Subject: The Greatest Love of All
Scripture: Romans 5:6-8; 1 John 4:19
I believe that children are our future/teach them well and let them lead the way/ show them all the beauty they possess inside/give them a sense of pride, to make it easier/let the children’s laughter/ remind us how we used to be/ everybody’s searching for a hero, people need someone to look up to/I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs/a lonely place to be, and so I learned to depend on me/I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows/if I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe/no matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity/because the greatest love of all is happening to me/I found the greatest love of all inside of me/the greatest love of all is easy to achieve/learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all/
These words from one of Whitney Houston’s top songs of all time, “The Greatest Love of All,” remind us of just how talented a singer Whitney was, and just how much these words have gripped the world since Whitney first performed them. We’re reminded of just how innocent she was, just how talented she was, how her voice could freeze a room when she sang an opening note, how every head would turn to stare when she walked into a room. She was an artist in a class of her own in her lifetime, and her tragic end has many of us still wondering where it all fell apart. We saw the bad moments between she and Bobby in Bobby’s own reality TV show, we saw just how she was when drugs started to grip her, and we saw how tragic an end she, and then their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, came to. We’ve mourned Whitney’s and Bobbi Kristina’s deaths, and nearly six years later, we still mourn their deaths. Whitney was “The Voice,” as Oprah Winfrey called her, the woman whose voice was the epitome of what America could achieve, what America could become, and when Whitney sang, everyone — and I do mean EVERYONE — stopped to pay attention. She could silence an auditorium when she started singing.
And yet, I wish with all my heart that Whitney Houston had believed those lyrics of “The Greatest Love of All” with all her heart. I wish that Whitney had taken those words to heart, not merely read them on a music sheet to memorize them for performances around the world but had actually digested their meaning. I wish that Whitney had truly believed the greatest love of all was inside of her; if she had, she wouldn’t have needed Bobby Brown so badly. She wouldn’t have needed to demean herself in order to make him a better person. And she would have spared her daughter the grief of being young and yet lost in this big cruel world without her mother. I wish Whitney knew her worth.
Whitney had fortune, fame, and family, but what Whitney needed to be was someone who wasn’t always in front of cameras, someone who didn’t always have the spotlight, who didn’t always have the applause and approval of crowds, someone who didn’t always have to put on makeup, jewelry, and lipstick, and wear the trendiest fashions in order to thrill crowds and audiences around the world. And there were moments when she knew her worth, or at least moments when she almost made us believe she knew it: there were times when she prayed with her backup singers and instrumentalists, times when she talked about God and prayer and the goodness of the Lord, times when she’d sing gospel music and you could almost see her back in her old church in New Jersey, bellowing out “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” in the back of the choir. You could tell from her earliest song recordings from her church that Whitney was anointed and appointed to sing. It was her life, it was her voice, in more ways than one.
And yet, even if she believed “The Greatest Love of All” was inside her, the song convinced us but her life did not. For, regardless of how great a song “The Greatest Love of All” is, we know that, deep down inside, it’s far more difficult to love yourself than the lyric of that song makes it out to be. It’s easy to sing a tune and marvel at Whitney’s voice, but living everyday is difficult. It was for Whitney: though she could convince us most if anyone could, she struggled to love herself. At every turn, she tried to tell us that she knew who she was, where she was going, and how to get there, but we saw Whitney succumbed to things that we knew could put her at risk of losing her career, her fame, her voice. We saw Whitney’s relationship with Bobby and we figured it would be destructive — though we didn’t know how. We saw her dabble into drugs, specifically, crack, and then we saw her interview with Dianne Sawyer where she told us, “I don’t do crack; crack is cheap. Crack is whack,” the latter statement becoming something of a social media joke both after she said it and even now post-mortem. We read about her changing constitution as she battled other drugs such as marijuana and needed to go to rehab to get herself together. We saw the highs and lows, though Whitney wanted to “live as I believe,” she says in “The Greatest Love of All,” and we mourned for Whitney and were even concerned for her. We saw her headed down a dangerous road, and Christians around the world prayed for her, but Whitney still told us on camera that “It’s not true, I’m not doing it, the media is a hound and they just need to get out of my life and leave me be” (she said in so many words).
