A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 19, 2010.
Our God and Father, we pray for your Christmas blessing to spread throughout the earth. We pray that you would draw those who are near and those who are far into some greater harmony so that none are strangers to your love and none are estranged from your grace. In this week, may the lonely find comfort; may the wanderer find hospitality; may all those in exile find their steps directed toward home. Dear Lord, let none of us make the mistake of Bethlehem. May we include all, and on our account, may none be excluded. Through your spirit, may kind thoughts find lodging in the hardest of hearts; may a longing for righteousness awaken in the minds of those who are most cruel and most unjust; may we who are weary and burdened find rest in the midst of peace. Merciful Father, we are your children. We long again to hear the words of your familiar story. We pray that the words about the shepherds, that the images of the Wise Men and the hope of the star’s light stir your love in us. Lead us to live so that others would know a Savior is born, that forgiveness is possible, and that sin need not reign. Hasten the day when our hopes for your victory in every heart becomes real. Hasten the day when we, too, may join in the song of the angels. Hasten the day when your love reigns supreme, death is vanquished, and sin is destroyed. In the name of the Christ Child, we pray. Amen.
What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of others. That is what love looks like.
–Augustine of Hippo
It is time for the weekly assessment of the Christmas spirit. Have you see any hope this week anywhere? Maybe you have the hope that you will make it all the way through Christmas without being ill because you have so many people coming in from out of town. Maybe you have the hope that you will have enough energy to attend the parties that are left or the hope that you will have enough time to finish up everything there is to do. In the eyes of other shoppers, in the eyes of the clerks who have been waiting on you, have you seen anything that looks akin to hope?
What about peace? I have come to believe that the advertised door busters at most stores are designed to destroy Christmas peace. People are lined up waiting to be the first 250 in to get the free gift card or the flat screen TV for $99.00, or whatever it may be, guarantees there will be no peace in anticipation of jockeying for a position and knocking down the clerk who happens to open the door and those good power shoppers who can shove everybody aside to get what they want. Do you see any sign of peace in the Middle East or within our families?
Beyond the carols, did you see any overt joy this past week?
What about love? Have you seen any Christmas love? I have seen it on the Christmas cards. I saw one that read, “May God’s love be born in you.” It had a silhouette of a barn stable with a light streaming down toward it.
I saw another card that read, “May the love of Christmas be with you all year.” That one had a picture of a puppy licking a baby. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with Jesus. It was just somebody’s baby.
There was another card that read, “Love came down.” There was a picture of the holy family and Jesus there in the manger. That is the message, isn’t it?
Perhaps when you read the scripture for today, you might have been disappointed. There was no mention of sheep, no mention of shepherds, no mention of Wise Men, no mention of the original Scrooge, King Herod, and no mention of Baby Jesus. What does the passage from Philippians 2 have to do with Christmas? What does Paul’s encouragement to us to have the same mind that is in Christ Jesus have to do with the holiday season? It does not seem very holiday like, but really it is a part of the continuous message of the New Testament.
Perhaps we could abbreviate our search of it and begin in Isaiah. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means God with us,” the presence of God in the world.
Then, of course, Matthew and Luke tell us the details of the events, how Christ came, and the promise of the angel both to Mary and to Joseph. Then, John reflects on it and gives us those grand words, “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”
Paul’s words are a continuation of that reflection on what happened. The idea that love came down, that Christ came down, that Christ emptied himself is found here in this particular part of the Book of Philippians. We all may be looking at different Bibles but, typically, if you look at this passage in a Bible it goes from Paul’s prose in those straight, justified paragraphs down the column to verse where the lines are staggered and you can tell there is something that is akin to poetry here.
Students of the Bible believe that this was a great hymn. In the Greek, it has meter. You can pound it out and sense the rhythm of the words. There is no evidence of this, but maybe it was one of the first Christmas carols because it is the story of Christ pouring himself out, emptying himself is the word that Paul uses, and comes in the form of one like exactly like us. Of course, Paul will not leave it there. He says, “And you [all of us, plural] have in us the same spirit that Christ demonstrates in coming from God, living in the flesh and dwelling among us.” Be like him. Act like him. Love like him. Treat other people like Christ does.
