Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Rome, Ga., on December 20, 2009.
1 John 4:7-11
Through Christ in the manger, God says He is not ashamed to be with those of humble estate. … He loves the lost, the forgotten, the insignificant, the outcasts, the weak, and the broken. Where we say, “lost,” he says, “found.” Where we say, “condemned,” he says, “redeemed.” Where we say, “no,” he says, “yes.” Where we look with superiority or indifference, he looks with burning love, such is not found elsewhere.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Christmas Sermons
It is the season for Christmas cards, and there are a few fairly predictable styles of cards that I know we enjoy receiving at our house. There are cards with photos of family on them. If you have pets, often people will include Christmas cards with photos of pets. If you have children and pets, they are usually in there together. I know that when our adult daughters, Rachel and Jordan, come home, one of the first things they want to do is look through the cards that have arrived to see how families have changed—how children have grown and how the numbers in the pictures have expanded just a bit since last Christmas.
Then, of course, there are the cards that will typically have a dozen words on the front and a nativity scene. Among those dozen words, there will be one word that is highlighted bold, perhaps a different color and font than everything else on the cover, and that word will likely be joy or hope. If not one of those, it will most likely be love.
Perhaps it is a quotation such as John 3:16, “For God so loved,” and loved is in big letters. Maybe it is a summary of the Christmas message about how love came down, and love will be in bold print in a different color. It really is a reminder to us that the season that we are in—the decorations, the hope, the aspirations, the reasons why we come together as family, and certainly why we worship, is because this is the season of love. Love is the foundation of all the dreams and all the aspirations of everything else that we talk about at this time of year.
It permeates the fiction. If your fiction of the season is Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol and Ebenezer Scrooge or Dr. Seuss and Mr. Grinch, somewhere in the story the reason these characters get converted and their hearts changed is all because of love.
The reason that we dream of reunion with people we have been estranged from or the reason why we hear stories about how peace broke out on a battlefield in any number of different wars is all because of love. Love is the root and foundation of it all.
If we read in scripture passages such as the one from 1 John 4 that really don’t have anything to do with the nativity story, even they describe God’s purpose in the world. They talk about how God did this because he loved. “Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who lives is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 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.”
When we look in scripture, everywhere the purpose of God in Christ is described, it is described in love. It does not have to be about Mary and Joseph and the donkey traveling. It does not have to be about the flight from Herod in the night. It is about love. It is the root of it all.
In the three weeks prior to today, we have looked at the other foundation feelings or emotions of Christmas. We talked about hope, peace, and joy. All of these things find their roots in love. Would we talk about faith in God if it were not for God’s love? If we were simply supposed to obey or fear God, would we think about faith? Faith is something that springs from love. If hope is hope, could it be that without love. If we are simply trying to fulfill the dreams of our vengeance or greed, I don’t know what we would call it but that would not be hope, would it?
Can joy be stirred by legalism or commercialism or any of the other things like that? Is there anything other than love that can stir us in this Christmas season to joy?
Miss Prissy mentioned in the children’s sermon something her mother said, “What is this love thing?” We do confuse how we feel about certain things we want for Christmas or things we want in life and we don’t always really understand what this love is. When we think about a baby in a manger, we have the scene with the soft glow and the glow coming from the manger that is the presence of God in the Christ Child. We think about just the emotional sense of what it is like to have a baby near us. If you have ever had a newborn infant reach up in that natural instinct to grasp hold of your finger with their whole hand and we see how small it is, it is easy to become emotional. It is easy to get choked up. Particularly when we are thinking about the love of God in Christ in Christmas, maybe we are talking about something that is just the warm fuzzes about the way God feels about the world. But when we stop and think that God so loved the world and what the world includes and who it includes, the warm fuzzes won’t quite get it even for God.
When the world includes death squads from Mexican drug cartels, people who torture in third world prisons, unrepentant sociopaths in maximum security, it is a little hard to think that the warm fuzzes are going to get us through or that’s exactly what God feels towards the world. That’s not it. God’s love in Jesus Christ is not an emotion where God is seated in heaven feeling warm about everybody and everything. God’s love is always a verb. It is always something that God is doing. God is always acting on behalf of the people that God loves. God is always doing right by people. It is God’s love that helps us and sustains us. Love is God in action. When he came in Jesus Christ, he was becoming vulnerable.
Imagine God coming in the form of an infant and leaving heaven and all that behind to be vulnerable to whatever Herod or whomever might do, and to grow up and be vulnerable to the cross. It is not an emotion; it is action. It is something that God is doing for us and with us. It is not an emotion in that I feel warm and fuzzy about you or that you feel warm and fuzzy about me. If we understand God’s life from beginning to end, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, God’s love is always a choice. God does not love because we are so warm and fuzzy ourselves or because we are so good ourselves or because we are so deserving ourselves. Each of us could imagine things that we have done, thought or acted or where we tried to do something right and our motives were impure or we did something right but our attitude stunk so badly and we think, Why does God love me? Because God chooses to love us. That is, again, the message throughout scripture.
