This morning we're in the second week of our 3-week culture watching series – where we're trying to help you wrestle with and think Biblically about the messages we get from the songs we listen to or films and TV programmes we watch. And today we're having a think about the cultural phenomenon that is Love Island.
If you've never seen it – Love Island is a dating reality TV programme on ITV2. The basic premise of the Bafta award winning show is to take a group of guys and gals to a Villa on the Spanish Island of Majorca looking for love. They are all gorgeous, scantily dressed and "up for anything". So as soon as they get to the Villa they couple up with each other – and then they share double beds with their partner, compete together in challenges and go dating – and not necessarily with each other because there might be someone else who is a much better fit for you out there. And that's where the fireworks start! Throughout the series couples shift around, eliminations take place and the odd ones out get sent packing. And if it's not spicy enough for viewers the producers change the rules at the drop of a hat and mess about with the contestants to stir the pot. The last couple standing at the end of 8 weeks gets the chance to share or steal from each other a £50,000 cash prize.
This year there were more applicants for Love Island than for Oxford and Cambridge University combined. And as the boys in the office said when they suggested we should do something on this… "everyone is talking about it", which being the pigheaded hairsplitter that I am makes me want to say: "Not everyone is talking about it…" But if you're not gripped with the football carnival currently happening in Russia – Love Island is Big News… and you don't need VAR to tell you that.
So as our starter for 10, let's ask the first of the four big questions that we need to ask of any item of popular culture:
1. What Message is it Putting Across?
Well a couple of weeks ago my wife Fiona and I sat down to watch a couple of episodes and see what the fuss was all about. I've also read countless online articles about it. And texted a handful of folks who I knew watch it to see what they thought. I think there are all kinds of messages flying around in the Love Island villa – but the main message is fairly clear:
"It is in one exclusive romantic relationship that we will find the happiness and fulfilment we all crave. And you should do whatever you can to find that relationship."
Everyone on the show professes to wanting to find love. Although you suspect that many of the contestants go on the show to become famous and make a lucrative career out of being a reality TV star – I mean why else would you want to conduct your love life nightly on TV in front of 3 million people? But for all the flirting and playing the field and the cringey shenanigans that go on, most of them do seem to be seeking happiness in finding a lasting, exclusive, committed relationship. Or as a friend who watched last year's series texted me earlier on in the week:
"It's based around the premise that: the perfect match for you is out there [and so] you have to find the right person for you, and it's accepted that you'll have to kiss and dump a few frogs along the way."
So the whole way the show is set up reinforces this notion. You have to find the one – or you're a loser! So if you're in a couple you're safe from being evicted from the villa. But if you're not in a couple, or you're in a couple that isn't really working right, then you're a loser – sad, unhappy and in danger of being evicted. So… 'find the one, find love – or you lose!' That's the message. So, question 2…
2. What's Good and True about this Message?
Well it's certainly a message that chimes with a lot of people. In fact, one of the things that seems to set Love Island apart from the myriad of other dating shows out there is the way it gets people talking about it – not just at coffee breaks at work or at the checkout in the supermarket, but on Social Media too. The Twittersphere lights up when the producers pull a fast one and do something that might threaten a favourite character's relationship.
You see, there is still a deep feeling in our society today that it is in one exclusive personal relationship that we find security, happiness and fulfilment. And the Bible wants to say: 'There's a reason for that.' So please grab a Bible and flick back to Jeremiah in the Old Testament. He wrote this about the relationship between God and his people Israel in Jeremiah 2.2:
"Thus says the LORD, 'I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.'"
Now please see how God speaks of his people there. Marriage is probably the most important relationship known to mankind – and that's how the Bible describes God's love for his people. God's people are His bride, with God as their devoted husband – leading them through the wilderness to a place of ultimate satisfaction and fulfilment. He loves her with all his heart. She trusts him and follows him.
And folks, this is who we were made to be! We were made by a relational God to be like him (Genesis 1 & 2). We were made to be in a relationship with him – a relationship which gives us the resources to relate well to others. So if we find ourselves longing for relationship, for intimacy, longing to be known and accepted and loved for who we are – well those feelings are echoes of his DNA, fragments of the beauty and wonder of being made by God… to be His bride!
