Longing and yearning—each one of us has his or her history of longing felt, longing muted and the decisions we make about how to proceed in the face of its emotional power. Those decisions are crucial because as Alan Jones has written, "A human being's longing is by definition a longing for God. The whole aim of the spiritual life is to keep the longing alive."
The familiar words of Proverbs 29:18 read, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." When our physical vision goes, we stumble and life gets blurred. When our spiritual vision weakens, we lose our passion for Christ. Then we choose a series of much less satisfying lovers that all end up failing us, a choice that misplaces longing. I think in this culture, that's where many Christians find themselves. Listless, seeing their faith and Christian behavior through blurred eyes, stumbling in the dark, grabbing for any support, any relief they can find. I've been there, and the problem is haunting. Perhaps you once loved Jesus and wanted him more than anything, but the hardships or the comforts of life have distracted you, and you have come to believe that someone, or something is the answer to the hole that only Jesus can fill. Perhaps you don't know Jesus, and so your vision is confined to whatever happens day by day, you are controlled by circumstances, not knowing who to look to for meaning.
Much more likely, you're in a dangerous time when your vision is growing blurred. You have grown bored with the sameness of life, with the way you're conducting your Christianity. You have started to work all the time, consumed with what money can buy or with the distraction that work provides. Or perhaps you're tempted sexually, believing a relationship with its initial buzz and flattering attentions will fill the nothingness life seems to be full of. Maybe you're just tired of being alone, tired of working on a marriage which has grown dull. Or, maybe you've started playing at the edges of a variety of addictions—pornography, overspending, over or undereating, gambling, workaholism.
A couple of decades ago a student wrote a piece for class about the romance of baseball. It is the only sports illustration I have ever used. The piece has lingered with me for many years. This was a paper about the romance of the game of baseball, about being in love with the players and the game. What the student was saying in this moving paper is that when he entered into the experience of baseball by identifying with a player, imagining himself like him, memorizing his stats, studying his face, crying when the player was traded, baseball for him was a passion. As soon as Tom lost sight of the personal, nuanced experience of baseball and was concerned only about trading cards for money, he lost his power of imagination for the game; he grew bored. His passion was restored only by once again treasuring the faces and histories of his favorite players.
The difference between passion and boredom in our lives, as it was in this student's life, is what we are being shaped by. When this student was influenced by the heroic baseball player, he could imagine and dream. When the person was reduced to a good card sale, the dream ended and boredom set in. That's just what our verses today talk about—the romance of Christianity.
Romance vs. sentimentality
What is being in-love, or as one of my students put it many years ago, being in-heat like? Some of you may have to think way back to those early days. You feel light-headed. You think about him or her all the time. You want to know all about him or her—get a picture, even if you have to cut it out of the church directory. You idealize him or her. You want to know what interests him or her. You sometimes do dumb things—like drive by the beloved's house in someone else's car. I once had a cousin who thought she was in-love with a farmer's son—she put part of a cow's head he had given her in her freezer. Being in-love, feeling passion, gives meaning to life. You dream of no longer being alone. You pursue that person intensely (if only in your mind). He or she fills your world.
But romance is a bigger word than being in heat—bigger than "their lips clung together in a heady ecstasy that knew no time," a caption I once saw in a romance story. Romance is a literary term used to distinguish itself from the novel. In the novel things might go badly. The hero might never recover from a moral fall. Tragedy might endure. But in the romance, though there might be hardships the hero will make up for his mistakes and prove true to his lady. There is adventure, pageantry, mystery, and above all transcendence. A happy ending. Winter does not endure, it gives way to spring.
Our Christianity is supposed to be a romance, it's supposed to make us into heroes and heroines, not without having suffered, but who triumph in the end no matter what life holds. Never losing sight of the face on the baseball card, always wanting to be like the person on that card. Because of Jesus Christ. We have too often, however, turned our faith into business, made him safe or sentimentalized our experience. Romance is not sentimentality, what we too often substitute for true romance. "Sentimentality is seen," writes Craig Barnes, "in our fascination with telling story after story that all follow the same tired plot" that after many reverses in life "all turn into good news at the moment the Christian meets God, a great danger to the church's credibility."
This text is about being in love, but not with someone who may or may not love you back, who may or may not fail you, or who may or may not be as wonderful as you think. It's about developing the vision that sees the hero in all his mystery and wonder, being open to being drawn out to where we can never return. If you outlined the Scripture passage for today it would go like this:
First of all, we have Matthew 5:6 which contains the promise. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled," or as The Message puts it: "You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat." In other words, God fulfills those who love his face on their baseball card and try to play like him.
Secondly, we're given the problems that get in the way of this promise, the warning in Matthew 6:19-21: "Set your heart on heavenly treasures—do not store up earthly treasures which moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal store up heavenly treasures … because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." In other words don't let the things that seem immediately gratifying but which are bound to change because they're earthly get in the way.
