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  • Dr. Bruce Havens

“The Gift of Love

a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

based on the theme: Something More for Christmas

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

December 20, 2020

Luke 2: 1-20 NRSV

1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

They say love is a mystery. They say that love is a miracle. They say love is magical. What do you say? It can be all these things and it can be frustrating, fake, and fearless. There are a lot of things done in the name of love that don’t seem to be very loving. The Advent calendar in Christianity calls this the Sunday of love. It is Christmas Sunday. We stand on the brink of “the day,” Christmas Day and all it symbolizes.

What does it symbolize to you? Is it the magic, the miracle, the promise of salvation? Is it the tree, the family, the gifts, the snow? Oh, sorry, got carried away there. No snow. Thank God! At least here in good ole’ Jacksonville, FLA. Maybe all this effort and all the hope for magic and mystery and miracle adds up to love. Maybe it all adds up to salvation too. Whatever it symbolizes for you I am not sure what I can add. I can retell the story, but I just read it to you. What else can I add? At best, perhaps I can invite you to reflect on how Christmas can symbolize the gift of love.

Is that too corny? Too obvious? The gift of love? Isn’t every gift a gift of love? Isn’t love always a gift? Maybe. But what makes Christmas unique is it proclaims a love that is perfect. It promises a love that saves. It invites us to know that our imperfect, often selfish versions of love have a solution, an alternative that picks up where ours falls short. While I was preparing for this sermon I was madly searching for some heart-string plucking, tear-drop causing illustration… but, no. I will resist the cheesy effort to fill time with a “preacher story.”

So [ as he looks at his non-existent wrist watch ], what do we do with the rest of the sermon time… [ looks around, shuffles feet nervously, whistles a few bars of “Jingle Bells, ]. Sometimes I wonder if we really want to be loved. Because if love is a gift, you can’t earn it, and you can’t repay it, and you really shouldn’t ignore it or reject it, that would be rude. But, how often do we do those things: try to earn love, repay love, ignore or reject it because – well it frightens us, to be honest. What? You don’t agree? Maybe I can illustrate that!

How many times do we feel like, or act like love has to be earned or repaid? Mostly we do so because we think [ we know! ] we aren’t worthy of love. Imagine how hard it is for God to convince a bunch of stiff-necked people that they are loved in spite of their flaws, their failures, their evil? How would you do it? The Bible tells us God chose to send a helpless infant to a poor, unmarried couple, living in a desperate, occupied country, ruled by an Emperor who claimed to be god himself. Crazy, right? How’d that work out you ask? Well, does the word crucified mean anything to you? Ok, wait. Maybe I’ve wandered a little too far from Christmas for our comfort and joy. My point is… love is hard.

This God doesn’t love us if we can repay or earn it. This God insists on loving us because He [ or She, or Whatever Pronoun you want to use ], claims to be our Creator. I guess kind of like a Mother feels a baby she gives birth to is hers? Perhaps if I am too busy worrying about how to earn love, or repay love, or qualify for love I won’t have time for being loved and for loving. Maybe if I can take time to prepare for a gift of love I can make some space in my heart and life for that love. You know, like those years you had to make room under the tree for all those gifts you had to give to others.

I think in some ways the story of how Jesus was born reminds us how difficult it is for God to give the gift of love. Think about how strange this story is. There are angels appearing everywhere to just about everyone! I already mentioned the time in history and the place in the world that Jesus was born into. Strange! And this story of a near-term teenager having to travel because of a government edict to take a census to take a tax; the obvious reality- challenging claim that their own family would not take them in and that they would stay at an “inn.” Anyone else have the Innkeeper song from Les Miserables pop in their head when I talk about this? And oh, by the way, did you ever notice that although we have all these animals in the nativity scenes we set up, the Bible never mentions a single animal, not even a cat? We imagine there are cows because there was a manger, and we imagine there were sheep because it mentions shepherds. We imagine camels because there were “magi from afar.” But we can’t imagine God loving us enough to save us.

