1 John 4: 7-21
Rev. Barrett Ingram
December 20, 2020
I don’t know about you, but for weeks now, my inbox been inundated with e-mails from retailers. I usually get stacks of catalogs this time of year, too. But since I just moved, I guess they haven’t found me yet! We know that for many retailers, the time between Thanksgiving and the after-Christmas sales is critical for their survival. This year has been particularly challenging because of COVID.
With the approaching season comes the inevitable question: What do you want for Christmas? As children we always had quick answers: a bike, or some video games, or a puppy. Or maybe it was one of those impossible-to-get toys advertised on TV that sent parents scrambling. But for most of us, once we reach adulthood, our sensibilities change with maturity. It can be more difficult to put into words what we really want for Christmas.
Some of you may remember Dave Garroway, the first television personality to host the Today show. There was an excerpt from an interview I read. After he had become a very successful man, Garroway was once asked to put his Christmas wish into words. He replied, I’ve noticed when people are asked what they want for Christmas, nine times out of ten they answer with something material. That used to be amusing to me, but it’s not amusing to me any longer. I happen to be one of those people who can afford almost anything he wants, but I find what I really want I can’t buy at all. I want peace! Peace of mind! Peace of soul! The kind of peace you have when you really don’t want anything material.
Deep in the human heart is that searching, that longing… for the peace that surpasses human understanding, for that hope of a better future, for that joy that makes all of life’s joys meaningful. What do we find when we find the Christ of Christmas? That’s what we’ve been thinking about during these Sundays of Advent. And today we have lit the last of the Advent candles, the candle of love.
Love has inspired an awful lot of music, much of it in the vein of “Finding Love in All the Wrong Places.” The problem is that our English word, love, is really inadequate to express all the potential meanings of that term. We say, “I love you,” to a person we love – a parent or spouse. And we also say, “I love chocolate.” Same words, but we don’t mean the same thing. Our culture uses love frequently to describe romantic love, or more often, lust. We also speak of brotherly love, a common bond we share with a group of people. “I love my hometown. I love my sorority sisters, fraternity brothers…” that sort of thing. The New Testament uses the word “agape” most often when it speaks of God’s love for us, and the love we are called to share with one another. Agape describes a selfless and deeply spiritual love. The clearest picture of agape-love is Jesus Christ on the cross, willingly giving up his very life for us. It is that love we long for; it is that love we celebrate coming to us at Christmas. It is God’s saving love. In the Gospel of Mathew, the Angel of the Lord said to Joseph (1:21), “Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” God’s saving love, God’s agape love, is revealed in Jesus. That is why Christmas is really the ultimate love story.
In 1 John 4:9, we have these words: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (10) This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we say, I believe in Jesus Christ… who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary. The Nicene Creed is more poetic and philosophical at this point: Jesus was eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. With these words, we are affirming the mystery of the incarnation. Perhaps no doctrine is more ponderous, or important, than the incarnation. The word incarnation comes from the Latin word incarnatus, meaning literally to take on flesh. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary; he became truly human. That’s what Christmas is all about. The contemporary Christian songwriter, Chris Rice, captured the incarnation in one of his songs: “So wrap our injured flesh around You, breathe our air and walk our sod…”
This is how God showed His love for us: He became one of us in the flesh. In Jesus Christ, God identified with our human condition in every way – except sin. It is our sin that has brought about estrangement, or separation from God. We need a mediator who can fully represent us to God and fully represent God to us. In the famous phrase of Gregory of Nazianzus, the full humanity of Jesus Christ is required because “That which he has not assumed, he has not healed.” Jesus wrapped “our injured flesh around” himself, so that he could “rob our sin and make us holy.” That’s what verse 10 is referring to when it says that Jesus is “an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” We find love in the Christ of Christmas, not because we loved God, but because he loved us first.
The next thought arises from verses 17 & 18: “This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives our fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” There was an interview with a noted minister just before his death, and they were talking about 9-11 and the war on terror. And the minister asked the interviewer, “Do you know what is the opposite of fear?” And the interviewer responded, “Faith – we trust in God.” And the minister said, “No. It’s love.” And he quoted verse 18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Perfect love casts out fear.
Fear is able to motivate people in remarkable ways. Politicians certainly know how to wield the power of fear to move people. Or think about health. Long before the pandemic, we were getting plenty of health advice from experts. Eat this, don’t eat that – or you’ll get sick. Drink this amount of water, get this amount of sleep. It’s usually touted in a way that provokes fear. And how often do those dire predictions prove to be completely wrong with the next generation of scientific research? Preachers are famous for using fear – think of hellfire and brimstone preaching. That’s what verse 17 is addressing. We don’t need to be afraid of the Day of Judgment if we are in Christ. There is no fear in love, it says. And we know this to be true from the Christmas story. The Angel of the Lord appears to most of the major characters, and they are terrified. So, the heavenly messenger’s message is always the same: Fear not! “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And to the poor shepherds, minding their own business: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Fear not!
So isn’t it an interesting contrast to the ways of our world, that when God comes to us, his message from the angels is of reassurance: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bring ing you good news of great joy for all the people.” The all-holy God, of whom we should rightly be afraid, does not come to us with fearful words of threat and intimidation. No, God’s message is of good news. The Greek word is the same one we translate as “Gospel.” I am bringing you a Gospel of great joy for all the people. By embracing this Gospel, this Good News, we find that our fears are unfounded. God’s perfect love drives out our fear.
Finally, the practical point. Verse 11: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” And verses 19-21: “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this commandment: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”
In a book titled The Kingdom Within, the author writes of his boyhood summers in an old New England farmhouse. The house was over a century and a half old and had never been modernized. The water supply came from an old well. The cold, pure water it supplied was a joy to drink on hot summer days. The well ran faithfully, even in periods of drought. But the time came when the house was modernized, and plumbing was installed. The old, faithful well was abandoned. And so, things stood for several years, says the author ... Until one day, moved by curiosity and old loyalties, I was determined to uncover the old well to inspect its condition. As I removed the cover, I fully expected to see the same dark, cool, moist depths I had known so well as a boy. But I was due for a shock, for the well was bone dry.
It took many inquiries on my part to understand what had happened. A well of this kind is fed by hundreds of tiny rivulets along which seep a constant water supply. As the water is drawn from the well, more water moves into it along the rivulets, keeping them clear and open. But when such a well is not used, and the water is not regularly drawn, the tiny rivulets close up. Our well, which had run without failing for so many years, was dry -- not because there was no water, but because it had not been used.
The love of God is like the vast supply of water, but it has to flow through us. “If we love one another,” the text says, “God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
One day I was having lunch with a colleague and her husband. She’s retired now. During the course of our conversation, we discussed several things and got off on the subject of church politics (…never a pleasant topic when eating). And she interjected: “You know, if I were God, I wouldn’t have done it… I wouldn’t have bothered becoming human and entering into all this. I would have said, ‘Have it your way.’”
And as we look around us at the state of our world – the politics, our families, our workplaces, the church, life in general – we must wonder why God bothers with us at all. Surely the answer is not to be found in any attraction we may possess. The answer is simply, Love – not love in the form of mushy sentimentality, but love in the form of selfless action. Love, someone has said, does not make the world go ‘round as though history were in senseless rotation; no, love makes the world move on. The love that moves us on is the Love we experience in the Christ of Christmas – when love was wrapped in our flesh and dwelt among us.
In her poem, “Love came down at Christmas,” Christina Rossetti tells us,
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
 Chris Rice, song: “Welcome to Our World;” album: Deep Enough to Dream (January 3, 1997)
 John A. Sanford, The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meanings of Jesus’ Sayings (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p. 8