Saint Paul speaks passionately about food and sex, and we are rather passionate about food and sex ourselves. Paul is talking about more than that, though, and we know what we're really dealing with here is appetite, desire, longing, yearning. And we also know--and we don't need Saint Paul to tell us this--that we get it wrong. We find ourselves yearning and longing for the wrong things in the wrong ways. We do not quite know when, where, why, and how we can allow our appetites to express themselves and because of this, it all goes wrong.
We know this because we watch television. When we watch television, we discover that there is a great industry out there creating wants for us. We may have absolutely no desire whatsoever for this or for that, but after a number of seductive advertisements on television, the desire for the heretofore unwanted item becomes compelling. And when James Earl Jones describes its benefits, the objects become absolutely compelling. Then we suddenly discover that we want something we didn't even know existed a little while before.
This can be seen especially in the line of children's toys. Year after year, there's another toy that children simply must have. A few years ago it was Pokemon which enthralled children, but about which adults didn't have a clue. Before that it was "Tickle Me Elmo." What in the world is that? Today most people have no idea what it is. "Tickle Me Elmo" now exists only in crossword puzzles, but a few years ago, it was absolutely necessary. These things come and these things go. Adults cannot laugh at the children, though, because adults fall into this trap on several levels, from the new car to the new CD to the new stock to the new politician.
A number of years ago, politicians promoted themselves because they thought they were capable of governing. Now they promote themselves because they are capable of being attractive, so much so that we've turned politicians into celebrities, celebrities into politicians. Some people's claim to political astuteness is simply that they are known. So now actors and other entertainers assume that they have the ability to be governor or senator or president simply because they have been well packaged. We live in a world that manipulates our desires and our wants, and we are miserable because of it. We are unhappy people. We have more than most people have ever had in the whole history of the universe, but yet there is a "dis-ease" amongst us.
So we do not need Saint Paul to hold up food and sex, which still tend to dominate. Our own experience demonstrates quite strongly the power of appetite gone wrong. The biblical word is covetousness. When we covet, our longings and our yearnings have been horribly miscalculated. So as Christian people, we then ask, "How can my encounter with God in Jesus Christ change this for me?" How can my encounter with God--specifically with God in Jesus--begin to do something about my appetites so that I will get all of this in some sort of balance, some sort of control?
The first thing we need to notice about the biblical lesson read in churches on the second Sunday after Epiphany--the lesson we heard from First Corinthians--is that the discussion about sex and food has been bracketed by two stories, one from the first book of Samuel, the other from the Gospel of John. These are stories about desire--God's desire--God's yearning for Samuel, Jesus' yearning for Philip and Nathaniel. Read them at your leisure in the third chapter of First Samuel and the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. First, in that marvelously dark and almost mystical story of young Samuel in the flickering lamplight, God calls to Samuel until Samuel finally hears and is able to respond, "Speak, thy servant hearest." Then, in the New Testament story, Jesus calls to Nathaniel and Philip, saying, "I want you; follow me."
God is love, we read in the First Epistle of John, and therefore desire is very much a part of God, because God desires that which God loves. God wants to enter into a relationship. Love is not abstract; it is not distant. It is a part of God's heart. God yearns for Samuel, Philip, and Nathaniel. The stories about Samuel, Philip, and Nathaniel have been told for generations, for millennia, not to say something so much about Samuel or Philip or Nathaniel, but to say something about God--God yearns for God's creation. God yearns for you.
So desire is of God. Desire is the stuff of the universe. Desire and longing and yearning and appetite are what make the whole universe stay together. The universe holds together because of attractiveness. The law of gravity is a law of attraction. Love makes the world go 'round, but this love is not a love of having and possessing and owning; rather, it's a love that is embracing, sharing, celebrating, and entering into union. It is love as respect and honor and trust.
Our culture, unfortunately, equates desire with having, and we know it does not work because if we have one, we'll want two, and when we get two, we'll want the whole set, and when we have the whole set, we want the whole collection, and then we want the greater collection. We want to have more than anybody else, and when we have all of that, we still want more. And we're trapped. Things dominate.
But as God calls to Samuel, God calls to Philip and Nathaniel. God calls to me; God calls to you. It's not to own us; it's not to control us. It's not to turn us into some kind of robot; it's not to make us part of a collection. It's not to put us on a shelf somewhere and say, "Another notch in my belt." It's to enter into communion. It's to allow the same spirit that motivates Jesus to motivate us. The same power that is alive in Jesus, the same love that is alive in Jesus can become a love and a power that is alive in you and in me. This is sharing. This is giving away, not collecting and holding onto.
