Pluto got bumped, cut from the first team, demoted from the top nine. According to
a committee of scientists meeting in Prague, this outpost planet fails to meet solar-
system standards. They downgraded the globe to asteroid #134340.1 How do you
supposed that decision made Pluto feel? A bunch of planet-pickers from Prague,
kicked him out.
Mars didn’t get cut, and it looks as red as a tanning bed addict. Saturn is still a planet even though it has rings around the collar. But Pluto? Too small. Wrong size moon. Not enough
impact. I’m thinking that Pluto didn’t appreciate such news. He’s always getting pushed around. Walt Disney named a dog after the planet. Teachers always put him last on the science quiz.
Can’t fault Pluto for being ticked. One day he’s in, the next he’s out; one day on the squad, the next off. We can understand his frustration. Some of us understand it all too well. We know what it’s like to be voted out. Wrong size. Wrong crowd. Wrong address.
John 3:16 has a lot to say to Plutoed people: “For God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
God loves. God gave. We believe. We live.
To the demoted and demeaned, Jesus directs his leadoff verb. “For God so loved the world . . . ” Love. We’ve all but worn out the word. This morning I used love to describe my feelings toward my wife and toward peanut butter. Far from identical emotions. I’ve never proposed to a jar of peanut butter (though I have let one sit on my lap during a television show). Overuse has defused the word, leaving it with the punch of a butterfly wing.
Biblical options still retain their starch. Scripture employs an artillery of terms for love, each one calibrated to make a different point. Look at the message of an Old Testament word for love.
I. God’s Love: You Can’t Win It.
Consider what Moses said to his followers: “The Lord chose your ancestors as the objects of his love” (Deut. 10:15 nlt).
This passage warms our hearts. But it shook the Hebrews’ world. They heard this: “The Lord binds [hasaq] himself to his people.” Hasaq speaks of a tethered love, a love attached to something or someone.2 I’m picturing a mom connected by a child harness to her rambunctious five-year-old as the two of them walk through the market. (I once thought the leashes were cruel; then I became a dad.) The strap serves two functions, yanking and claiming. You yank your kid out of trouble and in doing so proclaim, “Yes, he is as wild as a banshee. But he’s mine.”
In this case, God chained himself to Israel. Because the people were lovable? No. “God wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important—the fact is, there was almost nothing to you. He did it out of sheer love, keeping the promise he made to your ancestors” (Deut. 7:7–8 msg). God loves Israel and the rest of us Plutos because he chooses to. “This is the love that won’t let go of the object of love.”3
George Matheson learned to depend on this love. He was only a teenager when doctors told him he was going blind. Not to be denied, he pursued his studies, graduating from the University of Glasgow in 1861 at the age of nineteen. By the time he finished graduate seminary studies, he was sightless.
His fiancée returned his engagement ring with a note: “I cannot see my way clear to go through life bound by the chains of marriage to a blind man.”
Matheson never married. He adapted to his sightless world but never recovered from his broken heart. He became a powerful and poetic pastor, led a full and inspiring life. Yet occasionally the pain of his unrequited affection flared up, as it did decades later at his sister’s wedding. The ceremony brought back memories of the love he had lost. In response, he turned to the unending love of God for comfort and penned these words on June 6, 1882:
O love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.4
God will not let you go. He has handcuffed himself to you in love. And he owns the only key. You need not win his love. You already have it. And since you can’t win it, you can’t lose it.
II. God’s Love: You Can’t Lose it
As evidence, consider exhibit A: the stubborn love of Hosea for Gomer. Contrary to the name, Gomer was a female, an irascible woman married to a remarkable Hosea. She had the fidelity code of a prairie jackrabbit, flirting and hopping from one lover to another. She ruined her life and shattered Hosea’s heart. Destitute, she was placed for sale in a slave market. Guess who stepped forward to buy her? Hosea, who’d never removed his wedding band. The way he treated her you would have thought she’d never loved another man. God uses this story, indeed orchestrated this drama, to illustrate his steadfast love for his fickle people.
Then God ordered [Hosea], “Start all over: Love your wife again,
your wife who’s in bed with her latest boyfriend, your cheating wife.
Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people,
even as they flirt and party with every god that takes their fancy.”
(Hosea 3:1 msg)
This is the love described in John 3:16. Hasaq is replaced with the Greek term agape, but the meaning is equally powerful. “God so [agapao] the world . . . ”
Agape love. Less an affection, more a decision; less a feeling, more an action. As one linguist describes, “[Agape love is] an exercise of the Divine will in deliberate choice, made without assignable cause save that which lies in the nature of God Himself.”5
Stated more simply: junkyard wrecks and showroom models share equal space in God’s garage.
