Valentine’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day. Easter. Halloween. Christmas. You know what all these days have in common? They’re holidays that have become unmoored by from their pasts in the collective imagination of our wider culture. Each of these days is a holiday—a word that literally means “holy day”—that has a rich, rich history rooted in the history of Christianity. Our secular celebrations of these holidays first came about because they were holidays we were already celebrating on the church calendar. Commerce saw a way to capitalize on these important days and naturally wanted to get involved. And over time, these days have, for many, become so divorced from their origins that we’re often shocked to remember that these days are indeed first and foremost religious observances. And so today, as we celebrate the life and witness of Saint Valentine, who was martyred on this day some 1752 years ago on February 14, 269 AD, we do well to refocus our attention to the true meaning of today’s celebration. As we go into the sermon, listen how God is challenging you to be a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. What is God saying to you today and how is God calling you to respond?
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Greg owned an old-school photo studio for those who were getting back into photography with film. He also provides other photo services including restoration of old photos, enlarging, and framing. One afternoon, a young man comes in with a framed picture of his girlfriend. He wants to have the photo duplicated. Greg says, “Sure. No problem.” This kind of work is easy enough. After removing the photograph from the frame, he notices a handwritten message on the back, obviously written by the young man’s girlfriend: “My dearest Tommy: I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever and ever. I am yours for all eternity.” It was signed “Kimberly” and contained a PS: “If we ever should break up, I want this picture back.”
Of course, we all know what today is, Saint Valentine’s Day. Or as we say in the church, the Feast of Saint Valentine. Just yesterday I was in the grocery store and saw all sorts of red and pink heart decorations running up and down the aisles, mylar balloons all about the ceilings, and men making the mad dash to the card section to nab that last minute Valentine’s Day card. Already early in the week when I was at the grocery store (Yes—I spend a lot of time at the grocery store!) the entryway was filled nearly to the breaking point with different kinds of flower arrangements, naturally in various shades of red, pink, and white, to be gifted to significant others on this day. My sister has been going on for about two weeks over her stress leading up to today, about what she’s going to get for my brother-in-law for Valentine’s Day. She ultimately decided to get him some special soap and cologne. Typical Valentine’s Day gifts for men from their significant others. She’s miffed my brother-in-law’s ideal plan for today was for them to send the kids to my father and stepmother’s house for the afternoon so they could both take a nap. She wanted him to come up with something a bit more…romantic.
This day is one that brings with it huge expectations for some, and therefore huge burdens of stress for others. Likewise, for others, who don’t find themselves in a relationship, this day can be especially hard as it’s a reminder of the hurt that is often associated with living a solitary life. And of course, there are those relationships that have ended under circumstances of infidelity or other promises broken that make this day especially difficult for so many. And those who have had to bury love ones feel the pain especially poignantly as they find themselves unable to embrace loved ones whom they want so dearly and passionately did.
Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love, we are told. And at one level, that’s a good and salutary thing for us to do. The love between lovers is a gift from God. God uses this love for the good of creation, telling us that it is not good for us to be alone, that we should have a partner who’s appropriate to us, who compliments us and makes us whole. In some relationships God uses this love to multiply the fruitfulness of humanity. Such good, healthy love lives are rooted in God. These relationships pull their strength not from themselves, but from God.
But the love that we celebrate on this day is not the sum total of love. The love that we celebrate this day, at least in our wider culture, is love that is motivated by intense desire, passion, infatuation, cupidity even. The love that we celebrate today can lead to jealousy, envy, backbiting, vengeance, and hostility. The love the world celebrates today pales when held up to the love that first motivated Valentine, the saint who’s name today bears, in his life’s work and the love that ultimately led him to giving up his own life—the love of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The love of God reaches back to the beginning of all things—before time itself began. The force that gave rise to creation is love, love that tamed chaos and brought something forth from nothingness. That same love so moved God time and again to bridge the gap between him and us. God delivered us from captivity in Egypt—because of love. God gave us commandments to provide good order to our lives—because of love. God raised up leaders for us in the wilderness—because of love. God sent prophets to remind us of our obligations and to proclaim to us God’s faithfulness, time and again—because of love.
And God came among us as one of us, lived among us, laughed with us, cried with us, ate and drank with us, taught us, healed us, and died like us—because of love. And it’s that same love that is the foundation of our hope. As we even now remember the past mighty acts of God done in love, we remember that God’s love presently surrounds us and gives us hope as we remember the future promise to hold us forever in love for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord.
At the heart of God’s love is no doubt intense desire and passion—an intense desire to have a relationship with us and a burning passion to do anything, even to die, that we know we are indeed loved so wonderfully. Within the very heart of this love reside God’s compassion, grace, and mercy. God’s love surpasses ordinary kindness and friendship. In many ways, it surpasses our understanding. It must be experienced to be known. We must experience Christ in order to know the benefits of God’s love. God’s love is vividly shown in all the ways he’s inclined to show grace toward us. It runs deeper than our expectations, our fluctuating emotions, or our deserving or worthiness. God’s love is rooted in committed, unshakeable love, and we see it come to life not only in words, but in deeds.
We know the fullness, the depth and breadth, of God’s love in the cross of Jesus. At Calvary, true love, Jesus Christ, God himself—the only person ever truly to be loyal to God and neighbor in every aspect of life—was treated as a promise breaker for our sake. For us God made him, made Jesus, to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus, who was always true to us and to God, was treated as one who cheated so that we who cannot by our own strength remain constantly and ever steadfast might know the faithfulness of God in him.
The thing about God’s love is that it is eternal, because God is eternal, and God is love. God’s love knows no beginning because God knows no beginning. God’s love knows no end because God knows no end. And when we say we cannot and will not be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, we say that we are eternally loved, with no beginning or ending. We are simply loved. Give thanks to God, because his steadfast love for us endures forever. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—not life, not death, not heights, not depths, not political party, not governments or national borders, not sexual orientation, not race or ethnicity, not wealth or poverty. The love of God transcends all our petty human boundaries and reaches us wherever we are.
It’s telling the world about this love that cost not only Valentine his life, but ultimately cost Jesus his life as well. But death doesn’t end this love—because love never ends. God’s love for us in Jesus lives on. We saw it not only in the life and work of Valentine, but in the lives and work of many a faithful disciple of Jesus today. When hungry people’s stomachs are filled and children’s dreams are fed, when estrangement gives way to understanding and reconciliation, when our own eyes begin to see all people’s dignity—there we once again see God’s in Christ Jesus come to life not only in words, but in deeds. How do we see the love of God in your words and deeds today?
So yes—today is a fine day to celebrate love. A lovely holiday, you might say. But let’s celebrate true love. Today isn’t a day to get caught up in the trappings of a love that’s impatient, immodest, or proud. Or a love that insists on its own gratification or pursues vanity. Today isn’t a day to celebrate love that can fail because it’s rooted in the deceit of zealous and blind lust, or even more simply foundationed on our own human frailty.
No—today is a day to celebrate the love that gave rise to all that is and continues to sustain us—the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The love we celebrate today is love that never ends. As for all the motivations, desires, and attractions of the world—those things will all come to pass away, but love will remain—true love. God’s love. God’s love for us. Today, like we should always and everywhere, is a day to give thanks to God, because his steadfast love for us endures forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.