Thirdly, we're told about the source of the hunger for righteousness, the agent of righteousness, to make sure your vision is un-blurred. Matthew 6:22-24: "The eye is the lamp of the body. If the eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. No one can serve two masters. Either he or she will hate the one and love the other, or he or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other." In other words, the way you see is the key to the way you live your life, and the key to the romance of faith, to the recognition of mystery.
The words of these texts are part of Christ's great sermon—The Sermon on the Mount. Probably delivered in the spring of A.D.28 on a mountain somewhere in the vicinity of Capernaum after Jesus had prayed all night, then chosen the twelve disciples. After that he healed many sick people and a huge multitude flocked to him to be healed.
Jesus preached this message with tremendous compassion. We're told that the sight of great multitudes always filled his heart with sympathy, a divine pity that takes action, a desire to help them with their needs, just as he still feels about us. Some claim that when Jesus delivered this sermon, he neither directly nor indirectly had in view the church of today and that the principles he spoke of are unlivable today, "irrelevant" to the conditions we live in.
Hunger and thirst for righteousness
While the various teachings must be interpreted in light of the specific occasion on which they were given, clearly Christ deals with the most basic principles of conduct and Christian behavior which remain the same in every age. These words are the wisdom of Christ, and so they apply to you and me today as well as they did to the people he was preaching to then. How strange those words sound today.
Let's face it, how hard it is to hunger and thirst for something invisible. First of all, how often do any of us really hunger or thirst even physically. We have plenty to eat and are rarely far from good water, hunger and thirsting are relative. In the ancient world, the average working man's wage was about three pence a day; people ate meat only once a week. Many were never far from the borderline of real hunger and actual starvation. Even more, in the case of thirst, it was not possible for the vast majority of people to turn a tap and find the clear cold water pouring into their house. A man might be on a journey and in the midst of it the hot wind might bring a sand-storm. He had nothing to do but wrap his head in shawl and turn his back to the wind and wait. When it was over, he was parched.
This is not an average hunger which can be satisfied with a blueberry muffin from Starbucks or a thirst that craves a Frappuccino, smoothie, Perrier. This is the hunger of a man or woman who is starving for good and the thirst of someone who will die unless he finds something to drink. The question here is: How tired are you of not being in love? How much do you pay attention to your longing for the romance of faith? How much do you want goodness? How intense is your desire for goodness? Will you die unless you get it, and what has kept you from that thirst and hunger?
In the movie, Walk the Line, recounting part of the fascinating history of Johnny Cash's career, an interesting interchange takes place between Johnny and Sam Phillips, the manager of a recording studio. Johnny, obsessed with following his dream to do music, buys an audition with Phillips, and with his small band sings a shaky rendition of the gospel song, "I Was There When it Happened." Within a minute, the manager, obviously irritated, asks him to stop. "I don't do gospel," he says, "this stuff doesn't sell." Johnny, hurt and a bit angry, snaps back, "You listen to me sing for a minute and tell me it won't work." "People want something honest, something felt," retorts Phillips. Then, looking Johnny right in the eye, he continues, "Do you believe it? I've heard that song sung exactly that way 500 times. If you got hit by a truck and you only had time to sing one song before you died, what would it be?" After a shocked pause, Johnny looks at his guitar intently then begins to sing a soul-stirring rendition of the song "Folsom Prison Blues." The rest of the story is history.
Most of us have an instinctive desire for goodness, but it is wistful and vague rather than sharp and intense. Good is much harder to visualize than evil, and so in our heart of hearts we may even imagine that it is boring. Simone Weil, the French intellectual who starved herself to death in the French Resistance, wrote that "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, and boring" while "imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, and intoxicating." Not seeing goodness, we're not really prepared to make the effort and sacrifice necessary to be good. Unless we're newly converted from a life of sin and sick of it, have been trapped by our sin and found out the hard way, we get pretty lethargic. Righteousness becomes a relative word, not the standard Christ sets up for us because he knows what is best for us. Instead, we think righteousness is a kind of mediocre, an okay life in which we at least don't act as badly as many people we see.
In actuality, hungering and thirsting for righteousness means yearning after and relentlessly pursuing God. The best translation of the verse is the whole of righteousness, the whole package, not just parts, not a partial goodness. In a very good book called Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga notes that awareness of sin used to be our shadow. Christians hated it, feared it, fled from it, grieved over it, but the shadow has dimmed. The accusation "you have sinned" is often said with a grin and tone that signals an inside joke.
I think many of us probably hear the words and sigh inside of ourselves wondering desperately how to yearn after God, how to long for anything let alone righteousness. Some of you would like to cry at the numbness in your soul. You know you've traded your hero's card for something that seemed more fulfilling at the time, and now you've become bored. Others of you who are genuinely hungering and thirsting for righteousness know you have been filled. You love the face on the baseball card; it is not big business to you. We need you to remind us all.
Hindrance to righteousness
In Matthew 6:19-34 Christ names what keeps us from hungering and thirsting after the whole of righteousness, how we misguidedly use our longings. The Jews, note commentators, always connected the phrase treasure in heaven with character. The only thing which a man or woman can take out of this world into eternity is him or herself; so the finer the self you bring, the greater your treasure will be. It means our relationship with Christ can be characterized by passion—we start off well; we can't get enough of him; he's always new, we read Scripture as though it means everything we eat it as it were. Then we experience wounds, disappointments, the despair that life hands us—jobs are tedious and disappointing, relationships prove inadequate, marriages end in divorce or stalemate, success carries us away with its lure.
