“Experiencing Love”

This is the last sermon from my Advent series. I preached it a week late, on this past Boxing Day, because of the previous week’s snowstorm.

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent his Son as the world’s Savior. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God—God remains in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.

1 John 4:7–16

It’s the most well-known Bible verse of all time, so well-known that people at football games would hold up banners just with the Bible reference. You know it well: John 3:16.  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Another translation puts it this way: For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.And at the heart of John 3:16 is God’s love made known in the sending of the Son into the world to bring everlasting life.

And here we are. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. We’ve lit the last candle, the candle of love. And of all the themes of Advent, love is at risk of being the most sentimentalized and misunderstood.

When we think of John 3:16—and especially the part where it says For God so loved the world—we want to be careful to define love by understanding who God is—and what the Bible says—rather than define God (and his love) by our human experiences of love.

Often in our world love is defined as an emotion, by how we feel about this or that person. We say things like, “I love you SOOOO much!” That’s an expression of emotion. And while our emotions are a part of love, love is much, much more than that.

C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” Think about that definition: Love is . . . a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good. That means that God’s “steady wish” for us—his ultimate will and desire for us—is to have eternal life, to be with him forever. Jesus comes into the world to make this happen. And all of this because God loves.

In our passage from 1 John 4, the apostle says this: God is love. God not only loves; he is love. Love is at the heart of who God is.

And so if want to understand what this love is like, we listen to what he did out of the overflow of his love. 1 John 4 continues: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Sounds just like John 3:16.

The Greek language in the NT has several words for love, because there are different kinds of love. There’s the love between friends. There’s romantic love. But the word used of God is agape. David Nelmes explains it this way:

“Agape love [is] unconditional love that is always giving and impossible to take . . . It devotes total commitment to seek your highest best no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not.”

This is the love that God reveals in the sending of the Son, our Lord Jesus. This is the love that God is. And so it is with this kind of love that God loves you.

Do we believe God loves us? I mean, really believe it? Do we believe his love is unconditional or that he only loves us when we behave or perform?

Working on my message this week, I came across these words from Joseph Langford:

“The same God who loves us as we are also loves us too much to leave us as we are. Perhaps because we tend to hold to ideas about God that reflect our own suppositions and fears, more than God’s self-revelation. We reduce God to our own dimensions, ascribing to him our own reactions and responses, especially our own petty and conditional kind of love, and so end up believing in a God cast in our own image and likeness.”

Because here’s the thing: while I don’t think most of us believe God’s love is conditional, I also doubt we believe his love is unconditional. Not completely, anyway. Because I think we often live as though God’s love is semi-conditional. We say we believe his love is unconditional and that it doesn’t depend on our good behavior or how well we perform. Yet I think we often live differently. We live as though the way we act has an effect on his love for us.

For instance, do we ever avoid praying because we haven’t prayed in a while? Do we ever feel like maybe God is angry at us or disappointed with us?

Or to put it another way: Have you ever felt frustrated with God or even angry at him because even though you always go to church and put money in the offering plate, someone you love still got sick or something in your life went wrong?

In both cases, aren’t you basing God’s love for you on what you do, on how you live or behave? Either that your poor behavior keeps God from loving you or that your good behavior guarantees that he will? And does that sound like unconditional love to you? Aren’t you putting conditions on God’s love that God doesn’t? But isn’t this how we live sometimes?

I heard someone say this once: “Nothing you do (or don’t do) can make God love you more or love you less.” That’s unconditional love. That’s what it means to say that God is love.

So let me ask: Is this how you see God? Is this how you relate to God? Do you see God’s love for you as unconditional? And what might it mean—and how might it affect you—to believe that God’s love for you is unconditional?

Every day I tell my kids I love them. Most days, anyway. And often when I do, they will say, “I know. You tell me all the time.” I just want them to be sure. But making sure they know means more than saying words. I want my love to be perfectly unconditional. But it can’t be. Because I am flawed. I am sinful. I am broken. I show them I love them, yes, but imperfectly. Thankfully, God is perfect. Thankfully, his love is unconditional.