No, Whitney didn’t know how to truly value and love herself. The lyric of one of her greatest songs is a lyric that it was impossible for Whitney to live up to. It’s impossible for us to live up to it as well because, well, love is not something that starts with us. As 1 John 4:19 tells us, the verse we just finished reading a few minutes ago, “We love because He first loved us.” Love is of God, a message that John delivers to believers in his first epistle, so love starts and begins with God — not us. The trouble with Whitney’s song, “The Greatest Love of All,” is that the writer forgot that love cannot start within because we’re not responsible for love in the world. Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love and value ourselves, that we shouldn’t appreciate who we are and what we have to offer the world. After all, the Lord tells us that the second greatest command in all of Scripture is “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and you cannot love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself. Loving yourself is important, but no, it’s not “the greatest love of all.” It’s the second greatest love of all, but not the first. The first and greatest love of all is the love that God has for us.
Today’s passage, Romans 5:6-8, reminds us of “The Greatest Love of All” — that is, that God loved us when we were unlovable. Verse 6 says that “6 For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” The words “without strength” in the Greek refer to being “sick,” “weak,” “impotent.” The idea is that we were too weak, too powerless, to die for ourselves. We didn’t have the strength to die for ourselves. We were too weak to die for ourselves. We couldn’t die for ourselves because how could we, sinful, sin-sick mortal man, die for other sinful, sin-sick mortal man?
We were unable to die for ourselves, to pay our own penalty. We were fully capable of sinning and transgressing God’s Law, but we weren’t able to save or redeem ourselves. In short, we were helpless, incapable of rescuing ourselves out of the mess we’d made of things. As I said last week in the sermon, “But God,” that one phrase in Ephesians 2:4, is one of the most powerful, though short, phrases in all of Scripture. It tells us that God made the difference, that God changed the outcome of what could’ve been an eternity without Him, for us.
In verse 7, Paul tells us that some will die for a “good” person, someone who does good deeds, though few if any would ever die for a righteous man: “7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.” A “righteous” man here in verse 7 is someone who does his or her best to keep the Law, someone who observes rituals in the Law, lives their lives by the letter of the Law. Think of the Pharisees, those who claimed that they were the lawkeepers who did what the Law said. They were always condemning Jesus because He did things that transgressed their reading and interpretation of the Law. For example, they mocked him because His disciples were plucking grain on the Sabbath, though Jesus told them there were exceptions to the Law such as David eating the shewbread that belonged to the priests because he was hungry and there was no other food available.
They criticized Jesus for healing a sick man, a paralytic, on the Sabbath, even though Jesus told them that they’d rescue an ox from a pit or well on the Sabbath and not view it as a Sabbath violation; are animals more important than humans? Jesus says in so many words. These are the self-righteous persons who lived and died by keeping the letter of the Mosaic Law. And yet, few would die for these people because, in their self-righteousness, they condemned everyone else. The last thing anyone wants in the world is to die for someone who always accused them of being worthless human beings who weren’t “perfect” at keeping the Law. No one wanted to die for a Pharisee in those days, and few would die for a Pharisee in our day.
We can compare a “righteous” Pharisee to someone we know of in the modern-day church. Think of that person that is always at church, that always sits on the pew, always looks down their nose at someone else, always has a criticism of what others do and how they do it. That person is one who never actually does anything in church, but they always have an evaluation of what someone else is doing. Often, these are the people we look at and think to ourselves: “Now, if this person can see so much of what’s wrong with other people, they clearly know what’s lacking in themselves. They’re aware of their own laziness, their own shortcomings, their own sin.” And yet, they choose to do nothing about what’s wrong with them but seem bent on changing and transforming everyone else.
But, while few would die for a Pharisee, some would contemplate dying for a good man, someone who does good deeds, someone who respects everyone, judges no one, can be trusted and is trustworthy, knows how to keep things in confidence, loves people and accepts them for who they are, and does all he or she can to help others. Their generosity, love, concern, and kindness don’t go unnoticed — and some persons would consider dying for them if they had to. After all, if they’re renown in the community, I suppose that someone who offered to die for them would get their name in lights right alongside the good person who died. If there were a second Mother Teresa on earth, or a huge philanthropist or humanitarian, there’d be a few people who’d die for them, who’d jump in front of a bullet, pull them out of a burning house, dive into dicey water to risk bringing them to shore (and risk their own life in the process).
And yet, what we know about humanity is that these labels, “righteous” and “good” refer to human estimations of people, not their evaluations before God. The reason behind this pertains to the fact that, as Romans 5:8 says, “8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” What this tells us is that, if we were too weak and helpless to die for ourselves, then there’s nothing ultimately “righteous” and “good” about any of us that can merit salvation. Paul writes here about “righteous” persons, but he’s already told us in Romans 3:10 that “there’s none righteous, no, not one.” None can claim to keep the Law perfectly, none can claim to fulfill all of the Law without error and without sin — not even self-righteous Pharisees. No, they, like we all, have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and His Law.
The Old Testament also tells us that there’s no one on earth that is good. Psalm 14:3 and Psalm 53:3 both say, “They have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one,” and “Every one of them has turned aside; They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one.” Romans 3:12 says that “They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” Scripture is emphatic that no man does good deeds, no matter how admirable they may be in his or her eyes.
We were, as Romans 5:8 says, “still sinners,” “yet sinners.” In our sin, in our deadness, in our destruction, Jesus Christ died for us. Unlike mankind, who’d die for someone “righteous” or someone he thinks is “good” according to his own evaluation, Jesus knew our state, that we were dead in trespasses and sins, as Paul says in Ephesians 2, and he still died for us. He still gave His life, knowing that we could give Him nothing in return for His sacrifice, the giving of Himself. It’s amazing how some people would die for “good” persons. If someone is famous, donates huge sums of money to low-income funds, the less fortunate, the underprivileged, etc., someone would want to die for that person. In their minds, they’d assume that person had something “worth” dying for: a good name.
And yet, we didn’t have a name, and we didn’t have fame. We were dead in our sins, dead men walking, nothing, and yet, Jesus still died for us. He died for us knowing we weren’t righteous or good, and He died for us knowing that He’d get no fame from dying. What He received for giving His life was nothing short of terrible: He was falsely accused, He was convicted based on lies and false accusations; He was mocked, spat on, beaten, forced to carry His cross, and then had nails placed in his hands and feet and a piercing in His side. After these things, He had to hang on the Cross until the end of life came, and He died hanging between two thieves as if He were a common criminal. Jesus wasn’t; He was the Righteous One, but He died for unrighteous humanity. He didn’t get fame or glory for dying for us, but instead, infamy and condemnation. He was numbered with thieves though He was innocent. He was mocked though He was telling the truth. He was falsely accused though we were rightly accused because our sin put Him there.
Now, as we approach Valentine’s Day here in the US, we talk about love. The one kind of love that we’re always lifting up as the best kind of love, or, as the title says, “The Greatest Love of All,” is unconditional love: that is, a love that remains no matter the circumstance, condition, or season. Unconditional love is a “Just Because” kind of love, a love that says “I choose to be with you though there’s nothing about you that would make me be with you.” Unconditional love says that “I make a choice, a conscious decision, to love you thought it is only out of my free will to do so.” When you look at some of your relatives, you have that kind of love. Some relatives are hard to love, and so you love them not out of any obvious reason except that you’re obligated by the Lord to love that person. You’re not with that person because of their hair color, eye color, body build, weight, personality, money, family, loyalty, etc. NOTHING about this person makes you love them, but you just do. That is the definition of unconditional love: “to love WITHOUT CONDITION.”