I would prefer that the message of Christmas be about something that only happened in the past and not something that places any kind of demand on my life. I would like simply to receive the gift of joy, peace, love, and all that and go my merry way and just feel happier about it. But the love of God places demands upon us. If love has indeed come down in the very presence of Jesus Christ, and if I believe this is not simply a nice story about a baby whose parents could not find a place to have him and had him in a manger and everything turned out all right in the end. If it is really the story about the birth of God’s son and the savior of the world, the one who lives in your heart and my heart now, then somehow there is a demand placed upon me that is different. Maybe there is a compulsion about having this Christmas spirit. Maybe there is an obligation and the gift of being able to continue that love.
What does it mean to love like Jesus? I remember the passage that we so often read at funerals where Jesus talks about, “My peace I give to you.” Then he says, “Not as the world does.” His peace is different. The love of Christ is different, too. It is not the same thing that we hear sung about on the radio or on a card that we want to give each other at another time in the year. This is the love of Christ demonstrated by God as Christ comes, the love of Christ that we now are to spread as a part of what it means to be the recipients of Christmas. It is not a love of feeling, and we would all like to feel good about it, but it is a love of choice.
If you read through the Gospels, there are plenty of places where Jesus doesn’t feel real great about what people are doing. There are arguments with the religious leaders of the day. There are places where people are doing unkind and cruel things. In Mark, he says that Jesus trembles like a horse. You can almost imagine some thoroughbred in the stall shuttering with anticipation and emotion ready to run. Jesus is described with anger shuttering like that because of the way someone is being treated. But Jesus never stops loving. Even when the feeling is not there, Jesus always treats people as the way God wants them treated, as what will be best in their lives, and simply because he chooses to. Isn’t that why we receive the gift of Christmas in the first place lest any of us think we deserve it. It is because God chooses. He said, “This is the way I am going to be and the way I am going to treat everybody. I am going to do what is right by them. I am going to give them what they need, not necessarily what they want. The love of Jesus is always a choice to treat people in the spirit and manner of God.
This is why Jesus can say to us, “Love your enemies.” Even if we don’t like somebody or if they abuse us or treat us cruelly, we can still treat them the way Christ would have us live. This is why we can’t choose to only love people who are our own kind or own family. This is why we are called on to choose the stranger. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have any nice warm feelings toward them from family reunions and sharing Christmas and Thanksgiving together. We can still treat them the right way. We can still treat them as God’s heart would treat us. It is always a choice.
I am a sentimental kind of person. There is a certain hymn or story that can bring a tear to my eye. I can’t tell you the number of movies on TV that at a particular point in the movie, I have to hide the fact that I am wiping tears out of my eyes. I like that sort of thing. But love is really not about having a positive emotion towards the world. It is doing the things toward everyone that is the right way to treat them in the name of God. If we are going to love like Jesus, then we have to do it. The thing about loving our enemies or loving those who persecute us or treat us badly and returning good for evil that they might give us, only becomes love like Jesus when we love those people. What is it that Jesus says, “Even the Gentiles, even the people who are not believers, love the people who love them.” If you love me, I will love you back. Jesus says it only really becomes God’s love and reflects the love of Christ when we love those who don’t love us. Only then is it love like Jesus. That is the kind of love that Christmas calls on us to give to the world.
We keep thinking about the Christmas spirit and how we are all going to get it. We are magically going to hear the right song and all of a sudden, we will feel that good Christmas spirit. But the truth is we are called upon, not necessarily to sit back and wait and try to anticipate that, but to do the things in the world that would spread the love, joy, hope, and peace of Christmas to other people.
I noticed that the passage from Philippians 2 ends, “and at the name of Jesus every knee would bow, every tongue would confess.” I wonder how many people are waiting on us to love like Christ so that the gift of Christmas and the love of God would be experienced in their life for the first time. So that they, too, could kneel at the manger of Bethlehem, so that that they, too, could enjoy the peace, so that they, too, might experience for the first time what real hope is like because somebody in the name of Jesus loved them. “Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, our Lord,” Paul says. Make my joy complete. Have the same love that Christ did.
We are waiting for someone else to give us the Christmas spirit. We are waiting for someone else to do something in our lives that will make it all OK. We never even realize that we have the power to choose to love like Christ to make it Christmas for someone who has never known it.
Now that I believe, Christ has come in the name of God. Christ has come embodying love in this world. Now that I believe that I have received this gift, I will practice the love of Christ, and not just in the week before Christmas, but always.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.