Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Homily for Midweek Advent Service (December 1, 2010)

Wordle: Untitled

“Christmas Gifts in Advent: The Gift of Love” (John 3:16)

“For God so loved the world that he gave…” God is a giver. He is a giver of gifts. And who doesn’t love to receive gifts? Tearing into all the brightly colored wrapping paper. Digging down into the tissue paper stuffed in a decorative bag. The surprise of seeing what you now get to enjoy. Hopefully you won’t want to re-gift it, but you will treasure it and happily use it, wear it, or eat it.

For the most part, our gift-giving won’t occur until later this month. But during our time together these Wednesdays of Advent, we’re going to talk about Christmas gifts … gifts God the Father gives to us through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ … specifically, the gifts of love, hope, joy, and peace. Those are the titles that have come to be associated with each of the candles on the Advent wreath. Tonight’s Christmas gift in Advent is “Love.”

Love. I love my wife. I love pizza. I love my dog. Love is an all-encompassing word for a wide range of feelings. “I love you, dear” (spoken romantically) is a lot different than “I love you, man” (spoken like the guys in the Bud Lite commercials back in the 90’s). Love is associated with a measure of affection and is usually associated with our emotional reactions and attachments to certain people or objects.

The English word “love” is so non-specific. Greek, the language of the New Testament, is much more descriptive. In fact, Greek has three words for love. Philia is the kind of love associated with friendship. Eros is love that is associated with physical attraction. And then there’s agape, the word or a form of it that the New Testament most often uses for “love.” Agape involves the will. It is purposeful. It involves action. It is always directed towards someone or something. There is no sense of what can I get out of the relationship. It is always and only about the good of the other.

St. John wrote “God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16) Note this well: it does not say that “Love is God.” That takes a personal God out of the equation. It turns “Love” into a nebulous virtue that we all must constantly seek and worship and make our highest aim to find. But “Love” is not God. God is love. Love is one of his attributes. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. John makes love God’s chief attribute. It’s like saying, “She is beautiful.” “He is generous.” “You are intelligent.” God is love.

God is eternally love because from all eternity the persons of the Trinity perfectly love each other. The Father loves the Son. The Son loves the Father. The Holy Spirit loves the Father and the Son and proceeds from the Father and the Son to bind us together in divine love. St. Paul says in Romans 5:5, “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:5)

So how does God show his purposeful, active agape for us? “For God so loved…” You can translate it like this: “For thusly God loved you.” He loved you this way. God shares his love with us. It is his gift to us. But it’s not just a mushy feeling. God showed his love in a concrete way … a fleshly way. He gave us his Son. The Son became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was laid in a manger. The Son grew up and offered his flesh on the cross as payment for the sins of the world. “God is love,” St. John writes. He goes on to say, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Jesus is the one who loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and shed his blood and die so that our sins would be covered over and we would be declared not guilty.

“For God so loved the world…” God loved his entire creation. Every single person. No one is excluded from the offering of this gift. Someone may indeed reject this gift. You can leave your gift under the tree. Never unwrap it. Never enjoy it. But it’s there for you. It didn’t cost you a dime. It cost Jesus his shed blood. That makes this gift more valuable than anything else in all creation, because it was God’s own blood that bought it.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” We are probably more familiar with the term “only-begotten.” Our modern translations have replaced that word with the more banal sounding “only” or “one and only.” The Nicene Creed says that he is “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” He is eternally begotten. He is not a part of creation nor is his deity less than the Father’s. There was never a time when he did not exist, but is in an eternal, loving relationship with his Father, as we sing “Of the Father’s love begotten Ere the worlds began to be.”

By nature, you and I don’t love God as we ought. We love “the darkness rather than the light.” (John 3:19) Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37) Where we have failed to love God, God the Father loved us so much that he gave his only Son for us. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39) Where we have failed to love our neighbor, God the Son became a neighbor for us, moving right into our neighborhood and living among us, loving us so much that he gave up his life for us. Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” (Matt. 5:44) Where we have failed to love our enemies, God loved us even while we were still enemies. St. Paul writes in Romans 5, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:8-10)

God’s love for us moved him to send his Son to satisfy his justice over our sins. Through the shed blood of Christ, we are forgiven. Through water and the Word we are made to be a new creation. The Holy Spirit takes up residence in us, giving us the gift of faith which does indeed believe in Jesus so that we will not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus’ words to love God and love our neighbor now become a real possibility in this here-and-now life. “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.” (John 3:21) The Holy Spirit empowers us to love as God loves, because it is his love driving our love. It’s not an emotion or a feeling. It’s a Spirit-driven choice made by a renewed heart, a renewed soul, a renewed mind … a willful, purposeful decision to actively love even those who are often unlovable. We can do more than just say “I love you.” We can love in concrete, fleshly, Christ-like ways. We can offer the gift of our hands and hearts for the good of those whom God has placed in our lives. Amen.

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