This is why the basic premise of Love Island works. These longings are good and true – for at the deepest level they reflect the desire God has for his people and that we should have for him. But that's where we get into trouble, don't we? We often pursue relationships with others, at the expense of our relationship with God. So that's where we get into our third question…
3. What's False and Wrong about this Message?
This idea that the key to our happiness and fulfilment is in finding our true love – which is at the heart of Love Island, (albeit fairly cynically manipulated by the producers) – is actually on the rise in our culture. Hence the explosion of dating shows on TV and the fact that dating Apps made up 3 of the top 10 Apps used in the UK last year. And ironically some writers like Ernest Becker, a secular writer – an atheist no less, believes it's because of the loss of God in our culture. He wrote:
"We secular people need to know that our lives matter in the grand scheme of things. But if we no longer have God how do we do this? Answer: the romantic solution. What is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption, nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feelings of nothingness. We want to know that our creation has not been in vain. Needless to say human partners can't do this."
I mean, if you no longer have God... how do you know you matter? What gives you meaning? If we think the idea of God has failed us or... if He's too morally difficult to tame, too inconvenient... well what do we do? We go to a loved one, to seek from them what we can only get from God.
It is right and natural to want to be known and accepted by another, to be married even, yet the quest for love can easily lead us into all kinds of compromises – morally, physically and spiritually. That's why watching Love Island is like rubbernecking a car crash. Take God out of the equation and we slow down to watch the debris of:
- A dating culture where it's all about what you want from a relationship – and it doesn't matter how much you hurt others and mess about with their feelings to get what you want.
- A dating culture where we are guided by our 'feelings' – even though they fluctuate wildly from day to day.
- A dating culture where we talk a lot about how we need to be honest, but lie to get what we want.
- A dating culture where sex is removed from God's emotional and spiritual protection of the commitments of marriage.
- A dating culture where we 'gaslight' people – which is just a new term for what I suspect is an age old habit of making the other person feel bad… when it's us that's in the wrong.
Folks, the prophet Jeremiah warned us that this is what it would be like when people abandon God. Have a look at Jeremiah 2.12-13:
"Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, the Lord cries out, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water."
God loves like a faithful husband, but again and again God's people seek satisfaction elsewhere. And Jeremiah laments it by saying, 'Can you see the contrast? Between a dry, dusty cistern and a spring of living water?' He says, 'My people have got down on their knees and they have drunk the stale muddy waters of a broken cistern as they've turned their back on me. I am a spring of living water... and yet they turned away.' Fancy trying to do that... to lick up the moisture from a dirty broken cistern?
But real shock here is that... this is a picture of us!
We should be enjoying Him, the source of all fulfilment… but we don't trust him. And so we seek fulfilment elsewhere. Oh, we come Sunday morning, but so often our hearts are miles away. Looking to the good gifts of God for fulfilment. And not to the giver.
And don't we know from our experience, the short term euphoria of this – so we get a great new job and we feel euphoric... But it's goal, achievement, euphoria, then emptiness. We feel flat. It's not enough. Or we marry our dream partner – but then we have our first fight and discover they're not enough to make us happy.
As I was preparing this talk I heard of a Christian husband who, three months into his marriage, had a massive row with his wife. And he said that soon after it he found her crying in the bedroom and on her knees crying out to the Lord in prayer: 'Oh Lord, please forgive my idolatry. Forgive me for ever thinking that this man could make me happy.' He said it was the weirdest thing as he saw her – as he was relieved and unsettled at the same time! So relieved! And yet oh dear...
Folks, it has been said that "Romantic love is a wonderful gift, but a terrible god." A wonderful gift... a terrible god. As it can put a weight on our relationships which is impossible to bear. And ironically in many cases it leads to terrible loneliness – either outside or inside of marriage. So…
4. How Does Jesus Bring a Better Message?
Well please turn with me to John 4, as we fast forward 700 years, from Jeremiah's time. Jesus sits by a well in a place called Samaria, and a Samaritan woman comes to take water from the well at 12 noon – the hottest time of the day. Jesus says something to her in verse 8 which is not a surprise to any of us who have been sweating our way through such heat over the last fortnight… he asks for a drink! But she is shocked – do you see? Verse 9:
"The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)"
Not only were relationships pretty desperate between the Jews and Samaritans in those days, they were pretty desperate between men and women too. Men did not speak to women in public. And sadly women were powerless and despised in the culture. And not only was she a Samaritan and a woman, but she was also a massive moral failure. She's a sinner. We later learn in verse 18 that she had five husbands and the man she now has is not her husband. Which is probably why she's at the well at the hottest time in the day – she's there to avoid all the finger wagging and the gossip!
