ROMANS 16:25-27 AND JOHN 1:14-18
Wow! December 22 – we have almost made it! It is a crazy, wonderful time of year. It can be very complicated, too. We want everything to be perfect and we wear ourselves trying to make it be so. Along with the joy, there is often an undercurrent of disappointment. Do you know what I mean? Many feelings and longings get stirred up. I realized this morning in a panic that I haven’t sent out Christmas cards to friends far away and I wondered why I think I have to wait for Christmas to reach out to them. The longing to reach out is always there so why do I wait? You know what I mean? As I said, many feelings and longings get stirred up this time of year. What is your deepest longing? (pause) I believe our deepest longing is for love – to know it, to receive it, and to give it. Our deepest longings, then are met in the one who came so long ago as a humble baby, who lived as one of us, who submitted himself to abuse and crucifixion, who rose from that place of seeming despair, to the right hand of God. All for one reason – love.
Now, it is very easy to make this message too complicated. To make it too lofty. To speak of the glory and to omit the grit. To detail the immense and incredible beauty of God’s love and to polish it to such a high shine that we cannot possibly believe that God could love us and our imperfection and our situations. To make the salvation offered through Christ much more complicated and restrictive than the amazing gift of grace that it is. But the truth of the matter is that the story of God’s love for us, and the gift offered to us in Christ is really quite simple and quite humbling. (I am not implying here that God is simple – no God’s majesty and glory are far beyond our imaginings. But in a baby born in Bethlehem, God’s nature is revealed) Honestly, it can be summed up in one simple verse of scripture. One that many of us learned as children: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Simple, yes? Let’s go a little further to verse 17, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This further clarifies the matter. It is all very simple – God’s love for us is so great, his longing for us is so deep, his desire to show us the way is so strong, God is willing to go to any lengths to prove it. You cannot get much simpler than that.
Yet it can be very difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand something that is just that simple. Wouldn’t we rather be given a checklist? Do this complicated series of actions, pray this prayer, say these words, perform these actions, make a large donation, and you will be safe – saved!
Those might be useful things, but there is more to it than that. Because even though receiving that beautiful gift of salvation involves the very simple act of humbling ourselves to receive it, actually receiving it calls on us to then respond and responding is the work of a lifetime. It is simple – but I would never say it is easy. There are just too many things that distract us from the simplicity and completeness of God’s love. We live in a world that was dark when Christ entered it and continues to have much darkness. Grace and truth get shoved to the side to make room for selfishness, and conflict, and division – it is hard to maintain our focus, it is easy to lose our balance.
One of my favorite traditions this time of year is the Nutcracker ballet. I especially enjoy the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” It has been a favorite mine since I was a child. Near the end of the dance, the sugar plum fairy begins a dizzying series of turns. Around and around and around she twirls ending with a final spin and a graceful stop and pose at the end. Its beautiful and remarkable. I tried doing it when I was younger and rather than ending with a graceful pose, I wound up staggering all over the place and collapsing in a heap on the floor as the room swirled around me. Perhaps you know this, but the sugar plum fairy has a secret – as she spins, and spins and spins -each time she turns full circle, she returns her eyes to the same stationary point with a quick turn of her head, this allows her to maintain her balance. To avoid losing our balance, we must keep looking to our Savior. Our eyes must return to the same fixed and faithful point.
I don’t know if you have noticed, but God goes to a lot of trouble to help us accept this simple message of love and light; grace and truth. Many people have interpreted God’s actions throughout history as read in scripture as being those of an angry and vindictive God. I would invite you to a different view – to one of God’s simple love for you. Over and over God has called to and pleaded with and reached out to his people, wooing them back from the edge of self-destruction. Only to have humanity repeat over and over the same mistakes, to wander away from the God who loves them, to take their focus away and to spin out of control. But the action of the Word becoming flesh and living among us is the most audacious of them all. Eugene Peterson translates today’s passage this way in the Message translation, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14) Just think of that! That is bold! And daring. And all for one purpose – to make God’s love known to us. To dispense grace and truth to us. To fix our focus on the faithful one. I hope that makes your pulse quicken, your heart beat a little faster, I hope that joy takes blossom in you and that you can grasp that key thing, so that Christ may live in you through faith. To paraphrase Eph 3: “and I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know (really know) this love that goes beyond knowledge and may it fill you with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19, my paraphrase)
“For God so loves the world,”– that is you and me and the person sitting next to you and even the person that aggravates you the most. What an incredible gift, for that is what it is.
The Saturday after Christmas I plan to attend a family gathering at which we will have a gift exchange. Everyone is to bring a gift. And among the gifts there is sure to be at least one gag gift. You know what I mean? A gift such as the Big Mouth Billy Bass plaque? Have you seen it before? It features a rubber fish attached to a piece of wood – and it sings, “take me to the river” as it flops back and forth. Or maybe something like the yodeling pickle (available on Amazon). Or (also seen on Amazon) a new version of the hot potato game where the potato actually shocks you if you are holding it when the timer goes off. If you are the one who walks away with the singing fish, or the pickle, or the potato you can be sure you will experience a lot of good-natured teasing. It is very humbling.
Sometimes we have to humble ourselves to receive a sincere gift that is given to us. This year there has been intense furor over an ad for a Peloton Fitness system bike. In the ad, a husband gives his wife a Peloton exercise bike for Christmas. The look on her face has been interpreted as surprised and even desperate. It doesn’t appear to be the sort of gift she had hoped for and it suggests that she needs to get in shape. Very humbling.
The gifts that children often bring us – wilted flowers, scribbled pictures, pieces of playdoh in an unrecognizable shape – require us to humble ourselves, to be grateful, to look beyond the item to the deep love behind it.
At Christmas, we are reminded of another gift. This gift is the gift of Jesus Christ. Given to us. And it is one of those sort of gifts that requires us to humble ourselves in order to receive it. Out of great love for us, Christ came in a most unusual way to be our savior. And really what other reason than love could there be for such a radical, intensely human entry into our world. For the Messiah of the world came to save not the most glamorous, the most proud, the most efficient – but those who would humble themselves. The only way to receive it is to admit it’s an undeserved grace.
Receiving a gag gift is humbling, receiving a gift that suggests you are out of shape is humbling, receiving a gift that is wilted or scribbled is humbling, but there has never been a more humbling gift than the one offered to us through Jesus Christ. There has never been a gift so life-changing. Receiving this true gift of Christmas means giving up – giving up the idea that we must be perfect in order for God to love us, giving up our checklists, our complicated religious requirements, giving up the idea that we can find our own way and giving in to the simple gift of God’s vast love, knowing that focusing on that (every day) will keep our world from spinning out of control. It only requires that you receive it as the amazing gift of grace that it is. (allow time to consider?) I hope you will. Merry Christmas!