Listen to the sermon from February 14, 2016 titled “Love Test” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
I love writing sermons and planning worship with creative people like Stephanie and Landry is fun, but sometimes we face, well, let’s call it “cultural dissonance.” The Christian year and lectionary provide themes and texts, but the cultural overlay makes for crazy combinations, like Pentecost and Mother’s Day or Reformation Sunday and Halloween. We give priority to the Christian tradition, of course, but you can’t ignore the elephant in the room when people’s minds are filled with a “Hallmark Holiday.” Today is a perfect example.
What is today? It’s Valentine’s Day, of course, a celebration of love named after a Catholic saint of whom so little is known the Vatican removed him from the General Roman Calendar in 1969.
There are actually three third century martyrs named Valentinus and some think his association with relationships was intended to counteract the Lupercalia, a popular Roman fertility festival held in mid-February. Valentine’s Day became widely popular in the Middle Ages with the rise of courtly love and changing notions of romance.
If you ask me, the Lupercalia won out! I mean, you rarely see the martyrdom of St. Valentine remembered on Valentine’s cards, right? But maybe we should recover it as a Christian holiday since love is the heart of Christian spirituality. God’s love, our love for one another, the universal human need to feel ourselves “beloved on earth” – these are Christian themes, are they not? As Brené Brown puts it, “we are all wired for connection.”
On the other hand, today is the First Sunday in Lent on the Christian calendar, arguably our most important season of spiritual renewal. Ash Wednesday begins a forty day journey of spiritual centering in preparation for Easter. Even if you didn’t start on Wednesday, you can join the journey today.
The forty days of Lent are based on the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, a time of fasting and soul searching where he was tested. Every year the story of his temptations in the wilderness is our Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent. But you see my dilemma today: Lent and Valentine’s Day? To quote Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?”
According to Luke, Jesus’ hair was hardly dry from taking the baptismal plunge in the Jordan when the Spirit led him into the wilderness. In other words, it was an intentional retreat to focus on the calling he had just received as he rose from the water, God quoting two scriptures identifying Jesus as Messiah in the mode of Isaiah’s “suffering servant.”
I can’t overstate how important that idea of retreat is for all of us who think ourselves “spiritual.” So many call themselves “spiritual” these days, but they lack definition and discipline in their spirituality. So it’s more of an amorphous feeling than a life practice. Instead, most are driven by other forces in their lives and lack a clear spiritual center.
In our hyperactive short attention span culture, we marvel at Jesus taking forty days to be alone with God. Wrote Thomas Merton:
There are times, then, when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing. And for (those) who have let (themselves) be drawn completely out of (themselves) by (their) activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act (they) can perform: and often it is quite beyond (their) power. We must first recover the possession of our own being.
Sitting still before God? What could be more countercultural to us who live by the very idea that your worth is measured by how busy you are?
Jesus fasted during the forty days in the ancient practice of bodily deprivation for spiritual concentration. Can you imagine foregoing bread for forty days? Turning off your television? Taking a break from Facebook? Disconnecting your phone? Writing no emails? Would you even know who you are?
Fasting from our habits – whether food or drink or work or hobbies or the various distractions we use to fill our emptiness – shows us where our addictions are and the idols that we worship. Thomas Aquinas said: “The things that we love tell us who we are.” Without those distractions, our false self crumbles and we discover our true identity before God.
After forty days of not eating, these rocks began to look like loaves. So here was the first test.
“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
This is the temptation of greed, to use your talent to suit yourself, to be driven by your appetites. And if you think that doesn’t apply to you because you can’t turn rocks into rolls, you forget how many people think the whole goal of life is to gather as much bread as you can. But love is not about getting, but giving.
Test number two: “If you will worship me, I will give you all the glory and authority of the kingdoms of this world.” Just in case you are wondering which presidential candidate he’s describing, the answer is all of them! This is the temptation to power, gained by any means necessary, to be driven by your desire to control. And while you may not be tempted to run for president, not a day goes by we aren’t offered unethical shortcuts to get what we want or play games to get people to do what we want. Yet love is not about controlling people, but freeing them.
Test three: “If you are the Son of God, take a flying leap from the Temple tower to prove God will protect you.” This is the temptation of security, to wall yourself in, to be driven by fear. We are drowning in fear these days in our world, in our culture, even in the church. It’s hard not to be directed by it, easy for us to be manipulated by the barrage of anxiety messages people throw at us. But the Bible says “Love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Love and fear are like striped pants and a plaid shirt: they never go together. Or so Gina often reminds me.
It’s easy to get hung up on the mechanism of the temptations in this story. Does the devil appear visibly or is this a narrative way of describing the stories we tell ourselves? You know, that inner voce that starts saying, “You need this.” “You’ve earned this.” “You deserve this.” Or tells you, you aren’t good enough or strong enough or worthy of being loveed? Questions God with lots of “if’s,” even quotes scripture to find righteous reason to do the wrong thing? But it doesn’t matter whether the temptation comes from the outside or the inside. Appetite, control, and fear: these are the classic human temptations.
Jesus is tempted, as we are, to abandon the incarnation, to avoid what it means to be human, to enter a fortress of solitude where he takes care of himself, needs no one else, cannot be hurt. We want to be more than human, to be immortal, powerful, and invulnerable. But in our attempts to be more than human we become less than human. We disconnect from our true selves and from each other.
We were put here for one reason only, Thomas Aquinas suggested: to learn how to love. And the temptations to be selfish in our greed, to gain power over others, and protect ourselves from all pain prevent us from loving God or anybody else. So think of these temptations as love tests. Selfishness isn’t love. Control isn’t love. Fear isn’t love. These things leave us isolated and alone.
We want most of all to be loved. But you don’t find that by getting someone to meet your needs, trying to control them into doing what you want, or avoiding the risk of being hurt. You find that by giving yourself, freeing them to be themselves, and being vulnerable enough to risk hurt. In short, you find love by loving. Or as Jesus put it, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16.25).
In the wilderness, Jesus refused the temptation to make his life about loving himself and fully embraced what it means to be human. But it was a battle, and he needed the intentional time with God to keep his heart in the right place. His courage, unselfishness, release, and vulnerability proved his love true. Said Henri Nouwen, “What makes us human is not our mind, but our heart, not our ability to think, but our ability to love .”
Lent and Valentines Day. Get the connection? Losing yourself in loving God as a way to loving others. I hope you’ll join this Lenten journey with us. May we pray?
As we come to the table today, O Lord, where we remember how you gave yourself in love for us, may we be renewed in our love for you and reminded of your call to love without selfishness, domination, or defensiveness. And as we reflect on your love, show us each how we might use this Lenten season to let go of what holds us back from you and take hold of what will lead us closer to you that we might learn to love as you have loved us. Amen.