Advent: Love

Good Morning and welcome to Journey Church.  My name is Phil Human and it’s a pleasure to worship with you today.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The fourth candle represents Love.  The bible has a wonderful passage in it that describes love, in 1 Corinthians 13.  We often hear it spoken during weddings, love is patient and love is kind, and so forth.

13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

Three things that will never see an end.  And the greatest of all of them, is love.

Now the danger of talking about love at Christmas time, is the tendency to sentimentalize the season.  We soften love up to a soft evening of snow and a mother looking adoringly at her child in a manger. Or here’s a picture of snowpeople holding hands and – you know – Love…

And I don’t mean to be the Grinch up here ripping the heart out of Christmas – but the love we discover surrounding the Christmas story is so much stronger than that kind of sentimentalized love.

So this morning I want to look at the Christmas story through the eyes of three of the central characters of Christmas – and I want to talk about the kind of love that we see displayed.  And when we jump in we find that Christmas is marked by a kind of love that is far more than sentimental – we see a kind of love that is tough, steely, unwavering, gritty.

Let’s look at the kind of love we see displayed at Christmas by looking at the Love of a Mother.  The Love of a father.  And the love of a son.

First – the love of a mother.  Let’s read about Mary, the mother of Jesus.  And let’s read from Luke chapter 1.  (By the way, Luke tells us that he researched all about Jesus life as he prepared to write his gospel, and it would appear that he interviewed Jesus’ mother – because only he writes about how Mary felt, and what she was thinking.  And so – I feel entirely safe in saying that these words Luke wrote are Mary’s record of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.)

Luke 1

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”

29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.

Every once in a while we get this idea in our head that people in the first century were kind of unsophisticated rubes.  But so far Mary is responding how I think almost everyone I know would respond.  She is confused and a disturbed and apparently afraid.

30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

If Mary was an average woman in the first century, Mary was probably a teenager.  She was engaged to Joseph – probably an arranged marriage.  What we do know is that Mary was a virgin.  And she has just received news that she will become pregnant.

Good news Mary.  You are going to be an unwed teenage mom.

Now Mary is no different than any other woman who is engaged.  She has ideas of the wedding, of setting up a home, of getting to know her husband, of getting a dog and then having a child.

I don’t think any part of her vision for her life includes leapfrogging all those steps and going right to having a baby.  How do you think Mary felt at this point.

I mean, she has to be thinking – what will this cost me?  I mean she knows it will cost her her reputation – I mean – who will believe this story – it might cost her her husband – will he believe her?  It might cost her everything – people in her situation in the first century and now – being an unwed teenage mom is almost a certain call to poverty.

Will her own son believe her when he is old enough to understand the birds and bees?

The mystery surrounding the birth of Jesus wasn’t lost on his enemies, by the way.    And in John 8 there is a fascinating little encounter that Jesus has with religious leaders – where they are squabbling with Jesus and basically tell Jesus – at least we know who our father is…  it seems to be a jab at Jesus’ mother and Jesus birth.

I think it’s worth noting that when Jesus becomes a human being he places himself squarely in the middle of everything that is human.  He doesn’t go easy on himself.  Born into poverty, his family were refugees for a time living in Egypt, – when God becomes human is dives right into the middle of the mess and doesn’t go easy on himself.

Now here is Mary – she is learning about how blessed she is to be pregnant and unmarried – and so – Mary begins to ask questions.

34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” 

Now – this is a bonus content here, but since we often say that Journey Church is a church for skeptics and people with doubt – let me add this. It’s very interesting, if you were to read Luke 1 – you will see that it starts with a guy named Zechariah who is the father of John the Baptist – and an angel shows up to him almost exactly like Mary – and tells him his wife is pregnant and they will have a son and he will be named John.

Zechariah also asks a question – how can this be – since we are old.  And the angel says, basically, dude – I’m an angel.  What’s your deal questioning me.  And the angel says – the next words you will speak will be in nine months when the baby is born.

Now – why does the angel seems to be stern with Zechariah and soft with Mary?

I heard one commentator say this – he says – there is a difference between a doubt that is expressed in order to dismiss claims, and a doubt that is expressed in order to gain information.

In other words – there is an openness to Mary’s doubt.  And a closed-ness to Zechariahs.  Mary is asking questions because she is open to hearing the truth and open to changing her mind.

And so – for my skeptical friends out there – I think it’s a good challenge for you to ask yourself – am I being open-minded in my doubts?  Or am I expressing doubts in order to escape the implications of something I don’t really want to have to deal with if it’s true.

Journey will be able to help people who are open-minded in their doubts – who – like Mary – are willing to have their mind changed.  And that’s only a question you can answer if you have the honesty to ask it of yourself.

Now, back to our story – where we find Mary, who knows the birds and the bees well enough to be able to express sincere doubt that she is pregnant.

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”

38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

So how are we going to characterize this kind of love from Mary? It’s far more than sentimental.

Mary responds very rationally.  Very carefully.  She sees that if God is truly behind it – as certainly he must be for her to become pregnant – then the only rational response would be – surrender.  I am yours.  I know who you are – and you get to call the shots in my life.

I will trust you completely, God, even though I don’t understand everything fully.  I will trust you completely Lord, even if I wouldn’t have chosen this lot for my life. I trust you and I surrender control of my life to the One who knows best how to run it.

By the way – this is a perfect picture of faith.  Some say Mary was the first person to respond to the good news of Jesus – because – she thinks highly enough of God to trust Him with her life.  That’s faith.

Fast forward – About 33 years later, Jesus will be in the garden of gethsemane – and he will be praying to his father – and he is going to pray – not my will, but yours be done.

