Isaiah 64:1-4 (NLT)
Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down! How the mountains would quake in your presence! As fire causes wood to burn and water to boil, your coming would make the nations tremble. Then your enemies would learn the reason for your fame! When you came down long ago, you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations. And oh, how the mountains quaked! For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!
In the past few weeks, I’ve done a higher than usual number of funerals. It’s always an incredible honor, and a daunting task, to memorialize a person, seeking to summarize their life, their personality, their faith, their accomplishments and their struggles, all within one worship service.
One of the most rewarding aspects for me of being a pastor is getting to sit with the family as we plan the services, and to hear them tell stories about their loved one. Sometimes those stories are funny, and the room fills with laughter. Sometimes the memories are painful, and we sit in silence. Often, very often, there are tears, as the family comes to terms with the loss of this person for whom they cared so deeply.
I vividly remember sitting with one widow in her home, years ago now. Sarah’s husband had died just the day before, and we sat on her living room couch, with the quiet no longer broken by the loud, in-and-out steady rhythm of her husband’s breathing machine in the next room. 57 years of marriage, the last few of which were devoted full-time to lovingly caring for him, and, now… now for Sarah it was over. She looked lost, and my heart broke for her.
As we held hands on that couch, she looked at me, and said, “I wish I hadn’t loved him so much. Then I wouldn’t hurt so much right now.”
The truth is: she was right. What she had said was completely correct. Losing her husband — it hurt. The reason that she was in such pain, was experiencing such profound sadness, was because she had loved so deeply.
When I asked her if she would change anything, if she would go back and make the decision to not love her husband, would she do it, she answered with a smile,
“Never. I wouldn’t give up a second of it.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.”
What a lame definition.
“Strong affection” for her husband wasn’t what Sarah had experienced over their years together, and certainly it wasn’t what was wracking her heart in his loss. When we love — really, truly love — it exposes us. We open up our hearts, our spirits, our lives to another human being, allowing them, in way, to become a part of who we are. It’s more than just allowing that person to know our stories, our history, our hopes and dreams. It is putting our trust in that person. Loving makes us vulnerable. And that can be scary.
One of the phrases you’ll hear often in the church is that God is love. God isn’t just lovING. God, by God’s own nature, IS love. Any love that we experience is a reflection of the love that God is.
1 John 4:7-8 says this: “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
That sounds lovely, of course.
God is love.
But what in the world does it actually mean?
The word for “love” here in Greek is one we talk about pretty frequent: agape. It’s not that lukewarm, weak love as defined by Merriam-Webster: “strong affection.” No, indeed! It is powerful. It is a love that is consciously chosen, a love of the will as much as of the heart. It is a love that is all-encompassing and self-giving.
And what does that kind of agape love look like? Let’s look at the powerful words that open the Gospel of John:
In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it… The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
And then the first line of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 64: Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!
That is what we celebrate at Christmas, what we are anticipating during these weeks of December. That we worship a God who created everything, and who came down to earth on that first Christmas morning.
This is what I pray you would hear : the very fact that God IS love made it possible for Christmas morning to happen. The Savior, the Messiah, the Promised One, could have come to earth, simply appearing as a powerful, full-grown man. He could have come with armies of angels, and an earthquake that split the continent.
because God IS love,
God came quietly,
in the form of a newborn
in a dirty stall in a backwater town.
Think about that for a moment. Really think about it. There is nothing more vulnerable than a newborn baby. Completely dependent, utterly defenseless.
When you love, really love, you put yourself at the mercy of the one you love. Our God, powerful beyond all imagining, loved us enough to be put into our hands. To be vulnerable.
That’s why this past Sunday was such a powerful day for me. It was the first day of Advent, the season of anticipation and waiting, when, along with the Prophet Isaiah we cry out, “Oh, God, that you would burst from the heavens and come down to us!” With our decorations, our songs, we are looking forward to the arrival of Jesus in the form of a tiny baby boy, born in a stable in Bethlehem.
And, this year, it was also Communion Sunday, when we remember that this baby whose birth we will celebrate on December 24th… he came for a reason. He came to teach, to heal, to challenge. He came to love.
He came to give of himself so fully in love, that he — through whom the Heavens and Earth were made — he made himself completely and utterly vulnerable in his love.
Jesus’ pain as he was betrayed by a friend, abandoned by those closest to him, as he endured a mockery of a trial, as he was beaten and flogged, as he was crucified and died — all this pain came as a result of the deep, profound love he has for humanity.
And Jesus knew that all that he had experienced, all that he had given, would be redeemed on Easter morning, as, seemingly beyond all hope, God’s love would reach into the grave and bring Jesus back to the world.
Jesus came — out of love — on that Christmas morning knowing what he would endure. And he counted it as worth it.
So, my friends, love deeply. Because it is love that came down to earth on that first Christmas morning. Because it is love that is the defining characteristic of the Christ-follower.
Because it is love
that has come down to earth
and saved us
and set us free.