We’re in the midst of a sermon series on marriage and relationships. While I may be good (okay…I’m okay) at marriage, sermons on marriage are far from my forte.
But here’s one from the vault. First, here’s the audio. You can also download it in iTunes here or get the free mobile app here.
Text: 1 Samuel 18.1-5
When it comes to ministry, I’ve learned from my mistakes- particularly when it comes to weddings.
I’ve learned that no matter how much I tell brides and grooms I don’t want to have to preach on 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient. Love is kind…’) 9 times out 10 I’ll lose.
When it comes to kissing the bride, I’ve learned that it’s a good idea to remind every groom that just because they can kiss like that on The Bachelor doesn’t mean they should do so in the sanctuary.
I’ve learned that George Strait’s country song ‘You Look So Good in Love’ is a tacky song for the bride’s processional and that its even worse when the CD skips and the usher shouts from the back of the banquet room: Should we start over or should I just press pause now?
And I’ve learned that when the bride or groom asks if their 12 year old cousin/nephew/niece/brother/sister can sing a pop song in the wedding to say no and say no again and again if necessary because never again will I stand up front with a fake smile plastered on my face as a 12 year old boy, whose voice is newly in the throes of puberty, tries to make Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ sound worshipful.
When it comes to weddings, I’ve learned the hard way. Especially when it comes to couples who want to write their own wedding vows.
The first time a couple asked I didn’t know any better so I said ‘sure.’
And because I didn’t know better, I didn’t ask to see their vows prior to the wedding rehearsal.
The rehearsal was on a crisp October afternoon, on a farm surrounded by mountains on fire with fall colors. I walked them through the first half of the service.
When it came time for them to exchange vows, the bride and groom turned to face each other, pulled out folded up pieces of notebook paper and proudly read what they’d written.
Let’s just say they weren’t English majors.
What they’d come up with sounded vaguely like Jerry McGuire:
I think you’re beautiful. I can’t take my eyes off you. The groom said.
I’ve never felt this way before. You knocked me off my feet. The bride said.
Your carefree abandon makes me smile and laugh. The bride said.
They read their ‘vows’ and then looked at me for approval.
What do you think? The bride asked, beaming.
Everything you’ve come up with…it’s about how you feel right now at this point in your lives.
Exactly, the groom said. He too was beaming.
I hate to break it to you- but you’re not always going to feel the way you do right now.
The groom asked me what that was supposed to mean.
She’s not always going to be this beautiful. And you- you’re going to gain weight and, by the looks of things, in 5 years you’re not going to have any hair.
And you- I said to the bride- you might love his carefree abandon now but wait until you’ve got bills to pay and children to clean up after- give it time and the hands you can’t keep off him now will instead be strangling him.
It was right about then that I looked past the bride and groom and saw the bride’s mother, covering her mouth and looking like she was wondering what insane person had just body-snatched her pastor.
Now I’ll admit that maybe 14 hours before their wedding wasn’t the best time to squash their romantic notions.
But even if I admit that mistake, that doesn’t change the fact that the question I asked them was still money:
If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?
Scripture says ‘Jonathan loved David.’
Keep in mind that the chapter breaks in our bibles weren’t added to scripture until the 13th century. 1 Samuel 17 and 1 Samuel 18 actually tell one continuous episode.
So, at the end of chapter 17, David defeats Goliath with his 5 smooths stones and slingshot. Then David takes Goliath’s sword from its sheath, and David cuts off Goliath’s head.
And then David holds Goliath’s head up high in the air and declares to King Saul and his army: ‘I am David, Jesse’s son, from Bethlehem.’
And that’s the moment. That’s when scripture says ‘Jonathan loved David.’
Tender isn’t it?
What better beginning could there be to a bromance: Jonathan sees a dude holding a severed head and thinks to himself ‘Man, he and I have got to be BFF’s.’
As a public sign of his love, Jonathan makes a covenant with David.
Jonathan, King Saul’s son, gives David his royal robe. In other words, he gives up his Kingdom. He gives up the future he had coming to him to give that future to David.
He forsakes all that he is and all that he has, for the sake of lifelong-no-matter-what-friendship with David.
