The fourth Sunday of Advent is the celebration of LOVE. This is my favorite aspect of Advent, because with sincere love, we can experience the other three parts of this season: hope, joy and peace. If there was ever a season for the celebration of love, it is Advent. No doubt, busy preparations for Christmas are underway for many people – cooking, decorating, and buying gifts for those we love. Not to be overlooked is the fact that we are preparing for the coming of the greatest gift of all – Jesus.
A tiny ballerina, age 5, was asked what love is. She responded by saying, “I love to dance!” This is a profound statement from such a small pink-tutu-clad young person. Love is a feeling, but it is also an action. It is pure enjoyment, but it is work, and effort, too. It can be internal and private, but sometimes it is so real that it must come out and be expressed vividly. It can be painful (like ballet toe-shoes); or, it can be glorious and beautiful and splendid! Love is a very misunderstood and over-used word. Generally, we can get our heads around the visual affects of love, like a teddy bear, or grandma’s hugs and kisses, but to define love is very difficult.
In our current cultural climate, love can melt away like a snowflake on the warm pavement. We are constantly surrounded by fear, confusion, anger, and disappointment. Loves seems counter-cultural in a world where ugly, painful things are said and done almost daily. In contrast, the word of God gives us a different perspective on life and on love. Certainly, it would take a library of books to carefully study, in depth, the love of God for his people. But I promise to be as brief as I can (which is not always easy for me….).
So, we begin our survey of love in the Gospel of John. Jesus told his followers that, “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now, remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love….My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you…” (Jn 15:5-13). Indeed, this is hard to grasp. Jesus loves us with the unconditional, unfathomable love of the Father. There is no greater love for people than the demonstration of God’s love on the cross (Jn 15:13). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrates two kinds of love — one vertical and one horizontal. God’s love is vertical, reaching down to needy humanity, seen visibly in Christ; horizontally, each person is to love one another as God loves us.
The author of John’s letters punctuates the love of God and the love Christ’s followers show to one another: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”(1 Jn 3:1). “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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….since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:7-12).
Again, this so profound. Imagine, that the love of God is actually made “complete” in us as we love one another. Just as God has forgiven us for our sins, so we are to forgive others and show them grace, simply because God did it first. Love, in fact, is the power to break the chains of bondage of sin, hatred, and retaliation; it can set us free. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? [Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:35, 39).
Perhaps the most well-known Pauline passage about love comes from 1 Corinthians 13. Paul describes love both positively and negatively. Eugene Peterson has re-written this passage in beautiful, contemporary language (from The Message):
“No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut; doesn’t have a swelled head; doesn’t force itself on others; isn’t always ‘me first;’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others; doesn’t revel when others grovel; takes pleasure in the flowering of truth; puts up with anything. Love trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies…..We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us. But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, and love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love” (1 Cor 13:3-13).
What an eloquent, precious passage! Certainly, it is appropriate to be read at weddings, but we should consider each phrase individually, by itself, and review it in our own lives. It can be, no doubt, very convicting. Am I always “patient?” Am I always “kind?” Am I, in fact, “self-seeking?” Then, read as a whole, we can be assured of the constant, timeless, unfathomable love of God for us.
Paul also sent a letter to his “son in the faith,” Timothy, to encourage him and to give him specific instructions. Timothy was told to avoid the “false teachers” in the city of Ephesus and to reject their incorrect and misleading teachings in the church, ideas which were in opposition to the gospel message taught by Paul. Paul said that the “goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). It is noteworthy that love is defined by highlighting three characteristics – “a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Love is the right attitudes and motives (in the “heart”); love is keeping a “clear conscience” to seek only the truth, enlightened by the Holy Spirit (see Ro 9:1; 1 Tim 4:2). And, a genuine faith in Christ is made evident outwardly by loving one another (see Gal 5:6; 2 Tim 1:3-5).
Another favorite Pauline saying is found in his letter to the Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal 5:22-23). Notice that the “fruit” is a singular noun (not plural “fruits”), which means that they all come together as a package deal. You cannot have just “goodness” or “self-control” without “love;” you cannot have “love” without the manifestation of the other eight virtues. In addition, it is the indwelling Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit) that produces the fruit within us. By his power, we are able to demonstrate all these virtues; without him, it is an impossible task (Gal 5:19-21).
Love is more than a mushy, romantic comedy movie (which I love – true confession). Now and forever, “faith, hope and love” remain. They will never go away, no matter how hard “the enemy” tries to negate their presence in this world. God is love, and he is not going anywhere (1 Jn 4:8). Since he has communicated his love to us (1 Jn 4:10, 19), he commands us to love one another (i.e., Jn 13:34-35). He loves us so much that he gives us his own Holy Spirit so that we are empowered to love others in the same way that he loves us – forgiving, encouraging, acting out of kindness, giving and caring….
My pastor once prayed, “Lord, help me to be known for my love, not my ideology.” That is, we walk the walk, not just talk the talk. With humility, we are to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (Eph 5:2). Quite simply, we are to love God and love others. And we can do this; only then can we have the joy and peace and hope we seek – and we can dance!
So to everyone: have a wonder-filled, hopeful, joyous, peaceful and loving Christmas in 2021!