Sermon for March 3rd, 2013
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
Where Love Begins
Love. Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love! We love love, don't we? And yet...the truth is, we're not very good at it. Last month was Valentine's day--supposedly a celebration of love--and yet it seems to have more to do with buying things and overindulging in chocolate than in actual acts of kindness and self-sacrifice to others. Hollywood movies point to romantic love as our highest ideal, our greatest achievement, the happy ending that lasts forever...and yet over 50% of all marriages end in divorce.
We love love, but we don't really know how to find it, what to do with it, how to hold on to it, or even how to give it away. As a pastor, I've heard married couples say "I just don't love her (or him) anymore." I've heard angry teenagers say "I hate my parents!" and I've heard parents say "I love my children" but then I watch how little time they spend with them, and I wonder what love even means to us, when we can turn around and in the next breath say "I love enchiladas" or "I love shopping at the mall." Please excuse my language, but it just needs to be said: Despite our aspirations and our best attempts, we pretty much suck at love.
But it shouldn't be that way, and doesn't have to be that way. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." And then he said to love your neighbor as yourself. There are three different types of love implied in those words: Love for God, love for other people, and love for one's self. More importantly, there is a two-part order to these things. Loving God comes first...then loving others as you love yourself. Here is a mystery that the world we live in does not understand: You can't truly and fully love others unless you love God first. God is love, love comes from God and through God. So if you want to love your spouse more; if you want to love your children better; if you want to love yourself...then start by learning to love God. That's where all love begins.
Of course, learning to love God is easier said than done. "How do I love God?" you might be thinking. Love isn't a switch I can just turn on and off at will? Worse yet, you might be thinking "But I already love God" in the same way that you love enchiladas and football games. Or on the other end of the extreme, you might be thinking, "Love is a big deal" and I'm afraid to love that way; afraid of what it might mean, of what it might cost.
Don't worry. The world likes to start things with a bang: We like grand openings, big kickoffs, and major IPOs. But when God wanted to raise up a mighty nation, he began with a small tribe--the family of Abraham. When God wanted to save the entire world, he began with a small, vulnerable baby in a manger in a cow-shed. Jesus spoke of faith the size of a mustard seed (but faith is next week's sermon. This week we're still on Love). How can we possibly learn to love the Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe? Start small. Start personal. Start with the Psalms.
This is one thing I love about the Psalms. Reading the bible can be intimidating--it's a big book, with larger-than-life characters and ideas. But the Psalms (in the very middle of the bible) are simple. You can read just about any one single psalm in less than a minute (although if you have five minutes, it's good to read slowly and let each line sink in). Psalms are personal--they are the short prayers, praises and cries of individual writers. Think of them as deeply personal letters, songs and poetry written to God in quiet moments of reflection, in times of deep distress and need, or in moments of exuberant passion. If you read more than a few psalms, you will eventually come across one that speaks with your own voice, echoing the deepest thoughts of your own heart.
Psalm 63 is a model for anyone seeking to love God more deeply. The psalmist moves through three distinct stages in his love for God that reflect consistent growth over time, and offers us several principles for how we, too, can seek, find, and grow in our love for God.
The first stage is the seeking stage, verses 1-4. It begins with a simple, personal declaration in verse 1: "O God, you are my God." With this, the psalmist puts everything in the right perspective. You are God and I am me. But he also expresses an orientation: You are *my* God. There is a connection between us. This is a necessary place for any relationship to begin--first by acknowledging our distinct identities as well as our relationship to one another. But in the next part of the verse, the psalmist also acknowledges there is a distance between them: "I seek you." In other words, I've acknowledged who we are and how things are supposed to be, but we're not quite there yet. I don't feel your presence here with me. I don't feel love yet.
But there is something that leads to love, something that keeps us seeking, and that is longing: "My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water." Interesting to think that life without Love, life without God, is a dry, empty wasteland. You can have all the money in the world, all the possessions and all the power...but if you're in the desert and you don't have water, none of those things will matter for long. So it is with Love. So it is with God.
We long for Love--it's reflected in our films, our literature, our art, and our music. The problem is that we fool ourselves into thinking that the love of another person will be enough to fill that longing. It won't. The love of another person is limited, while the love of God is unlimited. Only the love of God can satisfy our longing, filling us and overflowing us to the point where we actually have love to share with others. If you long for love (and everyone longs for love) it would be wiser to seek it first from God, the only one who has enough to satisfy.
