I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. Maybe all that time I spent reading and thinking about the Song of Solomon for last week that got me in the mood. But it hasn’t been romantic love, or even love for family and friends that has been pulling at my heart strings. It’s been the amazing, incomprehensible, unimaginable, passionate love God has for us.
It’s seemed like everywhere I look, something pops up to remind me of it. The scripture I read. The songs I hear. The beauty I see in the trees, the sun, the deer grazing in the morning mist as I drive in to church at dawn. My heart feels almost too full of this love that God has for us.
I think about the passionate language of love that we read in the Song of Solomon—that outpouring of desire. We don’t think about God feeling that way about us. In some ways, that kind of emotional language seems a little beneath God. This is where our images of God as a stern judge or majestic ruler kick in.
Or, we’re willing to accept that God loves us deeply, but in that way of so many fathers who show their love by being dependable and hardworking—making sure their families are cared for, but who leave the touchy-feely stuff for Mom. We know that God loves us, but is God passionate about us? Does God yearn to be close to us? Does God ache with love for us as deeply as the lovers in the Song ached for each other?
I think the answer is “yes.”
God often describes God’s love for Israel as that of a husband for his bride. Unfortunately, some of God’s most passionate expressions of this love are words of pain, spoken when the people have gone their own way, usually landing them in deep trouble. God also speaks as a parent who passionately loves a child. Listen to God’s words, spoken through the prophet Hosea: “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”
You’ll find words like these all through the Old Testament. God loves God’s people with an enduring, steadfast, passionate love—a love that desires to bring the beloved close, that yearns to be always in their company, that produces torrents of anguished words when the beloved rejects the lover. Our God doesn’t love with a cool, dignified, arm’s-length love. God loves us with all the passion of those lovers in the Song of Solomon.
But where their love was driven by physical beauty and was subject to the ups and downs of the human heart and society’s expectations, God’s love for us is so deep, so strong, that nothing can stand in its way. Over and over again, God’s people spurn God’s attempts to keep them within God’s embrace. But, rather than giving up on them, God does what can only be described as a crazy act of love. God gave the ultimate sign of love—the most precious gift God could give: God’s son. John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I’ll never forget an experience I had when Peyton was a newborn. She had fallen asleep in my arms, and I rocked her as she slept. The sun bathed the soft yellow walls of her nursery in a warm light. A gentle breeze came through the windows. I was gazing at her face, as new mothers do. All of a sudden, I was flooded with an intense feeling of protectiveness. In that moment, I knew, without any doubt, that there was nothing—nothing—I wouldn’t do to protect her. I knew absolutely that I was capable of doing anything—anything—to keep her safe. The intensity of that moment shook me to my very core. Until that moment, I hadn’t understood the power that the love of a parent for a child can have.
And so, when I read that simple statement of John’s, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” it takes my breath away. This is a love so deep, so wide, so high that there is no imagining it. To think that God loves us so much, that God would give us his own child to show us how much God loves us and to show us how to love God back.
This isn’t the fleeting love based on physical attraction we read about in Song of Solomon—love the Greeks would have called eros. This isn’t even the love we have for our friends and family—what the Greeks might have called philia. This is agape love—a love that has only the best interests of the beloved at heart—a love that will do anything, sacrifice anything to ensure the well-being of the other. Agape is the word that is consistently used to describe love in the New Testament and hardly anywhere else in other writings of the time. Agape is a word uniquely suited to describe the deep love God as for us—so deep that God would give us his only Son in order to convince us of it.
Many people read John 3:16 and assume it means that God gave us Jesus so that Jesus could die for us. But I think that’s mistaken. Instead, I imagine God wondering how to convince the world of God’s love. The Law hadn’t done it. Repeated periods of forgiving the people’s unfaithfulness and rescuing from peril hadn’t done it. “Maybe,” God thought, “human beings just couldn’t wrap their minds and hearts around a lover they couldn’t see. Maybe, they need to see me in the flesh. They need me there, right in front of them, with a body they can touch, and a voice they can hear, and a life they can emulate. Maybe that’s what they need in order to understand how much I love them and how they can show their love for me.”
And so, God came to us in the human form of Jesus—the baby of God’s own begetting, God’s own Son, God wrapped a human body. In Jesus, God made God’s love for us visible and audible and touchable.