I saw a shard of such love between an elderly man and woman who have been married for fifty years. The last decade has been marred by her dementia. The husband did the best he could to care for his wife at home, but she grew sicker; he, older. So he admitted her to full-time care.
One day he asked me to visit her, so I did. Her room was spotless, thanks to his diligence. She, horizontal on the bed, was bathed and dressed, though going nowhere.
“I arrive at 6:15 a.m.,” he beamed. “You’d think I was on the payroll. I feed her, bathe her, and stay with her. I will until one of us dies.” Agape love.
I know a father who, out of love for his son, spends each night in a recliner, never sleeping more than a couple of consecutive hours. A car accident paralyzed the teenager. To maintain the boy’s circulation, therapists massage his limbs every few hours. At night the father takes the place of the therapists. Though he’s worked all day and will work again the next, he sets the alarm to wake himself every other hour until sunrise.
Then there is the story Dan Mazzeo tells about his father: “Pop,” a first-generation Italian American who was struggling with metastatic liver and lung cancer. When doctors gave him less than a year, Pop bravely said he wasn’t afraid to die. After all, his wife was already gone and his children grown. But then he learned that his only son, Dan, was going to be a father. When Pop heard the news, he sat up and resolved, “I’m gonna make that.”
The chemo tortured his system. Some days it was all he could do to mumble, “Bad day” to those who phoned. But when his granddaughter was born, he insisted on going to the hospital. The ninety-minute ride tormented him. Dan wheeled him to the maternity ward. Pop’s arms were too weak, so Dan had to hold the baby for him. But Pop did what he came to do. He leaned over, kissed her, and said, “Sheila Mary, Grandpa loves you very much.”
Within seconds, Pop dozed off. Within an hour he was back in the car. Within days he was dead.6
What is this love that endures decades, passes on sleep, and resists death to give one kiss? Call it agape love, a love that bears a semblance of God’s.
But only a semblance, mind you, never a replica. Our finest love is a preschool watercolor to God’s Rembrandt, a vacant-lot dandelion next to his garden rose. His love stands sequoia strong; our best attempts bend like weeping willows.
We may bathe an aging bride, massage a boy, or issue a final blessing, but compare our love with God’s? Look at the round belly of the pregnant peasant girl in Bethlehem. God’s in there; the same God who can balance the universe on the tip of his finger floats in Mary’s womb. Why? Love.
Peek through the Nazareth workshop window. See the lanky lad sweeping the sawdust from the floor? He once blew stardust into the night sky. Why swap the heavens for a carpentry shop? One answer: love.
Love explains why he came.
Love explains how he endured.
His hometown kicked him out. A so-called friend turned him in. Hucksters called God a hypocrite. Sinners called God guilty. Do termites mock an eagle, tapeworms decry the beauty of a swan? How did Jesus endure such derision? “For God so loved . . . ”
“Observe how Christ loved us. . . . He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us” (Eph. 5:2 msg).
God’s love: your goodness can’t win it. Nor can your badness lose it. But you can resist it.
III. God’s Love: You Can Resist It
We tend to do so honestly. Having been Plutoed so often, we fear God may Pluto us
as well. Rejections have left us skittish and jumpy. Like my dog Salty.
He sleeps next to me on the couch as I write. He’s a cranky cuss, but I like him. We’ve aged together over the last fifteen years, and he seems worse for the wear. He’s a wiry canine by nature; shave his salt-and-pepper mop, and he’d pass for a bulimic Chihuahua. He didn’t have much to start with; now the seasons have taken his energy, teeth, hearing, and all but eighteen inches worth of eyesight.
Toss him a dog treat, and he just stares at the floor through cloudy cataracts. (Or, in his case, dogaracts?) He’s nervous and edgy, quick to growl and slow to trust. As I reach out to pet him, he yanks back. Still, I pet the old coot. I know he can’t see, and I can only wonder how dark his world has become.
We are a lot like Salty. I have a feeling that most people who defy and deny God do so more out of fear than conviction. For all our chest pumping and braggadocio, we are anxious folk—can’t see a step into the future, can’t hear the one who owns us. No wonder we try to gum the hand that feeds us.
But God reaches and touches. He speaks through the immensity of the Russian plain and the density of the Amazon rain forest. Through a physician’s touch in Africa, a bowl of rice in India. Through a Japanese bow or a South American abraço. He’s even been known to touch people through paragraphs like the ones you are reading. If he is touching you, let him.
Mark it down: God loves you with an unearthly love. You can’t win it by being winsome. You can’t lose it by being a loser. But you can be blind enough to resist it.
Don’t. For heaven’s sake, don’t. For your sake, don’t.
“Take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18–19 msg). Others demote you. God claims you. Let the definitive voice of the universe say, “You’re still a part of my plan.”