And ultimately, this is first and foremost how God loves. By perfectly showing us. By perfectly acting to bring about our ultimate good. As John 3:16 says, God loved the world in this way. How? By the sending of the Son into the world.

This is why the love candle is the penultimate candle in the Advent wreath (the last candle is traditionally the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve). The greatest of these is love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13. And we know this precisely because by how God acted upon his love.

The coming of Christ into the world through the incarnation—which begins with the manger and ends with the cross and empty tomb—is both miracle and mystery. It’s simple enough for a child to grasp but yet deep enough for us grown-ups to forever ponder.

I’ve always loved how Eugene Peterson translated John 1:14: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Best Christmas Bible verse ever. God loves you so much that he wants to move in next door. Better put, he wants to move right into your house.

To show us his love God came into our world. The second Person of the triune Godhead took on flesh, blood, and bone, confined himself to time and space, in order to demonstrate his love for us. The Creator entered his creation. The Painter entered his painting. 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once said, “The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.”

And here’s the truth: this was the only way for us to come to know and experience God’s love. Only through the Son of God coming into the world. Only by God becoming human in Jesus. Only by Jesus going to the cross to remove the barrier between ourselves and God. That is the perfect, complete, and ultimate expression and demonstration of the love of God. To know Christ is to know God’s love.

By becoming one of us, God the Son pursues our ultimate God. By becoming one of us, God shows his unconditional love. By becoming one of us, God shows he is love.

While I am unable to comprehend this adequately or completely, I can receive this beautiful, wondrous truth and absorb it into my life. In fact, I can only receive it, trust it, and put my faith in it. I can’t wrap my mind around the God who was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But I can kneel. I can repent. I can worship. I can allow this love of God to take hold of me—or pray that God will take hold of me with it.

What about you? What keeps you from receiving or experiencing the love of God? Is it past or ever present hurts? Feelings of guilt or anger? Have you perhaps imagined God to be other than he is, as a tyrant looking to trip you up rather than as a Father looking to embrace you? Or as a distant, cold deity rather than as Emmanuel, God with us? Or as a legalistic rule-maker, rather than as the Good Shepherd who wants to lead you into wide, green pastures?

How do you need to experience the love of God this Christmas? Where does the light of his love need to shine into your life? Do you need his perfect love to dispel your fears? To bring you comfort?

If nothing else, Christmas ought to remind us that God is love. Christmas ought to remind us that God went to the utmost to give us his utmost. Christmas ought to remind us that God gives us the gift of himself. 

There’s 12 More Days of Christmas!

When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:10-11

Years (and years!) ago my grandfather would always say right after Christmas dinner, “Christmas is now further away than ever!”

Calendrically, he was correct. The next December 25 is a full year away. Only 365 shopping days till the next Christmas!

But it’s not entirely true. After all, there are the 12 days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6. That’s where the well-known song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” comes from! And January 6 is what some used to call “Old Christmas.” Usually Christians refer to it as Epiphany, the day we acknowledge the appearance or revelation of the Christ child to the Gentiles in the biblical story of the magi honouring Jesus with their gifts.

That’s why we leave our tree and lights up until after New Year’s. Not because we’re lazy. And, yeah, we also enjoy the Christmas lights and like leaving them up for awhile longer. Actually, we’ll probably take the tree down but leave other lights up until the days get longer and the evenings are lighter.

So don’t think that Christmas is over. More, the story of Christmas—of the Son of God penetrating space and time to bring hope and healing to our broken, hurting world—is a story for any time of year, for 12 more days and beyond!

Christ is the Lord of Time

Here is a portion of this morning’s Advent Project devotional, written by Rev. Dr. David McNutt, Associate Editor at IVP Academic and Professor of Theology and Philosophical Aesthetics at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. I have genuinely been loving this devotional series. And I am also grateful that it continues through the “12 days of Christmas,” therefore ends on Epiphany and not tomorrow.

