First Sunday of Advent
1 John 4:11-16
I would like to begin this morning by sharing a story with you called “The Shop Teacher and the Princess.” Once upon a time… that’s how every good story begins, right? Once upon a time there was a shop teacher who decided his calling was to lead the youth of his church on a mission trip to Mississippi. He figured his carpentry experience could be put to good use helping others and if he took the youth group with him, he could share his expertise with them. And in many ways, that’s what happened. They were assigned the task of hanging drywall in a house for a family that was struggling to make ends meet. And four of the five young people really took to it. But not the fifth. The princess. She wanted nothing to do with drywall or dirt or hammers or the mess of construction. Instead, she filled her day by playing with the young children of the family they were helping. Now, the shop teacher was beside himself. No matter what he did or said the princess would not participate in the rehab project. And finally, in total frustration, he packed the group up and they came home a day early. The next Sunday, however, when it came time for him to report on the trip, he surprised everyone. “ I was wrong,” he said, “I was so focused on the task; on fixing the house, that I missed the real ministry that was taking place. When I took the time to reflect on what happened, I realized that the princess was really the one who shared the love of God.”
Now, our lesson from I John for today suggests that we are known and loved by God. John the Elder calls us to love one another because God is love and is the source of love. But even more than that, he points to the ultimate demonstration of God’s love in Jesus. And there’s a significant body of theology behind this. We call it the incarnation. The incarnation is the belief that in Jesus, God came to walk in our shoes, to experience the fullness of our suffering and triumphs, the depth our struggles and the pentacle of our joys. God has come to earth, in human form, to meet us where we’re at. And it’s through this amazing demonstration of love that we come to know, to believe in, the love God has for us. And on an even deeper level, the incarnation of Jesus, the Advent of Christ in the world, tells us that we are known by God.
But, while I think the theology of the incarnation is an important basis for understanding God’s love for us,[i] I also think of it as “hanging the drywall.” Hanging the drywall was an expression of love, but it wasn’t the only expression. I say this because I seriously doubt that most of us came to know God’s love through dogma. It seems to me that most of us have experienced God because somebody, at some point in our lives, served as a “living example” of God’s love,[ii] like the princess. And like the princess, we have the opportunity, in every interaction to be the one who says, through both our actions and words, that they too are loved by God.[iii] And again, both are important. We must have a theological grounding for our faith and a practical application of that faith.
The great theologian Paul Tillich says that if we accept this love, come to understand it, it’s then, that we are invited to take the opportunity to choose compassion, to choose to become living expressions of God’s love for another person.[iv] You know, in church, we talk a lot about God’s love; we sing songs about God’s love; God’s love and grace and mercy are at the center of our whole approach to the Christian faith. But the real question is whether we show that love toward the real-life people, with whom we relate to everyday.
[v]And it’s no coincidence that John affirms the importance of cultivating loving relationships in this letter, when he says that if any of us acknowledge that Jesus is God, “God remains in us and we remain in God. In other words, God isn’t some distant being, somewhere out there, looking down on us. God is within us and remains within us if we remain in God. And that “remaining” is demonstrated by loving God with our whole-selves and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Now, of course, there’s the other side of the coin. By not showing love to God and others, by denying the Spark of the Divine within us, we separate ourselves from God presence. And that’s problematic. It’s problematic because the source of our being, to once again borrow a phrase from Tillich, the grounding of our faith is based in the fact that God, who created and is still creating, has come among us, incarnate, as the Christ-child and that God, through the Spirit, continues to dwell within us. And, as John so clearly points out, this God who dwells among and within us, is, in reality, love itself.
Let me give you a concrete example of why this is problematic. This past Sunday, a pastor, from the pulpit, called for the extermination of all gay, lesbian, and transgendered people by Christmas Day.[vi] Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Arizona claimed that the only way to rid ourselves of the AIDS virus is for the government to kill all gay people.
Now, when I read this, and as I reflected on John’s words about remaining in the love of God, my first thought was, “could a man, a pastor of all people, get any further from ‘remaining’ in God?” and yes, as I said last week, we are not to judge others, but where’s the line? When is it our obligation to speak out against hateful speech; when is it our duty as followers of Christ to call out a false teacher; when is it our responsibility to name evil for what it is, evil?
Now, I know, this might seem like an absurd and extreme example, and it is, but this is what we must contend with in popular culture today. I wonder how many unchurched people, as we enter the season of Advent might have felt a little bit of that spark, a twinge of the Spirit within their soul, and maybe, just maybe, might have thought about coming to a Christmas Eve service with their family. But then, read this article and had all their presuppositions about Christianity affirmed. I wonder how many LGBTQ people might have begun to wonder if there might be a place for them at God’s table, read this, and ran in the other direction. Or even worse, I wonder how many suffering or lonely people, people who desperately need community, fellowship, and love, people who might have found their way to our door, heard these words of hate and retreated back into their shell. As I wonder about these people today, and what might have been, my heart breaks!
But, my friends, that’s the challenge we have before us. The dominate narrative about the Church, of those outside our doors, is one of exclusion and hate. They see Christianity as hypocritical when some churches make proclamations about the love and blessings of God and then, out of the other side of their mouths, curse some of God’s children.
But, you might say, that’s not us. We are a church that welcomes all people. And you’re right! But if we want to overcome these stereotypes, and proclaim that we are an inclusive church, a church with a wide welcome to all, then, we can’t just talk the talk, we must also walk the walk. And we can begin this walk by being crystal clear in our conversations and interactions with those beyond our walls, that we are different. We are inclusive. We are a church were all people are welcome. Period. End of story. And as we engage the future of our church and begin to reimagine what our church could look like in the future, it’s important for us to remember, foundationally, that Christ’s invitation, Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s promise that we are known and loved by God, extends to all people. All people.
My friends, God is love, and you are God’s beloved. God is love, and you are God’s beloved. That the heart of the Advent message. That’s the heart of the message that Christ calls us to share today. May it be so. Amen & Amen.
[i] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:275: “The love of God, or God as love, is therefore interpreted in 1 Jn. 4 as the completed act of divine loving in sending Jesus Christ.” See further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 83.
[ii] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 127: “All human relationships, …, are meant to be signs of God’s love for humanity as a whole and each person in particular. … Jesus reveals that we are called by God to be living witnesses of God’s love.”
[iii] Alan Brehm. Living Witnesses (thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2012
[iv] Paul Tillich, “The Golden Rule,” in The New Being, 30: “For the other one and I and we together in this moment in this place are a unique, unrepeatable occasion, calling for a unique unrepeatable act of uniting love.”
[v] Ibid. Brehm