Guest Post by Paul Ritchie.
True story. Susan was on verge of an emotional collapse. She had been hospitalised before and feared it would happen again. She was scared that if that happened her family might desert her. She went to her pastor.
She told him that her father was a demanding tyrant. ‘If you look pretty,’ he would say to her, ‘I’ll love you.’ ‘If you make good grades, I’ll love you.’ ‘If you are successful and helpful, and don’t embarrass me in front of others, I’ll love you.’ Her father’s love was very conditional, and she only ever experienced his disdain and rejection.
For the next hour the pastor laboured to convince Susan of the love of her Heavenly Father. Then he read Zephaniah 3:17. ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’ ‘That’s how God feels about you Susan! He looks at you, he thinks of you … And he sings for joy.’
‘But I am so pathetic,’ she protested. ‘I really am. I’m thirty pounds overweight, and I’d die if anyone saw the inside of my house right now. It’s almost as messy as I am. My husband is furious at me again. I can’t do anything right. And you say God sings over me with joy? I doubt it! More like screaming in disgust. My dad used to do that.’
The pastor read Zephaniah 3:17 again. ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’
‘If only I could believe it were true. I think then I could face almost anything. If only it were true.’ If, like Susan, you find it hard to believe that God delights over you then this sermon is for you.
Grasping something of how much God loves us is the key to everything in the Christian life. Our love for God, and his people, does not originate with us. It is a divinely-empowered response to the greater love we have found in him. ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10). Understanding his love makes it a delight to obey him, ‘for this is the love of God, that we keep his commands; and his commands are not burdensome’ (1 John 5:3). Understanding his love will transform our fellowship. ‘God so loved us, so we ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:11).
The Welsh preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones explains that ‘the greatest characteristic of the greatest saints in all ages has been their realisation of God’s love to them … Not our love to Him, but His love to us. Our salvation, our assurance, depend not on our love to Him, thank God! Our outlook would be most precarious if that were the case . No, it is His love to us that matters …’ Every Christian has a deeply felt need to know and feel that God loves and enjoys them. Many Christians believe that God frowns, rather than smiles, when he sees them.
1. God’s love is demonstrated most clearly at the cross.
Zephaniah tells us that the Lord is mighty to save and that he has taken away our punishment. God has dealt with our guilt. The New Testament explains how he did this.
Zephaniah 3:17 has sometimes been called the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. John 3:16 reads, ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.’
In John’s writings ‘the world’ is not simply a description of something that is big; it is primarily a description of something that is bad. The world describes humankind in rebellion against their creator. God did not love us because we deserved his love, he loved us despite the fact that we deserved his judgement. God did not love us because we were lovely; he loved us because he is love.
At weddings I like to use the picture of the love of the groom for his bride as a reminder of the sort of love that God has for his people. Isaiah declares, ‘as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride so will your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:5).
But think of how that man met his future wife. He saw her and thought she was attractive. He got to know her and realised that she had a personality that matched her good looks. He spent time with her and realised that he might enjoy sharing his life with her. God’s love for us far surpasses this. He saw us and he could see that that we are self-centred, self-absorbed, rebellious failures. Morally speaking it is as if we have a big bulbous nose, the breath of a camel, and the personality of Genghis Khan. Then he let out a sigh and exclaimed, ‘I love him/I love her’.
Not only did he love us in our rebellion and sin, he dealt with our rebellion and sin. ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loves us and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).
Now if he loved us before we became Christians, before we had any desire to have him rule our lives, don’t you think that he can be counted on to love us now that he has accepted us into his family? If he was committed to us while we were openly hostile to him, don’t you think that he will be committed to us now that we have been forgiven? The apostle Paul reasons, ‘for if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!’ (Romans 5:10).
2. God’s love brings us into his presence.
Now that Christ has dealt with our sin on the cross, we have access by faith into the grace in which we now stand (Romans 5:2). Again, Martin Lloyd-Jones explains that before we came to faith God could only frown on us but now, in grace, ‘God looks on us favourably, and not only accepts us, He delights to receive us, and he delights to bless us.’ He has become our Father and delights to see us coming to him. His love is compared to that of both a mother and a father for their child. But his love far exceeds that of any human parent.
When we pray do we remember that God is looking on us with favour, that he is smiling on us? Do we realise that he delights to bless us? Do we know that he is more concerned about our welfare than we are ourselves?
Zephaniah tells us that God is with us. Do you think that he would have you in his presence if he did not like you. In Isaiah God declares, ‘I will be glad in my people’ (Is. 65:19).
3. God wants to deal with our objections to his love.
Finally, God wants to deal with our objections to our love. Zephaniah tells us that God loves us, he has dealt with our sin, and that now he delights in us. This gives us reason to be glad and rejoice with all our heart. But sometimes we think that it is too good to be true. We struggle to accept this truth. ‘The Lord will quiet you with his love’ – he takes steps to silence our objections towards his love for us.
I ask, “Can you feel the wonder of this today – that God is rejoicing over you with loud singing?”
“No,” you say, “I can’t, because I am too guilty. I am unworthy. My sin is too great, and the judgements against me are too many. God could never rejoice over me.”
But I say, “Consider Zephaniah 3:15. God forgives your hesitancy. He understands. So his prophet says, ‘The Lord has taken away the judgements against you’ Can you feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing today, even though you have sinned? Can you feel that the condemnation has been lifted because he bruised his own Son in your place?”
I ask you, “Can you believe that he rejoices over you?”
“No,” you say, “still I can’t, because he is a great and holy God and I feel he is so far away from me. I am very small. I am a nobody.”
But I say, “consider Zephaniah 3:15 and 17, ‘The Lord is in your midst.’ He is not far from you. Yes, I admit that this staggers the imagination and stretches credibility almost to breaking point – that God can be present personally to everyone who comes to him. But say to yourself, again and again, He is God! He is God! What shall stop God from being close to me if he wants to be close to me? He is God! He is God! The very greatness that makes him seem too far to be near is the greatness that enables him to do whatever he pleases, including being near to me.”
But still you say, “No, you don’t understand. I am the victim and the slave of shame. I have been endlessly belittled by my parents … I have been scoffed at and threatened and manipulated and slandered. Inside this cocoon of shame even the singing of God sounds faint and far away and incomprehensible. It is as though my shame has made me deaf to anyone’s happiness with me, especially God’s. I cannot feel it.”
But I say, “I am sure I do not feel all that you feel. I have not been through what you have been through. But God is no stranger to shame. Unbelievable shame was heaped upon his Son (Hebrews 12:2), terrible slander, repeated belittling, even from his own townsfolk (Matthew 13:55-58). Therefore, ‘we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses.’ I know that I have never walked in your shoes. I did not have to live with the family you lived with. But Jesus knows. He feels it with you. And best of all his Father says right here in Zephaniah 3:19, ‘I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praises and renown in all the earth.’ Is it not amazing how well God knows you? Can you not feel the warmth of his heart as he makes provision for every question you have? Do you not hear the singing of God as you draw near?” (Adapted from John Piper).
It might still seem too good to be true but, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.”