A sermon that I preached at my church last night…
My instructions for this week were to preach on the topic of ‘love’, with the suggestion that it might be good to connect it to some part of the Christmas story given that we are now, scarily, in December – where has the year gone? – and this week is the first week of Advent.
So my first course of action when I started to think about what I’d say was to type the two words, ‘love’ and ‘Christmas’, into Google. And I got back 248 million results. Maybe I was going to need to narrow down my search criteria… So this time I tried three words, ‘love’, ‘Christmas’ and ‘bible’, and got back 35.4 million results. An improvement, but still just a few too many. So I tried again, this time adding the word ‘Jesus’ to my search terms because, when in doubt, isn’t the answer always ‘Jesus’?? But that got me 41.6 million results, not the direction that I had hoped, so I needed a new plan.
If Google wasn’t going to a good place to start, maybe I should just go straight to the bible. In the NIV translation of the bible, which is the one that you’ll find in the pews, the word ‘love’ occurs a total of 567 times in 526 different verses. They were more realistic numbers that I could work with!! I thought, I can go straight to the gospels, find where the word ‘love’ is used and then I’ll be good to go. But, what I didn’t expect to find was that the word ‘love’ does not appear in any of the tellings of the Christmas story in the bible. The bible does not use the word ‘love’ in connection to the Christmas story.
So if we read the Christmas story in the bible and yet don’t read the word ‘love’ should I be bothering to preach about it today? We might say that we love Jesus, but why do we say that? What is it that we love? Do we love Jesus like we love our friends or family? Or like we love receiving gifts? Or is the love different? And why is it different?
Some of you might be familiar with the 19th century poem by Christina Rossetti that begins:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign
What did it look like for love to come down at Christmas? What did it look like for love to be born?
Any guesses what this painting is an interpretation of?
Can anyone identify any specific people in the painting?
This painting is by the 16th century artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and titled The Census at Bethlehem. Luke 2:1-4 reads,
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
In this painting Bruegel has interpreted this event within his contemporary context.
With that extra information, can anyone spot someone significant now??
Look towards the bottom, just to the right of centre…
Finding Mary and Joseph isn’t easy, they just blend in with the crowd, the only give-away really is the donkey, and then that only helps those who know the Christmas story, who know what they need to look out for.
One person wrote in reflection on this painting, that this is “the point I think Bruegel is making. The King of the world has arrived in Bethlehem, but he is overlooked, identical to all the other peasants in this fallen world, unremarkable, unknown, unseen.” And that was what had been prophesied around 700 years before the birth of Jesus. In Isaiah 53:2-3 it says,
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by humankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” (Isa 53:2-3)
We may say that ‘love came down at Christmas’ but few people would have known that that’s what they were looking at. I wonder if the innkeeper would have responded differently, had he known the significance of the baby that Mary was carrying. Might there have suddenly been room available for them? Would someone else have been forced to give up their room and ended up in the stable themselves? Would that have been the right thing to do? Should our response and interaction with someone change if we know they are important? Are they any more deserving of love and kindness than someone who isn’t as important or that we don’t know much about? What is it that makes us show different people different levels of kindness?
1 John 4:7-12 says,
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
Let’s break this passage down…
Verse 7 – “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” We love because we know God. And we can get to know God by loving others.
Verse 8 is pretty easy to sum up – “God is love”
‘Love came down at Christmas’…’God came down at Christmas’…I’ll leave you to ponder on that one.
Verse 9 – God showed his love by sending his Son – that baby Jesus was born in a stable and placed into a manger is God showing us how much he loves us.
Verse 10 – Love isn’t about us, it’s about God. It’s not that we loved God but that God first loved us.
Verse 11 – Our response should be to love others.
Verse 12 – “No one has ever seen God”. But God is love. We might not be able to see God, but we can see love. So what does that mean for those who don’t know God? Might seeing love be a way for them to see God? Can us showing someone love be a way of showing them God?
For those who have been participating in the ‘Surprise the World’ group study in recent weeks, this past week has been the final week. The fifth and final habit that was described was ‘sent’, it was about identifying yourself as a missionary and identifying the ways in which you are alerting others to God’s reign and God’s love.
I like the following quote by Mike Frost from another one of his books, where he describes that our lives can be like a movie trailer. He says,
“Trailers are tasters, short-film versions of the soon-to-released feature, and they usually include the best special effects or the funniest scenes or the most romantic moments, depending on the film, of the upcoming feature. Now, watch those around you in the theatre at the end of each trailer. If it has done its job, usually one person will turn to the other and say, ‘I want to see that movie.’ This is a great metaphor for the missional church. If it does its job well, people will see what it does and say, ‘I want to see the world they come from.’”
“Now, watch those around you in the theatre at the end of each trailer. If it has done its job, usually one person will turn to the other and say, ‘I want to see that movie’…If [the trailer] does its job well, people will see what it does and say, ‘I want to see the world they come from’.”
This is what we hope will happen when we give people a glimpse of God. Mike suggests that the reign of God looks like four different things: reconciliation, justice, beauty, and wholeness. Aren’t these all just different expressions of love?
God is calling us to share him with others by sharing his love. Matthew 25:40 reads,
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Remember the questions that I asked earlier about the innkeeper, about whether the innkeeper would have responded differently, had he known the significance of the baby that Mary was carrying? Whether he might have suddenly made room for them? About whether someone else would have been forced to give up their room and ended up in the stable themselves? And about whether that would have been the right thing to do? I think God would say that the most important thing was that the innkeeper had made room for someone, regardless of who they were. Maybe God might say that more important than Jesus having a room, was that no one was kicked out, no was made to feel ‘less than’. I can almost imagine Jesus saying, “whatever the innkeeper did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, he did for me”. No one who spent the night in the inn was less deserving of being shown love.
Love came down at Christmas…God came down at Christmas, for God is love.
The third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem tells,
How silently, how silently The wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him still The dear Christ enters in.
Who are you showing love to this Christmas? Is there someone you could be sharing God’s love with, so that they too might get to know God? Are there people that you might have been overlooking, that you choose others over? To who might you be able to show that love came down at Christmas?