Let me begin this morning by reading you a rather steamy little love poem… Take a deep breath because this is more of a 10 o’clock at night poem than a ten in the morning poem, if you know what I mean:
How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.
Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;
come with me from Lebanon...
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
Your lips distill nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices--
a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Phew! My Goodness! What a love poem! What eroticism! That deep desire and longing. My, my, my. If you’d like to find a copy of this poem for yourself, all you need to do is open your Bibles. I was reading you the fourth chapter of the Song of Songs.
How’d something like that make is past the decency police? My goodness! Well, it’s all about interpretation. Traditionally, the Song is spiritualized—whatever its origins, we read the Song as being about God’s relationship with Israel, or Jesus’ relationship to the Church, or God’s relationship to the individual soul. It’s not about two lovers, it’s about God and us. It’s about God and you.
And I want you to hear that desire this morning—God’s desire for this world and for all of us. I want you to hear that longing this morning. It is not a minor longing. Is it? It is not a sterile longing. Is it? It’s not merely an intellectual or even a spiritual longing. Is it? It’s better to compare God’s longing for us to the most sacred longings of our bodies and souls—falling in love, the quickening of your pulse and your breath when you see your lover, being ravished by a look, by a brush of the hand. This is something like how God feels about us.
Keep that kind of longing—that depth of longing—in mind as we come to Jesus’ words this morning: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
God longs for us so much that God became one of us. God poured herself out for us. I’m not talking about crucifixion, I’m just talking about incarnation. God incarnated herself, enfleshed herself to become a creature like us: a creature with a body, with desire, with longing, with hands for touching and healing, a mouth for speaking to us and eating with us, eyes to look at us with, a heart that would beat faster at the sight of us. A creature with limitations and all the risks of pain, and vulnerability, and discomfort, and hurt that come with life. God risked it all, even death. God poured herself out into Jesus not just because God loved the world, but because God so loved the world. Because God longs for us, God isn’t satisfied with just loving us at a distance. God longs to be with us, to be near us, to touch us, to be as close to each of us and to all of us as it is possible to be.
But God isn’t a bully. Or an abuser. Or a tyrant of souls. Our God is not like Zeus coming down like a bull to carry us off willing or not. In order to be united with God we have to return that longing. It has to be mutual. As the great preacher and mystic Howard Thurman would say, we must turn over the nerve center of our consent to God. We, as Christians, come to God through Jesus, just as God comes to us through Jesus. Jesus is the body where divine longing for the human and human longing for the divine meet.
Beloved, what do you long for? What do you desire most?
Our relationship to our longings and desires is complicated. Do you know five of the seven deadly sins are about longings? Envy, greed, gluttony, lust, and sloth. That’s a lot of pressure on our desire—a lot of negative attention. We’ve been taught that too much desire is dangerous and that not enough desire is unhealthy. And threading the eye of that needle never seems graceful, it always feels like we’re missing the mark. Desire is supposed to be joyful. But how often do our longings bring us closer to true joy?
We live in this materialistic, capitalistic, consumer society that depends on our longings (and even sometimes our addictions) to keep the economy going. We all need to do our part! Marketers and advertisers manipulate us and highjack our desires. Not happy with yourself? Frustrated with the state of the world? Modern life totally unmanageable and dissatisfying? Buy this! Binge that! Ask your doctor if new Meanaride is right for you!
We’re all born with longing. Longing is there to keep us alive, to direct us to the best things in life (like love, beauty, joy), and ultimately our longing is what connects us to one another—lovers, parents and children, friends, family, community. God made longing for us, God gave desire to us. But we’ve grown suspicious of desire, we’ve made it illicit, we’ve filled it with alcohol and sugar and plastic. We’ve disconnected and disrupted our lifeline to God and to one another. God is singing to us, like a lover calling the beloved to the window just to catch a glimpse of us. But where have we placed our desire? What do we long for?
We can’t ignore that once again this Lent we’re being faced with questions about salvation. Two weeks ago, we spoke about Jesus’ bottom line in Matthew’s gospel. There Jesus says if you care for the needs of the least of these, you care for me. If you ignore their needs, you reject me. Those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoners will inherit eternal life. Those who do not will be sent into eternal punishment.
Clearly, salvation has something to do with judgement and with eternal life. Matthew’s Jesus says the bottom line is how we treat the most vulnerable and marginalized people. Jesus tells us that our connection to God is inseparable from our connection to other people. The greatest commandment is love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And a second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
But in our reading this morning, John’s Jesus seems to say the bottom line all comes down to how you believe in him. And it’s from here that we’re taught that we need to believe in Jesus who came into the world not just to be with us but to die for our sins, and when we believe in Jesus we accept that sacrifice so that we can go to heaven.
But thinking about this longing, is forgiveness and a trip to heaven all God desires for us? This God who desires us so completely. This God who came to us on earth to show us how to live with one another and how to treat one another in life. It seems to me that God wants to get inside the innermost longings of human existence. God wants her longing and our longing to become one mutual longing. God doesn’t just want to forgive us and then snatch us off to heaven after we die. God wants her love to transform us in this life. She longs to become the nerve center of our consent. She longs to be in relationship with us, with all of us, not just as individual saved souls, but as a whole loving, caring, mutual, transformed world—for God so loved the world.
Beloved, the beginning of faith, the beginning of meaning, the beginning of any kind of relationship is longing. It began with God’s longing for us. God created us out of a longing to be with us. God entered the world through Jesus because God longed to be closer to us. But we must respond to God’s longing for us with our own longing for God and for one another.
I believe that we’re born with this longing. It’s a longing for what is most true, most important, most beautiful, most good. It’s a longing for love, and touch, and food, and water, and sunlight, and joy, purpose, fulfillment, relationships, community. If we follow this longing, and if we don’t let anyone squash it or let anyone make us feel guilty for feeling such passion for life and love, if we let it guide us and grow us, our longing leads us to good things, it leads us to God who is at the heart of our deepest longings—God who is the missing answer to the questions we can hardly put into words.
But there are so many things competing with our attention, competing with our desire for the things that are good for us. Things that do not have our best interests in mind. And, so, we must long for the light. We must long to be seen so that we can see others. We must long to be known as we truly are, and long to know others as they truly are. Fear will never bring us out of the dark. Fear will never open us up to God or to one another. Fear and sealed off opportunities and unfulfilled needs will never open up the doors of heaven.
It is only love that can do that—longing. How can we believe in Jesus if we don’t long for him? How can we care for the least of these if we don’t long to be with them?
Beloved, belief is not merely an intellectual assent. It’s a longing that draws us ever closer to God. A longing that empties us and fulfills us. Care is not flinging a coin to a beggar. It’s a longing that draws us ever closer to our neighbors. A longing that empties us and transforms us. What do you long for? What do you desire most?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations