Our Advent worship this year follows a Circuit-wide theme, which in turn is inspired by the national Methodist Church’s Christmas campaign: ‘God is with us’. At a time of social distancing and greatly increased isolation, the theme picks up the traditional Advent promise of ‘Emmanuel’ to emphasise the good news of Christmas: God is truly with us. Each week in our Sunday worship, we shall start with an advent candle liturgy that picks up a different outcome of that incredible promise: hope, joy, peace, and in this final week, love.
Our readings today include the one traditionally set for the final Sunday in Advent: the annunciation to the Virgin Mary from the gospel of Luke. The archangel Gabriel announces the good news of the birth of the Messiah to the woman chose to bear the Christ child. We shall also hear powerful words from the writer of 1 John about the true nature of love.
Luke 1:26-38 (The Annunciation)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
1 John 4:7-19 (God Is Love)
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. …
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
In the final week of our Advent preaching theme, we reflect on what it means to say ‘God is with us … in love’. In some senses, that is very easy to answer. We believe that love is one of the greatest gifts of God, and that where we experience true love then we are experiencing something that is ultimately divine. As our second lesson stated so eloquently: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) As Christians, we see the ultimate expression of that love in the gift of Jesus Christ to humanity – something that is at the forefront of our thoughts in this Christmas season.
Yet the challenge as we all know is the ubiquity of the word ‘love’ in our culture. We hear it in so many songs, conversations, and in everyday expressions that it can often lose its power. Similarly, we struggle in English because we use the word ‘love’ in so many contexts to describe everything from our liking for ice cream to our deepest passions. I am sure we have all heard many sermons along those lines!
Inevitably at this time, I am also looking back to the events of the year that is drawing to a close; a year that most of us can’t wait to be over! Thinking of love, one of the many things that did not happen this year because of COVID was the final debate at Methodist Conference about the report of the Marriage & Relationships Group, ‘God in Love Unites Us’. Given the controversial nature of the report, looking at subjects such as cohabitation and same-sex marriage, it was felt that it was simply too difficult to manage a virtual debate on the report via Zoom. We now have that pleasure to look forward to next year! As a member of that working group, I remember very clearly how we struggled to define basic concepts such as what we actually meant by marriage. It was, in fact, much easier to say what they are not than what they are. So, regardless of where we came from in the theological spectrum, we could all agree that Christian love and marriage could never involve things like exploitation, domination or violence, but our thoughts often diverged when we tried to make a more positive statement.
In the same way, looking back at our year both personally and globally, I feel it is quite easy to cite negative examples of love. Instances when we have seen love that is neither Godly nor good. For example, one of the tragic consequences of the lockdown has been the increase in domestic violence and abuse, as close confinement has brought often pre-existing tensions within relationships to the fore. We sadly will see the consequences of this for many months and years to come, and we must pray that those who need help will receive it. Many of those people, though, would still claim that they ‘loved’ one another, even that they could not live without the other person. But is that truly love?
In the life of our planet, we have seen people professing, and probably earnestly believing in, a deep love for their country, party or cause. That is usually a good thing, and can lead to positive change, as with the Black Lives Matter Movement. On other occasions, though, it has led people to lie, deliberately to withhold the truth, or to persecute opponents. It has even led them to commit acts of violence and terror on innocent people. Is that truly love?
In our national and global politics, we have also seen a great deal of self-love. Egotism and monomania are unfortunate traits in anyone but in political leaders they are disastrous! It has led to individuals seemingly going to any length to preserve their own power and way of life, no matter what gets in the way. The collateral damage to the rule of law, to the truth and to countless individuals are simply ignored. Is that love?
Much closer to home, I have had much cause to reflect on the nature of true love following our own adoption journey. During the first months of the year, my partner and I saw countless profiles of children in desperate need of new families. Reading the detailed accounts of how they ended up in their dire situations made for extremely depressing reading. Time and again, we read how parents – usually mothers – were forced effectively to choose between love for a child and love for a violent or dangerous partner, or their love of a particular lifestyle. In many cases, because of their own tragic life stories, it is questionable whether they were truly able to exercise any free will in the matter. One of the tragic realities that most adopted and fostered children have to live with, though, is the sad truth that their parents were unable to prioritise the love for their child.
All this negativity does not have to be the final word, though, because in the Christmas story we see numerous examples of what true love looks like. Joseph, who is often overlooked in these matters, demonstrates an incredible love of God and love for Mary, which overcomes the fears he must have had for his own reputation and future. The shepherds show a genuine love of the good news – of ‘the gospel’ – in their determination to see the wonderful thing that God has done for them, leaving their flocks and livelihoods for his sake. The Magi are wonderful examples of those whose love of the truth over-rides all other concerns. They face great hardship and a perilous journey to see the child whose birth is heralded by such a great and marvellous wonder.
In all these cases, we see how true love involves taking risks and making sacrifices, and this is especially true of the ‘calm centre’ of the nativity story, Mary. She is called upon perhaps to show the greatest love of all. To set aside her own safety, her own future, even control over her own body, in order to love this very special child. That love, of course, did not cease when Jesus left the manger. In the course of the gospels, we catch tantalising glimpses of Mary bravely coping with the implications of this miraculous birth and the fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy spoken a little later in Luke (2:34-35):
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Mary’s love is deeply challenged by her son’s seemingly bizarre behaviour and his overthrowing of all the usual rules and conventions of life (Mark 4:31-35). Yet we also see her implicit faith in her son, as at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-5). And, of course, we see her heart broken as she gazes on at the crucifixion, when the full implications of Jesus’ reckless behaviour are realised (see for example, John 19:25-27). In all these situations, she demonstrated how true love can involve letting go, as much as holding close. As Paul would later write so eloquently in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth (1 Cor. 13):
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
In turn, Mary was an excellent reflection of the one who gave us the very best example of what true love is; the child of her womb, Jesus. One who truly bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, and most definitely endured all things, for our sakes and the sake of God’s world.
Fortunately, as we look back over this terrible year, we can also see many examples of that kind of true love, as well as the other kind. Acts of loving kindness and self-sacrifice that brought much-needed comfort, help and joy to those in need. Incredible acts of sacrifice and endurance for the sake of others. True love for humanity and God’s creation. It is that love which we experience in Emmanuel – ‘God with us’ – and which we seek to emulate in his name. As John says later in our reading: “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
The birth of the Christ child, which we shall celebrate in a few days’ time, was the greatest act of love this world has ever known. Not the cheap and easy kind of love that we dole out so regularly to one another, but the true love of God for all creation. The love that knows no price, no limit, and no end. We can never be worthy of such love; that is why we need pass no exam or test before coming to the Lord’s table today. Instead, it is freely given to us all, and we are called to receive it as humbly and graciously as Mary did the archangel. In this season of gift-giving, we are simply invited to accept it into our hearts and to do our best to reflect it into the world around us. I pray that you may know that love and your special place in God’s heart, today and always. Amen.