“THE LOVE YOU LONG FOR”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
December 24, 2023
Luke 2: 1-20 NRSV
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
They say love is a mystery. They say that love is a miracle. They say love is magical. What do you say? It can be all these things and it can be frustrating, fake, or even fearless! And yes, there are a lot of things done in the name of love that don’t seem to be very loving.
The Advent calendar in Christianity calls this the Sunday of love. What is love to you? Is it romance and sex? Is it a feeling or an attitude or an action? Here’s a real tough one: Do you have all the love you want? Do you ever think about that? Do you ever long for love – more love, different love, real love? Before you think I am getting too personal for either of us, let me turn the conversation back to faith, to C hrist, and to Christmas.
If this is the Sunday we focus on love, what is love to you in connection with your faith? Is it just a feeling, is it thoughts, or actions? How about when it comes to Christmas is love magic, or miracle? Is it the promise of salvation? Is it the tree, the family, the gifts, the snow? Oh, sorry, got carried away there. No snow. Thank God! At least here in good ole’ Tavernier, F-L-A.
I wonder if all this Christmas time effort and all the hope for magic and mystery and miracle adds up to love. Maybe it all adds up to salvation too. Whatever it symbolizes for you I am not sure what I can add. I can retell the story, but we just read it to you. What else can I add? At best, perhaps I can invite you to reflect on how Christmas can symbolize the love you or I may long for. Ultimately, we say the whole business of giving gifts at Christmas is about showing our love. Love is a gift, we say.
Is that too corny? Too obvious? The gift of love? Isn’t every gift a gift of love? Isn’t love always a gift? Maybe. But what makes Christmas unique is it proclaims a love that is perfect. It promises a love that saves. It invites us to know that our imperfect, often selfish versions of love have a solution, an alternative that picks up where ours falls short. While I was preparing for this sermon I was madly searching for some heart-string plucking, tear-drop causing illustration… but, no. I will resist the cheesy effort to fill time with a “preacher story.” [ let’s see, now I just have to fill about five more minutes while the turkey finishes, right Susan? ]
So here’s the thing: Sometimes I wonder if we really want to be loved. Because if love is a gift, you can’t earn it, and you can’t repay it, and you really shouldn’t ignore it or reject it, that would be rude. But, how often do we do those things: try to earn love, repay love, ignore or reject it because – well it frightens us, to be honest. What? You don’t agree? Maybe I can illustrate that with our own lives.
How many times do we feel like, or act like love has to be earned or repaid? Mostly we do so because we think [ we know! ] we aren’t worthy of love. Imagine how hard it is for God to convince a bunch of stiff-necked people like us that we are loved in spite of our flaws, our failures, our evil?
How would you do it? The Bible tells us God chose to send a helpless infant to a poor, unmarried couple, living in a desperate, occupied country, ruled by an Emperor who claimed to be god himself. Crazy, right? How’d that work out you ask? Well, does the word crucified mean anything to you? Ok, wait. Maybe I’ve wandered a little too far from Christmas for our comfort and joy. My point is… love is hard. God’s love met a cross, make no mistake even here at lovely old Christmas time.
This God doesn’t love us if we can repay or earn it. Our faith tells us this God insists on loving us because He [ or She, or Whatever Pronoun you want to use ], claims to be our Creator. I guess it’s kind of like a Mother feels a baby she gives birth to is hers? Perhaps if I am too busy worrying about how to earn love, or repay love, or qualify for love I won’t have time for being loved and for loving. Maybe if I can take time to prepare for a gift of love, I can make some space in my heart and life for that love. Remember all those years you had to make room under the tree for all those gifts you had to give to others.
Maybe if it takes faith, or imagination to believe in God’s love this is the perfect story to illustrate that. If you think angels and wise guys from afar take some imagination, think about this: we have all these animals in the nativity scenes we set up, but the Bible never mentions a single animal, not even a cat? We imagine there are cows because there was a manger, and we imagine there were sheep because it mentions shepherds. We imagine camels because there were “magi from afar.” But we struggle sometimes to imagine God loving us enough to save us.
Oh, we talk about it, we proclaim it in church. Some Christians walk around telling everyone how to “get saved.” But a lot of the behavior I see suggests to me we don’t really believe in this saving love of a God who is our Creator.
We say that this love has saved the world, but if I were honest, I don’t think we live like we believe it. We act like we believe anything is stronger than love. We believe in power, politics, personal freedom, but do we believe in the power of love to save us? Because that is what Christmas really proclaims. Ironically, the story of Christmas begins with a huge contrast between the powers-that-be and God’s love power.
So with what little time we have left before all this is over for another year, how do we prepare to receive this love?
Neal Watkins, our Florida Conference Minister for Congregational Life, talked about finding space in a devotional he wrote for Advent. He asked,
“Am I the only one who has spent a considerable amount of time throwing away (junk) so that I will be (only slightly) less ashamed about how much stuff is about to arrive? #FirstWorldProblems. The closets, the garage, and the refrigerator are all too full as it is and between boxes and sweaters and fruitcakes, more is on the way. I’m not complaining. I just find it interesting that little is made of the effort required of us to make space. It's almost as if we are preparing in secrecy. ‘Spring Cleaning’ is a thing, why isn’t ‘Advent Prepping?’”
Then he adds cleverly, “Oh wait a minute, I see what I did there. I suppose Advent is about (preparing), and this time before Christmas SHOULD be about making space!” I would point out that maybe that time has run out. But we might have just enough time left for Neal’s suggestion here:
He says, “Maybe we can take time to make space in our hearts for the Savior to come. Then he offers “as a prayer,” a poem by Enuma Okoro.
I want to find my place/ amongst the people of Advent
but I can't quite decide who I am.
I want to be pregnant with God/ but it takes such a toll on the body.
I have given birth to things before/ And labor is hard and untimely.
I want to welcome angels and say yes,/ to anything.
but if I saw an angel I would hold him
hostage and send a ransom note of questions/ demanding answers, to God.
I want to cheer blessings from the sidelines/ with a belly growing with prophecies,
and have friends and strangers take hope.
Because God has a season/ for those whose seasons have passed.
I want to put my trust in dreams/ and in the words of the ones I love,
to believe that God is as close as/ the one who would share my bed.
But mostly I want a break from being/ the one who mostly falls silent
in the presence of all that's holy, / who loses her words in disbelief,
terrified by claims of joy and gladness, unable to believe that prayers are answered.
My prayer is we will all learn to receive the gift of love and share that gift with others. I pray that this love of God for us is the love we have always longed for. I pray we all can take time today to prepare, to make room for God’s love. I pray you will discover it is even greater than the love you have always longed for. And I think when we finally have room for that love, then God’s prayer will be answered. AMEN.