4th Sunday in Advent
December 19, 2010
LOVE – the fourth candle
I don’t think I’m revealing family secrets when I confess that I never understood my parent’s marriage. On the face of it, it was contentious and difficult, and if I’d been married to either of them, I probably would have shot the other. After my mother died, I expected my Dad to rejoice at finally being free of her micromanagement and nagging, which he had resisted and resented as long as I had been around. But instead, he missed her so much he could hardly talk about it. In the 63 years they were together, they fought for each other as much as they fought with each other. Their faith and their commitment to God and to each other was profound and deep and had supported them through sorrow and joy.
Today as we light the final candle on the Advent wreath we talk about love. If real peace is hard to achieve, love is even harder. “Faith, hope and love abide,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “but the greatest of these is love.”
When you read the Hebrew Bible, you read a love story. “God created humans because God loves stories,” says the writer Elie Wiesel. Perhaps he’s right. We see from the very beginning, a creator who takes special care, building Adam from the ground up, in God’s own image, breathing into him God’s own Spirit of life. But practically from the first choice Adam is able to make, he chooses to contradict God’s command and then to lie about it. I think all of us know what it feels like to be rejected and rebuffed so casually. And so the story begins of God offering relationship in love and having people disappoint, reject, rebuff, anger and humiliate God’s every loving move.
The swing between judgment for violating God’s orders for right relationship, and the promise of restoration and mercy because of God’s steadfast love fills the stories of the ancestors, the redemption story of the Exodus and the testimonies of God’s prophets during the monarchy, condemning God’s people to exile and still promising a return. In the midst of the despair of exile, the book of Lamentations declares, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning: great is your faithfulness.” And it is true.
No matter how much God’s people turn away to throw in a little extra worship of some fertility gods, no matter how much they come to rely on political strategies rather than God’s promised protection, no matter how insulted God is, and authoritarian God is required to be, God is faithful to every promise of help, of restoration, and of continuing love.
Love stories are always complicated, no? Isn’t there always misunderstanding, betrayal, hurt and turning away before the final reconciliation? We do it to each other, and we do it to God. We are right to understand God as just, perfect, and requiring everything of us – complete love and devotion toward God, loving behavior toward others which reflects our status as God’s beloved. We are right to understand that God is entitled to cast us out of the family when we are self-absorbed, greedy and ungrateful.
But remember the Psalm, “God’s anger is but a moment, his favor is for a lifetime.” We are not treated with anger or cast out for our failures. Rather God came in person out of love. “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die,” says the Apostle Paul in Romans 5. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Jesus explains in John 15: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
This is the beginning of our understanding of what love really looks like. It is not the cheap sentimentality that we see all around us this time of year. It is not something that slips away when the first flush of liking each other is over. Real love is tough. Real love is modeled for us in the love of God, which demands the best of us, but never fails us when we fail.
1 Corinthians 13, in a passage we have heard dozens of times tells us that love is patient, it is kind. “It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends.”
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are,” says John in his first epistle, chapter 3. And he continues, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-and we ought to lay down our lives for one another…little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action…God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”
So this then is our test. Do we really understand how love works, that it requires diligence, patience, commitment, toughness and tenderness at the same time?
That it comes to us a part of a cluster of fruit of the Spirit, along with joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? That we can hardly comprehend the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, as Paul says in Ephesians, chapter 3.
Jesus tells us how he wants the love that has been shown to us to affect us:
John 13: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In the same way that we are unable to love God in the way God deserves to be loved by us, we are unable to truly love each other in the way we deserve to be loved. But thanks be to God, Jesus’ death and resurrection have wrought the forgiveness that restores us to our place in God’s family. That is the act of love that we are able to live out. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” Jesus taught us to pray. Is this forgiveness the greatest act of love we are able to give each other? I think sometimes it is, because sometimes it is the hardest thing we do.
I pray that the hope and the peace and the joy and the love that we have reflected on during this Advent may continue to lift your hearts and your spirits as you receive the Christ Child against this year.
And now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.