(This is a sermon I gave on the 20th of February this year, before the Russia-Ukraine Conflict began)
Last time I gave a sermon, I introduced a new song, and played a video connected to the sermon that also served as a pre-sunday-school message for children. This time, I have (almost) combined all of those into one (I’m not sure it quite works as a message for children, but they might enjoy some of the images at least)
Many people struggle to love God because they can’t grasp who and what God is, how indescribably wonderful he is and worthy of our praise and attention. This passage provides us with one key to grasping a whole lot more of who we are called to worship and follow.
God is love. Would you say that the song was telling the truth about love? We see examples of love in the world that reflect those aspects, those properties of genuine love. Even if we aren’t experiencing them directly ourselves, we have certainly witnessed something like them in the lives of others around us, or in stories that really resonate with us, because they are showing something true and pure, the love of good parents or grandparents, of good and honest friends, a motivated rescue worker or doctor, the camaraderie and sacrifice of an honourable soldier, a helpful colleague at work, a kind-hearted stranger, a loving husband or wife. All of those loves that we can see concretely are weak reflections of the perfect, abundant, generous and powerful love of god. All of those loves that we see around us or hear about ultimately come from him.
God is love. So everything that the song said about love, we can say about God. He is patient and kind; he won’t leave us to our fate, he looks us in the face; he sees our flaws, but that doesn’t discourage him; he gives us a place where we truly belong, he continues to care even when we turn our backs on him, he forgives us and welcomes us back when we realise how stupid we have been, he gives us room to grow and empowers us to be the person we were truly meant to be.
God is love. A key aspect of God is that He is a powerful, active, invigorating, joyful, and supremely generous relationship between three persons. God is so overjoyed by this relationship that he wants to share it with us! Imagine that. He wants us to be as loving, as joyful, as generous and fulfilled as He is—to have live in abundance. To grow the gifts that he has already given us and become more and more the magnificent creations he made us to be. Now that is an invitation worth accepting. If we have already accepted that offer, it is one worth remembering, being grateful for and living accordingly with all our heart, all our strength and all of our mind.
Perfect love casts out fear. What is the message that the world, our governments and news organizations has been telling us for the last two years?
Be terrified. Suffering and death is around the corner. Hide. Everyone around you is a threat; keep them away. Don’t meet together, don’t celebrate, don’t sing. Wear a mask, or two, or three. Be responsible and show everyone around you how terrified you are. I recently saw a video of a man on an airplane putting on six masks. He was very proud of himself, making a show in front of everyone of adding mask after mask, as if to say, “Look at me! I’m better than all of you, because I’m more afraid.” It’s absurd. Other people scream hysterically whenever anyone comes near them, as if standing next to someone is the same as attempted murder. Some just play at being scared so they can look down on others and bully them, others have become addicted to this foundation of fear and are unable to cope with things going back to normal. They should be pitied.
What else does the news try to terrify us with? War is coming with Russia! (Now that the war between Ukraine and Russia has begun, that it’s the start of World War III and nuclear catastrophe) Democracies are turning into tyrannies all over the world. Civil wars are on the horizon. Economies are collapsing. Everything is unstable, out of control and you’re powerless to do anything about it. Despair, cower, and most of all, be terrified.
How do we respond to that? We could quote Mark Twain:
“If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.”
Because so much of the news is distorted, if not invented, and important events and contexts are often ignored completely. Unfortunately this is not only true of the tabloid press, the never-ending news cycle means that reaction and attention is everything, and the easiest attention-getting reactions to evoke are fear and outrage. (The fact that these reactions also make the viewer/listener easier to manipulate is a bonus). There will be some fragments of truth mixed in occasionally, but without a reliable direct source for comparison, it becomes very difficult to know what is really going on (even moreso during a time of war, as all you will hear on the news is propaganda from one side or the other), so ignoring the sensationalized version of what a given news source wants you to think becomes more appealing, even healthy.
Even if every danger they warn of is real, the words of C.S. Lewis that have been recently circulating online in various venues come to mind:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
If all of our hopes are in this life, then despair and terror are logical responses. It has always been that way. But our hopes are not all in this life. We are promised persecution, struggles, difficult tasks and difficult choices, but also the strength to endure and grow through them. We are not abandoned and helpless, we are treasured children of a loving God. If the worst happens and we die, we go to be in the arms of God, fully plunged into that amazing relationship, seeing His infinite beauty face to face.
Getting back to the song, a blind friend of a friend by the name of Michael Bayus listened to it, liked it and shared the following thought:
“Being deeply loved by someone gives one strength, loving someone deeply gives one courage.”
So know that you are deeply loved by someone stronger than the world, who has defeated the world, and take strength from that to deal with the discomforts and troubles of life, and we are still very well off compared to any era in history.
Let’s have the courage to love those that God loves around us, work to make our little part of the world a little closer to what it should be, create something beautiful and share it, renew a relationship that’s been neglected, support a friend in their efforts to improve themselves, work on developing the gifts we have been given, aim to be more like Christ in the way we treat others. Meditate on what it means that God is love, and that He loves you, and learn to love him back.