Where does one go to find God? You know, there's an obvious answer here, that I hope doesn't take you who are sitting here in the pews of our church today too long to figure out. But just in case, read verse two: "So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory." If you're looking for God, it wouldn't hurt to start in the sanctuary, in the church, in worship. I know there are a lot of people today who say "God is everywhere...I find God out in nature, or Sunday morning on the golf course, or in my living room...on TV." That may be true. You can stumble onto a whole lot of things out in nature, and in my living room you can REALLY stumble into a lot of things. But while God is everywhere, the church is a place he has intentionally set apart that we might encounter him and come to know him better. Like the Psalmist does, if you're longing for love, if you're looking for God...your best bet is to start in the sanctuary, in worship.
And worship is exactly what the Psalmist does in the next two verses: "Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will live up my hands and call on your name." This is worship. Notice you don't necessarily come to worship because you already love God (although that would certainly be acceptable). We are still in the seeking phase here--you praise God and bless God and call out God's name in worship because it is in doing these things that you *begin* to learn to love God. By the way, this works in relationships too--Don't wait until you "feel" love for your spouse to bless him or her; don't wait until you feel love for your children to praise them; don't wait until you feel love for your neighbor to call out his name. When you do these things--love or no love--you will be cultivating love, learning to love, letting love move from act to habit, from habit, to lifestyle.
This is where the Psalmist moves into the second phase. I imagine some time has passed, because he is no longer using the language of longing and seeking. He begins phase two by saying "my soul is satisfied as with a rich feast." He is still using the language of thirst and hunger, but before he was empty, now he has more love than he could possibly consume--a rich feast. This is a mature love, a full love. Notice that even then, worship is part of the love-filled lifestyle: "My mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed and meditate on you in the watches of the night." But it is only after seeking God in the sanctuary has become a lifelong habit that this love begins to spill over into all areas of life, even the dark watches of the night. In verse 7, we see that "help" and "protection" are important aspects of God's love for us, and in verse 8 we find that there is no longer any separation between the Psalmist and God, but rather "my soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me." By the way, as confident and mature as this phase of love sounds, it's worth noting that you tend to "cling" to something when you are afraid of falling. Mature love does not mean flawless and perfect love without room for fear, doubt or more growth.
If phase one was the "seeking/longing" phase, and phase two is the "confident/mature" phase, I like to think of phase three as the "practical" phase. It sounds a bit negative and downright violent at first: "But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals." I think this is one of those places in the bible where you need to understand the context: At the very beginning of Psalm 63, we are told that this is "A Psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah." This is, of course, King David, and there are two times in his life when he had to hide in the wilderness: This could either before his reign when he was hiding from a jealous King Saul who wanted to have him killed, or later in his life when his rebellious son Absolom takes over the Kingdom and also tries to have David killed. Either way, taken in this light, the third part of this Psalm shows us that we can bring our very real, very pressing "life problems" to the one we love and who loves us. It also tells us that even when our very lives and livelihood are threatened and in danger, our first response should be like King David's in verse 10: "But the king shall rejoice in God." In other words, even at phase three, love of God is expressed in worship. If we are faithful in the midst of adversity, God will be faithful to stop the mouths of our detractors. Love doesn't run at the first sign of trouble, but rather love is at its greatest in times of greatest need. This is how God loves us. This is how we are to love one another.
I don't presume to know what phase of love you are in right now, either in your relationship with others, or your relationship with God.
As I look at our congregation, I see many of you who, like the Psalmist, have experienced that mature and abiding love, in your relationship with God, in your marriages, and in your relationship with others. There is still room to grow, and I know you know this. But I also hope that you'll take the time to share your love of God, and your experiences in relationships with those who are still seeking, those who are still struggling. We are a multi-generational church, and that is a blessing--it means that there are mentors and friendships waiting to happen. If you have learned to put the love of God first in your marriage, and in your relationships with others, and God has blessed your relationships as a result...I would encourage you to find a young person or a young couple in our church...and adopt them! Like the Psalmist, be an example to follow and a friend for the journey.
As I look at our congregation, I know many of you are just beginning this journey of love. Perhaps you are trying desperately to fill that deep longing and loneliness inside you. Perhaps you want to love your spouse more, or love your children or your parents better, or maybe you are having trouble learning to love yourself. I hope you'll commit some time during this season of Lent to begin the process of learning to love God. I encourage you to look to the psalms for guidance. It doesn't take much to start. Brazillian novelist Paulo Coelho says "the moment we begin to seek love, love begins to seek us. And to save us.” To this I would simply add, God is Love.