It is indeed a special pleasure to be with you in worship this morning as it is a privilege to be chosen to preach in the Mayflower Distinguished Pulpit Series. The reputation of this series and the years of faithful witness of this fine congregation bestow an honor on my work and life that is, to be honest, richly undeserved. Thank you.
But there is a sermon here to preach, and we must begin by looking at the text of Holy Scripture from Paul’s epistle to the Roman church. Paul stands as a great proclaimer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is to say as the one who rings the theological bells on the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the works of the grace of God on behalf of a repeatedly rebellious, unceasingly violent, and often bewildered and lost humanity.
In this eighth chapter he gathers up the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the full drama of the whole creation, as it too, along with humans, waits with eager longing to be set free from the bondage to decay and death. We can feel within ourselves that the whole creation is groaning in labor pains, pointing to a birthing of freedom and hope that is all-inclusive and overwhelming. It is in this hope that we are to be saved.
But even this astonishing apostle of grace and hope admits that, in his and in our human weakness and longing, we often do not know how to pray and therefore how to be fully hopeful in God. Our words of desperate prayer can often become astonishing guttural groans and sighs of longing without clarity of vision and hope. But, Paul assures us, the Spirit of God does and will intercede for us in our weakness, empowering us to say and understand what might otherwise elude us. Let us pray that it will be so this morning as we wrestle with Paul’s epistle.
It is to this many sided and complex set of phenomena of what I call ‘human longing’ that I first want us to attend. How are we to interpret the many dimensions of these phenomena? Does everyone, do we, truly understand what this longing signals about human life? Notice how, in our own experience, it seems to encompass a sense of loss and incompleteness, as though one’s life has been careening along unfulfilled and running on empty. Notice how our longing vacillates about the future: with a sense of emptiness or loss in the present, the future seems to taunt us between despair and hope. Precisely when we seem so disenchanted with the shape and conditions of our past and present lives and death seems so unavoidable, our longing emerges.
Does not this longing of the human spirit come to expression in the great music of the past and in the many forms of contemporary musical expression? Consider the pathos of longing in country music, in the bitter protests of rap, in the thunderous poundings of rock, in the heartbreak of romantic love gone awry or unrequited. What is ‘written on the wind’ in Bob Dylan’s song but the fleeting answers to our human longing for what might have been and for what might yet be?
And does not human longing fuel so much of our great art, especially in its poetic and prose written forms? Who can forget the disarming words of T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men…shape without form, shade without color…[who] wait without hope…wait without love…wait without thought.”
When that often profound but self-destructive playwright Tennessee Williams converted to Roman Catholicism, he said “I wanted my goodness back.” Was this not a longing to repossess what seems to have gotten lost in the mad shuffle of human life in its often self-defeating endeavors to flourish and to truly live? Williams wanted to achieve a sense that his life was good and justified.
It is about this longing that we can consider the rightly insightful construal of Saint Augustine: “O God, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Restless, homeless, lost; longing for what might have been and for what might yet be. Consider also the hymn of Charles Wesley: “Come thou long expected Jesus: Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.” Is not Wesley making the extraordinary claim that the longings and desires of every nation and of every human heart are somehow addressed and answered and illuminated by what God was doing in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
Obviously, these phenomena of human longing have other construals and explanations in our contemporary world. In fact, Christian construals of these phenomena are in the distinct minority of views relative to the other construals that dominate our present American world, indeed dominate our lives. Among such other construals are these: 1) human longing is simply the refusal to face the present hard realities of life, to accept that we are finite and animalic, born into a brutish world of evolving chaos and conflicting struggles to survive; it is dog eat dog, so look out for number one and cease longing for some other world than this. Or, 2) human longing is simply the refusal to be the human who takes responsibility for her own autonomous life, but who longs incessantly and self-deceptively for what might have been or what might yet be. Or, 3) human longing is simply that tragic sense of life as doomed to violence and death and meaninglessness.
These are, it seems to me, some of the deep and practical construals of human longing that sometimes possess us and thereby shape how we actually live. When I say ‘actually live,’ I am assuming that for some of us there is a distinction between how we think or pretend we live and how we do in fact live in our emotions and actions.
But we are a Christian community this morning, gathered in worship and tied together, I hope, by some profound convictions and construals of who God is, what it means to be human, and what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is. I want, therefore, briefly to identify some of these Christian construals and how they might bear on our understanding of human longing.
