Last fall, the ladies’ Bible study group at my church did a book study of One Thousand Gifts. What follows is the manuscript of the introduction I gave each week, designed to be a summary and a homily based on the week’s reading assignment.
from Chapter 11
So…Chapter 11! I don’t need an attention-getter for this week’s talk. It’s definitely the most “controversial” part of this book, mostly because in the church we don’t really know how we want to talk about sex. We tend to think of it as either very private—not to be discussed at all—or we feel like we see and hear so much about the abuse of it on TV and in movies that it seems cheap and tacky. Either way, it’s not a metaphor we want to bring into a discussion about our spiritual lives.
But let’s do remember that God is the one who invented this metaphor, that physical intimacy has always been intended to point to the much more intimate and powerful relationship between God and his people. (Not that that makes this any more comfortable to talk about, especially with my mom in the room.)
I’d like to start with a little parentheses to justify the use of sexual imagery in a spiritual context. If you’re just a prude like me, and you’re just a little uncomfortable, well—we just need to get over it. But if you really, intellectually, take issue with the basic premise of Chapter 11, I’d like to point you to Ann’s blog, where there’s a good article called “20 Thoughts on Intimacy with God” by Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine. This article helps to illustrate the historical tradition of writing about God in sexual terms, particularly by Puritan writers (as odd as that may sound) and also from the Old Testament itself. So please check that out if you still have some questions.
The OT is actually where I want to start today. The other day I happened to listen to a podcast by Tim Keller from Jeremiah chapter 2, and in the text God speaks to Israel using sexual language and images that, frankly, make Ann Voskamp and Chapter 11 look very tame in comparison. (Jeremiah 2:1-8, 23-32)
God compares Israel’s idolatry to sexual infidelity. In other parts of the OT, he calls Israel a prostitute, and says that chasing after other gods is just like an immoral woman offering herself to any man who passes by.
Why would God say this? Is he just trying to be provocative or shocking? I don’t think that’s really His way. I think he wants us to understand that worship is designed to be as intimate, as vulnerable, as personal, as exclusive as a sexual relationship. And the Bible is clear- any time we are not worshipping God, we are worshipping something else–committing spiritual adultery. There is no neutral ground.
But you don’t have to be in Paris in June to have intimacy with God, although I’m sure it would be nice. As I understood this chapter, this sort of spiritual union occurs whenever I am wide awake to God’s presence and love for me in this very moment. I’ve laid aside my doubts and my own need for control, and I’ve made myself vulnerable to God: “You are good. I trust You. Thank you for these good and perfect gifts.”
We receive God’s love and we respond with love and worship of Him. What does this look like, in practical ways, in the kitchen or driving carpool?
There are probably a lot more people who can give more qualified answers than this, but one way to think about it is through the five love languages. After all, we are made in his image, and we love because he first loved us, so it makes sense in my head that these ways that we give and receive love with one another might be ways that we can love God, too.
1. Quality Time.
I have a friend that I see only a couple of times a year. When we do run into each other, she goes on and on about how glad she is to see me and how I have no idea how much I mean to her. And yet, we only see each other by accident. She never, ever calls or e-mails to see how I’m doing. So it irritates me to have her say she loves me. I want to say, “I don’t believe you.”
When we lost Sam, I had to lean way into Christ more than I ever have before. I’ve written and spoken about how much I’ve seen his faithfulness and felt his love, how I’m getting more and more of an idea about how much greater than anything He is. And yet…I get a moment to myself and I waste time on the internet or read Breaking Dawn for the third time or organize shelves in my laundry room. And then it’s bedtime and I’m trying to cram in a few minutes of Bible reading or prayer before I fall asleep. (And that’s on the nights that I try to cram it in at all.)
When you’re in love, it’s not an obligation to seek out time with the one you love. You say, “I’ve got fifteen minutes in the car on the way to work; I’m going to call and say good morning!” You say, “Of course I’d rather sit with you than watch TV.” You say, “Laundry is more fun when we fold together.”
Think creatively about how to “practice the presence of God” in the midst of your daily routine.
2. Gifts/ 3. Acts of Service
What do you give to the God who has everything? One answer is that you give to others in his name. Last week we were challenged by Jesus: “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” So who can you clothe, feed, visit in God’s name? The church is Christ’s body–how can you serve God here at Grace or in your home congregation? (If you don’t know, there’s a list in the bulletin every week!)
4. Physical Touch
I’m going to have to stretch to make this work, but this is true, even if my metaphor is forced! How can we use our physical bodies to love God? We can obey him with them. Are we honoring God with our bodies by keeping them pure? Are we using our mouths to tell others what He has done for us and to build up one another in our faith? Are my hands instruments of anger or love?
And just like with “regular” physical touch– it doesn’t count if you only do it when you want something in return. We obey because we know it delights God’s heart–no strings attached.
5. Words of Affirmation
This prayer advice is as old as the sun, but make sure you’re taking time in your prayers to praise God for who He is. Thank Him for his gifts, yes, but also think about the ways he is awesome that don’t even involve you. If you’re feeling less than eloquent, borrow words from the Psalms:
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
Covering yourself with light as a garment,
Stretching out the heavens like a tent…
[You] set the earth on its foundations so that it should never be moved…
From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work…
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all of his works…
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. (Ps. 104)
I appreciated that this book did not end with Paris, but back in Ann’s laundry room. Because, as we’ve discussed before, no one needs a God who is only helpful when we’re on vacation in Europe. We need a God who is with us in the most boring and most painful parts of our lives.
As I’ve reflected on our reading over the past few weeks, I’ve really come to understand the importance of believing in a sovereign God who is bigger, greater, more powerful than I can even begin to understand. When God is sovereign, I can say with absolute confidence that all is grace.
I have a friend who is 20 weeks pregnant and who just received an almost-certainly terminal diagnosis for her baby. And while I rage and cry against a world that is broken and that hurts, I can still look her in the eyes and tell her ALL. IS. GRACE.
I am not afraid to go there. When we hurt and fear and stress, we must push all of that as hard as we can into God; he can take it! And we can come away yet more convinced that God is great, and he is good. If he is missing either of these, he’s not worthy of our worship.
I hope you’ll wear your one-thousand-gifts-glasses into the Christmas season this year. Take a minute to marvel at the ugly-beautiful of a homeless teenage mom giving birth in a barn to a little squalling baby boy who was God himself, come to save us.
And as we shop for gifts and wrap gifts and count our gifts, may your heart be full of Jesus, the most extravagant, undeserved gift you’ve ever been given. He is Immanuel, God with Us! Come, let us adore him.