The Gifts of Advent: Love
Text: Romans 5:1-11, John 1:1-14
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
Audio: "The Gift of Advent: Love"
On this fourth Sunday in Advent, the theme is love. And not a “Hallmark Christmas Movie” kind of love, but a Romans 5 kind of love: The kind of love God demonstrates by loving us while we were still His enemies.
The past three weeks we have seen how Romans 5 wraps up the Advent qualities of hope, peace, and joy into a gift of God given to us in Christ. Today we see that love is the crowning gift of grace wrapped up for us in Romans 5:1-11.
Let’s read the passage one final time.
Paul tells us that “God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”
And that “God demonstrated His own love for us in this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Those are two rather amazing statements, given the fact (as Paul says quite clearly here in Romans), that we were not deserving of His love in any way.
All the way back at the Creation, it was out of the overflow of the love of God that we humans were created. We were created for a loving relationship with God. This earth and its environment were especially ordered so that there might be a perfect place for Adam and Eve and their human descendants to live in relationship with God.
We humans were meant to delight in a relationship with God, and in loving relationship to each other, and in caring for the earth and its flora and fauna. But we messed that all up by choosing to love and serve ourselves more than God, or our fellow humans, or the created order.
And the Bible is the story of how we humans have been doing the same thing in generation after generation ever since. We rebel against God and His will and His ways. We reject His love, we kill the prophets He sends to call us back to Himself. He sends us His Son as Light into our darkness, and as the Gospel of John that we read a moment ago puts it,
“He was in the world and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.”
We chose darkness instead of His light. We chose to snuff Him out like a candle. And I say “we” did this, because we humans are all complicit in this rejection of God. We all do it every day.
So why does God still love us? Paul says here that “maybe for a really good person someone might dare to die to save them.” But would any of us die to save a scoundrel? Would we go out of our way to lay down our life for someone who has been mean to us? For someone who has betrayed us? For someone who has publicly shamed us? Wouldn’t we rather see them get hit by the bus instead of jumping in the street ourselves to push them out of harms way?
So why in the world does God lay down His life for human beings when we bring Him nothing but trouble? Why did He reach out to Noah? to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants? Why did He save them from slavery in Egypt? Only to have them moan and groan and rebel against Him for 40 years in the wilderness? Why did He bring them into the Land of Promise, a land flowing with milk and honey? Only to have them rebel against His will and His ways again and again for hundreds of years.
Why did He send them His servants the prophets to call them back to His love, to warn them of the ways they were going, to comfort them in their distresses and proclaim to them His love again and again? Only to have them continue the cycle of rejection and rebellion year after year.
Why did God so love the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life? Why did He send His Son not to condemn the world, but that the world might have life through Him?
Some days when I look out at this crazy world we are living in currently, I think, “God, why don’t you just condemn the world and bring judgment and be done with us?”
“But God demonstrates His own kind of love in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
You see, this is not Hallmark Movie Channel kind of love. This is “loving your enemies” kind of love. This is “laying down your life” kind of love. This is “learning to love people as they are, not the way you’d like them to be” kind of love. It’s sacrificial.
And God loves like this because it’s who God is. Love is part of God’s very being. The love that exists within the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit simply overflows in and through everything God does. God is not loving us because of anything we are or anything we have done. God loves us because of who He is. It’s out of His great storehouse of love that His love pours forth to those who will receive it.
And Jesus says it pours forth like a sower scattering seed. The sower walks along with his great burlap bag of seed, and throws it out over the field, scattering the seed everywhere. But it lands on various kinds of soil. And 75% of the seed falls on soil that is either too hard, or too shallow, or too full of weeds to receive the seed and produce a crop. But 25% of the seed falls on soil that can receive it, and can germinate the seed, and can produce a crop.
And it’s not that one kind of soil is intrinsically better than the other kinds: it’s all dirt. But by the grace of God, some of the dirt is enabled by God’s Spirit to take the seed and let it grow. God’s love is like that Jesus says. And the amazing thing is that God keeps on sowing it on dirt. Generation after generation.
And practically, for you and me, what does it mean for that love to be received and to then produce a crop? It means that when the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we begin to cooperate with the Spirit in a process of transformation that makes us become sacrificial lovers, too.
And it’s not an easy process. Because as Jesus says elsewhere, that seed in order to sprout needs to get buried in the dirt and die! It’s only then that it germinates and begins to sprout into a whole new kind of life form that ends up looking nothing like the seed. An oak tree does not look like the acorn. A tulip in Spring time does not look like the brown bulb you stuck in the dirt in October. Something happens in the dying of the seed. A new life is enabled to come forth.
That’s the death and resurrection that is at the heart of the Christian faith and the Christian life of discipleship. There’s sacrifice at every level. There’s a dying and rising. And it’s a dying to self. It’s a laying down of your will and your need to get your own way. It’s a sacrificing of your pride in order to learn humility. It’s a sacrificing of your will to get even in order to learn to forgive, and forgive, and forgive again.
And there is not one of us who is good at this. There is not one of us to whom this kind of love comes naturally. That is why we have to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells us if we are in Christ. We have to trust that He will bring this transformation about in us, and we have to ask every day for the help to cooperate with the Spirit’s work.
And cooperating means making choices each day to lend our will to God’s will. To say with Jesus, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” And to do so as an act of loving God, and in the service of loving others.
Quite practically, this means imitating what God has done in loving us while were still sinners, by learning to love others the way that they are, not the way that we wish they were.
Just think of how many marriages break up because the person we married doesn’t change to become the person we hoped they would be? We thought maybe they’d get better with time, but they pretty much remain the person they were when we married them. Learning to love in a marriage is in large part learning to love the person we married as they are.
How much of parenting is learning to love the kids that were born to us, or that we adopted, for who they are, and not who we wished they would be?
There’s a woman named Emily Perl Kingsley, who was a longtime writer for the Sesame Street program on PBS. She had a son named Jason, who was born with Down Syndrome, and a number of people asked her to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability. So she wrote a piece called “Welcome To Holland,” that I came across a number of years ago and think about again and again in my own life. Listen to what she says.
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this…
When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.” “Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”
But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay. The important thing is they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guidebooks. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you never would have met. It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…and you begin to notice Holland has windmills…and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy…and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away…because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss.
But…if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to go to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things…about Holland.
God’s love for us demonstrated in Christ, is a kind of love that continually chooses to love us as we are. We don’t fulfill the hopes and expectations God had for us when He created us.
But He loves us continually, and chooses to redeem the situation by fashioning something beautiful out of us by His Spirit. He makes lovely Dutch tulips out of kind of ugly bulbs.
It is the great gift of love He is pouring into our hearts by His Spirit. And God invites us to make choices each day to participate in that kind of love by loving others as they are. Sacrificing our will for what we hoped they might be, and learning to love them as they are. Sacrificing our will for what we hoped our own life might be, and learning to love what we have been given for a life for what it is, and for what it has to offer.
It may not be Italy. And these people we are given to love may not be the sweet Italians we were hoping for. But welcome to Holland. And Merry Christmas.