The first construal is the centerpiece of Christian faith and life: that in Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Jew—in his life, death, and resurrection—the Creator of all things has in freedom and love acted to save the world from its self-enacted but false and hopeless destiny. Christian faith pivots around this construal of life and human destiny. Drop Jesus out as no more than an interesting, even arresting teacher, and we have no more than a few moral teachings seeking their grounding somewhere else, and maybe we just ground them in our liberal democratic theories of justice and human autonomy. But given that God has acted incarnately in Jesus for the salvation of the world, the world then looks differently to Christians. How differently?
That brings us to the second construal, namely, that the God we know in Jesus is the Creator of all things and of all human beings. As Creative Spirit, God creates humans in God’s own image as the sort of creatures that are intended for fellowship with God and for fellowship with other humans. Put more strongly, humans are capacitated for and summoned by the Spirit of God into fellowship with God and with other humans.
But, and here we have the third construal, in utter absurdity and irrationality, humans repress and subjugate this being so created for fellowship; they live concretely and practically as though this is not so. They live precisely in rebellion against this fellowship with God and with their neighbor. Hence, there arises much evil, much enmity and hostility, much violence and murder, much lying, much fear, much retaliation and revenge, and much longing for what seems to have been lost or forgotten or forsaken. In the midst of such evil and enmity our longing expresses a wistful and regretful sense of brokenness.
Whence this irrational repression of being created for fellowship with God and for fellowship with the neighbor who can appear before us as stranger and even enemy? With few exceptions, Christians have refused to explain this repression and rebelliousness as though it were a necessity of human creatureliness. We have named this rebellion ‘sin’, and we have assumed that it is freely ingested into the human heart through the social traditions of human life. It is as though these traditions, for whatever might be their fleeting grandeur and timely achievements, have repeatedly inculcated into the human heart an unbelief that leads to ways of living and construing that are other than that way intended by God in creating us.
It is here that I want to focus on the concept of the human heart in order to understand our sin and longing. What is the human heart, Christianly understood? In good biblical and common sense usage, I propose to you that the heart is comprised of the dominant desires and passions of the human spirit and these desires and passions dispose us toward those feelings and actions that shape most decisively how we actually live. It is here in the struggle and dynamics of the human heart that we humans confront the questions of character and meaning. How we put together our desires and passions expresses who we actually think we are.
By desires I refer to the way in which we humans have objects to which we are attracted and which we want to possess. To desire something is to want that something. Such objects of desire are, of course, infinite in their variety, from the seemingly harmless desire to see our team win to the many ways in which we are attracted to other persons. Think of how a desire might seem to befall us, to overtake us, to overwhelm us and pull us in its wake into the future. The paradox here is that such desires always presuppose that this is ‘what I want and I will be fulfilled and satisfied when I possess what I want.’ Strong desires, we feel, are earnestly ‘good for me.’ And these strong desires dispose us to feelings and actions consistent with and necessary to the possession of the object of desire.
It is not accidental that these several generations of Americans gathered at the turning of the century have been characterized as the ones longing for instant gratification of whatever desire or itch seems to have compellingly arisen in their hearts. Since none of us is able to escape completely from the powers of media advertising, and since the advertisers are scientifically acute about human desire, it is not surprising that many of our most compelling desires are stirred within us precisely by those media powers. Over and over, as consumers of recommended goods and values, we are told what is so desirable and so good that our lives will surely be incomplete if we do not possess that advertised object or some valued style of life.
Look briefly now at the concept of passion. We all have, in ordinary language, concerns and cares. These are quite simply those matters about which we are concerned. A concern or care is more than a fleeting interest in something; it is rather a giving of sustained attention to something that requires a pattern of actions and feelings. We would not say Fred is concerned about the moral evil of the death penalty if he had never expressed any opinion about it. But if he had argued long and hard in many contexts against the death penalty, perhaps at great personal sacrifice, we could say that Fred has a concern for this issue.
Those concerns of a person’s life that are strong and dominant over some phase of her life, I am calling ‘passions’. Here I mean by ‘passion’ that one has a compelling and dominating concern about a matter that shapes one’s behavior and emotions. Passions too dispose us to feelings and actions consistent with the attending to the concern. Consider: Sharon has a passion to retain her fleeting youth and beauty; George has a passion to make money and exercise power over other people; Priscilla has a passion for seeing to the feeding of the hungry. We would not say that Harold has a passion for the life of the church, if Harold seldom came to church or gave of his time and money and person to the church.
