SONG OF LOVE
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on December 14, 2014 (Third Sunday of Advent)
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-37
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
– Luke 1:26-38
During this season of Advent we have been hearing some of the great songs of the season. Not “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” but some of the ancient songs of the Bible that are traditionally read during Advent. The psalms are a collection of some of the great songs of the people of Israel. They may have been sung in worship, or as spiritual songs for personal use. In particular we have been hearing psalms each week that express the themes of the Advent candles we light each week: hope, peace, and today — love.
What do you think is the greatest love song of all time? I’m sure our answers would vary depending on the kind of music we like, our generation, and our culture. I have an old childhood friend who worked for many years as a radio DJ in Milwaukee. He would host a weekly show called “Love Songs,” during which he would play popular love songs, and folks could call in and request their favorites. I asked him this week what he thought was the greatest love song of all time. One of his favorites is “Unchained Melody,” by the Righteous Brothers (1955).
Psalm 89 is a great love song. But not the kind of romantic love song that would be popular on the radio or iTunes or Pandora. It is a song of God’s steadfast love. To truly appreciate it, it helps to have some historical background.
According to the biblical story, thousands of years ago God entered into a committed, covenant relationship with one family – the family of Abraham and Sarah. Their descendants eventually became a great and numerous people – the people of Israel. They lived several centuries in slavery in Egypt, but Moses led them to freedom. They spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness without a permanent home, but eventually they found their way back to the land God had promised to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants – the “Promised Land” that is roughly where the modern nation of Israel is today. For a while they lived as a loose collection of tribes, but they were brought together as a kingdom – first under King Saul, and then King David – considered to be the greatest king in their history. David was not a perfect man by any means, but he loved God, and God loved David.
Psalm 89 recalls and celebrates that love. The people of Israel believed that God made a covenant with David – a promise that a descendant of David would always sit on the throne of Israel. It was an unconditional covenant — it didn’t matter whether those kings to come would be good or bad, David’s line would continue. And for many generations that promise held true. Descendants of David ruled over God’s people for hundreds of years – even after a civil war. The Bible says that most of the kings were bad — or worse. They made alliances with foreign governments; they didn’t care for the poor among them; they worshiped other gods and goddesses and allowed their people to do the same. As a result the kingdoms suffered hard times, which some believed was God’s punishment for their faithlessness. But still, the covenant between God and David was kept. A story of steadfast love.
That is pretty amazing. I mean, who does that? Who promises to love another person no matter what they do? When two people marry, they promise and expect one another to be faithful. But if that promise is not kept, many couples will divorce.
Parents sometimes love children, no matter what they do. And some people will do anything to be with their loved ones. This week Jill and I went to see the opera “Porgy and Bess” by George and Ira Gershwin. Porgy, who is disabled, falls in love with the beautiful Bess, but she runs off from their home in Charleston, SC to New York City with a drug dealer. Porgy vows to follow her to New York and find her, even though he doesn’t know where that is or how he will find her. Love can be persistent.
The people of Israel praised God for the steadfast love for David and his descendants. But then disaster struck. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign empires, the people scattered, and the city of Jerusalem and its great temple were destroyed. The people no longer had a king; they were ruled by strangers with strange ways. The steadfast love of God for David seemed to come to an end. It was heart-breaking. It was disillusioning.
The love song was silenced for several centuries. But it wasn’t over. One day an angel appeared to a young Jewish woman named Mary and announced that she would have a son who would take the throne of his ancestor David. It was ridiculous; Mary was a nobody. It was impossible; Mary was young and unmarried – a virgin. But soon Jesus was born. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
It was a new verse in God’s old love song. A song of love for David; a song of love for all people. We don’t know why the song was silenced for so long. Maybe God was just looking for a person who would sing along! It is risky to sing God’s song in this world – to say, like Mary, I am willing to have my life turned upside-down, to risk gossip and shame and suffering for what God is doing to bring new life to earth.
It is still risky to preach, teach, and live the gospel in our world.
Perhaps the lesson for this Advent season is that we all long to be loved. There is nothing like when someone makes us feel like a princess – or a prince. But the greatest love of all is love that sticks with us. The Advent devotional some of us have been reading in this season had a meditation for one day called, “When Love Sticks Around.” That is what God offers us. Even when the songs seems to be stilled for a while; when it is hard to hear; when it seems silenced – God’s love is steadfast. Keep listening.
Robert J. von Trebra