The Love of God

The fourth Sunday of Advent focuses on God’s love. And today I want to share a story of God’s love which comes from my own faith tradition, American Baptist.

On December 20 in 1944, as the Japanese Empire was retreating from the Philippine Islands, a group of American Baptist missionaries was martyred. They’d refused to turn themselves in for internment after Japan’s invasion, choosing instead to continue their mission work deep in the rainforest. They were shown a secluded spot, off the beaten path, by the grandfather of one of my dear friends–Elmo Familiaran. They named their refuge “Hopevale,” and for nearly two years these missionaries continued the work to which they’d been called. Until a captured American soldier, who’d passed through the valley at one point, was tortured and gave up their location to the occupying Japanese forces.

On December 20th, their refuge was surrounded. The soldiers captured the missionaries and were ordered to execute them. But one of the group, Dr. James Covell, had been an missionary in Japan prior to the war. Fluent in Japanese, he pleaded with the officer in charge to spare their lives–telling him they were not part of the war and only wanted to serve the hurting. The officer was compelled to let the group live, but before he could do so orders came from a higher ranking officer that they would be executed. Dr. Covell relented and asked that they be given time to pray, which was granted, and when they had offered their prayers to God they submitted themselves to be martyred. Not long afterward American forces re-captured the island on which they’d been hiding.

I said this was a story of God’s love, but on the surface it doesn’t seem that way, does it? The Hopevale martyrs were 12 people, including a 9 year old boy, who found themselves in a war zone simply because they wanted to serve the God who’d called them. Couldn’t God have saved them from their unjust fate? Wouldn’t that have been the “loving” thing to do? Where on earth was “God’s love,” if such a terrible thing could happen?

At least, that’s the way that our culture tends to think of love–that it should be “happily ever after,” and know nothing but smooth sailing. The air we breathe tells us that love means being delivered from all suffering, and that if there is a struggle somewhere along the way then it can’t really be love. But it’s a lie. Anyone who has ever loved another human being, or been part of a group of human-beings, knows that. Anyone who has been married knows that love is a roller coaster. Anyone who has been a parent knows the truth of the old proverb, “Having a child is like allowing your heart to run around outside your body.” I would say that, in this world, loving someone means suffering.

So where was God’s love in that valley on December 20, 1943? It was in the missionaries, who laid down their lives in humility rather than betray their call to serve. It was in the Filippino Christians who carried the story of their martyrdom with them as a sign of the love which had been shown to them. The Love of God was in the daughter of James and Charma Covell, Peggy, who served as a social worker in a POW camp after she’d gotten the news of her parent’s martyrdom. She was so kind to the Japanese prisoners one once asked her, “Why are you so kind to us?” Remember, this was in the middle of the war–Japanese Americans were in internment camps, the fury over Pearl Harbor was still burning, and war propaganda had reduced the Japanese to something almost sub-human. Peggy Covell had all that in her mind, as well as her parent’s murder, when that question was posed to her. She had every logical reason to hate the Japanese people. Instead, she looked at the sailor who’d asked her the question and replied, “Because Japanese soldiers killed my parents.” She knew her parents had forgiven their executioners even as they were being murdered, and decided she could do no less. You want to know what good the love of God did on the day the Hopevale missionaries were martyred? It touched Peggy, so she could show mercy, and it’s touched every other person who has been struck to the heart by what happened that day and decided to live for themselves the grace those martyrs showed. This includes, by the way, the lead pilot who helped brainstorm the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Mitsuo Fuchida. He was listless after Japan’s surrender and when he encountered the grace and forgiveness of Peggy Covell, from the mouth of the same sailor who had asked Peggy that question, it humbled him and led him on a journey to Christ. Not only did Fuchida come to believe, he became an evangelist and proclaimed Christ’s grace and forgiveness himself. The love of God is a lot more wondrous, grand, and amazing than we know–and though it causes our Lord pain, a lot of times it’s revealed through suffering.

Stories of suffering love are the ones which have a long reach. Some twenty years after the war the General Secretary of the Japanese Baptist Churches found himself on a train, where he followed the Japanese custom of exchanging business cards with fellow travelers. One man took note of his occupation and asked, “You are a Baptist minister?” When the General Secretary responded yes, his fellow traveller recounted for him the story of what had happened that day, because he’d been one of the soldiers who was ordered to execute the missionaries. What he saw, and what he participated in, struck him that day–but nothing quite so much as when Dr. Covell came back from prayer and declared, “Now we are ready.” When he was finished recounting his tale this former soldier told the General Secretary, “I was not a Christian then, but I am now.” God’s love, expressed through suffering, is powerful.

This love is what we’ve always been called to practice. Think of Paul, who gave up everything he knew to embrace Jesus. He loved his Messiah, and is credited with writing most of the New Testament letters, but his life was marked by suffering–shipwrecked, falsely accused, beaten, stoned, left for dead. But the love of God in Jesus was with him, and the fact that we are disciples of Jesus 2000 years later, is a testimony to that fact.

Think of Jesus, who heard the voice of God after his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased 1.” But as beloved as Jesus is, his life is known for suffering. Certainly there is the cross, the symbol of Jesus’ passion on our behalf, but think about his birth! He was born in an animal stall, into a conquered and oppressed people, welcomed by one of the lowest social classes of the day, and heir to a throne for a kingdom which hadn’t existed for centuries. If all that wasn’t enough, his mother was an unwed pregnant teenager! That’s not a recipe for success today, but in Mary’s day it could have been a death sentence.

Many people would say that all those things combined reveal just how useless God’s love is, but in reality Jesus’ suffering is the point. We are an oppressed people, burdened with sin and tempted by power and greed. We aren’t the high and mighty of society, who can lord over others with assumed privilege 2. The way before us, which leads to our savior, is not easy. But all that we go through, Christ has walked before us. That truth is the love of God, manifest physically in Jesus, and he leads us home. And the wonder is as we follow and are changed, even in the midst of suffering, the love of God is not just shown to us. It goes out from us. And wherever it touches, things become new.

This fourth Sunday of Advent remember Hopevale, and the reach it’s had. Remember Paul and the other Apostles. Most importantly remember the Savior whose love has carried all those who follow him to his side. And as we remember, may we live likewise. Amen.

  1. Matthew 3:17 NRSV 
  2. Baptists have typically been among the least “socially respectable” Christian groups.