“The Lord is in your midst…He will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in His love.” Zephaniah 3:17
God doesn’t need you. How’s that for a cheerful, encouraging, and reassuring start to a Christmas week devotional? It’s true. He doesn’t need you.
That idea comes from St. Irenaeus (d. 202), Bishop of Lyon and a very important early contributor to Christian thought. Irenaeus is interesting for many reasons. He wrote extensively against heresies of those early years and helped define orthodoxy. Even more importantly, he was a disciple of Polycarp (d. 155) who in turn was a disciple of John, an apostle and author of a great deal of the New Testament. Irenaeus is very close to the original voice. He heard the man, who heard The Man.
John is known for his special devotion to the Lord. His Gospel and the first letter in particular have a more contemplative theme than other writers of the New Testament. John wrote a great deal about God’s love, most memorably writing that God is love. So, we might expect that he would pass along this theme to his disciples, who in turn would pass it along to their disciples.
This little history lesson is important because it helps us understand what Irenaeus was getting at with his idea that God doesn’t need us. He meant that God does not rely on us for anything, even our worship and devotion. God doesn’t need to create. He doesn’t need to love something. He has no needs. He is completely self-sufficient, completely other than His creation. He is not dependent on anything in creation. He doesn’t need us.
So, when we hear that God loves us, we then know that God has completely, freely chosen to love us. Our creation is a pure expression of God’s very nature. He loves us because He has chosen to express His nature in the way that is perfectly reflective of Him. He chooses to love you simply because He wants to.
God doesn’t love you because of what you can do for Him. He doesn’t love you based on your performance. He has no expectations of you. I can hear your suspicion. “Doesn’t He expect me to live in a particular way?” Of course, but in the same way I expect one of my grandchildren not to touch a hot stove. I don’t love them any less when they do. I comfort them and treat their hurts. Expectations are based on assumptions and hopes about the future. How can an omniscient Being have expectations?
God knew from His very first thought of me that I would fail and fall. It didn’t surprise Him when it happened. However, He chose to create me anyway. He chose to love me.
Zephaniah’s prophecy is one of those double focused prophecies that is typical of so much of the Old Testament. His near-view was God’s consolation of the people in exile during the 6th century B.C. His far-view was of the ultimate solution 600 years later to the spiritual exile we all face. When we realize we’ve wandered from God we need only turn back to Him and find that He was following at a respectful distance the whole time. He is near. Always. Then He fulfills His purpose for us in the beautiful words of the prophet: “He will renew you in His love.”
We need renewal, and that has nothing to do with 2020 being especially challenging. Life is challenging. Always. And it beats us up and leaves us exhausted, bruised, and bleeding. How wonderful to be reminded by the annual spiritual rhythm of Advent that God longs to renew us simply because that is His nature and He has chosen to love us deeply and eternally.
St. Irenaeus also said “The glory of God is a many fully alive.” Through His love God brings us fully to life. Our challenge, our comfort, is to simply turn to Him in trust. He will renew you in His love. He is near. He delights in you. He loves you.
May God bless you with a deeply moving Christmas.
Dr. Terry Ellis
December 21, 2020