This June, Penny and I will celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary. We were two very naïve people as we stood in front of the altar and offered our wedding vows to each other.
We had no idea of how hard it would be to move from our families and try to make it on our own. When we left Pennsylvania to come to Ohio almost 28 years ago, all we had in our pockets was honeymoon money and a little bit of money in the bank. That was it. I had no job lined up when we came to Ohio. And here we were, trying to stuff as much as we could into our little Ford Escort.
The honeymoon money and the savings lasted us about two months and I still didn’t have a job. So I started working at a gas station in Dayton, making some money, just to get by.
We lived in a tiny two room apartment for the first three month. By the grace of God, I found out about a student pastor position that was opening up in Lima, Ohio. The pay was $5,000 a year, but it came with an old house located in a rough section of Lima. Actually, even though it was a two story house, the church told us that we would only be allowed to live on the second floor because the women of the church sometimes held their meetings on the first floor, where the kitchen was located. That was kind of weird for a newlywed couple.
The other big drawback of this house was that it had an enormous sign attached to the front of the house that said, “Fellowship House.” The sign might as well read, “Anyone who needs money, or gas for your car, just go ahead and knock on the door at all hours of the night.”
We budged $25 a week for groceries which didn’t go very far. This was basically our life together during our first year of marriage.
And do you know why our marriage made it through those lean years? We love each other. Without love, our marriage would never have made it.
I’ve been thinking of our early years of marriage because of our scripture reading from Isaiah this morning. The prophet Isaiah is telling the people of Israel that God loves them like the love of a bride and a groom. This image of God’s love for his people being like the love of a bride and a groom is a powerful image for us in thinking about our relationship with God.
And I love the word that Isaiah uses in describing God’s relationship with Israel. He uses the word, “delight.” “The Lord delights in you” Isaiah says. The last verse of our scripture reading says, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
I have the privilege of officiating at weddings throughout the year. During the wedding ceremony you can just see the delight that the bride and groom have for each other. Granted, the groom is very nervous, but when the bride walks down that center aisle, it’s fun just to watch his response as he first makes eye contact with her.
They’re not thinking about the little bit of money in their checking accounts or moving into a tiny apartment. Or about making ends meet. Or anything else in that moment. It’s all about rejoicing over each other.
Isaiah is saying that God does the same thing with us. God delights in us. God rejoices over us. God loves us.
In other words, our relationship with God is not to be an impersonal, detached, business like contract between two parties – ourselves and God. Instead, our relationship with God is more like the delight and love of a bride and groom.
So it’s no wonder that Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding celebration where he turned water into wine. Jesus delighted in these kinds of celebrations and why wouldn’t he if Isaiah is telling us that God delights in us as a couple delights in each other?
Now, if you’re a little embarrassed about thinking of our relationship with God in these terms, the love between a bride and a groom, that’s probably a good thing, because Isaiah is trying to make a point of just how much God really loves us.
Sometimes, we get so busy in our day to day living that we forget this very basic message that God delights in us and loves us.
This hit home with me a few months ago when I caught myself giving my standard parting words to someone as I was leaving church one day. I said“God bless” to someone as I walked out the door. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with saying “God bless you” to someone, but people do not always take notice when those words are offered.
So I thought to myself, “What if I would say, ‘God loves you’ instead of the standard, ‘God bless you.’ Maybe that will have a bigger impact.”
So, I’m in the hospital visiting with a church member. A nurse comes in and I’m about ready to leave. I say to the church member who’s a patient, “God loves you.” And then I turn to the nurse and startle her by saying, “God loves you too, Karen.” I took her by surprise and she didn’t know exactly know what to say back to me. But that’s OK because God wanted Karen to know in that moment that the creator of the universe loved her.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine was telling me that he read a study that said how everybody needs five hugs a day. Five hugs a day. “But that’s not all,” he said. “People also need to be told that they are loved at least three times a day.”
I’ve been thinking about what my friend told me, because there are a lot of people who don’t even get one hug a week, let alone three hugs a day. And I know that there are people who very rarely hear the words, “I love you.”
On the Oprah show several years ago, someone was offering free hugs to people over a two year period. Nothing improper about these hugs – they’re just hugs to remind people that they are loved.
Studies also show that the two groups of people who are the least hugged in our society are senior citizens and teenagers. That’s important for us to remember.
Five hugs a day and three I love yous.
One of the most basic human needs is to know that we are loved so why wouldn’t God want to go to great lengths to hug us, to delight in us, to rejoice over us, and to say, “I love you.”
A Puerto Rican woman who knew very little English went to her pastor and asked him to help her find a ministry through the church.
The pastor couldn’t think of anything for her to do at first but then he said, “I’ll get you on a bus so that you can ride with the children and just love them. Then the next week, I want you to get on a different bus and you can show love to those children.”
So every week, this woman who knew very little English, would ride a different bus each week – each week showing love to the children. She would find the worst looking kid on the bus, put him on her lap, and whisper over and over the only words she had learned in English: “I love you. Jesus loves you.”
After several months, she became attached to one little boy in particular. “I don’t want to change buses anymore. I would rather stay on this one bus,” she told her pastor.
The body didn’t speak. He came to Sunday School every week with his sister and sat on the woman’s lap, but he never made a sound. Each week she would tell him all the way to Sunday School and all the way home, “I love you and Jesus loves you.”
One day, to her amazement, the little boy turned around and stammered, “I – I love you, too.” Then he put his arms around her and gave her a big hug.
That was 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon. At 6:30 that night, the boy was found dead in a garbage bag under a fire escape. He had been beaten by his abusive mother and his body was thrown into the trash.
“I love you. Jesus loves you” were some of the last words he heard in his short life – from the lips of a Puerto Rican woman who could barely speak English.
I don’t know if I would be in the church today if it wouldn’t have been for Sunday School teachers, Youth Leaders, and people in the church, who consistently told me that they loved me, who hugged me, and who reminded me again and again and again, that Jesus loves me.
Sometimes I so easily forget of just how many people outside the church as well as inside the church, need to hear those words. How can we let others know that God delights in them? That God rejoices over them? That God loves them?
Maybe it begins with us hearing scriptures like this. Scriptures which make us blush.
The God of the universe is saying to you and to me…
“I love you.” “I love you.” “I love you.”