And so we learn from God--from these stories in First Samuel and in the Gospel of John--the nature of love, and the fact that it is good. We learn the nature of yearning, the nature of appetite, and that it is OK to have yearnings. This is the first thing we have to learn. The second thing is to ask, "Why Samuel?" He was just a kid. He had nothing going for him. He didn't know the Lord. "Why Nathaniel?" Nathaniel was sarcastic. Nathaniel was skeptical to the point of cynicism, but yet Jesus was able to look at him and say, "I want you." And Nathaniel responded, "Where did you get to know me?"
What does God see in you? You are a good manager. You're a good cook. You're a good lawyer. You teach physics well. You write good poetry.
What is God going to see in you on the day you're dying? On the day you are lying in that hospital bed and the lines are beginning to go flat and Jesus says to you, "I want you. I yearn for you. I long for you." Why? Is it because you are a good manager? No, those days are over. Is it because you are a good physicist? No, you're not a good physicist anymore. You're dying. Is it because you're a good cook? No. Those days are completely past. Jesus is yearning for you because you can love, because you have the ability of loving back, because you have been made in the image and likeness of God. You have been stamped with the impress of Christ and you are able to respond. You are capable; you are response-able. You are able to love, and this is what the eternal is all about. You are not going to take management ability or physics ability or poetry ability into the kingdom of God, but the ability to love and respond to God's love. Yes, you will take that with you forever and ever. And God is calling to you, because that is what is precious, not just on the day you die, but right now. God is calling to us because we are lovers and we look in the mirror and say, "It can't be me. It can't be true. I'm not a good lover." Like Mary Magdalene in the folk opera Jesus Christ Superstar, "I don't how to love." I'm confused by love. I do get it all wrong. Saint Paul was right. I get it all wrong. My appetites go crazy. Things dominate me. Passions dominate me. But, yet, this is precisely why God wants us because we are such lovers. And, therefore, how do we find a way of getting those loves under control? We listen to what Jesus said to Philip, "Follow me."
The first thing we learn from First Samuel and the Gospel of John is that God is yearning and that yearning is basic to our world. We need to accept this. The second thing we learn is that we are made to enter into this yearning, this great dance of love. Accept this; rejoice in this. And the third thing we learn is that when we fail at this, we follow Jesus. Not our peers. Not our culture. Not our felt needs. We follow Jesus. It's a matter of prayer. Something will take place within our depths, and therefore every Sunday we pray, "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts so that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy name." And if you have trouble understanding this and trouble doing this, then, the beginning of your prayer can be, "Lord, I don't know how to follow you. Help me." Lob the ball back into his court and say, You are calling me to follow you. I don't know what that means. Help me understand."
And so we follow Jesus. We follow Jesus into the areas of our lives where we desperately want to be able to love--fruitfully and decently and kindly and wonderfully. We follow him into those areas where we get it all wrong and want so much to get it right. Food, sex, and so much more. We follow Jesus because he has gone ahead of us. He is there now with real love, with powerful love, with cleansing love. Follow him, and if you don't know how, ask. Follow Jesus into the painful, difficult, and destructive areas of life where having has replaced sharing, where true love has turned into a desire of crushing possessiveness, of covetousness of others' things and experiences. Jesus has entered into that hell. He has descended into hell and he is there with us in the midst of our own personal agonies. Follow him there. Follow him into those dark recesses of your own psyche, knowing that he is there with a cleansing spirit, with a loving spirit, with a new heart to replace the heart of stone. Follow Jesus into those areas where you are normally afraid to go, afraid that you'll be rejected, afraid that you'll be the object of ridicule, afraid that if you go in that direction, if you love in that way, your own inadequacies will become very evident to everybody and, therefore, you'll hold back. Follow Jesus into the midst of your fear. He is there, not fearing, but persevering. He is there. Follow him, and, again, if you don't know how, ask.
We will follow him so that we can learn how to desire rightly and fully, to allow our appetites full reign, knowing that they are in the hands of God. Follow him so that we can love in a way that brings joy and peace, not just now, but through eternity. Follow him in a way that will be just as fresh on the day we die as it was on the day we were baptized. Follow him so that we can, in Saint Paul's words, earthy as they sound, sexy as they sound, glorify God in our bodies, in our appetites, in our yearnings, in our loves. Follow him.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns one God now and forever. Amen.