All of us fail. All of us fall short of the glory of God. All of us, at some point, do things that disappoint God, that fail God’s plan, but God has chosen to treat us the same way no matter what. And that is God’s love. God does not stop wanting good for us. God does not stop wanting to answer our prayers because of the way we act. God chooses to love us.
Throughout the month of December during the Advent season, we have been thinking about the way the different moods of the season have been demonstrated in the history of our congregation. This is the 175th year of FirstBaptistChurch. Our anniversary will be in May. We spoke on the first Sunday of Advent about the Depression. The bulletin cover for that Sunday was a reproduction of a bulletin cover from 1931. It was a time for hope.
Then we talked about the Civil War. A month or six weeks before Christmas in 1864, there were only 40 people left in Rome. The doors of FirstBaptistChurch had been shut for over 18 months because of what took place here. That was a time that called for peace.
Last week, we talked about how life was good during the boom of the 1950’s and called for joy. Today, we think about “Some Times Call for . . . Love.” I am not sure if you have figured out what the picture is on the front of the bulletin this morning, but that is the way the narthex looks today. This is a time that calls for love. Maybe we should have changed it. Instead of saying “Some Times Call for” maybe we should have said “All Times Call for . . . Love.” One of the great things about being a part of this church family and this congregation’s heritage is that love has demonstrated itself in the times when it is needed.
One hundred forty-five years ago, this congregation allowed its pastor to leave to go be a chaplain on the battlefield because it cared about the children of this community who had gone off to war. One hundred ten years ago, as the missionary movement was really gaining fervor among churches in the South, this church cared enough about the people around the world to be the most generous church to the cause of missions among Baptist churches in the South.
One hundred years ago, when people were just beginning to think about helping missionaries who were doing relief work, this congregation helped people who were doing relief work in Mexico and other places.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s and as briefly as a few weeks ago, there were people who went out from this church healing in the name of Christ in countries where people need healing, demonstrating Christ’s love because all times call for love. Which day, which month, which year, which decade, which century has there not been a need for the love of Christ in the world? It has been our lot in the world to respond as we believe Christ has led us.
Even in this past year, this congregation has been one of the leading congregations in the Community Kitchen. I received a letter this week stating that 35,000 meals have been served out of the North Rome central location. God bless every meal that some of you have served.
Hundreds of people have been sheltered through the Davies Homeless Shelter. God bless every person who has taken a meal. God bless every person who has loved through caring for somebody.
We take up a World Hunger offering the last Sunday of every month. My estimate is that during the time we have done this, we have taken up a half million dollars for World Hunger because it is always the right time to love. We love because God first loved us. There is not a time anywhere along the way that doesn’t call for love. It calls not to feel warm and fuzzy about the world, but it calls upon us to act the way that Christ wants to act through us. We talk about being the hands of Christ. Christ is in all of us. When we do the work of Christ, we are Christ’s hands, loving the world on his behalf. We do it not because people necessarily deserve it, but because it is a choice to act the way God has acted toward us.
I know that in some of the feeding, home ministries, Habitat for Humanity, and things like that, there is the occasional response when someone being ministered to does not respond the way a helper thinks they ought to respond. A comment will be made, “These people don’t deserve it. These people aren’t very grateful.”
There was a person ministering in New York City many decades ago. When confronted by another worker who said that, her response was, “Yeah, sometimes the rich are not very nice either, so just get over it and keep doing what God wants us to do.”
It is not about the warm fuzzes. It is about doing it because it is the choice we make in Jesus Christ. When we talk about having faith, what we are really saying is, we believe this is the right way in the world, that God is real, that God is in charge, that God sent his only son, not only to save us but to move us to continue the ministry of Christ, to go where Christ wants to go, to be what Christ wants to be, to love others as Christ has loved us. Is there any other reason, and is anything else really love? I think not.
All times call for love. This year calls for love, and whatever happens in the next year will call for love. Whatever these children who will grow up to take our places face, those times will call for love, too. May we always, always, be faithful to the God who loved us enough to send his son in the form of that Babe of Bethlehem, not to love as long as it feels good, but to love until Christ comes again because that’s what God’s people do.
May God bless you all for the love that you have demonstrated. May God bless this congregation for the love that it has demonstrated for 15 years and will continue to demonstrate until Jesus calls us all home.
Love. It is the reason for the season.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.