Here is the manuscript of this weekend’s sermon for our Lenten Series, Counterfeit Gods. Unfortunately the text itself doesn’t convey the sermon and the video recording didn’t work out. You can listen to the sermon here, in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download it in the iTunes library.
The sermon began with a flash-mob style rendition of ‘All You Need is Love’ sung by the Men of Note. In the middle of the sermon, I retold the story of Jacob and Leah using glasses and a whole lot of water.
Love, love, love.
Love, love, love.
Love, love, love.
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
Nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.
Nothing you can know that isn’t known.
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but you all know that’s a lie right?
It’s a nice sentiment for a pop song or a rom-com, but as biblical truth it’s what theologians call ‘complete crap.’
Far be it from me to be cynical, but that song is a lie. It’s not true.
Love, whether we’re talking about your love for your spouse or your love for your children or their love for you, is NOT all you need.
We live in a culture that tells us love is what gives our lives meaning and value. We live in a culture that tells us you’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you; consequently, some of us will let any body love us.
We live in a culture that tells us if we just find the perfect person- or have the perfect child- then everything else that’s empty in our lives will be filled.
Love is all we need to live happily ever after.
Those are all lies.
You can call me cranky if you like, but you know I’m right.
Anyone who’s ever been married or had children knows love isn’t all you need.
On your wedding day you say with a twinkle in your eye: ‘Of all the people in the world, I choose you.’
But after the day you say ‘I do’ there are other days when you just want to pull your hair out and scream: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you?!’
So, no. Love is not all you need to live happily ever after.
It wasn’t enough to keep the Beatles together.
It wasn’t enough to rescue some of your relationships.
And it wasn’t enough to keep Jacob’s life from unraveling and damaging everyone in it.
Speaking of Jacob, just as an aside, you need to appreciate the degree of difficulty I’m dealing with today. A few of you may have noticed that I have a certain affinity for those silly, salacious, crude and even offensive parts of the Bible. So you should know that today’s scripture passage contains the Hebrew equivalent of the F-word, as when Jacob says to Laban: ‘I want to ___________ your daughter.’
In Hebrew, Rachel is described as having a ‘hot body’ while her older sister, Leah, whose name means ‘cow’ in Hebrew, is said to have ‘nice eyes,’ which is a Jewish colloquialism for ‘she has a nice personality.’
And then, to top it off, Jacob, the hero for whom the People of Israel are named, gets completely wasted and has sex with the wrong sister.
Can you even begin to appreciate how difficult it is for me not run wild with this story and offend you all in the process? It was all I could do not to title my sermon ‘Beer Goggles.’
As tempting as the silly parts of this story might be for me on other days, today I want to take the story straight up. I want to be serious.
Because once you push aside the preposterous Jerry Springer parts of the story, this story is more common and more relevant for this community than you could possibly guess.
By my conservative estimate, I’ve done about 1500 hours of counseling with couples during my ministry: couples jumping into marriage, couples struggling through their marriage, couples jumping into parenthood in order to fix what’s broken in their marriage, couples getting out of their marriage- after a long time or not long at all.
Confidentiality means I can’t tell you who those couples are. I can’t point to them or tell you if you’re sitting next to one of them, though some of you are.
But that doesn’t matter because I can tell you: whenever those couples come to my office, there’s a better than even chance their names are Jacob and Leah.
So, I think it’s important you know their story.
[Pull out two glasses. ‘Leah’ is half empty and ‘Jacob’ is full]
Jacob and Leah’s story- it has everything to do with the stories they brought with them to their marriage. It almost always does.
The story starts with Jacob.
Jacob has an older brother.
Jacob’s Dad always preferred his brother to him. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
When you get past all the drama and bad decisions in Jacob’s life, that’s what it boils down to.
His Dad always insisted ‘I love you both the same.’
But even when you’re a child, you know better. You notice. You notice if your parent’s really listening, really paying attention to you, really enjoying you.
So Jacob grows up in his brother’s shadow, and the anger and hurt Jacob feels because of his Father gets expressed as resentment towards his brother. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
And Jacob’s Mom, she deals with it the way all abusive families cope. She tries to compensate for what her husband won’t do. She turns a blind eye. She pretends the problem doesn’t exist. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
But that never works.
Eventually it comes to a head. It always comes to a head.
So when Jacob is older, he hurts his brother- in a way that can’t be taken back. And, if he’s honest, he does it to spite his Father.
In just one self-destructive moment: his brother hates him, his relationship with his Father is ruined forever, and his Mother is forced to take sides. She doesn’t choose his. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
Jacob’s never had his Father’s love. He’s lost his Mother and brother’s love. He has no sense of God’s love. He has no one in his life. He has no direction to his life. He has no meaning for his life.
He leaves home, completely empty inside. [EMPTY his glass]
The next part of Jacob’s story starts at a well.
But it just as easily could’ve taken place at a college or a club. In an office or at a party. Or over the computer.
He meets a woman. [Leah’s CUP]
He takes one look at her and he convinces himself:
She can fix what’s broken in my life.
She can give me what I’m missing.
She can fill the emptiness inside me, he says.
And he calls that love.
He’s like an addict, using the idea of this person to escape the pain in his own life, which makes him vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
Maybe he doesn’t realize it, but Jacob’s not looking for a soulmate. He’s looking for a salve. Or a savior.
Jacob marries this woman, hoping she can fill what’s missing in him.
His need keeps him from seeing who she really is. He doesn’t see that she has an emptiness insider her too. [hold up her glass] and that she can’t possibly fill what’s empty in his life.
[pour her water into his so that he’s only half-filled].
So after they get married, he finds that emptiness is still there inside him.
