Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon: Quinquagesima and St. Valentine

14 February 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 8:31-43 (Isa 35:3-7, 1 Cor 13:1-13)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today, all the world focuses on love. For it’s Valentine’s Day. More accurately, it is St. Valentine’s Day, a commemoration the Church has given the world, a day to reflect on love and its true meaning. And even though the world has largely diluted the meaning of St. Valentine’s Day – because the world largely does not know love – we Christians know love, true love, everlasting love.

For God Himself teaches us about love through St. Paul: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

“Love never ends” dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is eternal. True love is impervious to its enemies. Love survives even death and the grave. In fact, love conquers death and the grave. Love defeats the devil. Love reweaves and brightens the tapestry of life unraveled and faded by the fall. Love conquers all.

Love is superior to prophecies. Love is greater than the ability to speak in exotic languages. Love is more enduring than knowledge. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

The third-century Roman Valentinus, who was both a priest and a physician, was executed for holding the Christian faith in a time of persecution. And even in death, this healer of both body and soul, did not put his faith in his faith, nor hope for the sake of hope. He did not become bitter or hateful against his captors.

St. Valentine, the beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ, redeemed by the blood of Christ, saved by the passion and death of Christ, and empowered by the resurrection of Christ, continued to display the love of Christ in the face of his own martyrdom. And his act of love toward his jailer’s daughter, leaving her a tender and gentle note on a piece of paper, has become synonymous with the kind of love about which St. Paul preaches to us today. It is a selfless love, a love that shrugs at, even scoffs at, death – knowing that sin, death, and the devil are impotent in the presence of the cross of our Blessed Lord, of the blood of Christ, of the love of the Lord Jesus whose death has given us life and whose love is shared with a dark and desperate world through the light of the holy Church, our Lord’s beloved bride.

For she confesses and proclaims her Bridegroom, “God of God, light of light.” It is this holy light with which we illuminate the world. This is the love that never ends, that abides, that is the greatest of all virtues.

This same love is not merely spoken of, but demonstrated by our Lord Jesus. He knew beforehand what Love would ask of Him, and He loves His Father and His creation to the point of handing Himself over to His enemies for the sake of His beloved. As He Himself said: “For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day He will rise.”

The twelve were baffled. For this was not the Messiah they had in mind. This was a “Man of Sorrows” as Isaiah prophesied. They were happy enough with Isaiah’s prophecies that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” But they were not quite as eager to embrace a Savior who is “stricken, smitten, and afflicted.”

For it is in this selfless act of sacrifice, this cruciform payment of man’s sin-ransom, that the love of God shines forth. It is in His suffering and death that the disciples would truly learn the love that God has for them, the love that God has given to them, the love that God calls them to proclaim to, and share with, a loveless and forlorn world.

On this day, in honor of St. Valentine’s act of love in the face of his own death, the world exchanges heart-shaped cards, symbolizing love as flowing from the heart. And we Lutherans are familiar with the symbol of the heart in Luther’s seal, symbolizing the Lord’s boundless love for His people. And Luther’s seal adds what is missing in the world’s cleaned-up version of the Valentine heart. For our heart contains a cross in the center. At the heart of the heart is the cross, the passion that isn’t merely emotion, but a passion that is suffering for the sake of the beloved. True love offers its own life as a gift for the sake of the beloved – and this, dear friends, is the Word of the cross, the message the Church is given to proclaim to the world, the love of Christ that we are called to not only proclaim with words, but to demonstrate and carry out in deed and in truth.

Our Lord demonstrates what this love, true love, divine love, ultimately accomplishes. For a man begs to Jesus for help. He suffers the effects of the fall. He is blind. Sin has rendered him unable to see – not only in the spiritual sense, but even physically. Seeking to live a life of illumination, he is condemned to live instead in perpetual darkness. But the Lord Jesus did not come to condemn, but to save. In response to the blind beggar’s cry: “Lord, have mercy,” our Blessed Lord overturns the man’s condemnation to darkness, and the “God of God, light of light” shines love upon him, bringing illumination to his world.

Our Lord’s love is received by belief, and the blind man is healed, for his “faith has made [him] well.” And as great as his faith is, it is love that is greatest. The love of Jesus works a miracle of physical healing and spiritual enlightenment. For this beloved of the Lord, the one upon whom the Lord has mercy, immediately became a follower of Jesus, and glorified God. And this formerly blind beggar’s testimony called others to “give praise to God.”

Dear friends, we are like this blind beggar. We cry “Lord, have mercy” again and again. And the Lord hears our cries for mercy, and loves us, shows mercy to us, forgives us, and enlightens the darkness of our world. The Lord overcomes suffering by suffering, defeats death by dying, and embodies the love of God by loving us in word and in deed, in spirit and in truth, with a divine love that never ends.

The Lord calls us to hold this image of love before our eyes, even as we keep the cross before our faces as a reminder of the boundless love of God. The heart is truly a symbol of love, as it was the Lord’s pierced heart that issued forth blood and water, even teaching us after His death that His love has brought forth His sacraments of Holy Communion and Holy Baptism – flowing from His very heart. Hearts are depicted as red, for the heart is filled with blood, and it is the blood of Christ shed for us and for the forgiveness of sins that embodies this love, so craved by the world, beating in the very chest of the Church.

But the image of the cross should never be severed from the symbol of the heart. For it is in the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord that embodies true and abiding love.

And it is this kind of love that the world desperately needs, even as we do, dear brothers and sisters. For hear the love your Father has for you in His prophetic promise:

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”

May this saving love continue to strengthen the weak and firm up the feeble. May anxious hearts be comforted by the love of God, which never ends. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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