The miracle of god's love
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “A Miraculous Love”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 22, 2019
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.
I have to confess I am feeling unusually sentimental and romantic about Christmas this year. I don’t know, but I suspect, the reason is I have been watching a LOT of Hallmark television thanks to my spouse. If you know or watch Hallmark television then you understand. Every show is about the perfect Christmas – always in a White Christmas area, no tropical holidays, no palm trees allowed. Every show is a romance. Every show has the same theme, which is basically a Hallmark card sentimental thought. Every show has the same plot – woman and man meet, fall in love, have some kind of minor conflict – like whether to buy a natural Christmas tree or an artificial one – they resolve it, and everyone lives happily ever after and has a perfect Christmas. It’s great! I may sound like I don’t like them, but as my wife points out, it is a relief to watch something so stress-free after a day at work, or I might add, a day living in these mega-stress- and- conflict-filled days.
So, all that said, I am feeling pretty sentimental and romantic, which you could combine and just say I am feeling pretty sappy. But why not? I mean, instead of humbug, why not be sappy, happy, romantic, and sentimental. Let go of my natural snide side, my natural inner and outer critic, my normal crusty, “get-off-my-lawn,” attitude, my inner Grinch and my outer Humbug? Why not let go of my overwhelming cynicism – just for a few days? That might in itself be a miracle!
Well, Christmas is supposed to be about miracles! Filled with it! If you have angels, and shepherds, and wise men [ well, just finding a wise MAN these days is a bit of a miracle, just ask any woman, she’ll tell you ], you have miracles. Big miracles. And is there any bigger miracle than love? As I talked about joy last week, the themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – are all about the miracle that we call the birth of Jesus Christ.
Now, birth itself is a miracle in many ways – and I don’t want to go too gynecological here – but when you talk about the birth of the Son of God that is by definition just about the biggest miracle there is. We could talk about the miracle of how Jesus was conceived, or the miracle of being born in such a humble setting, at such a strange time in history, and lots of other things. Perhaps the biggest miracle of it all is the miracle that it is the ultimate sign of God’s miraculous love for us all.
Let me say that more clearly. To me, the miracle of Christmas is the message of Christmas: God loves us. We take that for granted, don’t we? But before the God of the Hebrews came along, other cultures believed in gods, but most of those gods were gods to fear, gods to appease, gods to sacrifice to in hopes of gaining favor. When Moses met YHWH in a burning bush, God revealed that the real God was one who loved us with an infinite, transforming, saving love. YHWH didn’t need to be appeased or feared or be bribed with sacrifices. This God loves us so much he could not stop trying to show us. First, he saved the people from slavery and gave them a land. Then when they wandered away spiritually he sent prophets to warn them their behavior – treating badly those who were weaker, poorer, less powerful – would cause them to suffer dire consequences. Then when even that didn’t stop our bad behavior towards our sisters and brothers God sent his own Son to show us what God’s love looked like in human flesh. God keeps trying to convince us how much God loves us, that we are God’s beloved, so that we can treat others as beloved children of God, too. When we finally do that we will have heaven here on earth. That is the miracle of love God wants to bring most of all.
Somehow we have constructed this belief that being saved is about going to heaven after we die which is some place with gold streets and has clouds with angels sitting on them playing harps. This baby that was born, named Jesus, who grew up and taught and healed and prayed and cried and yelled and laughed and tried to show us what it means to live as God’s beloved talked about the Kingdom of God, which Matthew translated as the Kingdom of Heaven because he didn’t want to use the name of God because that was blasphemy. What Jesus called the Kingdom of God was not something later, elsewhere on a cloud or anywhere else. Jesus kept saying it was near, that it was right here. He was talking about living right now as a beloved child of God, and treating every other person as a beloved child of God. When we do, we will be in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God isn’t someplace else as much as it is the place where all people live and treat each other as beloved of God. We will be saved the moment we start believing and living that way. If you are waiting to get to heaven to treat people with that kind of love you are wasting your time. You are missing the miracle of love.
Neal Watkins, the young man who is the Florida Conference staff person for Faith Formation, whom you remember preached here earlier this fall, has been writing a series of Advent Reflections. In a recent one he talked about this miracle of love. He said it only took him two weeks in counseling to realize that his issue wasn’t that he didn’t love – it was how he chose to show, demonstrate his love. The issue of how we “show” others the miraculous love of God, or fail to show it, is the key to entering the gate to the “kingdom of God.”
