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John 3:16a, adapted
Job 38-39, excerpts
There are not enough Sundays in Lent or days in an entire year to fully explore the love of God. Indeed, the Letter to Ephesians suggests that only the power of God’s Spirit will help us even begin to understand the breadth and length of height and depths of Christ’s love, because the life-giving capacity of it far surpasses the capacity of human knowledge.
But what better thing is there to meditate on? Does anything shape and re-shape our lives half as much as the extravagant love of God, mediated through everything from nature and humanity to relationships and life experience, music and literature, community and hope, struggle, and even failure? Is there anything more important, or meaningful, on which to base our lives?
Not that I have discovered. Not that I can imagine. Wealth and technology can be quantified, but they do not last. Power and success are heady, but also rare and isolating, subjective and sometimes oppressive. Youth and vitality are fantastic but fleeting. Happiness may seem like the holy grail but it is elusive and, even when we think we’re happy, the marketplace tells us we’re not. Family and friends, partners and community are everything, but not even they can truly fill our deepest longings.
Our scriptures tell that God is Love, that this Love is the ground and source of our being, and that everything we are and have derives from this Love.
And yet is so much easier to wrap our heads around dogma and doctrines than the mystery of divine love. It seems almost impossible for the human heart to accept the possibility of a Love that comes to us with no strings attached, a Love that we do not have to earn.
And so it is that one of the most profound and concise statements in the gospels—“for God so loved the world that God gave it God’s very heart, God’s beloved child, God’s everything”—has been reduced to little more than the run-up to a divine quid pro quo: Believe in God’s only Son so that you can go to heaven instead of hell.
Unfortunately, many of us are so turned off by the weaponization of the “if you do this, then you might get that” part of John 3:16; so many of us refuse to believe that a loving God would consign anyone to eternal suffering, that we all but miss not just the good news, but the very best news ever: that God loves the world. A lot!
God loves the world so much that she’s given us her all so that we might be healed, so that the whole world might be whole, so that all of creation might become what it was meant to be: a flourishing garden of harmony and peace, abundance and equality, mutual love and care.
When we forget about that wondrous love, it is easy to become confused about Jesus and what his life was about.
For much of the the church’s history, the orthodox understanding of Jesus’ execution has been that it was divinely ordained, that Jesus became the scapegoat—that is, the substitutionary sacrifice—for human sin. The original version of the first verse of what I’ve chosen as our Lenten hymn says as much: that Christ came to “bear the heavy cross” for my soul.
By the grace and truly wondrous love of God, some of us have come to a different understanding of Jesus’ holy purpose and his crucifixion: That he came to show us how to become one with God, and that his teachings were considered so subversive by the human powers and principalities that they killed him in the most brutal, political, and terrorizing way possible, thinking that would put an end to his movement.
That it did not, that we are still here 2,000 years later trying to live out the radical love of Jesus, speaks to the power of God’s love. And that is why I tweaked the words of the hymn. Where it once had Jesus coming to “bear the heavy cross” we will sing that Jesus came to “bare the Holy Heart.”
All of which is a rather long and convoluted way of explaining the thinking behind this year’s Lenten theme, and, I hope, understanding that our innate spiritual longing is a gift. And since we are going to be exploring just some of the many facets of God’s wondrous love for the world, why not start at the beginning, in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.
Why not remember that as God laid the foundation of the earth while the morning stars sang together, as God measured out the seas and designed more species than we can count, as God created humanity in the divine image, male and female and, as we are finally coming to understand, a little bit of both or something altogether different, God kept saying, again and again, over and over, how good it was. How much God loved it. And why not consider the possibility that, as our scriptures say, the cosmic Christ was there for it all, the firstborn of creation, holding it all together?
It was an over-the-top love God had for creation. The googly-eyed kind of love every parent has for their child, the proprietary kind of love every every inventor has for something that never before was, the passionate kind of love every lover has for their beloved, the brokenhearted kind of love every no-holds-barred friend has when their companion ghosts them, the anguished kind of love a giver feels when the one to whom they’ve given everything throws it all away.
And so it was for God. God kept loving and giving, giving and loving, all while humans treated God and one another horribly. All the violence humans did to one another grieved God to no end. Finally, God couldn’t take it any more. So bad was it that God regretted ever having created anything at all. And, so the story goes, God wiped out almost all of it with a great flood.
But you know what they say about real, unconditional love: It can’t quit loving. It can’t stop giving.
And so it was, so the story goes, that by the time the floodwaters began receding, even before Noah and his family and all those pairs of amazing creatures left the ark, God regretted what God had done. The God who is Love repented and said “never again.” So strongly did God feel about this that God made a covenant with all creation—not just humanity, but all living things—that creation would never again be destroyed by a flood.
Now, we may say it’s just a story. We may say it’s just a mythical, if lovely, explanation for the colorful phenomenon created by sunlight moving through water droplets and air—those magical optics we call rainbows. And you may be right.
But in these days of warming and rising seas, catastrophic weather events causing mass migration and death, and a rate of species extinction rising to more than 10,000 per year, I am counting on that divine promise. I am counting on a Creator who still loves every little part of creation—from the Whitetip shark to the polar bear, from the snowy owl to the Atlantic puffin, from Texas wild rice to the sugar maple and the forests of the Amazon, from the Maldives to the South Shore of Boston, from Guatemalans fleeing climate change-induced drought and hunger to Filipinos displaced by stronger and more frequent typhoons.
In this time of climate crisis and crisis denial, I am counting on a God who loves the world and everything and everyone in it. I am trusting in a Love that gives its all so that we and all creation might experience real and abundant life. I am trying to follow the Christ who, as the visible image of the invisible God who is Love, shows us how to live and how to love.
This Lent, may God’s covenant love for all creation renew our love and care for creation. May we make time to delight in God’s creation. And may we share that love with one another and all the world God so loves.