Oh, we talk about it, we proclaim it in church. Some Christians walk around telling everyone they can how to “get saved.” But a lot of the behavior I see suggests to me we don’t really believe in this saving love of a God who is our Creator. Christmas would be a lot easier if we just concentrated on trees and cookie-making and pretending to be mad because we have to tell the in-laws we aren’t supposed to get together with them this year. All that would keep us from having to reflect on this gift of love God gives us.

We say that this love has saved the world, but if I were honest, I don’t think we live like we believe it. We believe anything is stronger than love. We believe in power, politics, personal freedom, but do we believe in the power of love to save us? Because that is what Christmas really proclaims. What has caused me the most pain in this season of pandemic has been the willful, deliberate proclamation by so many that they didn’t need to wear a mask because they didn’t believe in the virus, or they didn’t believe in science, or worst of all, they didn’t believe in limiting their freedom because they weren’t at risk. How unloving can you be to think that you can do what you want when what you are doing is risking the life of anyone who comes in contact with you? How unloving can you be to believe your freedom is more important than someone else’s life?

But Christmas keeps coming around to tell us that God’s love was born in a helpless, at-risk baby named Jesus. Christmas comes around to proclaim that love saved us on a cross by dying for us. Not to keep the Roman economy going, not to protect our personal freedoms. He came to save us from ourselves, mostly I think. Love always saves us from ourselves. Love is always the right thing, the right way, the way to life. And Christmas always begins with this time we call Advent. It is intended to give us time to reflect on the promise that loves saves us. The hard part is taking the time to think about that love that God has for us that saves us. Advent prepping, that’s what Neal Watkins calls it.

Neal Watkins, the Florida Conference Minister for Faith Formation, talked about finding space in a recent devotional for Advent. He asked,

“Am I the only one who has spent a considerable amount of time throwing away (junk) so that I will be (only slightly) less ashamed about how much stuff is about to arrive? #FirstWorldProblems. The closets, the garage, and the refrigerator are all too full as it is and between boxes and sweaters and fruitcakes, more is on the way. I’m not complaining. I just find it interesting that little is made of the effort required in order to make space. It's almost as if we are preparing in secrecy. ‘Spring Cleaning’ is a thing, why isn’t ‘Advent Prepping?’”

Then he adds cleverly, “Oh wait a minute, I see what I did there. I suppose Advent is about (preparing), and this time before Christmas SHOULD be about making space!”

Then he suggests, “Maybe we are making space in our hearts for the Savior to come.” He notes the irony of “making room” in a time of “social distancing.” I am led to think about the difficulty of making room to receive the love God has for us, up close and too personal for comfort.

Then he offers “as a prayer,” a poem by Enuma Okoro.

Advent Poem

I want to find my place/ amongst the people of Advent

but I can't quite decide who I am.

I want to be pregnant with God/ but it takes such a toll on the body.

I have given birth to things before/ And labor is hard and untimely.

I want to welcome angels and say yes,/ to anything.

but if I saw an angel I would hold him

hostage and send a ransom note of questions/ demanding answers, to God.

I want to cheer blessings from the sidelines/ with a belly growing with prophecies,

and have friends and strangers take hope.

Because God has a season/ for those whose seasons have passed.

I want to put my trust in dreams/ and in the words of the ones I love,

to believe that God is as close as/ the one who would share my bed.

But mostly I want a break from being/ the one who mostly falls silent

in the presence of all that's holy, / who loses her words in disbelief,

terrified by claims of joy and gladness, unable to believe that prayers are answered.

My prayer is we will all learn to receive the gift of love, and share that gift with others. I believe being a Christian has always been about loving the other, more than it is about saving ourselves. I believe God sent Jesus as a gift of love, to find the way of joy and gladness in loving others. I think that love will save us. I think when we finally learn that, then God’s prayer will be answered. AMEN.

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