And that brings conflict. It’s not long before he’s shouting at her:
‘You’re not the person I thought you were.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
‘You’re not the person I married.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
‘Why can’t you be more like this….’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
Eventually he stops speaking to her much at all. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]
Until finally Jacob’s married with children and discovers he’s even emptier on the inside than he was before and he’s long way from happily ever after. [EMPTY his glass]
Then there’s Leah’s story. [FILL her glass]
On the one hand, she’s the causality of Jacob’s need, but on the other hand, she does to him exactly what he did to her.
Leah grew up in the shadow of her little sister.
Her sister was a knockout, always the center of attention. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]
Compared to her, Leah was unlovely. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]
Or at least that’s how Leah saw herself; such that, she didn’t believe anyone would ever love her because she didn’t believe she was worth loving. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]
And one day she meets a man, whose heart has an emptiness every bit as big as her own.
She meets him at a well, but they could’ve met anywhere.
Even though she knows he doesn’t really know her, doesn’t really see her for who she is, she marries him.
She marries him because she thinks he’s the only one who will ever marry her.
So she pins her hopes for happiness on this man, only to find one day that her emptiness is still there.
And that he can’t fill what’s missing in her life. [pour his empty glass into hers]
It’s not long before the marriage starts to suffer and strain from the emptiness both of them bring to it. [empty her glass completely]
So what’s Leah do?
She thinks children are the solution.
She thinks kids will fix her marriage and win her husband’s love.
So she has a little boy. She names him Reuben, and she says to herself: ‘Surely, my husband will love now.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]
But no, it doesn’t work that way. Never does. Though you’d be surprised how many think it will.
She tries again. She has another little boy. She names him Simeon. And this time she says to herself, ‘Surely my husband will pay attention to me now, will listen to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]
But with each child she’s pushed further into unhappiness.
She has another boy. She names him Levi. And she says to herself: ‘With three kids, now my husband will become attached to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]
But kids can never fix what was broken before they were born.
Three kids later, Leah finds herself still empty on the inside.
It’s not in the story today, but I can tell you how the rest of it goes because I’ve heard it too many times.
Leah turns to her children to bring her the happiness her husband hasn’t, to fill what’s missing in her life, to give her life meaning and purpose.
But no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life. [EMPTY the shot glasses into Leah’s glass, should only fill her 1/4 of the way]
And no kid should have to bear such a burden. They’ll only get crushed underneath your expectations. Because if you look to your children for validation, to fill an emptiness inside you, you’ll need them to be perfect.
And when they’re not-because no child is- there will be conflict. [EMPTY Leah’s glass completely]
And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.
And a long way from happily ever after.
Love is NOT all you need.
Psychologists call this a lack of differentiation, a lack of the ability to be a complete, fulfilled individual within the context of a relationship.
But Christians- Christians call this idolatry: Looking to others to give you what only God can give. Let’s not beat around the bush. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been married or whether your kids are young or grown.
For most of you, this is the primary way you break the first commandment.
Scripture says God is love; it doesn’t say love is God.
You can’t replace God with your spouse.
And you can’t replace God with your child.
No spouse should have to love you that much and no kid can.
Until you realize that, you’ll always be frustrated with your kids and you’ll never stop complaining that you thought you were marrying Rachel only to discover you’re living with Leah.
For some of you, your marriage or your children play too big a role in your life precisely because God plays too small a role.
I mean, we forget that the first vows a bride and groom make aren’t to each other but to God.
If we make too much of our marriage and our children, we make too little of God. And when we put too much pressure on our marriage and children, we depend too little on God.
I’m not saying you should love your spouse or your kids less. I’m saying you should love God more. Because the bitter irony is that when we make too little of God in our relationships, we cut ourselves off from the source of Love.
Trust me, this is just on-the-job knowledge: focusing too much on your marriage or your relationship or your children is the best way to undermine them.
I mean, some of you need Jesus Christ to come in to your hearts not so you can go to heaven when you die but so your relationships here and now will stop being a living hell.
Because you can only be generous with what you’ve got in the bank to give. If your only source of meaning and love and purpose and happiness and validation and affirmation and worth is another person, then you can never really love them.
The only way to say ‘I do’ and keep on saying ‘I do’ day after day is to first be able to say: ‘I’m a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.’
When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can let you down, and sure it upsets you but it doesn’t undo you. Because you know God will never let you down.
When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can speak the ugliest truths about you, and you don’t have to run away. Because that (the cross) has already spoken the deepest, darkest truth about who you really are and from that God said: ‘I forgive you because you have no idea what you’re doing.’
When God has the proper, primary place in your life- You can have patience with the flaws and sins in someone else. Because you know God has been gracious to you.
When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can take you for granted, and yes it will disappoint you, but it won’t demolish your self-image. Because you know to God you are infinitely precious and worth dying for.
[Pull out another glass and baptismal pitcher.]
There’s another story.
Jesus was on his way to Galilee, and along the way he stopped in Samaria.
At a well.
Jesus meets a woman there. She’s carrying an empty bucket.
But it’s the emptiness insider her that Jesus notices. The emptiness has carried her from man to man to man to man to man…
And Jesus says to her: [Pour water into glass, let it fill up and then overflow out on to the floor until pitcher is empty.]
I am Living Water.
What I can give you is a spring of water that never stops gushing, never stops flowing, never dries up.
I can fill you, Jesus says.
With love. With meaning. With purpose. With value and healing and worth and validation.
I can fill you, Jesus says.
So that you can give love, not need it.
And she left that day, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.
She learned that day what the Beatles never did.
The only way to live happily ever after is to first be happy with who you are in Jesus Christ.