“Let Evening Come”
by Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

“What shapes our understanding of time as Christians? Of course, as embodied creatures, we live under the same reality of time as everyone else. We set our clocks back (or forward) like others. Our taxes are due on the same day. We have parent-teacher conferences, trash pick-up days, doctor’s appointments, and church services that rely on an agreed upon understanding that this is when such-and-such will take place. And yet, as followers of Christ, our understanding of time is – or should be – quite different than worldly views. For Christians, time is part of God’s good creation and therefore falls under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made (Jn 1:10; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2). Thus, it is the season of Advent and our collective anticipation of Christ’s birth, not January 1, that marks the beginning of the Christian year. In today’s world, this practice is almost an act of defiance. No, my calendar is not determined by the next mattress sale, soccer tryouts, or the first snowfall. My time is marked by the Lordship of Jesus Christ. On this Christmas Eve, we praise God, for we witness the fulfillment of the promise found in Isaiah’s prophetic words. We take comfort in the fact that the eternal Son became incarnate. We take comfort in the fact that he has come into this world, which is so often a series of winding, bumpy roads, in order to make a straight, smooth path. We take comfort in the fact that he bound himself to time, becoming truly human. And we can also take comfort in the fact that Christ is the Lord of time – not just of Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but of all time. Indeed, as the eternal Son and Word of God, he is the Lord of the “time before time” and the “time after time.” So, in the words of American poet Jane Kenyon, we can say, “let evening come.” Yes, let evening come. Let evening come because we know what awaits us in the morning. Let evening come because our Lord is the Lord of time.”

Christmas with Stuart McLean

My wife and I began listening to Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe nearly 20 years ago. Listening to the Christmas ones has become a regular part of our family’s annual Christmas traditions.

The most famous of McLean’s Christmas stories is “Dave Cooks the Turkey.” If you’ve never listened to Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe, much less this particular story, it’s time for you to address this egregious omission on your part. Trust me now and thank me later.

And Merry Christmas!

Prepared for Christmas?

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Isaiah 40:3

Do I feel prepared for Christmas?

What do most people think about when thinking about preparing for Christmas?

We have a decorated Christmas tree and some lights strung up inside the house.

There are presents under our tree. Our Christmas shopping is 98.5% done. I may in fact get a few more stocking stuffers for the kids.

All we need for Christmas dinner is in our fridge, freezer, and cupboard. Except for the pies a friend is bringing. Oh yeah, and whipping cream.

But is that it? Is that what it means to prepare for Christmas? Given the meaning of the season, how else could or should we prepare?

Thinking of the words from Isaiah above, which are quoted by John the Baptist as he preaches in advance of Jesus starting his ministry, have we been preparing the way of the Lord?

Our family has been doing Advent devotions most evenings since the end of November. We’ve been doing a series of devotions based on the idea of The Jesse Tree. We’ve missed some nights, so we’ve been doubling up to catch up. Included in our devotions are our Advent candles. And, yes, it also involves Advent chocolate/calendars.

Were it not for Advent and what we do as a family, I would find this season much less meaningful.

I think of preparing the way of the Lord as doing all I can not to get preoccupied with the commercial and materialistic and consumeristic aspects of Christmas. And teaching our kids likewise.

I think of preparing the way of the Lord as setting all of the other cultural ways of observing Christmas within the larger framework of the story God tells through the coming of Christ.

I think of preparing the way of the Lord as engaging in self reflection and self-examination that leads to repentance.

I think of preparing the way of the Lord as cultivating habits that create a receptivity in my heart for God’s word—making room for his presence in my life.

Am I prepared for Christmas in these ways? I guess I would say I am still in the process of preparing. Truthfully, it’s a process that extends beyond Christmas but must include it. And it’s a process I’m grateful to be going through.

How are you making a highway for God? How are you preparing a way for the Lord to enter your life during this Christmas season?

A Father’s Embrace

I’m over my head and lost

And the ground feels unstable and I can’t make this stop

But this I call, this I call to mind

How the Father runs to the wayward son

Comin’ back alive

Storehouse,” The Gray Havens

The above depiction of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) is by Nova Scotia artist Matthew Cupido. It was given to me by a friend and mentor at the end of a spiritual retreat a few years ago. I added the quote from the parable underneath.

