The message of Christmas is very simple. It is that God loves us all and wants us to understand that love—even divine love—must have human form to be truly known and effective.
The Christmas message is that in the birth of Jesus, God chose to be intimately involved in the salvation of the world—But like all human intimacy, incarnation (giving flesh to divine love) involves vulnerability and risk. And, what expression of humanity is more vulnerable than an infant, or a child? In fact, it is the vulnerability and the innocence of the child that makes so sweet the Christmas story. Its tenderness even transcends the secular images of Christmas, with children opening gifts, circling around our feet—secure and happy. “Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright Round yon virgin Mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.
Yet, the truth this momentary sentimental sweetness obscures is that we can’t ensure our children’s futures, even with all the protections and privileges we might provide. For to be human is to be vulnerable. And the further truth is that we as adults are also vulnerable. We are vulnerable to our own frailties of health, the whims of professional fortune and, the loss of those dear to us. We are vulnerable to those who fear us or those who wish us ill. We are also vulnerable at a deeper level; we are vulnerable to our sinful natures, we are vulnerable to the sins of our own ambitions, lusts, fears, and prejudices. To be human is to be vulnerable, no matter what our social; economic or political wrappings.
This Christmas, as a nation, we are perhaps more aware of our vulnerability than ever before. Since the terrorist attacks September 11, 2001 and subsequent threats, we no longer live under the comforting illusion of invincibility to foreign terror. We recognize that life for us is not so different from people in other parts of the world. Additionally, the economic dissolution of major corporations, rumors of war and the volatility of the stock market and widespread unemployment threaten our financial viability. For many there is great anxiety resulting from America’s changing cultural and religious landscape. All of these uncertainties or others just like them were present in the time and place where God chose to incarnate his love in Jesus. First century Palestine was a volatile and uncertain world, with terror and revolution, especially for Jesus’ people, the Jews.
Yet, the ultimate counter to vulnerability is always love. The power of love is not necessarily that it changes our realities. The power of love is that it changes us. To know we are loved despite our circumstances, the tragedies and the privileges, is to empower us to live our lives. For what is most important in life is not what happens to us, but how we deal with what happens to us. Knowing that we are loved can make all the difference.
It is customary, especially in this season, that we give gifts to communicate our love to others. We generally assume that the smile on the faces of our children and the good cheer among those we love is a sufficient sign that the message has been received. Yet, in this climate of social and economic uncertainty, of terror’s threat and of wars and rumors of war, the sentiments found in commercial forms of love cannot replace the human forms of love. Gifts, cards and friendly visits, gaiety, smiles and Christmas cheer, are ultimately inadequate to the needs of our times.
In these uncertain times, we must be certain that the message of love is communicated in human form. We must physically (and if at a distance, emotionally) hold those we love and say the words: “I love you!” As never before we must unwrap love from the commercial trimmings of the seasons, say it to our children, say it to our spouses, say it to our families, colleagues and dear friends….”I love you”, “I care about you”, “I appreciate you”. The gift of love must take human form if it is to have efficacy or power in our lives and the lives of others. For tomorrow when the toys are broken or abandoned; and in the days ahead when our life or the lives of those we love is broken and alienated, what will matter most to us and them is knowing that we are loved.
This Christmas as many of our sons and daughters and others are presently at war in far away places such as Afghanistan, and given the current dark clouds over our diplomacy with Iraq, others of our love ones and neighbors could soon be at war. What will matter most— regardless of our political or theological position—is that they know they are loved. It is from love in human form—the words, the embrace, and the acts of understanding, the words of compassion—that we draw the strength to face life’s greatest and most dreadful uncertainties, the inescapable realities of our vulnerabilities.
In 1969 I was a combat medic in Viet Nam and daily I walked with death far from home. But, what gave me and others the strength to endure our fears, frustrations, and loneliness, to keep moral decency in tension with war’s degradation and destruction, was not the patriotic rhetoric of politicians or the righteousness of war protesters; rather it was knowing our own worth as persons who were loved—loved and prayed for by others, and, most of all, loved by God. I want to say to our men and women of the Armed Forces and their families, we love you. We know your sacrifice and we respect your willingness to serve. As a pastor I ask you to also remember as you go about your duties that God loves you and God also loves your enemy. May God give you strength to live in the awkward tension of duty and faith.
