The title of today’s message is Love Came Down at Christmas. And that title is taken from a Christmas carol you’ve probably sung it in the past. It’s actually taken from a poem that was written in 1880’s by a woman named Christina Rossetti. Christina Rossetti lived in Victorian England. She was a poet known very well in England in her day from a family of artists and writers and poets. And she composed this poem set to music years later after her death. She composed this poem which captured her faith and her understanding of what was happening at Christmas. Listen to her beautiful words:
Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas, Stars 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 to all men, Love for plea and gift and sign.
The three stanzas of this poem form the outline for the message today—as we consider the idea
that Christmas is truly a love story.
Let’s begin with this idea of who God is. 88 to 92 % of all Americans say they believe in God, or a higher power, a supreme being, something more than themselves.
Ask them what that something more is like, ask them what God is like and you are going to get a plethora of answers. JB Philips suggested years ago in his little book, Your God is Too Small that maybe the answers that many people have when it comes to their conception of God is inadequate. In this book he suggested that some people have a concept of God where God is police officer, waiting to catch you in the act of doing something wrong. Or others have the idea that God is judge, waiting to sentence you when you’ve done something wrong; when you’ve been caught. Some people have a concept of God as a father, very much like their earthly father who might have been detached, too busy,
unengaged, or angry.
Now even in the Bible we find that different Biblical authors have different conceptions of God. So
you go to the O.T. in particular and you’ve got 1800 years of Biblical literature there and you will find that people’s conceptions of God changed over that time. Some focused more on this concept of God and other on that concept of God. You go to the earlier literature and you find God as a warrior, like the other gods of the ancient near East. In other places you find that God is vengeful and jealous. Sometimes you find God’s primary attribute being holiness.
And then you move into other concepts of God that feel a bit loftier to us—that God is just. God is righteous. God is merciful---until finally you come to the idea of God’s love.
Now we find this in the Old Testament but it really cries out when we get to the New Testament – that God is a God of love. We see that in the passage of scripture we have before us today from 1 John where we read these words:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
The defining attribute of God’s character according to I John is that God is love. But it will be helpful for us to understand what the Bible means when it speaks of love—both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. 200 times in the Old Testament we find God lifted up as having the primary attribute of love.
Two Hebrew words are used to describe love in the Old Testament that would be helpful for you to know: The first word is hessed. Hessed is usually translated as steadfast love, but the challenge of the word hessed is that is has such rich meaning that no one or even two English words adequately convey the sense of what hessed means. So it’s helpful for us if “God is hessed” for us to understand what that means. So hessed speaks specifically of the covenant that God has with us—that God is a God of covenant love.
Sometimes the word is translated as loyalty. So hessed means that God will not abandon you—no
matter what you have done, no matter how terrible you have been—that God will not abandon you. God is faithful and steadfast and God will not fall away from you.
There is also this sense in which the covenant God makes with His people is an uneven covenant – that you can’t possibly give back to God what God gives back to you. Hessed is giving to someone that might not necessarily deserve what you are giving. So sometimes the word is translated as mercy or grace, something you don’t deserve but you receive. Then there is the sense of hessed being seeking out the well being of the other. This sort of encompasses all the others….the idea that God wants your well being. God wants what is good for you. God wants to bless you. God wants you to have life and have it abundantly, as Jesus said. So all of these meanings are captured in the idea of the steadfast,
hessed love of the Lord.
There is another word that is translated as love in the Old Testament and that is most commonly used for love and it is the word ahava. And ahava comes from the root word “hav” and that word in Hebrew means “give.” So ahava means “I give.” But it typically is translated as love. So what this points to is something very important. In the Hebrew Bible love is not a feeling you fall into. Love is a decision of the will and it is manifested in actions.
So it’s cheap to say to somebody, “I love you,” without following it up with actions. But the actions that entails are the actions of self-giving of one to another. It includes the willingness to give up what is in our own best interests in order to bless you and to encourage you and to help you and to stand by you and to love you.
This helps me when I think about what love looks like in my relationships—in my relationship with Robin and the boys. Love is not just a feeling that I have. Love is primarily a willingness to give of myself to them— a willingness to think first about their well-being and rather than my own. This is what Biblical love looks like. It’s a giving.
Now in the New Testament the two Greek words for love are very similar to these Old Testament words. There’s philia and agape. Philia – you’ll recognize that word from Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love – philia is a brotherly or sisterly love, the kind of love kin have for one another.
Now my sister Krissy used to really annoy me when we were growing up – she still does sometimes – but if someone tried to pick on her, I’m telling you, you better not pick on my sister. That’s my sister. You don’t mess with my sister. I mess with her, but you don’t mess with her.
So that’s what philia looks like. It is a covenant love, a loyalty. It’s not just a feeling. It’s sticking with you because you are my kin or my good friend. It can also have that sense of emotion and connection between a mother and a child, or what a brother and a sister or a good friendship has. But it is primarily a way of acting.
