Dec. 24th The Advent Conspiracy- Love All
Scripture: Luke 2: 1-16
Today we’re wrapping up our Advent sermon series entitle “The Advent Conspiracy.” And I hope you’ve found it to be a worthwhile way to spend your time leading up to Christmas. Along the way we’ve been asking an important question: Can Christmas still change the world? And if we believe the answer is yes, which I think we do, then somehow we are called to celebrate in meaningful ways that reflect the hope of that first Christmas that changed everything. We’ve suggested three ways we can do that: Worship fully, spend less, and give more. Today we add one more game-changer: Love All.
The first pastors to lead their churches through the Advent Conspiracy once shared a powerful moment with a tribal chief in an African village. I wanted to share their story with you:“We stopped at a village that, like many others, welcomed us with beautiful smiles and open arms. We were led through tall grasses, away from the village, to what they referred to as their “well.” If it was a well, it was not like any well we’d ever seen. It sat next to a swamp that leached untold disease into the water from which families drew their water every day. This stagnant, gray-green pool infested with insects was all these people had. Even as we talked with the village elders, women would casually brush away the film that clung to the top as they filled their pots…Surely God was leading us…
We knew that in several weeks our churches would be taking Christmas offerings…and in a couple of months this village would not have to rely on that well ever again. For us, this was good news and we wanted to share it with the chief and his elders. When this message of hope was delivered—with great passion from a translator from the area who was as excited as we were—the weathered face of this honorable elder remained impassive. He simply stared at us. Even our translator was puzzled by this lack of emotion. When he asked the chief if he understood what this would mean for his people, the answer was unforgettable: ‘Others have made promises in the name of Jesus, but they were never kept.’ Here was a man whose hope had dried up and blown away because others had made promises in the name of Jesus that they’d never bothered to keep.
For this tribal chief, Christmas, and all that it means, had yet to change his world. He had heard the stories of faith, about God so loving the world that He gave His only Son…but that love never materialized beyond words. Hope, peace, joy and love were concepts he had heard and maybe even yearned for…but he experienced them only as empty promises. I wonder how many people have given up on life being different because of too many empty promises?
In one of his most striking teaching moments, Jesus reminds us that theology is not something we talk about; it’s something we do, and never does that apply more than to our understand of love. Love is meant to be communicated in a tangible way, and it’s meant to be communicated to ALL the world. In Matthew 25, a teaching typically given the title The Sheep and the Goats, Jesus says that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him. The problem, however, is that we need to be able to define who the “least of these” are in our lives. I saw a Facebook meme the other day that really put this into perspective. It was a portrayal of the story of the Good Samaritan, who was leaning over the man who had been left for dead on the road, bandaging his wounds and caring for his physical needs. And just above that picture was another man, walking away in his white robe and shouting out “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” Immediately, I began to think about Jesus’ question: Which of these was the neighbor? Or in other words, Which of these best represented love? The point Jesus makes is that a Samaritan can find a way to love a Jew, and vice versa, if we’re intentional about it. You see, if we reserve our best efforts to love those who look like us and act like us, we’ll probably miss out on a miracle. We’ll probably miss out on an opportunity to bless the Savior who often co-mingles with broken, the bruised and the forgotten. That sounds good and all, until we see that Jesus is serious, because that’s exactly how he chose to make his grand entrance to the world. He chose to root himself among the “least of these” in a little town called Bethlehem.
God could’ve chosen a different place. He could’ve set up this birth narrative in Jerusalem or Rome or Egypt. But none of those places would’ve sufficed. They were places full of political power and might, where the religious mingled with the “haves” and all too often neglected the “have nots.” They are exactly the type of places you would think God would make his grand entrance, where the real big decisions are made. Instead, God had his finger on a place called Bethlehem. Bethlehem was simply a dot on the map, too little to be among the larger clans, said the old prophet Micah. In the grand scheme of things, Bethlehem is sort of forgotten territory, an out of the way place, the sort of place where one would not go to find breaking news. But Bethlehem did have a history. It was the home of a former shepherd boy who was once anointed to be the next great king of Israel. The funny thing is that the old priest doing the anointing, a man named Samuel, almost overlooked the boy. Young David didn’t look the part, but that didn’t matter to God. God was doing something in him, and God cut through all the labels and all cultural definitions and said, “It’s him. I want this guy to lead my people.” Even Samuel had trouble believing, so God told him, “Do not look at his appearance or the height of his stature…For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
That’s the history of Bethlehem. It’s a place where God looks beyond the cultural norms and sees what nobody else sees. It’s the place where the heart of the matter takes on a role far more prominent than what the eye can see. And it’s where he’ll change the world through the birth of the Messiah. Bethlehem becomes the place where God invites us to participate in a new narrative of divine love for all and challenges us to blur the lines between who is “in” and who is “out.”
In Bethlehem, we see God creating a new story through ways that hadn’t been done before. We see a young pregnant couple that would be fodder for our dinner table gossip. I mean, when’s the last time you heard of a couple getting pregnant outside of marriage? My guess is that your first thought wasn’t about God’s initiative or activity or role in their story, but about the shame, the humility, the sin. But yet God tells Joseph that the Holy Spirit is conceiving something new. This baby has to be different. This birth has to be unlike all other births. Or else we’ll only get the same old ending. Bethlehem invites us to start with love and work our way from there.
In Bethlehem we see a group of shepherds startled by the glorious songs of the angels. If we could hang out with the shepherds today, we wouldn’t hang out too long. We’d ask them how long it’s been since they showered. We’d wonder why they smell so bad or don’t go out and get a real job. We’d question whether or not they would ever make it in the “real world” because they worked a meaningless job. I mean, they’re grandest is making sure these lowly sheep have enough food to eat. And yet they are the first to hear the good news of salvation. These nobodies. These ones who have been cast –aside from society. These forgotten ones. These lowly shepherds. And it happened when love came down in a little place called Bethlehem.
It was love that first changed the world, a love that often shows up in unexpected places through unexpected ways. If we’re not paying attention, we can miss out on the mystery of Bethlehem because we don’t think anything significant could happen there. In the same way, we can miss out on the significance of Christmas because we don’t scratch the surface enough to find Jesus. Christmas is primarily about love, God’s no-nonsense love for a world that made it’s home where love was most needed. And if that’s what Christmas is all about, then we need to love well and love all.
A few years ago, somebody created a Christmas version of the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians. I thought I’d share that with you as we wrap up today: If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strings of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator; If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook; If I work in the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing; If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata, but do not focus on those I love the most, I have missed the point…In other words, Love stops the cooking to hug a child; Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the spouse. Love is kind, though harried and tired; Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens. Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are to be in the way; Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who can’t. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust; But the gift of love will endure.
I can’t think of any better conspiracy than one of love, a love that focuses on those who mean the most to us, and a love that stretches to the least of these. That’s how Christmas changes the world. As you prepare to celebrate this year, which narrative will you follow this Christmas? Will you follow the cultural narrative that suggests consumption is the best way to celebrate? Or the narrative that suggests Christmas is about God’s love for the overlooked, the forgotten, the lost and the lonely, a love so deep that He laid down his life for all? Amen.