But again- there’s the question: if love is a feeling how can Jonathan make a covenant like that?
He’s just met David. He doesn’t really know him. They’re both young; he doesn’t really understand what he’s getting himself into. He doesn’t how David will change, who David will be down the road. Fact is, in just a few chapters David’s not even very likable.
And yet Jonathan sacrifices everything and vows to be David’s friend to the end.
If love is a feeling how can Jonathan make a covenant like that?
Of all the things in our lives our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.
If love is a feeling- love for a friend, love for a husband or wife- if love is a feeling, it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.
Aren’t you glad I don’t end the sermon right there?
Trust me, it gets worse. When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.
When the lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’
The night Jesus washes his friends’ feet, Jesus tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’
And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians he commands husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.
Those are all imperatives.
Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell husbands and wives to try and love one another.
They’re imperatives. They’re commands.
Here’s the thing. You can’t command a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.
You can only command an action.
A few months ago someone that I confirmed here years ago came to see me in my office. She told me that recently she’d been away out of town, sitting through a worship service when suddenly she felt overwhelmed by a feeling of loss.
It just hit me, she said, that I could no longer feel God’s love and presence in my life. Just thinking about it made her cry.
My relationship with God used to be so strong, she said, but now it feels distant and broken.
And because of that, because she no longer felt God’s love in her life, she’d stopped practicing her faith altogether. She no longer prayed. She didn’t volunteer to serve the homeless like she had so often before. She no longer worshipped and she spent less time with her Christian friends.
Wiping her eyes, she asked me: I just want to know how I can get that feeling I used to have in my relationship with God back?
I don’t know if you’ll ever get that feeling back, I said, but if you want to feel God’s love in your life again, if you want to restore that relationship, then you’ve got to do the faith- even when you don’t feel like it: pray, worship, serve- and the feelings of faith will follow.
Without even realizing it, I’d just given her the best relationship advice I’d ever given to anyone.
‘Love one another’ Jesus commands.
Jesus takes a word we use as a noun, and he makes it a verb. In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.
Which is the exact opposite of how the culture teaches us to think about love. We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us like measles, something we fall into like a pool and out of like chair.
The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think that its our feelings of love that lead to acts of love.
So if the feeling we felt for someone is no longer there, all too often we assume we must be with the wrong person.
So all too often we give up and get out, looking to find that feeling with someone else.
Or, even more often, you stay together but you don’t stay in love.
In 10 years of ministry I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve met who treat love as a noun, who’ve let the culture convince them that they must feel love first in order to give it.
And that’s a recipe for a broken relationship, and, oddly enough, one we would never practice on our children- we do loving things for our children every day whether on a given day we feel like it or not.
Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.
And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.
In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.
And I’m not trying to sound like Mr. Un-Romantic. I’m very romantic. You can ask my wife…actually, no, don’t ask my wife.
I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.
Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.
That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.
I know enough about enough of you to know this where you should pay attention.
The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb.
Jesus says: Where your treasure is that’s where you heart will be also. In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow. You do it and then you feel it.
So, in your relationship you may not feel tender but you act tender.
You may not feel sympathetic on a given day but, just as you would your son or daughter, you listen and show them your sympathy.
You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.
You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.
Whether we’re talking about friendship or confirmation or marriage, the message is the same. You can’t promise the feeling of love. That’s not the covenant.
The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day.
Love is something you do and you trust the doing to transform your feelings.
When it comes to weddings, I’ve learned from my mistakes.
So now when a couple asks me to marry them, if they’re not both committed Christians I’ve learned to say no- even if their grandparents are members of the church.
I’ve learned saying no usually doesn’t make said grandparents very happy with me either.
If they’re not baptized, confirmed, committed Christians, I’ve learned to say no- not because that means they’re not good people. And not because I like to have my Saturdays free.
I say no because the promise to act loving even when you don’t feel loving, the promise to do love even when you feel like you’ve fallen out of like with the other, the promise to endure the ebb and flow of feelings and all the while continue to give and serve and love so that a new relationship can rise up in its place.
That kind of promise…
It doesn’t just take two people. It takes faith.
It takes faith, I think, because that kind of love? That kind of love is exactly how Jesus loved us.