Now the word, agape, in the N.T is primarily used to signify sacrificial love—a love that motivates me to put your needs before my own. So when we get to the word the Bible uses to describe God’s love for us in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross—it’s the word agape, the self-giving God. So we find this idea of giving is central to the idea of love. That God’s nature and character is that God gives to us. God seeks our well-being. God stays faithful to us; loyal to us; in covenant with us. God shows mercy and kindness to us.
That’s the primary attribute of God according to 1 John 4. And because this idea of giving is so important to love we find in John 3: 16 words you recognize, “For God so loved the world that he,” did what? He gave. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” These two go hand in hand. To love is to give, and it is God’s nature to give. So John in I John 4 said this, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way. God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God loved us. God sought to save us from ourselves—from death, from fear. God sought to redeem us as His people. He sought to bring about our well being by giving himself, by expressing the willingness to suffer for us. This is what God’s character is. This is what love is. So Christmas is a love story. It is a story of a God who loves humankind, who loves us so much that he is willing to pour himself, his very essence into human flesh. God is willing to walk among us to show us love—ultimately to show us love by laying down his life for us. This is a love story.
Now it is hard for us sometimes to really wrap our minds around what that kind of love feels like and
looks like. But every once in a while God gives us indicators in this world—just glimpses of that unconditional love—that says “I love you no matter what you have done. I still love you. You are mine. I formed you in your mother’s womb and I love you.”
Some of those indicators are like when my kids were small, and I would get home from work, and they would hear the car pull up and they would ran out the door screaming, “Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home”, and they would want to hug and jump up in my arms. And it didn’t matter to them if I had done a good job that day—it didn’t matter—they just loved me—unconditionally. It was really great. It was really cool. And that lasted until they were about 13.
Today, I get that unconditional love from our dogs, Shelley and Shiloh. I mentioned them last week. They will sit on the steps where they can look out the window. And when my truck pulls into the driveway they go crazy. Shelly gets up on her hind legs and stands there barking at the top of her lungs with her shrill high-pitched bark. She won’t stop till I put everything down and pick her up and hug her. She doesn’t care that I did a good job that day or not. She just loves to have me home and close by again.
On Fridays I often work on my sermons at home. And I sit there in the reclining love seat and I have my laptop there and I put a blanket on my legs. And every Friday when I’m working on my sermon Shelly is laying there on the blanket by my feet and Shiloh is right beside me wedged down in the gap between the two cushions on the loveseat. All day long they will sit there.
Maybe that is why I have come to love that little video about how dogs show us God’s love. The first time I saw it I started to watch it I thought, “Oh this is kind of hokey and sappy.” But by the time I got to the end of it I had tears brimming in my eyes. I thought you might enjoy it as a way to help you get a sense of the love of God.
What a picture of the extravagant, wonderful love of God which is what Christina Rossetti was speaking about in that first stanza of her poem—“Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine, love was born at Christmas , star and angels gave the sign.”
Now each of us needs to be loved. We were created that way. You watch a baby who’s crying. Then you watch as the baby’s mommy or daddy holds it tight and as they quiet down because they long to be loved. They don’t even understand it and they need it.
Throughout our entire lives we have that same desire to be treasured and loved, to have somebody who looks at us and values us. Now some folks, maybe some of you never received that when you were little. And that’s sad, but here’s the thing. Your parents may have never told you that they loved you. Your spouse might not tell you that enough. Your heart might have been broken by your kids. There is One who loves you, who formed you in your mother’s womb, —One who knows all your stuff and still loves you-- with a steadfast, covenant kind of love that says, “I will not let you go.” And when you finally begin to get that—when you really trust that this is true- it changes everything.
For Christians the ultimate sign of this love is what happened when Jesus gave his life for us on the cross. So we look at the cross and although it is a sign of execution for Romans, when we look at it we see the depth of God’s love. How much does God love us? And God answers as he stretches out his arms and says, “I love you this much. I love you enough to suffer for you. I love you enough to die for you. I love you this much.” Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this that they lay down their life for their friends.”
And so we look at the cross and we remember the sacrifice that He made. We remember His love. We look at the cross and it is a reminder to us of the extravagant love of God.
Several months ago I was reading a book and in the book there was the story of Brennan Manning. Now I’ve known Brennan Manning’s work for a while. He wrote a book call the Ragamuffin Gospel which I really enjoyed. He’s written numerous other books. He’s a Catholic priest. He left the priesthood but continued to write and speak and share his life with people. But I had never known this about Brennan Manning. He was actually born Richard Manning.