As someone who was abandoned by his own father, I have often struggled with accepting God’s love for me. Often we unconsciously project our broken human relationships onto our ideas of God. I know I have. I probably still do, at least sometimes. And as a result I am still learning to receive and experience the unconditional love of my Heavenly Father, shown ultimately through the coming of Christ.

Christmas reminds me of the extent God will go to embrace me, to demonstrate his love, and to make me his own. Jesus’ parable, imagined by Cupido and referenced by The Gray Havens in their song quoted above, is the story of the Father’s love. In the incarnation this love took on flesh and blood. This season is about many things, but it is about this most of all.

Experiencing Joy

Below is a revised version of my sermon from this past Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent.

Years ago a friend of mine—who is typically not the most emotionally expressive—said this: “I party on the inside.”

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us who are Christians party on the inside. That is, we don’t naturally express our emotions. We’re not effusive. If we’re feeling especially joyful, it might not show on the outside.

Once a Presbyterian pastor made sure everyone in church had a helium balloon. Knowing his congregation was not outwardly expressive, he told them to release their balloon during the service at the moment they had a sense of inner-joy. Eventually, people began letting go of their balloons. By the end of the service most of the balloons were on the ceiling.

Are we joyful? If I had handed out helium balloons, would they all be on the ceiling by the end of the service?

I might be wrong, but I sometimes wonder if of all the Advent themes—hope, peace, joy, and love—joy is the most difficult one for us to actually experience.

We look at the world, at the kinds of difficulties we and our loved ones experience, and joy seems impossible. Joy seems unrealistic. Or dishonest. Or even unfair. Who are we to be joyful when there’s much wrong with the world?

Let’s be honest: a lot of the time we tend to focus on negative things than on positive things, on what we can complain about rather than what we can rejoice over. What does it mean, then, to experience joy here and now, in our lives, whatever else is going on?

Last week we talked about how God is a God of peace. We talked about how our God never panics and is never overwhelmed by fear. But did you also know our God is a joyful God?

Listen to these words from Zephaniah 3:17: The Lord your God is among you, a warrior who saves. He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will be quiet in his love. He will delight in you with singing.

So what do we see here? God rejoices over his people with gladness. He delights in his people with singing. God’s love for you leads him to rejoice over you, to take delight in you, and to sing because of you.

And that’s not the only place in Scripture we see this. Consider Jesus’ parable of the lost coin from Luke 15:8—10:

Or what woman who has ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  When she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found the silver coin I lost!’ I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.”

Again, do you hear what Jesus is saying here? When God finds and saves a lost sinner, he rejoices. And there is joy and celebration in heaven in the presence of all of the angels.

Maybe think of it this way: God loves to throw a party. God loves to celebrate. And to do so because he redeems and restores, he heals and he saves, he rescues and delivers, and all of this because he loves us.

So: experiencing joy is possible because we have a joyful God.

We don’t worship or serve a God who is sour and dour. We don’t love and follow a morose Savior. We have a God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who is joy. The delight he has known from all eternity within the triune Godhead, he pours out on us. He wants us to experience the very joy that he is.

Have you ever thought of God as joyful? And that God rejoices over you, celebrates and takes great joy in how you trust him and love him and seek to live for him? What do you think about this? And doesn’t it bring you even a little bit of joy?

Maybe we still think: “I don’t feel joyful. There’s too much to be upset or worried or sad about.”

After the people of Israel had returned from exile—a devastating time of darkness and despair—and had begun to put things back together again, Ezra the priest read the Law of Moses to the people. In Nehemiah 8:9—10 we read this:

Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all of them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go and eat what is rich, drink what is sweet, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, since today is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Upon hearing the Law, the wept. They took the Law of the Lord seriously. However, Ezra and Nehemiah and the other leaders told the people not to mourn or weep. William MacDonald describes the scene this way:

“The people’s tears showed that the message was taken seriously (v. 9). They were right in taking the Word of God seriously, but they did not need to be overwhelmed by grief. The feast was not for weeping but for rejoicing. Only one occasion for mourning and fasting was found among Israel’s feasts, and that was the Day of Atonement. The rest of the feasts were to be kept with joy and celebration. The fruit of the Spirit was to be visible: love, in sharing with the less fortunate; joy, in eating and drinking before the Lord; peace, in calming their fears and putting their hearts at rest. Their sadness was turned to joy, and the joy of the LORD was their strength.”