I wonder where Jesus learned that prayer.  I wonder who taught Jesus how to be able to pray – I am the Lord’s servant.  I surrender control to Him.

I wonder if there isn’t someone here right now who is going through a difficult time and perhaps needs strength to be able to pray like Mary prayed – and like Jesus prayed – I am your servant.  May thy will be done in my life.  Is God asking you to trust him as he leads you down whatever path he has chosen for you?

May you be filled with the kind of love Mary displays here in Luke 1.  A courageous love.  A gritty steely love.  A determined love.  A surrendered love.

Christmas is marked by love.  A love not limited to sentiment, but a stout kind of love.  Strong.  Measured.  Surrendered and secondly – an unwavering kind of love.

One of my favorite episodes in the life and ministry of Jesus is found in Luke 9.   I know I’ve mentioned this quite a few times in the past but truly, I find this passage very comforting.

It’s the story of Jesus and his disciples – walking through a Samaritan village – and for many complex reasons the Samaritans and the Jewish people didn’t trust one another, didn’t like one another – but here was Jesus and his Jewish friends taking a shortcut through a Samaritan village, and the village treats them rudely.

Verse 53 tell us that “The Samaritans there refused to welcome Him, because He was heading for Jerusalem. 54When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do You want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”

Oh how I wish I could go back in time to see this go down.  James and John – their nicknames were the sons of thunder – That sounds like a World Wrestling Federation tag team champions of the world.  Off the top ring – the sons of Thunder!

They just always looking to scrap it up.  And here their plan to deal with the unwelcoming townspeople is to ask Jesus to teach them a lesson and, you know – kill everyone.

Truly, if Jesus were to ever face palm – it has to be now doesn’t it?

Okay – now that’s the apostle John.  He wrote the book of John.  And three letters named after him and the book of revelation.

And – guess who ends up talking the most of any of the gospel writers about love?  John talks about love more than Matthew, Mark and Luke combined.   He becomes known as the Apostle of Love.

This is why I love the story that Luke tells so much.  It’s not just that Jesus disciples were at times, boneheads, and so it makes me feel better when I do or say something I later see was dumb.

It’s the trajectory of John’s story. John is a picture of transformation – he is a picture of a life that was utterly changed from the inside out by the unwavering love of God the Father.

So how does John go from the Son of Thunder to the apostle of love.  What happened?

1 John 3:1 – “Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God!”

And what manner of love is this?  It’s steadfast.  It’s the kind of unwavering love that cannot be derailed when we blow it in monumental fashion.

It’s the kind of love that saw the trouble we humans had made of things and decided to do something about it.  To bring a rescuer.  The kind of love that refused to just leave us to be cut to ribbons by the jagged edges of life in this broken world.

It’s the kind of love that said – I will not stand by and watch my creation be ground to dust – to struggle unaided in this kind of world.  This will not stand.

And so – It’s the kind of love planned from the very beginning when God pulled Abraham aside all the way back in the book of Genesis and said, someone from your family will be born through whom all the nations on earth will be blessed.

It’s the kind of love that the Apostle John write about in John 3 – in perhaps the worlds most famous verse.  16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Christmas is marked by love.  A mothers love, fully surrendered.  A father love.  Steadfast and strong.

And lastly, of course, Christmas is about a Son’s love.  And as we’ve said in the past, for one to grasp the true beauty of Christmas – demands that we see in the peripheral vision – the cross in his future.

For the child that is laying in the manger – is the creator of the universe – has come to earth to die for us.

And lest we think that Jesus was a victim – Jesus makes sure we all understand – John 10:18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

Why?  John 15:13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Christmas is about love.  But not snowflakes and hot chocolate kind of love.  It’s a gritty, unwavering, fully surrendered, all encompassing kind of love.  Love that changes lives.  That forgives sins.  That powers transformation – saves marriages, brings hope to the world.

It’s all for you.  Do you know just how much you are cherished?  Behold what manner of love the father has given unto us.

Now in closing, I want to talk with you who struggle with the love of God.  You don’t feel you deserve it.  You aren’t sure you qualify for it.

I am reminded of a story I heard from author Brennan Manning.  Brennan wrote a book called the Ragamuffin Gospel that was instrumental in my faith and worth a read if you are looking for a book this coming year.

In 1950 Brennan joined the Mines and was sent off to boot camp to prepare to go to war in North Korea.  While in boot camp he became great friends with a guy named Ray.   Ray and Brennan did everything together.  They bought a car together, double dated together, even visited each others parents and families.  They became as close as brothers.

One night while sitting in a foxhole Brennan was reminiscing while Ray ate a chocolate bar.  Suddenly a live grenade appeared, thrown by an undiscovered North Korean soldier.  Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his candy bar and threw himself on the grenade.   It exploded killing Ray but leaving Brennan unharmed.

After the war Brennan entered school to become a priest, and when he was ordained into the priesthood, he was asked to take on the name of a saint.  Manning thought of his friend, Ray Brennan, and changed his name to Brennan Manning.

Years later he visited Ray’s mother, whom he adopted as his own, and at the time Brennan was feeling rather discouraged and full of self-doubt – and at one point in the conversation he grew sullen and grim and he turned to Ray’s mom and asked,  “Do you think Ray loved me?”

Manning writes that Mrs. Brennan shot up off the couch shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “Jesus Christ, what more could he have done for you?!” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? and Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “Jesus Christ–what more could he have done for you?”

Christmas is all about Love.  It’s about the fully surrendered love of a mother.  The unwavering love of a Father.  And the sacrificial love of the Son.  Who could not have done more to show you just how much you are loved.

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