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, are we? 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 the highest ideal, the 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,