For those of us who know God and believe in God, we know that just as with human parents, it is God’s purpose to protect and deliver us from those things that destroy us. It is God’s purpose to save us from perishing from fear, despair, hopelessness, bitterness of heart and hate. God wants us to know that we are loved. God loves you, God loves me, God loves our neighbors, and God loves the world. The Bible says so …
John 3:16 For God so loved the world That he gave his only begotten son That who-so-ever believes in him Should not perish But have everlasting life.
Now, all love is a gift of God. There is amorous and physical love that a lover has for the beloved. Familial love and fraternal love, the love we have for family and close friends, this too is a gift of God.
But John 3:16 is speaking of another kind of love — Agape! This is divine or Godly love. It is the most essential gift of love that God can give us.
But, agape is more than knowing that God loves us. Agape is also knowing that GOD LOVES THE WORLD!! God loves those we know, understand and love; AND those we do not. A literal definition of agape is having a Godly “respect” for others; that is, to see other persons—whatever their race, politics, ideology, culture, ethnicity or religion—as persons loved by God. This is the hardest and most vulnerable love. It requires true Christian conversion and maturity. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:43-45:
“You have heard that it was said ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, respect your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that YOU MAY BE CHILDREN OF YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN; for God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
This is what it means to believe in the Christmas story—To believe that God so loved the world that he gave flesh to his love, is to believe that God loves the world and is willing to enter into our vulnerability to save us. When that belief enters our lives it challenges us to see the world in radically different ways.
First, there is a respect for the humanity of others. We live in a political climate where we are not able or willing to distinguish our political and ideological attacks from attacks upon individuals. Our focus upon individuals is not only ungodly and destructive, but it gives us the illusion that we have solved the problem by destroying or demonizing the individual. But no matter what the offense or difference, the Christian witness is that God so loved the world…even those who offend our political sensibilities.
Therefore, Christian faith challenges us to see through our pain, anger, and even the truth and justice of our cause. Incarnate love demands that we take on the vulnerability of respecting the humanity of even our enemies as someone who is loved by God. No matter what our status or role in society, President or voter, we cannot escape this reality of the Christmas message.
Since September 11, 2001, we not only live with a sense of danger, but we live with greater awareness of the cultural, racial and religious diversity of our world. Not only are the languages, cultures and religions of those we think of as our enemies either Asian, Arabic, and non-Christian, but increasingly our neighbors, fellow citizens and fellow workers are culturally non-European, non-Christian, and non-English speaking (as a first language).
As Americans we must be very careful that we not become the evil we deplore. The first step to becoming the evil we deplore is to lump all people of a culture or race or religion or ideology into one group. The second danger is to dehumanize that group in our mind as godless, heathen and without any moral or spiritual worth. Such thinking frees us from the burden of seeking a moral way to deal with the certain evil we deplore. It accommodates the moral laziness of generally equating things foreign with evil or inferiority.
But “for God so loved the world” always stands in tension with this demoralizing and demonizing progression. This truth does not predetermine the precise answer to the political, social or military problems before us, but it denies us the moral freedom to hate, abuse and destroy without accountability, even in a good and just cause. Remember, God’s children are Buddhist, Moslem, Sikh, Jain, Hindu, Christian, Jew, and secularist. Also remember distorters and abusers of God’s love are also wearing the labels of every religion, even our own Christianity. Radical fundamentalists always feel there is not enough of God’s love to go around. Others must thus conform or be destroyed, morally or physically.
Around this time of year children often compare their Christmas gifts to determine whom parents love best. There is an inherent sense that true worth in life is being better than the other, or that there really is not enough love to go around. But when we truly understand that “God so loved the world”, we accept that God can love Christians and still love Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and Pagans. To be Christian is not only to rejoice in the coming of Jesus as the messiah of the world, but also to embody his message in our daily living. This is the message: that the love of God incarnate in our lives can save us from fear, prejudice, hate, vengeance, unbridled violence and blind retribution…all things that are causing us and our world to perish.
Yes, the message of Christmas is simple: God loves the world and puts that love in human form for our salvation. Take your finger and hold it up. Now point it at yourself and say, “God loves me!” Now take your finger and point it at someone else, preferably someone you don’t know. Point it at them and say, “God loves you”! If we can believe these two truths and live these truths in a changing and uncertain world, they will save us from perishing — For the truth of Christmas is still in John 3:16:
For God so loved the world That he gave his only begotten son That who-so-ever believes in him Should not perish But have everlasting life. AMEN.