And yet, man does not love unconditionally. Look back at verses 7 and 8. Man would die for a so-called “righteous” person, or a so-called “good” person, but Jesus died for us when we were “sinners,” when we were neither righteous nor good, when there was nothing worthy about us, when we were the most unlovable. Jesus died for us when we were so helpless that we could offer Him nothing for His good deed. We couldn’t repay Him, or do His sacrifice justice, or show Him our gratitude, but He died for us anyway. We were spiritual criminals, condemned by our own deeds (which weren’t good or righteous, by the way), and He died for criminals. If you went to court to see someone get convicted, even someone you didn’t know, and the judge said at the end of the case that “this criminal can go free if someone in the courtroom would die in his or her place,” would you do it? You wouldn’t die for a criminal; instead, you’d say, “They deserve to die, let them die. They’re convicted because of their own wrongdoing, let them suffer the consequences,” we’d say. I doubt that many of us, if ANY of us, would die for a criminal, someone who’s got a rap sheet as long as your arm. That person “deserves” to die, we’d say, and their death would be how justice is served.
We wouldn’t die for a criminal, but Jesus died for a world full of criminals because WE WERE THE CRIMINALS! We were the guilty, we were the condemned, we were those who sinned and transgressed God’s Law, and we were the ones who did it willingly. Adam and Eve didn’t sin in ignorance that day in the Garden; they knew what they were doing. And yet, despite the knowledge of their sin, Jesus still came down from Heaven and died for us. He knew full well when He came down to die for us that many of us wouldn’t accept Him, that many of us, like those around the Cross on the day He died, would mock Him and scoff Him and disregard His love, but He still came down to die for us. He knew that not everyone would receive His offer of salvation, but He still came down and died for the sins of every. single. human. being. It doesn’t make sense, even to this day, after years of reading about the gospel in the Word of God, that Jesus would die for man, that, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” I still can’t fathom it, I still can’t fully comprehend why Jesus would even do it — except to say that love is what nailed Him to the Cross.
This, my brothers and sisters, is what unconditional love is all about. It’s what I’d call “The Greatest Love of All”: God, who knew no sin, came down, took on flesh, and took our sin on His shoulders, dying in agony on the Cross as His Father turned His face away because God cannot look on sin. He took on our abandonment from the Father so that we wouldn’t have to know how true abandonment feels. He took on our sin and shame so that we’d never have to fully experience all that sinful shame entails. He took on our agony so that we’d never know the deepest agony that sin and spiritual death brings, spared us from the torment that awaits Satan, the demons, and all who rebel against His offer of love in the gospel. He became the criminal in our place so that we could become “the righteousness of God.” And after all this time, I’ve come to understand that God’s love is unconditional love. That it’s not my love for me that is “The Greatest Love of All”; no, God’s love for sinful mankind is “The Greatest Love of All,” a love that defies all understanding, a love that is truly righteous because He offered up Himself knowing that we could give nothing in return. The Greatest Love of All is God’s love for mankind, His divine love for our sinful selves, His selfless sacrifice for selfish sinners.
No, contrary to Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All” is not “easy to achieve,” for it required the death of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to bring it about — and His prayer to the Father in the Garden to “let this cup pass from Me” tells us just how agonizing His decision truly was. It’s not about “learning to love yourself,” but rather, learning to comprehend the love of God for you. For, when you understand God’s love for you, how He made you, how He made you to live in honor and to give Him glory, can you learn to love yourself, including all your flaws. As John says, “God is love,” and one cannot truly know what love is until one knows God. Yes, as sinful, weak man, we can only, as Whitney’s song says, “Find our strength in love,” but only in God’s love for us.
Opening Selection: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (performed by BeBe Winans)
“Common” (performed by John Legend ft. )
Intermediate Selection: “Jesus is Love” (the Commodores)
Inspirational Selection: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” (performed by Adventist Vocal Ensemble)
Closing Selection: “Falling in Love with Jesus” (performed by Jonathan Butler)