of God, and came up empty.
That was when I awakened from my daydream, walked out my office door, and began poking my head into all these rooms. I peered into a classroom filled with children in the Learning Center; they were signing a song. It was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. I stopped by the chapel and noticed a small group of people, with open Bibles on their laps, talking and laughing, like family gathered around a dinner table. I walked down the hall and peeked in on several groups that were meeting – Alcoholics Anonymous, Bipolar Support, OutSpirit, a men’s covenant group, a women’s book group, a mom’s group with babies crawling around. I walked the halls of the Youth Wing and saw on the walls thousands of pictures of our students over the last decade–building homes, sitting around campfires, playing volleyball and holding hands in prayer circles.
I came back upstairs and peeked in on the choir rehearsing. They were singing, “In This Very Room.” When I heard that song I knew that I didn’t need to travel any further to find God.
In this very room there’s quite enough love for one like me,
And in this very room there’s quite enough joy for one like me,
And there’s quite enough hope and quite enough power to chase away any gloom,
For Jesus, Lord Jesus … is in this very room.
When I heard that song, it suddenly dawned on me: if you’re looking for God, or Yahweh, or the Lord of Hosts, the Ancient of Days, or “Harold Be Thy Name,” you’ve come to the right place. God is here.
How do we know that? The writer of 1 John puts it in the simplest of terms:
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit… God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”
John is saying that we have a problem. The problem is that no one has ever seen God. But don’t give up the search, because there can be evidence of God’s presence. That evidence comes when God’s love produces its effects in us who believe, and it’s made visible whenever we imitate that love in our relationships with others. So if you really want to find God, simply look at people who are busy loving like God. There, you will find God.
God is love, and where love is, God is there. The big theological word for that is “incarnation,” and it means the love of God in us and among us.
The Wall Street Journal ran a story in January about hundreds of churches that are up for sale throughout Europe. Every Christian denomination across Europe has been in serious decline for decades, leaving hundreds of churches, many of which are several hundred years old, without enough parishioners to keep the doors open. In many villages with once-thriving churches, altars have now been stripped; icons and pews carted off along with steeple bells, and sold on eBay. Sanctuaries are sold and converted to restaurants, bars and coffee houses, even skateboard parks.
The Los Angeles Times ran a similar article years ago. The reporter interviewed a woman who’d bought a small church in Germany. She purchased a church that had been built in the thirteenth century, for $10,000. Her bed is now positioned in the choir loft; an espresso machine is found where the hymnals were once stored. “Jesus is gone,” she says, “I’d like to turn [this place] into a studio for artists.”
Jesus is gone, because the people are gone. The incarnated love of God needs a people in which to dwell. The building is not enough to contain him.
It’s the kind of story that will break your heart, but it points to the truth that the writer of 1 John is telling us this morning: that where there is no love, and where there are no people who practice love together, you’ll be hard-pressed to find God. God is love, and where love is, God is there.
For Christians, the most remarkable symbol of incarnation is the bread we consecrate at Holy Communion. By sharing in Christ’s bread, we–like Christ–are taken, blessed, broken and given to the world. We become bread for others. The process of becoming bread for others is rather simple: into the mixing bowl goes the water that cleanses us, that frees us from regrets and mistakes of our past; we add the salt, the flavor and preservative, the residue of our persevering work and enduring faith. Then we add the most important ingredient of all–the yeast that makes it all rise and expand.
If there’s one image that captures the big theological idea of incarnation, it’s yeast. Yeast is the living ingredient that turns lifeless dough into something that’s living, breathing, pliable, and capable of feeding the world.
The bread-making process is a series of growths and humblings. First, the yeast feasts on starches and sugars in the dough and, as a by-product, burps millions of carbon dioxide molecules into the dough, blowing it up like a wad of bubblegum. The C02 gives the bread its airy texture; the alcohol burns off during baking, but leaves behind a tasty flavor. It’s amazing, when you consider the alchemy of it all. Without the live yeast, the loaf will not rise or expand. It’s the yeast that turns a lifeless lump of dough into living bread.
John says this is what the inexhaustible, boundless love of God does to us whenever we get together as a church. God is love, and the church is that one body in which the incarnate love of God chooses to dwell. While no one can see God, you can look at the people and see the evidence of God’s presence. It comes when God’s love transforms us; you will see it whenever and wherever we love others with a God-like love.
A church without people is just a building. And a church without people who love without condition is just a country club with nice candles.
It’s that unconditional love that, when added to the dough of our life together, transforms us. Our individual experiences, our thoughts, feelings, beliefs – when we bring them here they all combine into a sticky mess. You don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. Like yeast in dough, the process is not always dignified. It stretches and expands us in ways that are not always comfortable. It leaves us with holes – little empty pockets that make us light and airy and capable of expansion and transformation.
But we are meant to be imitators of God’s incarnate love.
J.I. Packer puts it this way:
“God knew the worst about us before he chose to love us, and therefore no discovery now can disillusion him about us in the way that we are so often disillusioned about ourselves, and quench his determination to bless us. He took knowledge of us in love.”
We are to be imitators of that kind of love. If you want to find God, who is love, you’ll find him in the people who are imitating that love in the real world – without condition. You’ll find them in people who are willing to stretch and expand, like dough that’s been activated by the yeast.
It was a Sunday morning at my first church. We were still meeting in that miserable, wonderful warehouse. The phone rang about a half hour before the worship service. My wife, Lori, was making copies for Sunday School in the work room. She heard the phone ring, and picked it up. The man on the other end of the line said, “What time is your service today?”
Lori said, “10:30.”
“Can we attend even if we aren’t Methodists,” he asked?
“Yes,” she said, “that’s perfectly okay.”
“Well, is it okay if one of us isn’t really a Christian?”
“I think that’s why we’re here,” she said. “It’s really okay.”
“Well, we have a four year old boy – can we bring him, too?”
“Of course,” she said. “He’s welcome to try Sunday School. Anything else I can help you with,” she asked?
And he said, “Well, I guess the real reason I’m calling is… how do I say this…is it okay if both of us are our son’s dad?”
Lori took a moment to do the math. “If you’re trying to say that you’re gay and wondering if that’s okay, then yeah, it’s perfectly okay.”
It was in the late 1990’s, and for some people in the church, it was hard at first. Being the church is hard work. When you add the yeast to that dough – the yeast of God’s boundless, unconditional love – you have to stretch and rise and mature in your faith.
But they came. And they stayed. And when they both came down the aisle to receive Communion with their little four-year old in tow, there was no question all. If you were looking for God, you didn’t need to look any further. God was right there at the altar. How did we know? Because God is love, and wherever love is, God is there.
 “Bell Tolls for German Churches,” The Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2007.
 J. I. Packer, “Knowing and Being Known,” in Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).