I was due to preach a couple of Sundays ago (on the fourth Sunday of Advent), but wound up coming down with the crud. That left a sermon written but unpreached. This is the “sermon notes” version – not exactly what I would have said that Sunday, but close. Thought I’d post it here as the last post of 2013:
Sunday, December 23rd, 2012
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Text: 1 John 4:7-21
“What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
Text (Message Version):
7 My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. 8 The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love – so you can’t know him if you don’t love. 9 This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. 10 This is the kind of love we are talking about – not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. 11 My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. 12 No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us – perfect love! 13 This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. 14 Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. 15 Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. 16 We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God. 17 This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day – our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. 18 There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgment – is one not yet fully formed in love. 19 We, though, are going to love – love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. 20 If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? 21 The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.
This Sunday, the fourth and final Sunday in the season of Advent, we light the candle of Love. In a “normal” season of preparation this is a candle that makes sense, and yet it is also the candle that seems to be most easily forgotten.
Peace, hope and joy (represented by the first three candles on our wreath) are literally the language of Christmas. They populate the hymns and carols of the season, adorn the cards we send to friends and family, encrust the ornaments on our trees… And somewhere in there, in the background, love is the heartbeat. It is simply assumed to be present: “Of course we love our family and friends, and of course God loves us! Now let’s get back to the peace, hope and joy.”
But this Advent has hardly been normal. Between talk of fiscal cliff diving, escalating violence around the world, and the horrendous massacre of children in Newton, Connecticut, the last few weeks have been a time marked more by fear, uncertainty and despair than peace, hope and joy. And love? Many among us wonder how can we talk of something as soft, as passive, as idealistic as love in a time such as this. A time when children are gunned down in their schools? What’s love got to do with it?
Our scripture this morning reminds us that love has everything to do with, well…everything. But in order to really grasp the richness and depth of what this means, we have to do a little unpacking of our own context as well as the context of the first-century world. Context matters, and sometimes our own context gets the best of us.
For starters, in our twenty-first century culture we’ve reduced love to a sentiment. It has become shallow. The word “love” gets bandied about and intertwined so deeply with our culture’s materialism, so that love would often be better translated as “want” or “desire”. Instead of simply saying we want them, we “fall in love” with celebrities we’ve never met, food we’d like to eat, golf clubs we’d like to show off on the course, shoes we’d like to wear… And even when love takes a deeper root within us, more often than not it remains a feeling that takes place entirely in the head and heart. This “love” is inconstant – it flares up brightly in an instant but burns out quickly, causing us to fall in and out of love with speed and ease.
With this understanding of love, it is little wonder that folks roll their eyes when we say “God is love”. It’s also little wonder that folks are unimpressed or even angered when people of faith express a desire to respond to violence with love. If love is such a skin-deep, fickle thing, then we might as well say we intend to respond to violence with a pillow fight inspired by the God of the moment, rather than the God of Eternity.
But for the biblical authors, love is more than just a feeling. It is active! Love is something you DO. It means showing up, being present and willing to serve. Our scriptures tell us that caring for each other through sickness or difficulty IS loving each other. Speaking the truth is loving each other. Hearing each other out even when we disagree, protecting each other from harm, having compassion in the midst of suffering, taking the time to hear someone’s story, or working for justice in the face of oppression IS loving the other.
And it’s also much more than that: caring for each other, speaking the truth, protecting the vulnerable, practicing compassion, genuinely listening, and working for justice are not only ways to love our neighbor – they are ways to love God. Our text from 1 John reminds us:
If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.
THIS is the love our candle represents: an active love, a love that DOES as well as feels, a love that can vigorously respond to the wrongs of the world without repaying evil with evil, a love that flows into and out of God – because God is love.
Another way our context gets in the way of our understanding has to do with our perception of the world. Compared to the evil we experience today – mass murders, genocide, widespread poverty, systemic prejudice, starvation, war – we sometimes view the biblical world as so very small and comparably carefree. How could anything be so bad as these things that we fear? What could love possibly have to say to the depths of such present despair? The “wisdom” of the world says that while love may have worked in the past, it is impotent in the face of today’s troubles.
But we have forgotten. Just as nostalgia dresses up our recent past, our distance in time and space simplify the realities of the world into which Jesus was born, dulling both its complexity and its danger. This was a world thick with oppression, where entire peoples were dominated or enslaved by warring empires. It was a world of deep divides between rich and poor – with a few spectacularly wealthy families supported by everyone else: a mass of impoverished workers. It was a world of violence and war, where sometimes even children were massacred in order to protect the power of ruling authorities. The despair of that time was no less than what we experience today.
The people of God cried out for a messiah, for God’s answer to all of the pain and injustice in the world – and it is in the midst of that despair and uncertainty that God chose to find expression in a baby.
A baby? Was it some sort of divine prank? In the face of so much darkness, why in the world would God find expression in a human child born into poverty rather than a glorious king or mighty warrior?
This is no prank, and neither is it an accident. I think it is as simple as this: we receive Jesus first as a baby because you can’t bribe a baby. You can’t reason with a baby. You can’t manipulate or convince a baby to be on your side. You can’t gain riches or favor with a baby – all the gold, frankincense and myrrh in the world won’t change a baby’s mind. You can’t lead an army or rule with a baby. All you can do is love a baby, and be loved in return.
God’s answer to our most desperate problems is love. Our text puts it this way:
This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about – not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.
There have always been big problems to solve, and deep wells of suffering to fill. To do so requires serious thought, reflection, courage and hard choices. In the midst of this, love comes first, and all other answers flow out of that love – this is how God would have us engage the world around us.
It is natural to experience fear as we face violence and insecurity. There is no shame in feeling that flash of terror. But as we work to address the real challenges and tragedies of the world, we must not give in to the temptation to respond out of fear. Our challenge is to resist every urge to lash out or hunker down because of what might be done to us in the future, and instead plant our feet firmly in the active love of God. 1 John 4 reminds us:
There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgment – is one not yet fully formed in love.
A stance rooted in the active love of God is not wishy washy or weak, but powerful beyond measure – it contains the potential for justice, truth, harmony, peace, joy…the completeness of the Kin-dom of God. When he was grown, Jesus would remind us of that with his words about the most important of all the commandments (love God and love your neighbor as yourself) and with his instruction that if we love him, we will feed his sheep.
But first he reminded us simply by being born.
This morning, our Advent candle reminds us: Love comes first.