Monday, December 29, 2014

Sermon on 1 John 4:7-16 & Matthew 1:18-25, for Christmas Eve, "The Place for Love"

In the Name of the Father, who sent His Son to be the Savior of the world, and the Holy Spirit, in whom we abide in God’s Love, Amen. “Nesting” is a popular term nowadays, for the way that a young couple prepares their home, especially for their first child. Getting the nursery ready, decorating it, having baby showers, etc. It’s a way of preparing a place for the expected child, and a great deal of time and love often goes into those preparations. It’s at least one way of dealing with the long wait till childbirth.
We don’t actually know how long Joseph and Mary spent in Bethlehem before Jesus was born—Luke simply tells us “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” This may run against popular notions of Mary going into labor in the moments of their arrival, followed by a frantic search for accommodations. “While they were there, the time came…” could mean a day, a week, or more. But that’s not so important, which is why those details are not included. But we do know the circumstances—He was born and laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, because there was no place for them in the inn. Whatever time Mary and Joseph had, the best “nesting” they had for baby Jesus was a humble feeding trough for animals.
That detail matters, because it shows the humble birth of the Son of God, when He came to earth. The Holy Family did not have any of our modern baby “essentials”, but the simple basics of swaddling clothes, warmth, and love that a peasant family could offer. Certainly nothing that met the standards of any other royal birth in the ancient world. But it was not for lack of love that His birth was simple—it was rather that God chose a peasant couple to welcome His Son into the world. The Kingship of Jesus was all but hidden, except to a handful of blessed recipients of the good news—Joseph and Mary; the shepherds, then the friends and family they told; and later on, the Wise Men. His humble birth also shows us, as our hymn says, that worldly honor, wealth, and might are weak and worthless in God’s sight. His glory would not be seen through these earthly things, but by the heavenly virtues of humility, compassion, and self-sacrifice.
Even before Mary and Joseph knew the part they would play in this Divine Drama, God’s love was making its place among them. When Jesus came into the world—when the Virgin Mary conceived—Joseph saw it as a potential scandal—but God revealed to him that Mary was innocent, and faithful to both God and him. God had to keep Joseph from abandoning the mother of God’s own Son. They would still need Joseph’s earthly care and protection, as he would adopt the baby Jesus to raise as his own. As we heard this past Sunday, God’s love made a place for Jesus in the virgin womb of Mary, without the help of man. Mary had to be prepared for this highly unexpected course of events that would forever change her life. Both she and Joseph received God’s preparations in their hearts, and made room for the Savior to enter in.
And just as God prepared a place for the humble birth and peasant childhood of Jesus, so also God works to prepare our hearts for His love, by breaking into hearts locked and sealed by sin. To precarious and uncertain situations, much like those of Joseph and Mary, or to hearts broken and corrupted by sin, Jesus comes to prepare a place for love. During the season of Advent we have been preparing our hearts for His coming, and now we celebrate that He is here! We come from all sorts of situations, all different states of readiness or unreadiness. But we pray tonight, “Ah dearest Jesus, holy child, prepare a bed, soft, undefiled, a quiet chamber set apart, for you to dwell within my heart.” We pray to Jesus that He would purify and make ready our heart—to be a place for Him to dwell.
Are our hearts locked against God’s love? Or maybe even superficially welcoming, but inwardly unready? Or are they empty, in need of His love and presence? Anything from loneliness to stubbornness, anger, grief, suspicions, doubts, or despair may afflict our hearts. This Christmas we may carry any of these things as locks, obstacles, burdens, or even voids within our hearts. But the Christ child is coming to enter in, and make a place for His love. God is able to create the very objects whom He loves.
What do we think of love? Perhaps when we think of love, we think of beauty or good qualities in a person attracting us, creating strong emotions, and then we “fall in love.” Was that how God came to love us? Or how we came to love God? Isaiah 53:2-3 tells us about the promised Messiah: “2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Now this passage tells us many things, and it is most importantly connected to Jesus’ crucifixion. But notice that it tells us that it was not earthly qualities, of form, majesty, or beauty that drew anyone to Him. Rather He was despised, rejected, a man of sorrows and grief, one that we did not esteem. We did not seek Him, but He sought us. The passage makes no mention of love, but it is dramatically evident that love drove Jesus to His unprecedented self-sacrifice. Our reading from 1 John 4 tells us “This is love; not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as the propitiation for our sins.” That means that Jesus’ sacrifice was the turning point for God’s wrath against sin to be stilled, that He might show us His gracious face. All of Isaiah 53 echoes this—that Jesus would bear our sin, that we could be accounted righteous.
As Jesus bears our sin, takes away our guilt and shame of sin, He creates a people to love, and who love Him. He teaches our hearts to love by dwelling there, by repairing the daily damage done by sin, as we daily return to Him in our baptisms, by repentance and receiving His forgiveness. He opens our hearts and eyes to have compassion, to see people and places that need love, that need Jesus’ presence, that need His forgiveness. We see wounded and broken lives that need God’s mending, or stubborn and hardened lives that need God’s Word to soften and enter in. We see the poverty of our own hearts, and beg for Him to pour into us the riches of His love, to overflow for others. Our reading from 1 John tells us that God’s love for us turns into our love for Him, which in turn becomes our love for our neighbor.
So when the newborn baby was given the name “Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins”—His job description was already carved out for Him. And not by over-eager earthly parents who wanted to live vicariously through their child, but from Our Heavenly Father who sent His Eternal Son. The Son who exists with Him and the Holy Spirit from all eternity, who had a plan of redemption marked out from before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). Jesus wasn’t living out someone else’s dream, but He lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose according to the eternal plan of the Triune God. God acted in concert to bring His love into play in a world that had dashed itself and continues to dash itself into pieces by sin. And yet God endeavors constantly to pick up the broken pieces of our lives and heal us by repentance and the forgiveness of sins. And to do that for our sinful hearts, is a God-sized challenge. But this is just what He does, as He opens hearts to hear His Word. And sadly, many will choose to harden their hearts against it instead. God spends a great deal of time and love on preparing our hearts—even with tough love, when necessary.
But God is continually glorified through the work of Jesus Christ His Son, who offered Himself to make sinners righteous before God. He is glorified as His kingdom expands through the Word of God and the work of Jesus Christ. The place that God’s love occupies in the world may have seemed small and precarious at first—riding on the survival of the Holy Family living in threatening times, and guarding the infant Jesus. But ever since that Holy Seed was first planted, the kingdom of God continues to grow and expand daily through every believer’s heart, by the cleansing and renewal of Jesus’ sacrifice for sinners. And the kingdom of God is unshakeable, it will never be removed, and it will never fall. Every heart where God’s Word is received, is a new place for God’s love to dwell by Christ Jesus. And one day, when He returns in His full kingly glory, He will rule the whole of creation. God’s love will occupy the whole of the new creation—the new heavens and earth. That darkness, sin, death, doubt, and the power of the devil must all finally give way to the Light—we rejoice. We rejoice that God’s love has opened the way in our hearts, and we rejoice and sing this Christmas that Christ Jesus’ love would grow and take root in every heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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