This is the commandment Moses announced to the people. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy:
“Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words… in your heart. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand… write them on the doorposts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
You must love God. Like it or not, this is the requirement.
All through the early books of the Bible, you can trace the story of the covenant between the LORD our God and the people, —a covenant made, and broken, and made new.
Something I didn’t know until I went to school was that this covenant between God and the people of Israel resembled a common type of contract in the ancient world called a suzerainty treaty. In this type of arrangement, one party has power —like a king, or a suzerain, or God— and one party does not —like a subject, or a vassal, or the people. In these treaties, it is common for the more powerful side to promise protection while the less powerful side is expected to promise love.
So the subjects were required to love the king. The people were required to love God. And if there is something about this that makes you feel a little uneasy, or worse… yeah, me too. If you’ve ever seen the show Annie! then you might remember the mistreated orphans being required to chant in unison, “We love you Miss Hannigan.” And it’s not true; those orphans really don’t love Miss Hannigan. They are being abused.
In our world, we usually think of love as a feeling of tender affection or a feeling of romantic attraction. If this is all love means, then it’s no wonder the requirement is a problem! Who could possibly make themselves feel affection or attraction for someone else? You feel the love well up in you, or you don’t.
But more than an emotional experience, in the Bible, love involves deliberate action. Love is obedience and faithfulness, the commitment to show up and help. It’s the turning of your heart toward God.
And maybe this makes the requirement to love God seem more doable, or maybe this makes loving God all the more demanding. Either way, there’s more to the commandment than feeling warm and fuzzy about God. If you’ve ever tried loving God then you know, it will take your whole life to follow this command, and it might even save your life. So what looks like a rule written on a doorpost turns into something so much more than a rule…
Today our first scripture comes from the book of Proverbs. At one level Proverbs is a collection of directions for living. (Now sometimes people talk about the Bible as though the whole thing is an instruction manual for living, and it’s not. I think, where does this idea come from? Well, could be, from Proverbs!) The Bible is not a book of rules, but Proverbs certainly is.
However. If you manage to wade through the lists of directions, you’ll notice, beneath the surface, there’s a poetic undertow trying to pull us toward greater wisdom.
What looks like a book of rules turns into a guide for shaping a person’s character —not just “Here’s what to do in this particular situation,” but “Here’s the right way to be a person in the world.” There is a moment of turning between the two.
Now what happens is that following the directions turns into the desire to sense the direction of the Spirit. Obeying the instructions turns into the work of walking in the way of understanding, which can turn into the pleasure of walking in the way of understanding. I can’t explain how this turning happens. The rules are a chore every day, until one day the chore turns into choice, then one day the choice is freeing. And I can’t explain this. But I can hear it.
In the scripture Sylvia just read, the teacher is issuing instructions to discourage a young man from committing adultery. If this were just a rule book, you can see how helpful that would be. Who’s going to say, “Hmmm.. I might be interested in having an affair; maybe I should consult the rule book first and see whether this is advisable…”?
So the direction to avoid marital infidelity is introduced with this deeper instruction: “My child, keep your father’s commandment, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. Bind them upon your heart… When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you, when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light…” (Proverbs 6:20-23).
What looks like a rule written on a doorpost turns into something so much more than a rule. Following the directions turns into sensing the direction of the Spirit. I can’t explain this turning. But it’s happened to me; and maybe it’s happened to you.
If you happen to be a person who enjoys playing a musical instrument, or doing something like that, then I’m pretty sure you know this turning. You know, learning how to play an instrument is downright difficult. It hurts because your muscles aren’t used to it; you don’t have enough breath; you don’t have the callouses on your fingers. On top of that, your playing does not sound like you imagined it would. Music can save your life, I promise, but that’s hard to believe when it’s all scales all the time. Practicing is a chore!
Until one day the chore turns into a choice. One day all that practicing turns into playing, then one day you actually want to play. That which was impossible for so long, is suddenly possible, and now it’s like you can’t not play. You’ve had a song inside you this whole time.
This is the difference between being required to write a thank you note and being so overcome with the immensity of gratitude that you can’t even speak, but once your words come back, you can’t stop saying thank you. What started out as a rule becomes more than a rule…
And so it is that human people wake up worshipping. Not because the Bible requires it, but because try it long enough, you’ll find, we can’t even help it. Like praising God has gotten into our blood! Like it’s what we’ve been trying to do our whole lives! The music that lives at the truth of our being gets released into its song and there’s no putting it back. Thank God.
Today in the scripture from First John, we hear a carefully-crafted exposition on the theme of loving God. The epistle writer seems to be answering an unspoken question that goes: “Okay, I know the commandment says we must love God. I want to do this. I think. But how? How, exactly, does a person love God?”
So the writer of First John walks us through it with this warm, buttery description: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son… By this we know that we abide in God and God in us because we have been given the Spirit” (1 John 4:10a &13). So let us love one another because God is love, and we are made out of love, and made to love, and how can we not love…
What would you say if somebody asked you, “How can I love God? Really. How do go about doing this?” Here’s what I’ve come up with…
Imagine you are standing in somebody’s office. On the wall is one of those black-bordered motivational posters. (Have you seen these posters? They usually feature a dramatic photograph —like a mountain or the grand canyon, then the photo is captioned with a word like “Teamwork” or “Aspiration.” You have seen these before, I’m sure.)
Only the poster in this office has a photograph of a sail boat on a lake at night. It is captioned by the word “Love.” So here you are standing in an office, in front of a shiny desk, looking at a poster of a boat on a lake at night that says “Love” when suddenly there is a turning that I cannot explain.
Suddenly you are no longer standing in Steve’s office. You find yourself sitting on something hard and wobbly. And it’s dark. All there is is the inky black edge between the water and the sky, when you see a mist rise up. Then you see a ghost coming right at you across the water! When Jesus gets close enough for you to see him, he tells you, “Do not be afraid. I am getting into your boat.” And you hear yourself say, “Yeah, okay. Get in.” This is what it is to love God.
You go from looking at a poster, to being in the poster, in the boat, in the dark, on the water. Jesus comes up and says, “Do not be afraid. I love you.”
And you say to him, “Yeah, well come on, get in the boat.” It doesn’t make any sense how you can say this to him; of course you should be terrified! (It doesn’t make any sense how you got into the boat in the first place –that’s the thing!) But here you are. Here it is Jesus who has found you and is asking for help. And it’s you telling him, “Come on. Get in.” And this is the love of God.
Hear O Israel… The LORD is our God, the LORD alone, and we shall love with all our heart, and soul, and might… May it be so.