Imagine giving someone you love the greatest gift you could possibly give: your own child. And then, imagine them rejecting your child—in effect, rejecting you and your gift of love for them embodied in him. Imagine your child refusing to take back your gift of love, even if that meant allowing them to kill him. Can you imagine that? I’m not sure I can. And yet, that is exactly what God gave and what Jesus did for the love of us.
When I was in the 9th grade, a boy names Marvin had a crush on me. I think, if you’d asked him at the time, he might even have said he was in love with me. Wherever I went, there was Marvin. He never said much to me. He just hung around. He must have overheard me say how much I liked the song “American Pie,” which had just been released by Don McLean. He must have heard me say that I wished I could buy the new album, but it was too expensive for me. One rainy Saturday night, the doorbell rang at the house where I was baby-sitting. I opened the door to find Marvin standing on the doorstep, drenched by the downpour. He reached out, handed me a bag, mumbled some awkward words, and then turned around and left. Inside the bag was the “American Pie” album. If that’s not love—at least in its 15-year-old-boy version—I don’t know what is.
The problem was that all the attention he lavished on me made me more than a little uncomfortable. I liked him fine. But, as nice as he was, the pressure of his hope that I’d reciprocate his feelings made me feel kind of under the gun. I just wasn’t prepared to love him back with the same devotion he showed for me.
I think a lot of us feel the same way about Jesus. We like Jesus fine. We may even say we love him. But we say we love a lot of things—chocolate ice cream, George Clooney, or a favorite song like “American Pie.” But the truth is, a God who loves as intensely as God loves us may make us feel a little uncomfortable. Knowing that God wants us to love God back in the same way may feel a little intimidating. A benignly affectionate God is a lot easier to deal with.
The question isn’t, “Do we love Jesus?” It’s “Do we love Jesus with the same passion and devotion God has for us?” God was willing to send God’s own Son to us. Jesus was willing to suffer rejection and even death for us. Are we willing to enter into a believing relationship with him that is so deep and so passionate that we are willing to die to ourselves for it?
God gave us the Son so that we might have eternal life. In John, Jesus says that life comes as a result of believing in the Son. This kind of believing isn’t just an intellectual assent to an idea. This kind of believing is grounded in relationship. This is belief that happens when we reflect back to God the love of God offered us through Jesus.
I’ve been rereading a book by Kyle Idleman called Not a Fan. Idleman writes that fans of Jesus are people who are enthusiastic admirers of Jesus. Their love for Jesus is not so different from their love for their favorite ice cream, actor, or song. He’s one of the things they love most, but he’s not their one and only. They follow all the rules they learned in Sunday School and church and mistake that for following Jesus. They make a decision to accept Jesus, but they don’t make a decision to commit to him. They know about Jesus, but they have no intimacy with Jesus. John Wesley wrote nearly the same thing 250 years ago, but he had a different term for fans. He called them the “Almost Christians.”
Jesus wants us to love him above everything else and to be willing to commit all that we are and have to him. He wants us to have the same passionate love for God that God showered on us through his Son. He wants us not to be fearful of a love so deep and intense that it was worth giving up an only child for. Jesus wants followers who are ready to do for Jesus what Jesus did for us—take up their cross and die to themselves, every day. Jesus want followers, not fans. He wants Entire Christians, not Almost Christians.
If you’re feeling a little uncomfortable right now, you’re not alone. I’m right there with you. I read Idleman’s words about mere fans. I read Wesley’s words about Almost Christians. And I read John’s words about a gift so great that it is nearly incomprehensible. I read them, and I wonder whether I love Jesus as fully, as deeply, as passionately as he wants me to. And, I have to say in all honesty that I’m not sure I’ve gotten to that point yet.
But I can also say that God’s love is offered along with a generous helping of grace—grace that knows whose eyes haven’t yet seen the difference between fan and follower, and draws us closer. Grace that enfolds us when we realize with repentant sorrow that we haven’t loved God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and offers us compassion. Grace that sees where we are struggling to grow and continues to perfect us in love.
This week, go back to the Song of Solomon. Read those passionate words again. Imagine God feeling about you the way those lovers felt about each other. The Song was about a human love affair, but the whole of Scripture is also a song of love—a love just as deep, just as passionate, but eternally enduring. It’s a song of love for you and for me, and Jesus is waiting for us to sing a song of our love back to him. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young