“for God so loved the world the he gave his one and only son” ~john 3:16
Advent is a season of waiting and so it is natural that we would look back and try to place ourselves in the middle of the world that awaited Jesus’ birth.
As we said last week, the old testament ends some 400 years prior to the birth of Christ. We do, however have Apocryphal writings that fill in those missing years; at least historically. We know that Israel, after exile and eventual return, was conquered and ruled by a variety of powerful nations and that the enemy was no longer across their border but among them.
We know that Greek Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes came to control Israel and that he was violently intolerant of religious diversity. He is said to have killed and sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem. He was known to have executed Jews for practicing circumcision. 2 Maccabees 7 relates the story of a woman and her 7 children who were tortured to death by the emperor for refusing to eat pork.
It was out of this climate that figures such as Judas Maccabeus arose. He was the last great hero of Israel and led his small army to a number of victories over the Greek occupational forces. While the writer of the texts mourn that Israel no longer has a prophet to speak for God, heroes such as Judas Maccabeus become the standard template for the type of deliverer awaited by Israel.
Eventually the Greek empire is conquered and replaced by Rome and the occasional violent still uprising occurs as the people wait for the messiah who would sit on David’s throne and restore Israel.
I wonder if that Israel would take comfort in these words:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great
God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who
executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the
strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the
stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
~ Deuteronomy 10:17-19
Israel was overrun by strangers. Not widows and orphans but certainly strangers. In the midst of this they clung with white knuckles to their law, their tradition, their identity. And they awaited action; not from a God who “loved the world” but from a God who hated their enemies.
Love is a tricky thing to define because we mostly do not understand it. Our popular culture – songs, movies, literature – paint a picture of love as a feeling. Something we feel or experience. I don’t mean to say that love is NOT a feeling but rather that it is more. It is deeper. It is both practical and mystery. It is emotion and action. Love is feeling but it is also doing.
But most of us use love in a distorted way or have experienced love in a distorted way. Love is a tool used to manipulate; a reward for good behavior that can be withheld for bad behavior. We mess it up; we fail to understand it; but we cling tightly to the idea. We live in a culture that values love even if our understanding of love is often way off the mark.
But imagine… Imagine a people who had forgotten love. Who no longer believed in love; a people who had exchanged love for despair, or even hatred; a people who feared that God had forgotten them and so could not imagine that God loved them. And imagine that, in that world, you were told that God was about to act because he loved, not just you, but your oppressor, your enemy. Imagine if the Hero came, not with a sword, but with love… love for you but also for those you hate; those who had hurt you.
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” ~john 1: 9-11
In advent we wait… and today we specifically talk of waiting for Love. But do we… really? In the time leading up to Jesus’ birth, over those years of waiting… were these people of God waiting for Love or simply relief?
One of the reasons faith is so difficult for us is because the things we need so desperately often require from us the things we are most reluctant to give.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ”
~matthew 5: 3-12
To be comforted we must mourn. To gain victory we must be meek. To receive mercy we must give mercy.
If we want to be loved… we must love.
“and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” ~lennon & mccartney
Our prayer, if we pray for love at all, has been “God! love me and hate my enemy!”
His answer should send us back to our knees.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” ~matthew 5: 43-44
And so… maybe Christmas is either rejected by the Grinches among us… or, ironically, given over completely to the generic “merry” Christmas of twinkling lights and shiny paper. Maybe in an effort to avoid what true love requires, we create a false and shallow version of love that speaks to our feelings but seldom if ever requires action or pain or loss. Christmas came, not to make us merry… not to make us happy. Christmas came as a single flicker of flame on a tiny candle, lit in a darkened room.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”
If any of you have witnessed the birth of a child you know that there is probably no more amazing thing that happens on earth. It is a process so filled with every emotion, every type of extreme. After the silence of hope and waiting, comes the pain and the struggle of labor. Sweat and blood and agony and exhaustion… (it’s hard on the moms too!) Sometimes hours of excruciating work. Sometimes it is dangerous. Sometimes it is fatal. But then… a child comes. This ugly,screaming, misshapen creature… who is, to at least one in the room, the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. If you are not certain you know what love is… this is the only place I know I have seen it… the only place I am sure I have seen it. In the aftermath of struggle and pain and exhaustion and labor… comes complete and pure love; a love for the new and fragile life in her arms but also a love for the world; for life; for the simple act of being. When, if for only a moment, we experience true love for one, we begin to touch the kind of love that could love all.
This is the promise of Advent. That love has come and that through the love of one, all will receive love.
“and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”
His kingdom come…