December 20, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE ADVENT CONSPIRACY: LOVE
I John 4:7-12
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent, which is traditionally the love Sunday. And today our Advent Conspiracy reaches the fourth of the four things we have been conspiring together to do: worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.
We just sang “Love Came Down at Christmas”. That’s a pretty good summary of what Christmas is all about. It’s about love. It’s about love coming down to where we live. It’s about love becoming flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14).
Fifty years ago, in 1965 Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote a song called, “What the World Needs Now is Love.” That was true then. That is true now. That has always been true. But in a world where terrorism has become commonplace, where terrorists are murdering people on as large a scale as they can get away with, and where the one common thread seems to be their religion and their god, we need love more than ever.
About the same time Hal David and Burt Bacharach were writing that song, J.B. Phillips was writing a book. He called it, Your God is Too Small. The first half of the book has chapter after chapter of examples of ways we tend to think about God in limiting and destructive ways. We think of God as a policeman who is always trying to catch us doing something wrong. Or we think of God as a judge who is intent on giving us the punishment we deserve. Or we think of God as a father who is like too many of our fathers — detached and too busy and angry.
The Bible tells us the truth about God. But the truth is that it took the writers of the Bible a long time to understand that truth. There are some primitive concepts of God in the Bible. Sometimes people are shocked to discover that our Bible has stories of God commanding his people to annihilate an entire enemy, men, women, and children. That God doesn’t sound much different from the god modern-day terrorists worship. But you keep reading the Bible and you find that over time God’s people came to a fuller, better, truer understanding of God. Until at last we come to the three words we read today: “God is love” (I John 4:8).
Sometimes people will say that all the primitive and false ideas about God are found in the Old Testament and that the newer and truer ideas are all in the New Testament. That is simply wrong. There are two beautiful Old Testament Hebrew words that add so much to our understanding of God’s true nature.
One is “hesed”. This is the word that is often translated as “steadfast love”. It means a love we can count on, a “no matter what” kind of love. It means that God will not abandon us or forsake us. It means that God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The prophet Joel says that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13). The word is “hesed”. God is abounding in “hesed”.
The other Old Testament Hebrew word is “ahava”. This word means “to love” and it also means “to give”. It reminds us that love is not a feeling. Love is not an emotion. Love is an action. Love means the giving of oneself to another. The prophet Jeremiah records God’s words: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3). The word is “ahava”, God’s self-giving love to us.
The New Testament also has more than one word for love. “Philia” is the Greek word for the kind of love that binds us together as family and friends. Paul in Romans tells us to “love one another with brotherly affection” (12:10). The word is “philia”.
The main New Testament word for love is “agape”. In the
Love Chapter, I Corinthians 13, Paul uses the word “agape” over and over. “Agape” love is patient and kind and all the rest. This is sacrificial love. This is love that has nothing to do with self-interest. It has nothing to do with whether the one you love deserves to be loved. This is the word Jesus used when he said we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).
Like the Old Testament word, “ahava”, the New Testament word “agape” means the giving of oneself. It’s the word we find in John 3:16. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. God loved. God gave. There is a connection between the love and the gift.
God’s love is all about giving. It has nothing to do with getting. It has nothing to do with deserving. It is an unconditional love. It’s rare for us to experience love like this in our dealings with other people. It’s something we’re striving after, but usually there is something selfish or manipulative that gets stirred into the mix. That’s just the way we are. That’s part of our sinful nature.
Sometimes the closest people come to experiencing a love that is truly unconditional is with their pet. Probably not their cat. I’m a cat owner. You’ve never heard the saying “a cat is man’s best friend”. There’s a reason for that. But those of you with dogs often tell me that they have an amazing way of loving you in spite of you. They just keep loving. Kind of like God.
Lou Holtz, the football coach, has a great commencement speech on YouTube that will leave you in stitches. He says in that speech that his dog is his best friend. Someone challenged him on that and said, “Isn’t your wife your best friend?” Lou Holtz said, “Well, it’s like this. If you lock your dog and your wife in your car trunk and then two hours later realize your mistake and let them out, only your dog is going to be glad to see you.”
There’s a wonderful video that came out a few years ago that makes the simple point that your dog’s love is not entirely unlike God’s love. Let’s take a look.
(YouTube: “GoD and DoG“)
Each of us needs to be loved. We were created that way. A baby is crying and then the baby’s mom or dad picks her up and holds her tight and the crying stops. Babies long to be loved. They don’t even understand it yet. It’s just a basic need, as basic as food and air. Throughout our lives we have that same need. Some of us have had that need met more than others.
A man was 63 years old. His dad was 90 years old and dying. His dad finally said, “I love you.” It was the first time he had heard those words in 63 years. That’s a long time to wait. Some people wait longer than that. Some people never hear those words from a parent. Or they heard those words frequently but they were just words. There was no love behind those words. There was no unconditional self-giving.
