Sermon preached January 29, 2012
Texts: John 4:9-26; I John 4:7-8
Not long ago, Steve Mattson posted a game on Facebook – find out the number one song the week you were born, see if you could find it on YouTube, and post the video to your Facebook site. Well, I discovered that my song was “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton and I found a YouTube clip that came from the Ed Sullivan Show.
It was not the first time I had sought to find out about music from the year of my birth – 1959. That year one of the great albums in jazz, and one the best-selling jazz albums of all time was released - - - play a bit of “So What” – Miles Davis, from Kind of Blue.
So what. You can hear it in the music. And sometimes it is a good question to ask – so what?
This is the second in a series of sermons on central themes in the Christian faith – questions people of God who follow Jesus ask. We ask about God. At the heart of Christian faith are the affirmations that God is, that God is spirit, and that God is love. Jesus in a conversation with a Samaritan woman – remarkable for the boundaries Jesus crosses – talking with a woman, talking with a Samaritan (but more on Jesus next week) – Jesus in this conversation says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). In the First Letter of John, we read these well-known words, that some of us learned as a song. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:7-8). The song I learned was the King James Version.
As Christians we can debate and have wonderful conversations about God’s nature and God’s power, and just how it is that God affects the world. Yet the basic affirmations that center such discussions are that God is, God is spirit, and God is love.
Now the Miles Davis question – so what? This is nice and all, but so what? What difference do these affirmations about Christian faith make for our lives? I know the question sounds a little bold, maybe even a little irreverent. That does not mean it is not a meaningful question. If we are to let our faith speak deeply and genuinely to our lives and to the world we need to risk the Miles Davis question – so what?
God is love – so what? One “so what” is that this means God is not perpetually peeved. How many carry within at least a vague sense that God is often angry with us, that God is just waiting for us to mess up and then we better watch out. Such a view of God has been offered by Christians often enough. In a famous sermon, preached in 1741, during the first Great Awakening in the Americas, Jonathan Edwards spoke the following: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder. (American Sermons, 357). The sermon is entitled, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”
With all due respect to Jonathan Edwards, a brilliant man in many ways, I think he just plain got it wrong. I don’t see any way to reconcile Edwards’ image of this dreadfully angry God with the affirmation that God is love. So we would do well to rid ourselves of those haunting notions of a terribly angry God, perpetually peeved with us.
God is love – so what? The affirmation that God is love answers deep needs we encounter in our lives as beautiful people in a pickle. St. Augustine, who like Jonathan Edwards, sometimes got Christian faith wrong, also got some things right, and among them this wonderful insight. Of God, Augustine wrote: for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. ( Confessions, I.1).
That God is love answers deep needs in our hearts and souls as human beings. That same insight is offered by the Psalmist. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live, so that your youth is renewed like the eagles. (Psalm 103:2-5)
As human beings, beautiful people in a pickle, we need something – meaningful forgiveness, a power that can frees us from that which traps us, a patient presence that can open our eyes and the eyes of our hearts, a love that reconciles, a touch that heals, perspective for our perplexity, a light that shines so that we can find our way home, the warmth of a home. We need someone who sees our genuine beauty and helps us see the beauty in ourselves and in the world.
God as love offers meaningful forgiveness, a freeing power, a healing touch, a light that shines, a centering perspective, the warmth of home. God as love sees our beauty and desires that we see it too. God as love wants to work with us to make the world more beautiful.
But God as love is not a stay-puff marshmallow. God’s love is not simply sugary sweet. God as love answers our deepest needs as human beings, but sometimes the answers challenge us. We get used to the traps that bind us, and freedom is not always easy. We get used to living low rather than living large. Growing up has its growing pains, and those are not always easy. Working with God to create beauty in the world can mean standing against ugliness and hurtfulness and injustice, and that can be difficult. God as love can be love as fierce tenderness.
God is love – so what? Here’s the so what – God as love answers deep needs in the human heart and soul. God as love challenges us to live out our light. And God as love invites us to love God back. We love God by giving our time. We take time for worship and prayer and meditation and thoughtful reflection. We love God through loving the world as God loves the world. We love profusely and profoundly. We love God through loving and developing ourselves. Irenaeus, a second-century Christian leader, penned one of my favorite theological lines: The glory of God is a human being fully alive. (quoted in Gerald May The Dark Night of the Soul, 181)
Christians affirm that God is, that God is spirit, that God is love. So what? It makes all the difference to who we are and how we live. We see the world truthfully, with its pain and hurt and ugliness and injustice, yet we live with hope, trusting that God in love continues to work toward a newer world. We know our own shortcomings and see our own failure, but we do not despair, for we trust that God in love is about new life and new beginnings. For our wrongs, there is forgiveness. For our brokenness, there is healing. For our sense of being lost, there is a direction home. God as love is rooting for us – inviting us always to love as God loves and to be the fully alive person that is the glory of God.
And how do we know that God is love, and how do we know what it means to love as God loves? For Christians it is as simple and as complex as one word – “Jesus.” Stay tuned. Amen.