He says it this way, “I think it’s much more complicated than simply THAT we love. Just as every church … claims to be welcoming, I don’t know a “Christian” that doesn’t [claim] to be loving. I’ve come to believe that our identity as Christians isn’t predicated on the fact THAT we love, but HOW we love and WHO we love.”
He goes on to illustrate this, saying, “My mom’s church loves. They LOVE to invite me to come check out their service so that I can be with “true believers.” Apparently, my neighbor’s church loves. In fact, they must REALLY love to love, because he just LOVES to love ME while LOVING to tell me all the ways in which God would LOVE for me to change my daily behaviors. So… how do WE love? And how do YOU love?
“This Christmas, love is in the air. We love to sing the familiar carols, and we love the traditions of the season. But as God re-enters the world this Christmas, I see this as an opportunity to be known for HOW we love. And WHO we love. As Christians, do we love the overlooked, the forgotten and the marginalized? And do they know that? How? As Christians, do we love the difficult-to-love? In our churches? And in our families? What do we sacrifice in order to show that?”
As much as I love romantic, sentimental love the fact is, Christmas is about more than loving those who love me. It is about more than giving a gift to my wife and family or even my coworkers. That kind of love is nice but it isn’t really a miracle. The miracle of Christ’s love, which was the love of God “embodied,” is that it loves the “other,” and the other is anyone who is very different from ourselves, yet still our brother or sister. For example, in loving us, God loves the “other.” We are not gods and God is not human. In loving us God is loving someone very different from God’s Self. The miracle of love that Christmas expresses is that God loves others and the way God wants us to live is to love those who are “other” to us the same way God loves us. The “other” is the one who we “other-wise” would not love because they are different from us. God’s love for the other challenges us to love the person who is an immigrant from another country, the person of a different sexual orientation, the person of a different religion, the person of a different political party, a different race, a different economic status.
The miracle of Christmas love happens when we move past the preoccupation with our own salvation and ask how we can save the other. Not by making them be like us, but by making sure they know they are beloved by God even if they are not like us. Learning how to do that is perhaps a true miracle of love. I love the old story, and perhaps you remember it too:
There were two men who worked at the same place, who couldn’t have been more different. One was a native Texan, earthy, loud, poorly dressed and if you stood too close to him as he told another of his long, often repetitive, boring stories you would discover that he spit as he spoke! The other man was a dapper Englishman. Always dressed properly, spoke proper English, always considerate of others and quiet. He was in just about every way the opposite of the Texan. Being a proper Christian the Englishman felt it his duty to befriend the Texan despite their many differences and the Texan’s obvious flaws.
As obvious as those flaws were it shocked the Englishman when one day, as they were sitting at lunch, the Texan looked over at the Englishman and said, “I have to tell you somethin’!”
“What is that,” the Englishman asked.
“Well, I have to say I think it’s kinda a miracle to be your friend!”
The Englishman nodded, thinking, “You can say that again!” But he said, “Oh, why is that?”
“Well,” the Texan said, spitting a little of his Texas barbecue sauce as he spoke, “you are about as stuck up a critter as I ever seen. I decided you needed a friend because no one else was goin’ to put up with your uppity, holier-than-thou attitudes and lookin’ down on everyone else who ain’t like you. So I decided it was my Christian duty to be your friend, and you know what – you ain’t half as bad as I thought. Most days you are almost tolerable!”
The miracle of love is rarely either sentimental or romantic. The fact is that there are days when I know I am more like the Texan than the Englishman. And there are days when I am more like the Englishman than the Texan. Either way, it is truly a miracle to me that anyone could love me. But that isn’t the most important miracle. The most important miracle of love is if and when I choose to keep loving Texans and Englishman even though most days they may be barely tolerable. Because no matter how lovable I am – or am not –God sent Jesus to show me the miracle of God’s love.
The miracle of the first Christmas was God’s love for us. The miracle of this and every Christmas to come is HOW and WHO I choose to love. The Scriptures say “we love because He first loved us.” That’s the miracle of love. AMEN.