The Hug of God in the Blessings and Tug of Creation

A sermon based on Luke 2:11-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 21, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I’d like to begin this morning by talking a little about Christmas decorations. I love the Christmas wreathes we have in here, but I thought I’d ask if next year we could have one made out of Franklin Fir branches because Nancy told me she wants A-WREATH-OF-FRANKLIN FIR CHRISTMAS.

Also instead of buying new Christmas plants ever year I heard we could actually breed our own by crossing a setter and a pointer to get POINTSETTERS. When it comes to saving money a LITTER . . . bit can help CUR . . . TAIL costs.

I have one last Christmas present note. Nancy and I got an early gift – a board game, that one with pawns and knights and queens and such. We sit by the warm fireplace and play it every day . . . Just like the Christmas song we’ve become CHESS NUTS ROASTING BY AN OPEN FIRE.
Three weeks ago I started Advent by telling you how much I love Christmas. And I cannot believe it, but this is our last Sunday in Advent . . . and Christmas Eve and The Twelve Days of Christmas are almost here.

We’ve talked about peace and hope and joy and we lit candles for each of those parts of the Advent season. Today our candle is, as we heard, about the love aspect of the season.

Love of course was laced into the discussions about peace and hope and joy.
Love in Christianity is where the rubber meets the road and so the Bible and Jesus and Paul and you and me spend a lot of time (and not only in Advent) talking about love and a variety of its manifestations. From forgiveness to kindness to compassion and care to working toward the well being of creation and people and even those we do not like or consider enemies, we’ve discussed love and how when we manifest it we act as the hands and feet and the voice of Christ.

Because humans do not love as much as we should, and because truthfully we often think most of this love-the-other-folks stuff is a pipe dream, we’ve emphasized much of this year – and all of Advent– how actually WE CAN DO IT.

Christmas season evidences that Love is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. This time of year shows us how we can love more and how much better it makes the world – and how better the Love we give and center on makes us all feel and act. So that’s why we discuss love coming from humans a whole bunch.

Today I am going to shift our attention and talk about a different sort of love, God’s love for us . . . love coming from God. We talk about it – God’s love– here at this church, but it can be a tricky area to cover.

Some church folk assert that Christmas is when Jesus showed up because God wanted, demanded, required a sacrifice and so brought Jesus down as a part of a plan to sacrifice him on the cross, not unlike Abraham was to sacrifice his son on the altar – only for them in the Jesus story God actually carries through with the sacrifice because “He” required it. That gives me shivers. I get that some accept that theologically and believe that as somehow a part of their story of God, but it does not work for me at all. I don’t get it.
No one has to agree with me. But how could God whom we are told is love–and whose love for us we are repeatedly promised is steadfast and forever– require and do such a thing? No sane earthly parent could do that, how could a Heavenly Father who is love itself? Along same lines how could a forgiving God of love create a steadfast forever hell for those who do not believe this or that theological idea?

A few weeks ago I confused a number of us when we looked at Jesus’ sheep and goat story in Matthew 25. The confusion was not so much because symbolically cute little goats ended up on God’s bad side, but because I did not clarify that the eternal fire they are sent in the story can be heard as a metaphor for what WE create on earth with OUR choices. I essentially said that in that sermon, but not nearly strongly enough.

The notion of hell and eternal fire raises a lot of our hackles because it’s a big part of church life we experienced elsewhere and many of us come here because we are allowed to – and even encouraged to– understand that love and the God we know and experience as love could not have created hell, let alone send anyone to it.

So let me make it clear . . . or clearer: I do not think God created or sends wrongdoers to an eternal fire of hell. I strongly believe Love could not do such a thing. I strongly believe God does no such thing.

I am in fact strongly convinced that humankind creates hell– what I would call the absence of love in our acts and the presence of evil. We humans create hell when we choose – WE CHOOSE– to be without love and intentionally move away from God’s call to love. Human intentional movement away from God’s call is for me the very definition of evil.
And in my experience there is no such evil apart from human conduct. I’ve never witnessed intentional bad things occur except by human choice to make it or let it happen. There are many who disagree, but for me God’s love is – as God promises– steadfast and for eternity. Creating and sending anyone to an eternal fire to be tormented in hell would violate this promise of steadfast and eternal love. That promise means there has to be no strings attached to God’s love . . . none. Indeed grace means gift . . . gratias . . . something given without condition.

So it is fair to conclude there is no God-made-hell because there are no conditions or end to God’s love. That understanding is central to the theology of many of us.

But so far I’ve just stated sort of negative proof stuff, all that NOT stuff— there is NOT hell because in my experience God and love are NOT this or that. Because this is the season of goodness and love and celebration of God’s gifts and blessings to us, I want to spend the rest of the sermon lifting up God’s love in its very, very positive aspects. This may require a different way for some of us to understand or imagine God.

Paul preached (Acts 17:28) that we live and move and have our being in God. Psalm 139 tells us God’s absolutely everywhere. I mentioned a few weeks back that we live and move and have our being in God – who is love. . .and that at Christmas time we agree to act like it. This is kinda weird if we think of God as a separate humanoid or a super-human like being. So for a moment lets suspend any idea we have that God is a giant invisible being out there somewhere with legs and arms and a head of gray hair and such.

