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One of the very interesting things about the human creature is our never ending desire to boil complex things into simple and practical words and phrases. Parents are especially guilty of this – given the constant need to translate the complexities of life into concrete terms. Children, on the other hand, have a great knack for stating the essential truths about their observations – no matter how uncomfortable these observations may be. In fact, children state the obvious because they are uncomfortable with it. Adults do exactly the opposite for the same reason.
I was reminded of this the other day when listening to an old Bill Cosby routine about cleaning up your room. He said, “Never in my life did I ever say to my mother, ‘Mother! I'm going up to my filthy room, and sit in it in the name of God!’ Yet my mother would come up to my room, and say, ‘How, in the name of God, can you sit in this filthy room?’"
Of course the complex topic I am dancing around today is the love of God. How many times have you heard or started a sentence through clenched teeth with, “For the love of God...” Maybe that particular phrase is not in your vocabulary, but I am sure you can relate to the sentiment.
It’s the type of thing you say when nothing else is left to say. It is the moment of dead calm on the sea when the sails drop and you are at the mercy of the unknown. It is the realization that you are not insulated from suffering, that your best was not good enough, and there seems to be nothing left to hold onto when friends betray and hope seems lost. It is the point of frustration when you have done all you can do and even the simple tasks do not seem to be doable.
That is the level of frustration that is being expressed by the prophet, Micah. That is cry of anguish of the Psalmist. In today’s language the Psalm would certainly include the sarcastic phrase, “Really? Really.”
There are a lot of people praying that prayer today. There are a lot of reasons that people might question whether or not there is a God – and therein lies the rub. God is not reasonable. God does not operate in a quid pro quo transactional system. Perhaps it is true – as it says in Galatians 6:7-9 – that we reap what we sow, but love is not limited to a system of punishment and reward.
That’s what the author of Hebrews wants us to know. Sacrifices – and I’m not just talking about the kind that moo – sacrifices that are made to benefit the giver are not really sacrifices. After generations of temple sacrifices, the warnings of Prophets, and the occupation of several foreign powers, God’s people were still trying to bring the perfect gift to the perfect God who did not want anything but broken and contrite hearts (and you thought your special someone was hard to shop for this Christmas).
Come to think of it, God does not need anything – but God does want something. God wants to love. God wants to love you. God wants to be loved by you. God wants you and me and everyone else to do God’s will, and God’s will is to love. With that in mind, I wonder if you have given any more thought to what you plan to give Jesus for Christmas? Last week and also today during the Children’s Time we talked about the gifts we will be bringing for Jesus.
That is a very uncomfortable thing for Presbyterian Christians to do! We would much rather confess our limitations than boast about our good works. We would much rather study the scriptures and look for ways to point away from our limited nature and be assured that sanctification is the action of God. This is all very true, and our passage from Hebrews is a good witness to it. But we must ask the question, sanctification for what? Is God’s action and ability to sanctify – to purify and make sacred – limited to the afterlife, or does it have a purpose in the here and now?
The answer, I believe, is found in that familiar story of two women who gather to share in the joy of God’s activity in their lives. Not only do we find the answer to our question about sanctification, but we might even find the closest thing to a loop hole that we are going to get for the problem of what to give Jesus for Christmas. Mary has been told to go to Elizabeth, who is supposed to be too old to conceive, and find proof for the claim that God has caused Mary’s pregnancy.
And there at the door Elizabeth confirms Mary’s experience of God by telling her that so great was her joy that the child within her leapt in her womb. Mary responds in song and moves beyond what God is doing through her and straight onto the expected promises of God for all of Israel! She sings:
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Could this be what we are being redeemed for? Yes! Could this be a model for what the church is about? Yes! Could this be the way we greet one another – like Elizabeth? Might we be so excited when we see each other that something deep inside us jumps for joy, longing to be expressed in acts of praise and love? Maybe – since it is easier to see the activity of God in the good works of others than ourselves – we can be like Elizabeth and write down the gifts we have seen others give to Jesus. Maybe we can even be like Mary and thank God for the things we have been a part of that demonstrate God’s love – things we could never have done alone.
I think we can do that. I think we can be the kind of church that sees the activity of God in one another – in fact, I think we are that kind of church. I think we are, in that way, a body prepared for God to use for acts of love and kindness in the world. Now, that’s where it gets tricky. I’ll admit, even in the church it is hard to see each other as vessels in whom God is pleased to dwell. In fact, one of my early revelations from seminary was that I had never understood what it meant to have the type of enemies spoken about in the Psalms until I began working for the church. And then, after seminary, I came to realize how fragile the peace of the church can be – even in the healthiest of congregations.
And since then I have come to realize that it is silly to expect us to get it right all of the time, but it is downright foolish to think that we are not expected to love each other no matter what. Because, the realty is, if we cannot find a way to overcome our differences and love each other no matter what in here, we will have no hope for survival out there.
But as it stands, we have a great source of love and hope in this community of faith. We have space and relationships that act as a proving ground for what we believe. Martin Luther once said that “The church is not a hotel for saints. It is a hospital for sinners.” I will boldly say that if we are a hospital, we are a teaching hospital. We are all forgiven sinners, and we are bold to proclaim that in our limited and broken state God will yet shine ever more brightly.
I can say this with confidence because I have seen the gifts you have been sneaking in here for Jesus all year. I have seen men’s ties and children’s games. I’ve seen pillar candles and hand woven shawls. I have seen a worshiping community that averages around 50 people a Sunday (mostly over the age of 65) who work their tails off all year to produce over 1,050 Christmas gift baskets for needy families in our community.
And whether you have been a part of that or not, you are part of it now – for the love of God binds the hearers and the doers in the same gospel. The love of God – I asked one of the resident theologians of my house last night to clarify for me what matters most about the love of God, for we adults get so confused. She thought about it for a minute. Then she said, “It means that you are never alone.” So, whether you are feeling the anguish of the Psalmist today or the hopefulness of Mary, know this – for the love of God – you are never alone. And to God be the glory for that, now and always. Amen.