God Is with Us and God Is Love
A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 18, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott
The theme for this the fourth Sunday in Advent is love. Which is interesting because, well, frankly, in this church that’s the theme every week. When your Sacred texts claim that God is love and claim that Jesus, the central person of your faith, commands you to love and to have that commandment hold sway over everything his followers do and say, it’s no wonder love’s our theme each week, not just today. The wonder to me is why love does not seem to always be the center of every other church’s week and every Christian’s life. To take Jesus seriously week in and week out is to love seriously week in and week out. I cannot find a way around that, and wouldn’t ever want to.
While every week we center our service on love– the care and desire for the well-being of others– today on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we name it outright. Most Sundays Love is named in different ways and pointed to after being teased out of the text and lifted up at the end to gaze upon and contemplate. Today, it’s just named front and center. It’s just flat out declared.
So, since we usually spend a good deal of the sermon looking for love, and it’s already set out, does that mean it’s time to go home? Of course not. We are once again going to talk about . . . wait for it . . . love. And I am going to start with this short quote from our reading “God is with us.” The quote is the meaning of Emmanuel, a name Jesus is called, because his followers experienced him as the presence of God, and because the name Emmanuel is what the prophet Isaiah is said to have claimed the Messiah would be called.
“God is with us” is a Bible phrase I recommend memorizing. God is with us. It’s short and easy and such a comfort to recall. No matter who we are, no matter where we are on life’s journey, it’s always good to know God is with us. But it’s also good to know what that means, which is why it’s good to learn this other phrase we heard in the invocation from the Book of First John ( 4:7, 16), “God is love.” God is love. When we combine that phrase with “God is with us, ” we get this very powerful truth that no one should forget: “God is with us and God is love.”
Jesus embodies that combination of verses and Christians should understand that. As Matthew tells us, Jesus is “Emmanuel”– which means God is with us. And God, well, as you have all by now committed to memory, God is love. Today this Fourth Sunday of Advent is about all of that, because it’s about love. I’ve read the theological definition of love many times in this church. I am doing so again because the definition of love pretty much tells us how God is love, which in turn helps explain how God is with us. What that’s all got to do with Advent needs a little more explanation–which I hope the whole of this sermon fleshes out. So, here’s The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms definition of love: “Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well-being of others. It is a primary characteristic of God’s nature and the supreme expression of Christian faith and action.”
According to that definition, it’s God’s nature to have love– personal affection, care and desire for the well-being of others. According to that definition love is the supreme expression of Christian faith and action. In short, our faith and our actions done supremely require us to express love. Which is to say at its best Christianity causes us to act as God’s agents expressing God’s nature– love in our voices and our hands and our feet! We are not God, but we love and since God is love, each act of love is Godly.
Jesus actually explains it a lot better when he cuts to the chase, and commands his followers “love your neighbors as you love yourself.” He makes sure there’s no wriggle room out of that command by narrowing neighbors to only those we like. He does this by adding the command to us to “love your enemies.” And just in case we might want to also redefine love to include unloving acts, Jesus commands that we must only do to others what we want done to ourselves. See Jesus set his Way up so his followers cannot hurt others and rightly call it love. Hurting others is a sin. Loving others is Jesus’ Way.
When Jesus’ Way is played out love comes into high relief in the actions of his followers. As the dictionary puts it love is the supreme expression of Christian faith and action. Ever wonder what it would look like if that happened? If we played out Jesus Way so that culturally love came into high relief through our actions? We can imagine that people would be greeted with kindness and good cheer. We can imagine that those in need, the poor, the sick, the stranger, and even the imprisoned would be cared for. We can imagine too that with love as the supreme expression of faith and action the sights and sounds would shift. We’d hear songs about love and peace on earth good will to all. We’d see lights in darkness, and images of joy and hope and peace and love— and good cheer would abound. The world would not just seem, but be a better place. It would feel like God– love– is with us. Man, if that happened – even for a few weeks– we can imagine most of us would long for it to return and last longer. Evergreens might even be a good symbol of the hope that it would indeed last, and symbolize the love that never ends, because that love is God.
I hope my hints have been obvious to many of you, that when Jesus’ Way is played out and love comes into high relief in the actions of his followers we’d have something akin to the Holiday Season. At this season, Advent, what the secular world calls Christmas time, love IS the supreme expression of Christian faith and action. And. It. Makes. All. The. Difference! We make love happen more this time of year and people get treated so much better. The well-being of others is on our minds and in our actions. The poor are better fed and clothed and housed because of it. The sick are tended to. The stranger welcome. The imprisoned provided kindnesses. We express care and gladness to our neighbors. Good cheer abounds. We sing songs of joy and peace. Lights fill the darkness literally and figuratively. Evergreen is everywhere. Hope is too and joy and peace and love.
Every Christmas since my ordination I’ve pointed out how these Holiday weeks that we are in give us a real glimpse of what love becoming the supreme expression of our faith and actions does. It causes heaven to break in on earth for real.
It’s so powerful that adults in faith communities stop and take the time to shop and spend their own money to fulfill strangers’ wishes placed on trees of sharing like the one in our social hall. They pick up a little ticket with children’s needs and desires–wishes– and grant them. It’s so beautiful. I am sure the children and families receiving the gifts are pleased and grateful and touched. But, in my experience the adults fulfilling the wishes are also pleased and grateful and very touched to be a part of the acts of love, of God giving those gifts through our hands. The simple gesture of love for neighbors breaks a bit of heaven in. It’s a wonderful gift from God generated by the supreme expression of Christian faith and action . . . love
We also see bits of heaven breaking in with our work on the productions of A Christmas Carol. Youth are treated kindly and with respect and it matters. A great story of light outshining darkness is enjoyed by the community as they applaud the youth too. And at least as telling is how much good the production does for our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. That ministry over the years has helped raise more than $100,000 for The Winter Sanctuary. That helps those in need and they are grateful, but we feel good about it too. Our actions of love playing a part in the success of those productions let us directly be involved as a part of heaven breaking in. The simple gesture of love for neighbors breaks a bit of heaven in. It’s a wonderful gift from God generated by the supreme expression of Christian faith and action . . . love
Other non-profits make similar efforts at fund raising this time of year, they participate in the annual increase of heaven breaking in that graces us all at Christmas time. There’s a reason that during this season fund raisers for agencies that help those in need happen. People are caught up in the Spirit of Christmas, which is the Spirit of Love, which is the Spirit of God. At Christmas, God is with us, Emmanuel. We let ourselves feel and be a part of God being with us. God is with us all the time but at Christmas time– during the holidays– we open up to it. We want to be a part of it and it makes all the difference. The well-being of all increases and it lifts all of our well-being. The simple gesture of love for neighbors breaks a bit of heaven in. It’s a wonderful gift from God generated by the supreme expression of Christian faith and action . . . love
I am going to end with the short quote from our reading I started with, “God is with us.” It’s a Bible phrase I recommend we all memorize. No matter who we are, no matter where we are on life’s journey, it’s always good to know God is with us. As I said, it’s good to know what that means, which is why it’s good to learn this other phrase from the Book of First John, “God is love.” When we combine that with “God is with us, ” we get this very powerful truth that no one should forget: “God is with us and God is love.” AMEN