And when he was in the Marine Corp during the Korean War, he was dropped in behind enemy lines in North Korea. And there he and his group of soldiers bravely were working their way to try to establish forward position. And he and another fellow - so Richard Manning and Ray Brennan were the two guys who were sent in front of the rest of the group. And as they went forward they would look for the enemy soldiers, they would be establishing a forward position so that all of the rest of the guys could come forward. And at one point they were resting as they were preparing to come forward. And then Richard describes what happened next. He says, “We were passing a chocolate bar back and forth, Ray Brennan and myself. Ray took the last bite when a grenade lobbed by an undetected North Korean landed squarely in the center of the bunker. Ray was the first to spot it. Almost nonchalantly he flipped the candy wrapper aside and fell on the grenade. It detonated instantly. His stomach smothered the explosion. And I was completely unharmed and untouched. He looked up at me and he winked and rolled over and died.”
And Richard Manning said he came back from the war in Korea knowing that Ray Brennan gave his life so that he might live. And so he changed his first name from Richard to Brennan. So that he might never forget that the life he lived was bought with a price. And that he might live a life worthy of the sacrifice that was given to him.
How do you live in response to a love so great that someone lays down their life for you? You take their name! You are Christ-ians. And you seek to live a life that honors the sacrifice that was made for you – in worship, in praise, in daily living.
Which is what Christiana Rossetti captured in the second stanza of her poem. “Worship we the Godhead—love incarnate, love divine. Worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign.”
At first that line puzzled me a bit, (but wherewith the sacred sign) and then I looked at it for a while and it became clear. At the end of first stanza where Rossetti says, “Stars and angels were the sign.” You remember the star was the sign for the wise men, that love had come down to this earth, and for the shepherds it was angels; they were the sign proclaiming that love came down at Christmas.
And in the second stanza having come to see that love ourselves and beginning to worship God for that love she asks the question, “How will others see that sign? What will be the sign for everyone else?” The shepherds and wise men had the star and the angels, but what about the people you know. “But wherewith for the sacred sign?”
Then she answers that question in the last stanza. She says, “Love, love shall be our token. Love shall be
yours, love be mine. Love to God and to all men. Love for plea and gift and sign.”
Love is our response to the extravagant love of God that came down at Christmas. Love is the sign that we offer to others of the fact that Christ has come. All this happens because God’s love changes us so we are able to love other people. When you operate with a deficit of love and you’re not sure if you are really loved; then you’re afraid to give love away, because how can you give away something you are not sure you have enough of. You can’t give yourself to others selflessly because you are afraid; what if there is not enough for me?
But when you finally draw from the waters of the deep wells of God’s love and you know that it never runs out then you’re not afraid anymore to give love away because you know there is always more for you, and plenty for everyone else.
It’s interesting; this is what John tells us in his epistle. He says, “Beloved since God loved us so much we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.” No one has ever seen God. The only way people see God is when they see the love of God shining through us. We are the sign that points the way to the love that came down at Christmas. When people can see us giving of ourselves, sacrificing, extravagantly loving others, that’s when they see God, and that’s when they see what love looks like. We are the sign that points the way to the love that came down at Christmas.
We as Christians have a mission; actually it’s a two-fold mission. It’s not hard to remember. You’re whole mission Jesus said is to love God with everything that’s within you. And to love other people. That’s it.
We are the ones who live the love. That’s what love looks like – the giving of one’s self for the wellbeing of another person.
You know sometimes we make it more complicated than it is. At Christmas we’re all frantically trying to find the perfect gift to express our love for other people. Sometimes what love looks like for another person, is simply taking the time to listen to them. It may not be a new shirt, or socks, or a tie, or gloves. It’s usually something else.
So let me ask you today, who do you need to bless? Who can I strengthen their well-being by offering some expression of care and concern and love for them? I want to invite you to do that today. Bless somebody. Give them the gift of love.
But there is another dimension to this as well. You know what love looks like to some of children at Rolling Ridge Elementary school right around the corner where those kids go home on a Friday and they don’t have enough to eat for the weekend? What love looks like there is a backpack with food in it on Friday that sustains through the weekend.
What love looks like for 52 families who are struggling to exist in this difficult economy who came through our doors last Saturday for GRCAE Ministries, what love looks like for them is a warm welcome, a smiling face, and a bag of groceries that will help to fill their empty stomachs.
What does love look like? It looks like houses that are built with your hands through Habitat that will provide a family a warm and secure home of their own. That’s what love looks like.
As we do some of these things, and many otters, my hope and prayer is that you picture the faces of those people, and that you would understand that your hands have an opportunity to convey love to them. And that as you do that you are becoming the sign, the sign that love came down at Christmas.
“Love shall be our token, love shall be yours, love be mine. Love to God and to all men. Love for plea and gift and sign.”
I’d like to invite you to put your hands on your lap like this. And I’d like to invite you to bow with me in prayer. And just say these words quietly after me if you would; just quietly under your breath:
God I accept the gift of your love. Help me to trust that you love me. Help me to live in that love. Help me to draw upon the love that comes from you to love other people. Make me a sign, Oh God, a sign to others that love came down at Christmas. Use these hands of mine. Use my heart, my lips, my offerings, as an expression of your love to others. God thank you for loving me. In Jesus name. Amen.