But Jesus does not avoid her. Whoever you are, however far you have run from him – Jesus wants to meet with you. He wants to talk to you.
And as he meets this woman – he doesn't put her in her place. No! Jesus crosses these social and cultural boundaries to speak to her with such tenderness, such gentleness. And as he does so… he says something staggering in verse 10. Can you see?
"Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
Now please see what Jesus is doing here. He identifies himself with the God who speaks in Jeremiah – who calls himself the fountain of living water. But the woman misses it – verse 11:
"The woman said to him, 'Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?'"
She's looking around thinking 'literal water', isn't she? 'Where's your private tap mate?' She wants to be the first person on her street to have running water. So… verses 13-14:
"Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.'"
Do you know that you can never build on a spring, or clog up a spring? No matter how much junk you throw in it … the spring is still going to bubble up through. I guess that's why people love natural springs. So do you see what Jesus is saying here – He's saying to this woman: 'I will put a spring in you that will change you completely. So that even though your life is clogged up with all kinds of junk, past failures, twisted desires and dysfunctional ways of relating – even though on the surface there is sadness, which is inevitable in life… underneath there will be abiding joy. I will put a spring in you. An underground river welling up to eternal life.'
When I lived in Edinburgh I visited a lady in hospital who was dying of cancer. Even in her pain, with the end so near, her joy in the Lord was evident to all. Everyone who visited her could see that living water of Christ still bubbling up from within her. I wished you could have seen her. She was riddled with cancer, but bursting with joy. And that is what Jesus is holding out to us here. Yet as Jesus talks to this woman in John 4 – she doesn't seem to want what Jesus offers. So he says – Verse 16:
"Go, call your husband, and come here." The woman answered him, "I have no husband."
And so Jesus says to her, 'That's right! You've had five husbands, and the bloke you're shacked up with now isn't your husband. Can't you see?! You don't think you're spiritually thirsty, but you are! You have been thirsty all your life. You are so thirsty for God. The trouble is, you are drinking at the fountain of male relationships – at the fountain of male approval and sex. Stop licking the floor of the broken cistern and come to me… and let me fill you with life-giving water.'
People sometimes say to me: 'I really envy your faith. I really struggle to cook up faith like you do.' But Jesus says – no! Just move your faith across please! This woman had put her faith in men. And we all put our trust in all kinds of things that can never truly satisfy. Jesus said, 'Go and get your husband' – but he could equally say to us: 'Go and get your career, go and get your ambitions, your children, your family, your appearance, your money, your house, your achievements.' They are all good things – please hear me! They're all good things – they cannot quench the deeper thirst. They are merely gifts from the one who can – Jesus, the well of eternal life.
This is not the last time in John's Gospel that Jesus says "I'm thirsty." He says it in chapter 4, but he says it again and John 19.28, on the cross. And what a thirst that was! Psalm 22.14-15 describes it like this:
"I am poured out like water … my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death."
So the heat of the sun which may have dehydrated many of us over the last fortnight and could ultimately put us to a tortuous death by physical thirst – is a picture of what happens to Jesus on the cross. Because the wrath of God, the justice of God, the eternal justice of God – greater than a million suns comes right down on Jesus as he dies of thirst so that we can have living water.
- We say: 'With the right person my life will have meaning.'
- And Jesus says: 'What? I made you! And I died of thirst so that you could have ultimate meaning with me as your perfect, all satisfying husband.'
Folks, before you turn away to seek fulfilment from the broken cisterns of the culture – please open your hearts to what it cost Jesus to give you the cool refreshing water of the love of God.
Can you see how much Jesus loves you? And can you see why we must stop searching, stop striving, stop talking about the meaning and fulfilment of our lives coming from anything else but him? Let's pray…
Oh Father God, please save us from those times when we've gone to your gifts for ultimate meaning and not to you. It is so easy to slip into. Please forgive us and please help us to understand what it means to know the Lord Jesus Christ as the spring welling up to eternal life. Lord Jesus thank you so much for what you did – make each one of us leave here with a heart staggered by the meaning of fulfilment you give. We pray this for our good and your glory. Amen.