a pastor and preacher whom i deeply respect once told me that every preacher has one sermon that they essentially preach over and over again. variations on a theme. that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but his point is well-taken. there are certainly a few "main things" for my ministry, but paramount among them is trying to help people understand just how wildly God loves them. let me rephrase: i think a huge part of my ministry - the main part - is trying to understand just how wildly God loves me, and then sharing that with others along the journey. i truly believe that is my calling.
and so i keep preaching it. if i'm preaching about baptism, or about the church, or about hope, or about sin, it just keeps coming back to the fact that we are infinitely and wildly and unbelievably and uncontrollably and deeply and widely and extravagantly and jealously and almost embarassingly loved by our maker. not as we should be. not even as we could be. but just as we are. with our wrinkles and stretch marks. with our moles and warts. with our morning breath and evening gas. with the skeletons both in and out of our closets. with our heaviest guilt and our deepest shame. those are often the things we see first when we think about how God sees us. but the truth is that God sees everything clearly, and loves us for all of it. if that blows your mind just a little, good. if it blows your mind alot, even better. it should.
my favorite passage of scripture (have i written this before?) is zephaniah 3:17, which paints such an aweseome picture of God, a picture so different from the judgmental, harsh, score-keeping god that many of us not only grew up with, but continue to imagine to this very day. it is a picture of a God who is with us ("the Lord your God is with you," zephaniah writes), who journeys along side of us, who doesn't get exasperated with us and walk away (as most of us would with ourselves, if we had the chance). zephaniah paints a picture of a God who sooths and quiets us; tells us to relax, like a parent holding a shaking child. rich mullins once sang, "so hold me Jesus, cause i'm shakin' like a leaf..." and i believe God answered his prayer, time and time again. God holds us tightly, whispering words of comfort and assurance in our ears, speaking love into our lives through beauty and sacrifice and grace and hope.
zephaniah also says that God 'takes great delight in us.' did you get that? because i believe that phrase is so counter cultural that it is a difficult pill for most christians to swallow. we are so trained to approach God with a sin-first mentality, that is, focusing on how bad we are and how much we've messed up and all the things we have to confess. and i'm not trying to belittle the reality of sin here, because truly sin continues to break God's heart and our own, but i'm trying to get us to see exactly what the bible says here about the radical love of God: that God takes great delight in us. zephaniah could have said, "God puts up with you because of love." or he could have written, "God really enjoys you when you are doing the right thing." but he didn't say any of that. he said, quite simply and amazingly, "God takes great delight in you." simple. great delight. God laughs when God sees you. God enjoys you. so much so, says zephaniah, that God rejoices over you with singing. that's right. you read it here first (well, actually, in the Bible first, but let's not split hairs), the God of all creation sings songs of deep love and joy over you.
we could spend the rest of our lives trying to sort that out. and we should. i am convinced that the more we allow ourselves to surrender our self-loathing, our guilt, our shame, and our childish insistence on holding onto an outdated picture of God, the more we will be able to experience the abundant life Jesus wants to give us (john 10:10), and the more we can live out the great center of our faith (loving god, loving others, and sharing this good news with others). we love because God first loved us. that's what the bible tells us. but if we don't first try and understand just how loved we are, then we will not be all that effective in sharing it with one another.
and so that's it for me. that's my sermon. that's my ministry in a nutshell. i want you to know that you are beloved. that you are sung over. that you are celebrated. that you are loved by the God who made you, who redeemed you, and who longs to journey forward with you in abundant living relationship. and i want to say it over and over again, because we continue to need to hear it.
you are loved.