God is Love – Guest preacher, Rev Gethin Rhys
Bible readings: Two love songs Psalm 45 Song of Songs 2.8-13
Text: 1 John 4.8b – God is love
In the days of children reciting verses, that was the favourite verse – God is love or Duw cariad yw – nice and short, always certain to produce an “Awwww” from the adults
Then there was the lesson in Sunday School which explained to the children, who all knew that verse, that it’s not the same kind of love as the soppy love on television – you don’t have to giggle – it’s a different kind of love, not to do with kisses and all that stuff.
But is it? Is the love of a couple so very different from the love of God? Just think back to the discovery of schoolchildren in the days when the King James Version of the Bible was used in schools, that “Adam knew Eve” meant, as the Good News Bible so romantically puts it, “Adam had intercourse with Eve”. Well, it does mean that – but the King James translators were right, it much more importantly means that Adam knew Eve. And that same word (yadha) is used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures for people “knowing” God.
The Hebrew writers used that same word for the two deepest kinds of knowing in human experience – the knowing of a couple in love, physical and so much more, and the knowing of God. It reaches its height in the Song of Songs, an extraordinarily erotic poem (the best bits are never read in church – go home and read it, it’s not long!!) This is a poem that is simultaneously about knowing your lover and knowing (and loving) your God. We don’t have to choose between the two meanings – the two meanings intertwine.
Of course, our respectable chapel tradition has shied away from this. I remember listening to a good URC preacher many years ago who preached a sermon on the Song of Songs and drew attention to all the fruits – pomegranates, grapes, raisins and (of course) apples, along with milk, honey, myrrh and the rest – and quite seriously told us that the poem was about a super-duper church picnic.
I’m all in favour of picnics – but I think the Song of Songs is rather more than that! But we chapel people prefer the rather more demure, courtly depiction of love in passages like Psalm 45 – possibly written for a royal wedding.
This is a love song about love at arm’s length. It is an idealised picture – a king who rules with justice and who is therefore favoured by God with all kinds of happiness – including ,of course, his beautiful new wife. He will have musicians entertain them in palaces decorated with ivory, wearing ornaments of finest gold, while the ordinary people swoon in admiration. It’s a fantasy of course – only very slightly punctured by the mention of the sharpened arrows by means of which the king keeps order should his subjects stop swooning and become unruly (verse 5). This is a fantasy of the ruling classes, a religion designed to keep the ordinary people in their place – a long way from the king, but just close enough to catch a glimpse of his majesty, worship his majesty, every so often. And it’s a misogynistic or at least a patriarchal fantasy – the bride is told to forget her people and her relatives and give herself to the king (verses 10-11).
The trouble is that much modern Christianity has transferred this courtly and unequal vision of love to God Himself, seeing in this Psalm and the like the model for God’s love too. A 2001 worship song goes like this:
Lord I long to be a faithful child who honours you
So Jesus be in me, let your light shone through me now.
O Jesus be glorified in all of my life
Lord, have your way, Lord have your way with me.
Or the line in Sebastian Temple’s older hymn, which is even clearer:
O Lord, have your way with me, for I am yours
So is that what ‘God is love’ means? God will love you, if you give up your ability to think for yourself, acknowledge that he is an incredibly long way away but that he just might let you catch a glimpse of him, and if he does grant you the favour of his company, let him have his way with you. Is that what love is all about? (as Rob Titschner on The Archers seems to think). Is that what God is love is all about?
Well, the Song of Songs points to something else. One of the fascinating and unusual things about it is that the narrative voice keeps switching from male to female. Both are given equal voice. And the woman especially challenges the patriarchal view of love which Psalm 45 and much of the rest of the Bible champions:
Under the apple-tree I woke you,
in the place where you were born.
Close your heart to every love but mine;
Hold no one in your arms but me.
Love is as powerful as death;
Passion is as strong as death itself.
It bursts into flame and burns like a raging fire..
Water cannot put it out;
No flood can drown it.
But if anyone tried to buy love with his wealth,
Contempt is all he would get.
(Song of Songs 8.5b-7, Good News Bible)
If anyone tried to buy love with his wealth, contempt is all he would get – one of the best verses in the Bible! Precisely because the author of this poem understands how close real human love and real divine love are, she can see through the myths that the rich and powerful tell which devalue love by seeking to make it a monetary transaction.
If anyone tried to buy love with his wealth, contempt is all he would get. So should the church not do more to challenge the ridiculous and exploitative wedding industry? How much did John & Jean’s wedding cost 57 years ago today, I wonder? One of the joys of my brief time in Penrhys was conducting weddings where money didn’t talk, where people married because they were in love. They knew that, as the Beatles sing, money can’t buy me love.
And money can’t buy me the love of God, either. In a moment, we’ll sing a hymn by the Welshman Timothy Rees. Timothy Rees was elected Bishop of Llandaf in 1931, having previously served in Aberdare, Mountain Ash and the more rarefied atmosphere of Mirfield. Until his death in 1939 he worked tirelessly to help the unemployed and their families in the South Wales Valleys plunged into desperate poverty by the Great Depression. He was a powerful preacher and a gifted hymn-writer in both Welsh and English (and was the first person to address a meeting of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales in Welsh).
‘God is Love’ is probably his best known hymn. What is so striking is that Rees does not avoid the difficulties linked to talking about a God of Love in a world that contains so much suffering. Timothy Rees knew about suffering: he had experienced the horror and agony of the trenches and the misery of these Valleys during the Depression. Even so – no, not even so, because of that – he was certain that God’s love embraces ‘every child of every race’.
In Hymns Old & New and most other hymnbooks, the last four lines of the second verse of the hymn read:
And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow’s iron rod,
Then they find that selfsame aching
Deep within the heart of God.
In the original version, found among Timothy Rees’ unpublished papers after his death, which we will sing today, the final two lines were:
That same sorrow, that same aching,
Wrings with pain the heart of God.
Rees had a profound understanding of the impact of human suffering on God.
It’s not just that God sympathises with us when we suffer – although sympathy is nice to have it only gets us so far; it’s not even that God empathises with our suffering, coming alongside us – although such a good friend is worth knowing and having. What a friend we have in Jesus, we sing, or I’ve found a friend, O such a friend. What we sing in those hymns is true, but it’s not the whole truth. Timothy Rees goes further – Our pain IS God’s pain – that same sorrow, that same aching is what wrings with pain the heart of God.
That’s what transforms being a friend who sympathises, or a really good friend who empathises, into a lover. When those you love hurt, you don’t just sympathise or empathise, you HURT with them. That’s what a God of love is like. That’s the love that money really cannot buy.