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December 17, 2018

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

God’s love for us as expressed in the person of Jesus Christ is the heart of Christmas.  Human love is not like God’s love. Human love depends on character that moves people up a ladder to become a “good person.”  But Jesus reminded us that no one is good but God (Mark 10:18).  God’s love, on the other hand, is not hierarchical.  It requires an emptying of self, a surrender of self.  It lays low the proud. God’s love is the way of the manger.  God’s love is agape love—the Greek term for the highest form of love: God’s unconditional love.  God’s love for us does not depend on our “goodness.”  God offers his love freely to all.

Robert Cleaver (“R.C.”) Chapman (1803-1902) was referred to by the people of his day as an “apostle of love.”   He gave up a prosperous London law practice to become the minister of a small church in Southern England, which had been through three pastors in 18 months.  He would remain at the same church for the next 60 years.  His love for others brought about reconciliation in countless situations, and was the impetus for his missionary journeys to Spain and Ireland where he brought the Word of God to many from whom it had been hidden.  He is relatively unknown today because he burned his sermons and other papers toward the end of his life, to avoid being elevated to “celebrity preacher” status, which was a temptation for many preachers of the day.  Yet he was legendary in 19th century England for his great love of others—for his patience, hospitality, kindness, gracious ways, and for his ability to resolve conflicts. Charles Spurgeon called him “the saintliest man I ever knew.”  His love came from God—it was an agape love that resulted from his surrender to God. He gave up his wealth and all that it entailed to minister to the lost and the least.[1]

Next Sunday’s Scripture texts show us that God’s plan for salvation was in place long before Jesus was born.[2]  The Nicene Creed teaches us that Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Son of God who existed “before all worlds.”  The Old Testament is replete with evidence of the preincarnate Jesus. It was God’s plan all along to send Jesus to live among us—because he “so loved the world”  (John 3:16). God revealed to the prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5: 2).  Micah went on to predict that Jesus “will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, . . . And he will be our peace” (Excerpts, Micah 5: 4,5).  The birth of the one predicted by Micah would be the long-awaited Messiah, also anticipated by the psalmist: “Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock . . . come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80: 1-3).

John gives us an inkling of God’s love for us; John 3:16 is probably the best-known New Testament Bible verse.  The birth of God’s Son was the greatest expression of love ever: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

After the angel told Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she was greatly honored and filled with joy: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:46-50). Mary, in her humility, surrendered herself to God’s will, even though she had no idea of the challenges that would result from her surrender.  And so began her nine-month wait to meet this special child, and then years afterward coming to grips with the man he would become.  The common translation is that Mary “pondered” these things in her heart (Luke 2:19).  Yet the meaning of the Greek word is actually closer to “struggled.” Mary struggled with the information she had been given.  She struggled during her wait as we struggle while we await surgery, or sit next to the hospital bed of a loved one, or wait for test results, or for the healing of a relationship or of a body.  Like Mary, we struggle while we wait.

Yet, unlike Mary, we know what happened.  We know that the baby boy she bore would become her Savior as well as ours. We are waiting to celebrate the birth that changed history over 2,000 years ago. We know the outcome.  While the Jews expected a great conqueror to loose the chains of oppression from their various oppressors over the ages, we know that Jesus was born to set us free from the prison of our sins.

The author of Hebrews taught the first century Christians that God’s great love for his people, and Jesus’ willingness to die for us resulted in Jesus carrying out the Father’s plan: “Then he [Jesus} said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will,’  . . . And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10: 9-10). For God so loved the world . . .

Our hope was fulfilled in the resurrection of the One whose birth we celebrate.  This hope brings us the peace and joy we so long for when we surrender ourselves to God’s will as Mary did.  For there can be no hope without Jesus and the resurrection. There can be no peace without reconciliation with God. There can be no joy until the God-shaped hole in our hearts is filled with faith.  And there can be no agape love without surrendering our will to God’s will.

Jesus said: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14).   Jesus was the flesh and blood embodiment of God’s love for us.  He explained that he would lay down his life for us, his friends. His was the example of perfect love—of surrender to God’s will.  His command for us to love each other is not a suggestion; it is a command. We are to express that love to those at home, at school, at work, at church, and elsewhere.

Surrender yourself to God’s will.  Love.  Pass it on.

Prayer:  Thank you, Jesus for coming to us and for fulfilling the centuries-old hope for the Messiah.  Thank you for suffering and bearing our sins to bring us your Spirit of peace and joy.  Thank you for the love and blessings that you pour out on us as we wait for healing in our bodies, souls, and relationships.  Thank you for being with us through all of the uncertainty of this life and for your assurance of our life with you when our time on earth is over. Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]See Agape Leadership:  Lessons in Spiritual Leadership from the Life of R.C. Chapman (1991) Peterson and Strauch, Lewis and Roth Publishers.

[2]The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday in Advent are Psalm 80; Micah 5:2-5; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56.

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