In practical terms, the strong desires and passions of the human person are what comprise her heart and their objects are the spirits that occupy her heart and shape her living. It is in those peculiar narratives of each of our lives that we might see expressed what truly are the desires and passions that have pulled us willy-nilly into the future and in which we have sought some sense of fulfillment and meaning or have been haunted by regret and longing.
What is the problem here? Our longings pose the question of what desires and passions lead to and confer blessing and true flourishing on human life? The human heart repeatedly has desires and passions that seem to aim at flourishing or some state of being satisfied. But the human heart seems so insatiable and unsatisfied, in great flux over time, shifting about from one desire to another, consumed by one passion or another, or even worse, without any consuming passion for anything. Think of how greed is never satisfied with whatever amount of money one might possess; it always needs more and is haunted by the fear that it will lose what it has.
It is in this concrete flux of life that humans repeatedly aim at a flourishing that is without fellowship with God and without fellowship with the neighbor. The pathos of our hearts is that we are, in bewildering ways, formed by spirits other than the Holy Spirit of God.
O God our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.
It is this very human heart that Christian faith is concerned to heal and reshape by the Holy Spirit, by that Spirit who alone can bring authentic flourishing. It may not be a flourishing that the world thinks it wants, but it is a flourishing that can heal, reconcile, and redeem human life. It is this flourishing toward which our human longing points.
The model for what it means to be occupied by the Holy Spirit is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This life, in its salutary preaching and acting, proclaims a way of life that is called the impingement of the Kingdom of God, in which love of God and love of neighbor include even the stranger and the enemy. It is an alternative way of living to the typical ways of the world in which fear, suspicion, protection against the stranger and the enemy, and willingness to slay them in justified self-defense are often the very fragile reasons for our social solidarity.
Jesus is hanged high on the cross in deadly collision with these predictable and ordinary desires and passions of the human heart. That this same Jesus is raised from the dead is the Godly confirmation that what humans seem to be most passionate about are just those values that are in conflict with being created in God’s image and being called to flourishing in a distinctive way of life.
It is as though the followers of Jesus have awakened from a deep slumber in which they have been haunted by the signals of a longing for that which might bring peace, joy, a pure heart, and a flourishing that is not dependent on how the world treats you or mistreats you. When Charles Wesley, gathering up some Scriptural passages, affirms that Jesus is the deep desire of every human heart and of every society, he means to say that Jesus enacts our hidden and subjugated desire for reunion with God, to be at home with God in which love of God and love of neighbor are pulsating arteries of the human heart and the linchpins of a flourishing human character.
Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian of some stature in the last century, used the following poignant language to describe Jesus Christ: Jesus is the divine Son of God going into the far country of human longing, estrangement, and conflict and enacting the Kingdom of God; Jesus is the human Son of God forsaken and hanged on the cross of human rebellion and his resurrection from the dead is the homecoming of the Son as the One who fulfills human life and points us to our destiny to be healed and redeemed by God.
Put another way, Jesus is God lovingly, graciously, and mercifully coming in search of us, being with us and being for us in life and death, giving us forgiveness and hope beyond our sin and deserts. The Spirit and the hope that is in his life are the Spirit and hope that intercedes for us with sighs and groans too deep for words, heals our hearts from the desires and passions that lead only to the kingdom of death and disarray, and empowers our hearts to new hopes and new desires and passions for a Kingdom of life that has no end and knows no final defeat.
Friends in Christ, I admit that this language is odd and demanding, even as it is gracious and inviting. It is not the familiar language of the world. The language of Christian faith is so odd that persons who have their passions and desires shaped by it are often those ordinary saints who can give their lives for others in such a way that they know only blessing and gain. The language of gain and loss in Christian faith is different from the language of gain and loss in the various kingdoms and worlds that have dominated the flow of human history.
Pointing to that deep and profoundly human longing that overtakes us from time to time—a longing about what might have been and what might yet be— and pointing to Jesus Christ as the good news of God’s redemptive work, the Christian believes that the almighty power and love embodied in Jesus Christ is that power and love that it is truly sovereign in the world, will eternally be triumphant, and will confer a flourishing that will surprisingly satisfy and free even the most hardened, the most restless, and the most broken human heart.
O God, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.
All this dear friends in Christ, I have dared to preach in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all. Amen.
[The following sermon was preached in the Mayflower Congregational UCC Church’s Distinguished Pulpit Series in Oklahoma City on August 4, 2002. Dr. Robin Meyers is the pastor. Slightly edited herein]