Experiencing joy is possible when we celebrate God’s work in our lives.

And maybe that’s a good word to think about when we’re thinking about what it means to experience joy: celebrate.

To celebrate means to do something special or enjoyable for an important event, occasion, or holiday; to praise someone or something; to say that someone or something is great or important; and to perform a religious ceremony.

We see some of this in our passage from Nehemiah. We also see this in the parable of the lost coin. Celebration! Maybe we need more of that!

Here’s the thing: if we want to experience joy, we have to practice joy. It’s not always about waiting to experience joy. Sometimes it’s about cultivating joy. About doing things that remind us why we should be joyful.

Think of the word rejoice. When I hear that word I think of a few things. I think of thanksgiving. I think of blessing. I think of celebration. And, of course, joy. To rejoice is to rehearse our reasons for joy. It’s to practice being joyful. And we do this to train our hearts and minds to be more consistently aware of why we can be joyful.

Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once said: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

That’s why the people of Israel had regular feasts and celebrations. They had scheduled times for rejoicing! They needed reminding and so do we.

Think of the words from Nehemiah. The joy of the Lord is your strength. The joy that is at the heart of our God can also be ours. Who God is and what God does is our greatest source of joy.

And having God as our source of joy means we can experience joy even when circumstances aren’t what we want them to be. Taking joy in who God is and what he does gives us strength—strength to keep trusting, strength to face difficult situations, strength to keep praying, to keep serving Jesus, to keep going day by day. 

What are some simple and small ways you can celebrate who God is and what God does? How can you remind yourself that our God is a God of joy and that he our greatest source of joy?

In Philippians 4:4 Paul says these seemingly impossible words: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

This is not a suggestion. It’s an exhortation, a command. And remember that when the Lord tells us to do something, he does so for our well-being, so we can grow in our faith, draw nearer to him, and be more and more transformed into people whose attitudes and actions are not altogether determined by our circumstances.

I think we have an obligation—a holy responsibility, actually—to be people of joy, to live like people who worship a joyful God.

I think our world needs people like us whose joy, happiness, contentment, and peace is not determined by what’s going on all around us, by the bad news we hear or the trials and troubles we face. 

I think we need to be people of joy because so many people are discouraged, tired, fearful, and worried.

I think we need to be people of joy because we need to take our eyes off of what’re struggling with, what we can’t control, and put our eyes on Jesus, our Lord, our Savior, God with us.

Put simply: experiencing joy is how we share the joy of the Lord.

Where do you and those you love need to know the joy of the Lord? How might you bring some of that joy into the situation? How can you help others experience the joy of the Lord?

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Here is one of the verses:

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high, And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.

I think we need to pay attention to these words. These words are a prayer, are they not? And listen to that refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.

Theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Advent is a season of hopefully waiting, of entering more deeply into God’s peace, of reflecting on the meaning of Jesus as God with us; and of joy. Joy that God has come to us in Christ. Joy that he seeks us out to forgive, to heal, and to rescue us. Joy that we are more than our circumstances. Joy that is at the very heart of God himself.

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”

Written in 1744 by Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” is easily one of my favourite Christmas hymns. In fact, it’s been the first hymn in the order of worship for the first Sunday of Advent pretty much every year I’ve been a pastor.

The best Christmas hymns are a combination of hope and longing, and include joy and a hint of melancholy. It’s that desire for God to act, to intervene in the mess of the world, knowing it only ever happens partially on this side of Christ’s Second Advent. But there’s also this joy and celebration that not only is there hope but that we can—here and now—experience something of God’s saving grace and the peace we long to know. Hope sustains us in difficulties and gives us a joy that our circumstances can’t explain, a settled-ness of heart that our ultimate comfort comes not from the things of this world.

Come, thou long expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee
Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart