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The Meaning of Love

A sermon on Luke 2:1-20

[for an audio link of this sermon, click here. Photo by Garrett Jackson on Unsplash].

Over the last 4 weeks of Advent, our congregation has been exploring different names for Jesus: Wisdom from on High; Lord of Might; Branch of Jesse; Key of David; Dayspring; King of Nations; and Emmanuel – God with Us.

We have journeyed through the words of prophets, gospel writers, and apostles, seeking a deeper understanding of exactly who it is we welcome with carols and candlelight tonight.

We have investigated history, and mined metaphors, all in order to try to understand what it means for us that Jesus was born one long-ago night in Bethlehem.

This exploration has given us many powerful, encouraging, beautiful ways of understanding how Jesus shows up in our lives, but there is one more name we need to add to the list, the most important name of all: Love.

It’s not a name that is used directly in the story we just heard, of course.

For most of the narrative, Jesus is described simply as the child – no name at all, just a moniker of dependence.

But that’s one of the reasons why we can recognize this story as a story of love… because it doesn’t actually center Jesus at all.

It is the story of his birth, but the narrative is all about the people around him… about the relationships and interactions that define his entry into human lives.

It’s a story of enacted love… of what it means for Jesus to BE love for us.

So, what does it mean for Jesus to BE LOVE?

First, it means vulnerability.

Of course, babies are always among the most vulnerable members of any society, but it is not just Jesus’s infancy that teaches us about the vulnerability of a life defined by love.

It is THIS infancy… this dislocated, messy birth story,

surrounded by animals, rather than the helping hands of female relatives,

all because an autocratic human power decreed that this baby was just a number who needed to be counted (for the purposes of taxation and conscription) no matter how inconvenient the timing for one, poor family.

It’s one thing for God to decide to take on human flesh, but it’s another for that human identity to be just a pawn in the games of the powerful.

Luke uses the word “registered” or “registration” 4 times in the first 5 verses of this story. He is rubbing our faces in the Holy Family’s powerlessness.

As seminary Dean Stephanie Buckhanon-Crowder says, “(The Census) situates Jesus in an environment where people are decentered and dehumanized due to the Pax Romana (the so-called peace of Rome).”[1]

The vulnerability of becoming human is just the starting place. Jesus is further dehumanized. His love is a love that does not simply approach our experiences of helplessness, or share the general weakness of humanity, he joins us in the depths of powerlessness – holding nothing back.

And because the Love that Jesus enacts for us is this kind of love that goes to the extremes of self-surrender, it is also a love of inclusion.

It’s a love that stretches out to the very margins of society to draw in those who are most easily ignored.

Did you notice, in the story, how the whole town of Bethlehem was crowded with people drawn there for the Census, and yet it was to shepherds out in the fields to whom the angels came?

And the shepherds did not just happen to be grazing their flocks late at night before returning home. They were living in the fields.

Just as Jesus took his first breaths among the animals, the shepherds made their home among their flocks… and they probably smelled like it.

They lived on the outskirts, performing a necessary function for the people of the towns, but not belonging among them.

Both physically and socially, they were outsiders.

And it is to these people whom the angels come to share good news of great joy…. Because this news is for all people, and that means everyone is included… even the people it would be easiest to forget or exclude.

Powerless vulnerability, and the embrace of outsiders… it’s not exactly a Hallmark Christmas movie, but it is a love story. It’s the most important kind of love story… the kind that teaches us what love really is.

In her essay on “The Meaning of Christmas,” author and teacher Karoline Lewis makes the point that this kind of teaching is essential to the Christmas story. In some ways, it is the whole point of what theologians call “the incarnation” – God’s decision to be with us not just in Spirit but in a human body.

She writes, “The incarnation means that at the same time the incarnation is a revelation of God, it is also a revelation of who we are.”[2]

When Jesus comes as a powerless baby, and his birth is first announced to people on the margins, God is defining love for us.

God is saying “this is how I show up in love.”

And God is also saying “this is how You are to show up in love.”

And so, just as Jesus’s birth story doesn’t actually center him, but rather it centers his impact on the people around him….

So too, this Christmas sermon doesn’t center any of us, but rather it centers the impact we can have on the people around us, when we share the love Christ came to embody.

If we want the Love that Jesus brings at Christmas to thrive in our hearts, then we will enact that love the same way that God does in the Christmas story: through vulnerability and inclusion.

Loving through vulnerability means the willingness to release those privileges and barriers that protect us from the pain other people experience.

Obviously, in a time of pandemic, I don’t mean that we should be reckless with our safety. Jesus does not call us to expose ourselves and our communities to a dangerous virus.

Rather, the loving vulnerability that Jesus models for us is the love that releases its attachment to personal rights and a place of priority.

It’s the love that knows my life is NOT more valuable than your life, even though I might have to sacrifice my comfort or enjoyment to protect you.

It’s the love that will not demand a protection or privilege that others are denied, so I won’t hoard things that are in short supply, or use connections to gain an advantage.

It’s the love that refuses to guard myself against the suffering of others when there is anything I can do to alleviate it, even if that means I lose power in the process.

When we love this way – the way Jesus loves us – we will find ourselves naturally drawn into a love that is inclusive as well, because we will actually see everyone we encounter as inherently valuable.

Whether it’s the exhausted delivery driver who doesn’t know where our package is, or the grocery clerk working double-shifts because they are short-staffed, or the lonely neighbor quarantining for Christmas… we will see them all with the eyes of love… eyes that want a merry Christmas for them as much as we want it for ourselves.

I wonder if maybe that’s what the angels meant, when they proclaimed “peace on earth”?

Because peace IS what we would have, if the whole world loved this way.

If we stopped dividing ourselves into groups of those who matter and those who don’t.

If we stopped protecting our own comfort and rights, even when they hurt other people or our planet.

If we all loved in the way that love is born in the Christmas story… it would change the whole world.

And, of course, we are here tonight because it DID change the whole world when Jesus came as love.

When he was born as a vulnerable baby, welcomed by animals, and angels, and shepherds, all praising God for the birth of Love.

He didn’t change the world by force, remaking it all by an act of power. He changed the world by coming as love, and teaching each of us how to share in love’s world-changing work.

Thanks be to God


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