Isaiah 52:7-10/Psalm 98/Hebrews 1:1-4/John 1:1-14
A very good morning to you all, a very good Christmas morning. We are delighted that you have joined us for this festive occasion. This happy morning we join the multitude of the heavenly host in the great proclamation: “…to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord…Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and goodwill among all people.” [Luke: 2:11, 14]
I’ve been pondering lately what I’d like to have written on my tombstone. We don’t do epitaphs on tombstones, and I don’t expect to need one any time soon, but if we did and if I did, I think I’ve settled on what I’d like to have, just three words: “He loved well.” He loved well…
Well, I don’t deserve this—yet. I think I’d get a passing grade, but my score would probably be somewhere in the great bulge of mediocrity on the bell curve of love. Some days are better than others. But even mediocrity is something to celebrate; that there is such a thing as love in the cosmos is something to celebrate. That we can love at all is one of those miracles we often overlook. Today we celebrate that miracle: “Love came down at Christmas”. Love came down at Christmas and stayed. Love came down at Christmas and has stayed with us and within us. Alongside us and in the mangers of our hearts. The mangers of our hearts, which are also royal thrones.
It’s been a year of dark things and we have been face to face with evil too many times. We don’t need to recite the litany of atrocities we’ve witnessed: the outrage of atrocities committed in the name of God, the outrage of atrocities committed in the name of this country. The slaughter of innocents is seared into our hearts.
Yet, some have loved well. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John 1:5] A couple weeks ago there was a story in the Boston Globe about a widow who had put her diamond ring in a Salvation Army kettle. It came with a note: “I’ve dropped my wedding ring in your Red Kettle knowing that the money from its sale will buy toys for needy children…In all seasons, my husband was a giver. I especially remember his joy in giving at Christmastime, especially to those in need. To honor his memory, I donate this ring.” [Boston Globe, Dec. 9; p. B1]
In this touching act of generosity, this woman loved well. Oh, and the other woman who bought the ring from the Salvation Army for over ten times its value and gave it back to the first woman—she loved well, too. [Boston Globe, Dec. 24] Glory to God in the highest heaven! Love came down at Christmas and stayed.
We remember the doctors and health care workers who risked their lives and, in some cases, gave up their lives, serving those stricken by deadly disease. In this self-giving service, they loved well. Love came down and stayed. Glory to God in the highest!
We remember Malala Yousafzai, the teenage advocate for the education of girls in an area of the world that is still shockingly barbaric in its treatment of women. They tried to kill her, but in her steadfast and courageous advocacy, Malala still loves well. Glory to God!
Love is paradoxical. On the one hand, “love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave.” So sings the Song of Songs. So proclaims Love himself in his passion, death and resurrection.
On the other hand, love comes into this world as fragile, as vulnerable, as unformed as a newborn baby. Yes, Love is stronger than death; yes, light shines in the darkness and is not overcome. But love also needs the protection, the nurturing, the encouragement of a little child. Paradoxically, the little child that leads us, this little child whose name is Love, also needs to grow to maturity. As Luke says of the little boy of the manger whose name is Love: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.” Love increased in wisdom.
I wonder if Jesus found his way by degrees to the perfection of love he showed on the last day of his earthly life. It’s only in the last few hours before his death that we see the washing of the disciples’ feet, the tender embrace of a beloved disciple, and his self-offering on the Cross. Is it possible that something finally came together for him only these last few hours of his life? It’s only in those last few hours that we see Jesus with anyone “reclining in his bosom”, as the Greek puts it. It’s only then that we see the Master on his knees washing anyone’s feet. And, of course, you can only lay down your life once. I wonder if even Jesus might have been mediocre in love before reaching the fearless perfection of those last few hours.
The verse about Jesus increasing in wisdom comes immediately after the story of his going to hang out in the Temple without telling his parents. [Luke 2:41-52] They become frantic. When they do find him (after three days!), he says rather cheekily: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary and Joseph’s immediate response is not recorded. But Luke does tell us (with a twinkle, perhaps?) that Jesus then became obedient to them. And got smarter. “Jesus increased in wisdom…” Love increased in wisdom.
And even as an adult Jesus could be callous, even rude, at least by ordinary standards. “Woman, what has that to do with you or me? My hour has not yet come.” [John 2:4] Words to his mother at a wedding. All she had said was, “They have no wine.” The gospel does not record her response to this way of putting things, only that he got busy right away turning water into wine.
And we might remember Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman who begged him to heal her daughter [Mark 7:24-30]. Well, after he as much as called her a dog, she challenged him, he changed his tune and healed the girl. The gospel writers might have left out these less than flattering details, but they don’t. Yes, the little child who leads us, the little child whose name is Love, the little child who came down at Christmas loved well—eventually. But in the meantime, perhaps he was mediocre in love, too. It was on his last day on earth that the child whose name is Love loved perfectly—and that love was shown to be stronger than death.
He loved fully, completely, perfectly. But Jesus was Jesus –and we’re not. However, there’s hope for all who would love well. He said we would. Love said we shall love God with all our hearts. He said we shall love our neighbors as ourselves. He said we shall. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Mark 12:30-31] He said we shall! The gospel writers record Jesus’s Summary of the Law in the future tense. We can hear these words as commandment; we can also hear them as promise, as prediction.
And what a promise! This is a season of high hopes and great expectations; and what could be higher and greater than to love well? Perhaps the Love in the manger of our hearts is still vulnerable to the cold winds of fear. Perhaps the Love in the manger of our hearts still needs to mature, to grow in wisdom. Perhaps the Love growing in our hearts still has a long way to go to reach the perfection of Christ’s last day on earth.
No matter. In the fullness of time and eternity Love does reach toward perfection—in us and through us! [1 John 4:12] And this Love is stronger than death. And this Love has come down to us. This Love has come down to us and stayed, even in the darkness of a barbaric and dangerous world—but the darkness does not overcome it.
Which is why we’re here for this glittering celebration. It’s why the little child who leads us is here in the manger. Love is the reason for the party. Because Love is possible, because Love reaches for full maturity, Love grows toward perfection, even in these fragile and imperfect hearts of ours. We shall love well. We shall.
There is nothing greater to celebrate. There is no greater reason for fine music, elegant silk damask, gleaming silver and candlelight and the wafting fragrance of Frankincense. There is nothing greater to celebrate. And so we do. A very Merry Christmas to you all, beloved in Christ. May our hearts rejoice with all the heavenly host in the promise of Love perfected in us [1 John 4:12].
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and goodwill among all people.”
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