Goodness, 23 days of Advent reflections! We are nearly to Christmas. I’ve decided to share my sermon from yesterday, because that e.e. cummings poem I posted yesterday played a part in it. I hope it brings you some light in the midst of what is no doubt a busy time.
Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
My good friend Barbara and I went to Southern Season in Chapel Hill the other day for a nice dinner. Barbara’s a pastor, too, and every now and then we indulge in a trip to that (expensive) foodie heaven. As we entered, the first thing I saw were huge window decorations with brightly colored expensive-looking table settings and ornaments on them. Above one panel was “joy”, above the second was “peace.” Can you guess what was above the third? Hope or love is a good guess, but nope, it said “prosperity”!
Now, I hate to perpetuate the stereotype that we pastor people talk theology all the time, but we did have quite the discussion based on those posters (as did my Facebook wall). It was a beautiful, elegant example of how wrong our society gets this whole Christmas thing.
And as we watched people swirling around us in a state of frenetic gift-buying anxiety, I couldn’t help but think how very far this reality was from a dark night in a barn in the Middle East, when God was birthed into the world, and poor shepherds were the first to get invited to witness it by a star, and not gilded expensive cards.
The last couple of weeks, I’ve had nearly everyone I run into, from friends to vet technicians to coffee baristas ask if “I’m ready for Christmas.” Have you been asked this a lot recently, too? It just seems to make us feel more anxious about not being ready, doesn’t it? But I wonder, what sort of Christmas they are speaking of.
Am I ready for a Prosperity Christmas, where I have to spend and spend to prove my love to those I care about? I think we are all of us trying to get ready in some ways for that sort of Christmas. We buy gifts that are hopefully thoughtful, and do want to make a point to show our love to others. This is the sort of Christmas our society (and elaborate store posters and loud commercials) tell us we should be waiting for, and working towards.
But the Christmas we in the church rush towards this time of year is quite different. Prosperity pales in comparison to the truth that God was born to a family of refugees, that the Love which wove the world together took on flesh and blood as a vulnerable baby. 1 John tells us that God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
Now, I read the Greek of this text pretty closely, and nowhere can I see that it says God’s Son was sent into the world that we might…enter into greater credit card debt through him. Or that we might buy nicer gifts than those we receive. Or even that we might get everything done in time to collapse exhausted with our family on Christmas day.
No, we are told that God’s Son was sent to reveal God’s love to us in a way that had never been revealed before, and the result of such a revelation is life. Not the half-life of long lines and diminishing store shelves, of empty prosperity and emptier spirits. Love-breathed, God-With-Us life.
A life where brothers and sisters love one another not just because they want to please God but because they want to actually see God in the faces of each other.
Or as 1 John says it, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” This incarnate love of God in the Christ child is not meant to just be something that provides an undercurrent of calm in the midst of holiday stress. We are not called to just survive on this love of God. We are called to abide in God’s love – just as God abides in us.
As my friend Barbara and I watched people rushing from aisle to aisle, arms heavy, faces looking tired and distracted, I saw just how destructive it can be to lump ‘prosperity’ into the meaning of this season. Now, I’m not saying we should never buy things to show love. That is a good thing. But we should never mistake the meaning of this season of Advent, of expectant waiting for the Love of God to be revealed in this world in new and surprising ways, with the commercial ideal of piling presents under a tree.
Love is on its way – and we don’t need to buy a thing to receive it. We don’t need to stand in any lines, we don’t need to take on debt, or find that perfect gift. What we need to do is still our lives, even in quiet small moments, to see the way God’s love breaks into our world. We will begin to see that Christmas is not a time to glorify prosperity, but instead the radical reordering of this world from more to less, from fear to love, from isolation to brothers and sisters recognizing God in the tired faces of each other.
So, the next time you get asked that question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” consider reframing the question. Rather than answering in terms of how many gifts you’ve purchased, cards you’ve sent or menus you’ve planned, perhaps speak in terms of the Christ Child coming once more.
The truth is, we’re never fully ready for God’s love to come to us, but that Child comes anyway, coming into our burdened arms and weary faces, coming into our crowded stores and cunning marketing schemes, coming into our moments of joy and of darkness. That child comes, whether we are ready or not. We need only let go of what keeps us too distracted or exhausted to experience that Love being born in us anew. I’m reminded of words from E.E. Cumming’s poem ‘Let It Go’:
let it go – the smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length wise – let it go it
was sworn to
let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
so comes love
Are we ready for Christmas? Not the Prosperity sort, but the real, love-coming, life-giving Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ? A child is coming…and that child’s name is so much more powerful than Prosperity. His name is Love, his every step on this earth was one of Love and his call for each of us is to abide in that Love as we abide with each other. So, breathe. Rest. Pray. Let it go. Dare to hope, because Love is on its way. Amen.