We begin to pervert the longing we once gave to God, it becomes dull. We take, in Brent Curtis's words, "less-wild lovers." Yet as the Scripture says, moth and rust and thieves in the passage represent all the agencies that cause earthly treasures to diminish in value. It's a losing game. Moths deposit eggs in woolens (we never see the process.) Suddenly something is rusty, gnawed at by chemicals. Burglars can strike any day, injuring our persons, invading our homes.
Everything decays. Bread molds, Clothes get spots, walls and fences break down. Tile cracks, roofs leak silver tarnishes, things go out of style. Hurricanes, typhoons, tornados, earthquakes, plant diseases, soil erosion happens, forest fires come and take people and things with them. Car accidents happen. The body, my friends, sags. Hair turns gray under the greatest color job. Heads bald. Muscles get knotty. The face sags. People stop loving us and desert us. The list is endless.
Maybe we don't obsess on our hobbies, bodies, or in relationships. Maybe we just go limp. We play dead do absolutely nothing and do it repeatedly, wander through malls, killing time, making small talk, watch TV or moves till we know the characters better than people around us. Or we disappear into a small world defined by our friends, work, and family, building a cozy place there, or we become dutiful, orderly, and invisible to ourselves and others. An adventure couldn't happen to us if our lives depended on it. Like Bilbo Baggins, we need a wake-up call to come into our hobbit hole.
All of these are lukewarm lovers. If everything we treasure, value, care about, and think about is on this earth, we will have no interest in the world beyond this world. We will be tied to our earthly passions and interests. If our interests have been in the world beyond, in the face on the baseball card, in playing God's game with passion and otherworldly interest, we will go to God with gladness.
Make sure your vision is 'unblurred'
Jesus never said this world was unimportant, but he did imply over and over again that its importance is not in itself but in that to which it leads. The world is a stage on the way to heaven, a stage we cannot lose our heart to. So, it's all about the eye, our vision, our ability to see which is what Matthew 6:22-23 makes clear.
How is our spiritual eye? Is what this passage asks. The construction is deliberate—a single eye, devotion to a single purpose. In this passage the eye is regarded as the window by which the light gets into the whole body. If the window is clear, clean, and undistorted, the light will come flooding into the room and will illuminate every corner of it. If the glass of the window is colored or frosted, distorted or dirty, the room will not be lit up.
There is about a single-minded person an essential moral healthiness and a simple unaffected goodness which are absent from those whose motives are more mixed and who are trying to serve two masters. Listen to those phrases, "an essential (organic) healthiness and a simple unaffected (no masks) goodness." There's that word again—goodness which is, in essence, "intoxicating" as I said earlier.
So Jesus sits compassionately on the mountain. He looks at you and me, he understands all the experiences that have happened to us that have lead us to our deadness, to our lukewarm Christian lives, or if you are not a Christian, to your need for something more than mere existence.
Scripture is full of stories of people who learned finally that lukewarm lovers didn't cut it. They learn after much hardship and failure to come back to a passionate life with God. Look just for starters at Hebrews 11, the great faith chapter. These are stories of people who chose to obey, whose vision grew to be fixed on what they could not see but believed in.
Abraham was called by God. He went down several blind alleys but finally offered up his son Isaac in obedience and believed in the promises of God. Unlike him, Lot chose what he wanted and lost everything. Noah built an ark and had the adventure of his lifetime—the people around him who laughed at this craziness drowned. Abel offered the sacrifice God wanted, chose God as his lover while Cain, who offered what he considered more practical, was rejected by God and in jealousy killed his brother and was condemned to wander the earth. Moses, who was a complete coward, after many protests, finally obeyed (with a little help from his friends) and led the people out of Egypt. Rahab, a prostitute, decided to believe in God, and spared her own life.
I'm not going to tell you it won't be hard. I am going to tell you that all that matters finally is that we have known Jesus in some personal way that passes all description. I don't have a magic answer. Tell him you're bored, that you feel like taking an escape—that you keep active because thinking is too frightening, that if you're alone one more minute you'll explode. Tell him that you do love money and what it does for you, that you are obsessed with being attractive, that you have an addiction to pornography, that you control everything around you because it's too unsafe to let go. Tell him about the lovers you have taken and how you've been unfaithful. Tell him you don't believe it can change. And then keep telling him.
The great British poet and preacher, John Donne, who before his conversion knew well the less-wild lovers life had to offer, wrote the sonnet, Batter My Heart Three-Person'd God' For, You. Donne was desperately asking for God to "batter his heart" "again" so that he might cling to the greatest lover of them all.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Rosalie de Rosset is a professor of English, Preaching, and Literature at Moody Bible Institute and the author of Unseduced and Unshaken: The Place of Dignity in Young Women’s Choices.