For the next ten minutes lets just let go of the idea that God is a guy with a beard in the sky on a throne. Set that image on a shelf in your head and pick it back up if you want at the end of sermon. For now lets instead picture God as what we have our being in.
What we have our being in is life itself– this whole existence thing we experience; this misty mixture of physical and spiritual, of past and present, of memory and hopes, of us and others, of light and dark and earthy and cosmic things, of here and there and everywhere. This swirling existence of ours has so much mixed into it, us and others and the universe. That’s what we live and move and have our being in . . . right? So basically let’s take Paul’s observation and Psalm 139 literally and think of God as this thing we call reality. I mean that’s really what we are talking about, this ocean of is-ness that we float in and are a part of, the reality we are interconnected with. 1.

Most debates about God are about a separate being who is sporadically – if at all– connected to us and others and the universe. Most of the points of such debates fall to the wayside when we focus on God as non-separate and non-disconnected, that which we are fully a part of – this real, actual, reality of life. It cannot seriously be argued there is no reality. So debates about God are really about the nature of this ocean of reality that soaks our lives and the universe.

We can choose to understand this ocean as disinterested or even menacing. And some folks do see God or reality in one of those two ways. 2 Atheists and deists tend to assert that reality is simply life in the universe in the space and time we inhabit. Supernatural theists tend to argue that reality is full of threatening, punishing and rewarding acts by a super natural (above nature) God.

But there is a third way to understand reality, if we objectively look at what is provided for our existence in this reality, we can see and experience it as life giving and life sustaining. 3. We can find reality beautiful and awesome with an amazing abundance of blessings (gifts) provided without strings attached for our well being, all of our well being.

There is an outstanding, magnificent splendor in our everyday lives that is always there: blue skies, clouds, replenishing precipitation; grass and trees and flowers that grow; babies and bees and puppies and all sorts of beautiful people that we know; marvels of science and history and languages and stories for us to study and know; care and compassion, food and clothes, warmth and shelter and medicine to help everyone thrive and grow.

Everything is here –in reality– that everyone needs, and it is wondrous! The ordinary world is bursting with God aglow. As Marcus Borg puts it the ordinary everyday universe “is suffused by a ‘more,’ a radiant and glorious more.” 3. Elizabeth Barret Browning’s observation is a bit more poetic, she writes “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes . . .” The take off our shoes part is in reference to Moses seeing the bush ablaze and taking off his shoes at the realization he was on Holy ground. Ms. Browning’s assertion being that it is all Holy ground. Earth, this reality of ours is crammed with heaven, with God. It is all Holy ground because God is incarnate in it all.

This stuff here, what we have our being in, has long seemed to most humankind beyond happenstance. Logically all of creation and its complex patterns, laws of nature and intricacy can be considered more than chance, more than physicality. It is intellectually fair to conclude that Holiness appears infused in every nook and cranny and science when we stop and look and notice how awesome and glorious it all is. Albert Einstein is reported to have said that “Anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle.” And that “mind behind the universe” provides all the beauty and all resources needed for us – all of us– for all of creation to thrive right here in reality. Creation is the bounty of God’s love.

And it is not just this gorgeous planet and food and air and water and warmth that God provides to keep us alive and help us thrive. God also provides bountiful constant love-infused calls to humans about what is needed for us all of us, for all of creation, to thrive. God lovingly tugs us down the path of righteousness. Genesis tells us God calls us to be good stewards of creation. Amos tells us God calls us to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Jesus tells us to love everybody, to forgive and to seek peace and to do to others what we’d want done to us.

The whole of the Bible is about experiences of God relating to humans providing the means and the help to make us better people. The truth is, reality evidences we have a relationship with it, whether we want to call it God or not. THE CREATOR’S desire for our well being and the gifts to make it possible are how God loves us always and forever.

We can label reality with scientific explanations, and that is fine, but we can also call it and its radiant glorious more-ness . . . God. And we can –either way– understand it as a being-ness that needs to be honored and awed and respected and loved–and that our own existence and all others’ existence are very precious parts honored and awed and respected and loved by reality itself . . . God.

A part of our Christian story is that God so loved the world he gave us Jesus as a gift that revealed what God’s love looks like incarnate. A part of our story is that that love has no strings attached, Jesus loves everyone and taught us to love everyone. A part of our story is that at Christmas we celebrate that God so loved the world that the gift of Jesus began all of this revelation for us with a humble birth two thousand years ago. It’s a revelation that we can see woven not only into our Bible stories, but also in the Creator’s creation with its life-giving and life-sustaining magnificence and it awe-inspiring, sensational beauty . . . and it constant beckoning to us toward righteousness and love.

You see reality – God – loves us . . . and calls us to love . . . that’s the nature of God. It is the nature of Christmas.

AMEN

ENDNOTES:
1 Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 80; The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, 17:27-28.
2 Borg, Ibid. 80-83
3 Ibid. At 80
4. Borg, Marcus, Convictions, 45
4. Ibid.
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