Delivered at First UMC Clairton, Pine Run UMC, & Glassport UMC. Just a reminder, this is pretty much a transcript of the sermon, so it's written as I spoke it, not how it would be written it for publication.
You have likely heard today’s scripture before, it is said in churches across the world during this season of joy, hope, peace and love. We know the story of a savior who was given to a virgin and born in a humble stable. We take in the words of the prophet Isaiah and thank the father almighty for fulfilling his promise to us, singing praises about the event, lighting candles in anticipation, and readying ourselves for the day that we use to celebrate Christ’s coming.
I’ve heard from many people this year that it was hard for them to get into the spirit of Christmas, and just a couple of nights ago my girlfriend and I drove around her neighborhood looking for Christmas lights, and were surprised to find that many of them this year had yet to be put up.
Be it the controversy surrounding the impeachment, financial stress, the mourning of a loved one, or just the weather, I know for many this does not feel like Christmas. This Christmas, I have been personally struggling on how to properly celebrate it. I have tried to delve into liturgy surrounding the season, I bought my family and friends gifts, seriously attempting to think about what they might really want rather than picking something randomly from clearance at Marshalls. I have spent time with my family, trying to be home with them over this season.
And yet, I think the message of this Christmas season has been lost on many. The message of love is what the church should be proclaiming.
I think many people know what the church stands against. We are often too good at casting those that need the Gospel out of the church, trying to keep our cliques intact, attempting to change the church’s message to fit our own perceptions of how we should face the world. We are good at telling people not to do things. We are good at having mixed messages and often we are good at showing them the door.
In the early church, the church was wrestling with its message. It was contested between people who believed that Jesus was divine and those who didn’t, and it was challenged by those called “Gnostics” who claimed to have secret spiritual knowledge. There were many who attempted to bring the church back to its message of the Gospel, but out of those, Irenaeus of Lyons stands as one of the most important. He wrote many books on how the church must unify its message, and in one of his books written in the 2nd century he wrote:
“churches in Germany believe and hand down no differently, nor do those among the Iberians, among the Celts, in the Orient, in Egypt or Libya... Since faith is one in the same, he who can say much about it does not add to it nor does he say little to diminish it.”
In other words, churches across the world needed to have a unified message, a message about Love, and those that are preaching the Good News have no need to add to it or take away from it.
Out of this controversy the church became a creedal church, adopting the Apostle’s and later the Nicene Creed, words we still repeat in church today.
But what do we tell the world today? What do we demand of the character of our actions? What do we stand for as a church? We tell the world about love. We demand our actions be done with love. We stand for love. The translation “God is with us” does not fully capture the depth of the love that came into the world – it more closely suggests that "God is in common with us people" -- or "God is one of us." We celebrate the coming of Christ – the incarnate God to our world because of its significance, and yet we do not often talk of Christ as being incarnate love.
And why do we celebrate Advent and Christmas? Sometimes I believe that even for the church, we are drowned in the secular materialism that surrounds the holiday season. We are so focused on baby Jesus that we forget about the reason we celebrate his birth.
Christmas means nothing without connecting the birth of Christ to the death and resurrection of Christ. The truest example of love was the death of Christ on the cross for the sake of our souls. The anticipation and coming of Christ are significant for Christians because of his death and resurrection. Our belief in his power to save us leads us all to celebrate his coming and prepare again for his return. This should be our Christmas message, a message based in the unfailing and eternal love for humanity that God has shown us.
Just as Joseph heeded the words of God when approached by the angel, and just as Mary accepted God’s will for her life, we must heed the words of God in our lives today. We must return to our roots of love - accepting those who have been rejected by everyone else, showing grace to those who have never been shown grace, and reaching out to those who have been turned away by the church.
For us to truly grow as a body and reach people with the gospel, we must reclaim our message. We must not hide behind the tinsel or holly, the tradition, or carols. We must be loud in our message on what Christmas is about. The Christmas spirit will be present when the holy spirit is present.
4 Love endures with patience and serenity, love is kind and thoughtful, and is not jealous or envious; love does not brag and is not proud or arrogant. 5 It is not rude; it is not self-seeking, it is not provoked [nor overly sensitive and easily angered]; it does not take into account a wrong endured. 6 It does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices with the truth [when right and truth prevail]. 7 Love bears all things [regardless of what comes], believes all things [looking for the best in each one], hopes all things [remaining steadfast during difficult times], endures all things [without weakening].
8 Love never fails [it never fades nor ends].
This should be the message of the church during the season of Advent and Christmas.
The Christmas message is not so much as one about a virgin birth, or a census, or donkeys in a stable, but a reminder that God is with us. God fulfilled his promise to us by bringing love into the Earth, and God will continue to fulfill his promises to humanity. It is a reminder that God shows his glory through ways we do not expect, and it is a time for us to act in ways that people do not expect. We do not deserve God’s love, we did not deserve the coming of a savior, but he gives it willingly to all, we must give love in the same way through our message and action.
Church it is time to reclaim our message, and Christmas is the perfect opportunity to do so. Much of our culture is attempting to turn to love, understanding it and practicing it, and we should point them to the one who is love, Jesus Christ.