Here’s the thing: Your parents may never have told you that, your spouse may not tell you that enough, your heart may have been broken by your kids, but there is One whose love you can count on. God formed you in your mother’s womb, God knows all your stuff, and God still loves you. God loves you with a steadfast, self-giving, unconditional love that is always there and that will always be there, no matter what. A lot of people go their entire lives never knowing that. But once you do know that, in your heart and not just in your head, it will change you.
The “American Atheists” are at it again. They have billboards with a giant Santa saying, “Go ahead skip church. Just be good for goodness’ sake.” It’s good to be good. There are a lot of very good people who don’t go to church. And there are a lot of people who could be a whole lot better who do go to church. That’s the reason we’re all here, right? But the simple fact is, once you catch on to the great and wondrous truth that God loves you with an everlasting love, it will change you. It will make you a better person. It will make you a more loving person.
The ultimate expression of God’s nature is found in those three words, “God is love.” And the ultimate expression of God’s love is found on the cross where God’s only Son gave his life for us.
I don’t know if you recognize the name Brennan Manning. He is best known for his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel. He was a Catholic priest, he left the priesthood, and he became known and loved through his books and his talks. He died two years ago.
Did you know that Brennan Manning was not born Brennan Manning? He was born Richard Manning. And did you know why he changed his name?
It goes back to his service with the Marines during the Korean Conflict. He was behind enemy lines in North Korea. It was a dangerous assignment, but there was a lull in the action. He was resting next to his friend, Ray Brennan. Here’s how he told the story:
We were passing a chocolate bar back and forth, Ray Brennan and myself. Ray took the last bite when a grenade lobbed by an undetected North Korean landed squarely in the center of the bunker. Ray was the first to spot it. Almost nonchalantly, he flipped the candy wrapper aside and fell on the grenade. It detonated instantly. His stomach smothered the explosion and I was completely unharmed and untouched. He looked up at me and winked and rolled over and died.
Richard Manning said he came home from Korea knowing that Ray Brennan gave his life so that he might live. He changed his first name from Richard to Brennan, so that he would never forget that his life had been bought with a price. And so that he might live the rest of his life worthy of the sacrifice that had been made for him.
How do you live in response to a love so great that someone laid down his life for you? You take his name. That’s what Brennan Manning did. And that’s what we have done. We are Christ-ians. We’ve taken the name of Christ, who died that we might live. We seek to live a life that honors the sacrifice that was made for us. We seek to live a life of love.
Love came down at Christmas. That old hymn says it all. It was written by a woman named Christina. She had taken the name of Christ. Christina Rosetti. She wrote the poem that became this hymn in 1885, so the use of language she uses is a little challenging for modern ears.
For example, the second stanza.
Worship we the God-head,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
You may have understood that perfectly, but I was having a hard time figuring out what she meant by that last line: “But wherewith for sacred sign?”
The tricky word is “wherewith”. That’s not one I use a lot, so I looked it up. My dictionary told me it’s obsolete. It’s not in use any more. But when it was in use it meant “with what”. So the line means, “But with what for sacred sign?” Or to simplify, “But what’s going to serve as the sacred sign?”
That was step one in figuring out what this meant. Step two was going back to the first stanza where it says, “star and angel gave the sign”. Are these the sacred signs she’s talking about? Well, not quite. These were signs for others long ago. The star was the sign to lead the wise men to Jesus. The angel was the sign that led the shepherds to Jesus. But Christina Rossetti is asking, What is the sign that will lead people to Jesus today? “But wherewith for sacred sign?” And she answers her own question in what comes next:
Love shall be our token;
Love be yours and love be mine;
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Do you hear what she is saying? Love is the sacred sign in our day. The wise men saw the star. The shepherds saw the angel. In our day the sign is love. That’s what people will see. That’s how people will know that Jesus has been born. In the love they see in you and me.
This Advent Conspiracy has been encouraging us to “love all”.
We started the conspiracy on November 29 and then on December 2 that husband and wife terrorist team did their thing in San Bernardino. And suddenly “loving all” became much harder. Does “loving all” mean loving murderous terrorists? Yes it does. All means all.
And loving all also means loving those around the world and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where so many are dying needlessly of malaria. We have been spending less and giving more so that we can love all. So that this tangible expression of our love can be a sacred sign that Jesus was born and that Jesus is alive in our world.
You’ve been so generous. All of our Christmas Eve offering, both nights, is going to “Imagine No Malaria”. We’re looking forward to an offering that will put us over the top of our $3000 goal. We’re looking forward to celebrating Christmas knowing that we gave a gift that truly honors Jesus.
What the world need now is what the world has always needed. The world needs love. More love. More steadfast, self-giving, unconditional love. That’s the sacred sign that will make the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love of Christmas come true.
Thank you God for your gift of love. It’s a gift you sent long ago and it’s a gift you still send, whether we open that gift or not. We pray that your gift of love will change us, that love will no longer just be something we are happy to receive but that love will come to be something we are even more happy to give. In Christ’s name, the name we as Christians proudly wear, Amen.