Saturday, December 25, 2004

Rumors of Love

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Michigan
on Friday, December 24th. (Christmas 1)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I… love… you.

Three magic little words. Throughout our lives we long to hear these words. We yearn to hear them from our parents, from our mates, from our spouses, from our friends, from our children.

Yet they’re not simple words. We use them to mean all sorts of different things. There’s an old saw that goes “I love my wife, I love my baby, I love my biscuits sopped in gravy.” It can mean all kinds of things. Sometimes we might say it and mean something as mundane as “good-bye” on the telephone, or “good night” at the end of the day. Or maybe we just mean “Boy, isn’t this silence between us awkward?”

Or sometimes we might use it to say, “I want to love you.” Or maybe “Is everything okay between us?” or “Do you love me?” or “I don’t want to be alone.” It seems that the one thing we might be least likely to mean by it is simply “I love you”.

I don’t know all the reasons why that is. But I think part of it is our own defensiveness. It can seem a great risk to say to someone “I love you” and mean it. To truly love someone is to make yourself vulnerable to them. Parents, children, spouses, friends, might all go away, might reject us, might fail us, in one way or another. To love someone can be incredibly difficult, because it means letting go of our own power for ourselves, and using our power for the good of another. And we can be torn between attending to our own needs and the other’s.

We so badly want to hear it, and yet we feel reluctant or incapable of saying it and meaning it in the way we intend. We stutter and stammer, we mumble, we equivocate, we evade. It is a hard thing to say, “I love you”.

And yet tonight, angels bring rumors of love to a group of terrified shepherds. An unlikely mother in a little town on the margins of the Empire has given birth to a son. This baby is Savior, Messiah, Lord. And more than that, as the gospel of John says, he is the Word of God.
That phrase “Word of God” is wonderfully rich and suggestive, I think. One thing it might mean is that in the life of Jesus, God speaks to us. And what God says is “I love you”.

Because God is God, he alone is able to profess that without any ambiguity or reserve. He alone can clear away the self-interest and defensiveness completely. In Jesus, he addresses us directly and disarmingly and says to us unconditionally, “I love you”.

And he doesn’t do this at a distance, but draws near to us, taking on all the vulnerability of genuine love. “We see this as he is wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger; we see this as he is wrapped in grave clothes and laid in a tomb.”
[1] Jesus embodies God’s love for us without reserve.

The great good news of tonight about the birth of a baby is that he is more than a baby, that he is God’s Word, God’s address to us, saying “I love you, unconditionally”. And I believe we know, deep down, beyond our defensiveness or evasion, that this is what we most need, what we most desire, and that this – beloved of God – is most truly who we are.

Of course we might be tempted to make this into a slogan – smile! God loves you! – or to sentimentalize it. But these are only other ways of trying to control God, to only accept God’s love on our terms, or to evade his love altogether. That will not do. God’s loving Word comes to us on his own terms, and is not content to let us transact business as usual.

The great good news of tonight is that this baby is not only God’s Word, but also a real, live child. How is that good news? Those who have had babies of their own or spent much time around them will testify that while babies are indeed quite vulnerable and dependent, they are anything but quiet and passive. That is true of this wise baby, Jesus, as well. As Augustine memorably said, “He is the God who penetrates my deafness by his violent loud crying.”
[2] Rather like a baby, the love we find in God is both simple and demanding.

God loves us completely, and this searching, unrelenting love is not satisfied to leave us alone. When we encounter that love, when we say yes to that, the Spirit transforms us, gradually, into the very image of Christ. That is to say, we are changed into God’s own love for the world.

Nor is this love only a matter of self-realization, or personal improvement. God’s powerful love forms us into a new people, a conspiracy to spread the angels’ rumor of love to others in the world. This isn’t a private relationship of love, but a public, political, even cosmic love, for in Jesus Christ God is renewing and redeeming the whole creation.

So as we hear the angels tonight and draw near to manger where the baby lies, may we hear God say again through his son, “I love you.” It is direct and disarming, it is unambiguous and unconditional, and it renews and redeems not only us but the whole creation. And through it, we make our response to God, and to our neighbor. Haltingly, imperfectly, simply: I…love…you. Amen.

[1] Although this is not a direct quote, the ideas and much of the phrasing comes from Mike Higton’s book Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams, p. 30.
[2] Mike Higton, ibid., quoting Rowan Williams, quoting Augustine, p. 50; original source unknown.

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