I was having lunch with a friend following the study we did a few weeks ago on “Hope.” He pulled out a piece of paper and began reading some quotes from the study. After he read some of the things I had said during the study, he looked at me and said, “Hope isn’t available in anything this world has to offer. Hope, real hope, the kind of hope that all people are looking for is a gift to those who walk with God.” I said, “You know what’s really interesting? This week I’ve been studying ‘peace,’ and the exact same thing can be said about the kind of peace we are all longing for—we aren’t going to experience the kind of peace people are longing for in anything this world has to offer.”
When we began this study I said, “Hope, peace, joy, and love are more than mere words. They are the longing of every heart, the deep cry of our soul.” Now that we’re coming to the end of our study I believe those words now more than ever.
Tonight is Christmas Eve. I love hearing the Christmas Story read each and every Christmas. It’s a story that never grows old. It’s the greatest love story that has ever been told. It’s a story unlike any story we’ve ever read in a book or watched in the movie theater because in all of those stories we are merely bystanders, we’re observers, but in the Christmas Story we are a part of the story. That may throw you, baffle you, and leave you wondering what I’m talking about. You’ve seen the pictures of the Nativity, you’ve probably read and heard the story over and over again, but you’ve never seen yourself as part of the story. Let me show you what I’m talking about by showing you just a couple of Scriptures. Turn to a familiar verse, John 3:16-17, with me.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17 NIV)
“For God so loved the world (that’s you) that he gave his one and only Son (that’s Jesus), that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Now, let’s take a look at one more. Turn with me to 1 John 4:9-10.
9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10 NIV)
God did more than tell us that He loves us—He sent His Son to love us. He showed His love by sending His Son into the world to live and give His life for us; to reconcile us to God and in turn to one another.
I need to clarify something for us tonight because each of us understands through our own understanding. Let me explain what I’m talking about. I can mention the word “snow” and people in Minnesota understand that word in a very different way than the people of Micronesia. Connie and I have a friend that we worked with when we were in Plano, TX. Her parents were missionaries on the islands of Micronesia for many years. They went there to translate the Bible into the native language. When they came to Isaiah 1:18, the famous verse that says “your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow;” they were stumped. How could they get the people to understand “snow” when they had never seen it? They had to find another word that the people could understand. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Micronesian Islands then you know they have the most beautiful white sand in the world. That was it! “Snow” became “sand.” “Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as sand.”
I shared that story with you to help us understand that we understand words in a wide variety of ways. When I say, “God loves us so much that He sent His Son,” you automatically define love by what you have experienced, if you’ve never learned about the love of God. The word, “love,” for us, can stir warm feelings or very painful feelings. We also use the word to describe how we feel about a broad range of subjects. I love ice cream, snow skiing, scuba diving, going for a run, Connie, my family, my friends, and the sound of the ocean. I don’t love all of them in the same way or to the same degree, but I love them all. You have your list as well. We love those who love us, we love those things, experiences, or people that are enjoyable, but when we talk about God’s love we’re talking about a totally different kind of love. Let me share a verse from God’s Word to illustrate what I’m talking about. Turn with me to Romans 5:7-8 and let’s read together.
7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7-8 NIV)
Just two verses later, Paul says that we were reconciled to God while we were His enemies. Jesus died for us, He freely, willingly, gave up His life for you and me while we were His enemies—that’s a love that is totally foreign to us isn’t it? The Greek word that is translated, “love,” is the word, “?????” (agape) and it is best defined as “love that is a conscious choice and which is unaffected by the response of the recipient.” It is love with no strings attached.
This unique love of God isn’t just found in the New Testament, at the coming of the Baby born in Bethlehem. It appears again and again every time we read the Hebrew word, “?????” (checed). In Jeremiah 31:3, the prophet Jeremiah reminded the people who felt forsaken what God had told His people in the past.
3 The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. (Jeremiah 31:3 NIV)
In the Old Testament, God had shown His people, His wayward, rebellious people, His Covenant love time and time again. He chose them, they didn’t choose Him. He never failed them though they failed Him over and over again. His love never waned even though their love was as frail and weak as ours is today. God’s love was certain, but at Christmas, when Jesus was born, love became embodied, God’s love took up residence in a Person, the Person of Jesus. Jesus entered into our world, the mess of our world, as the embodiment of the Father’s love.
What is it in life that you can know for sure? You know that you know that “it” will always be there, that “they” will always be there, for you. We hope, we believe, but can we really know for sure? I don’t think so. But there is one thing you can know, never question, never wonder about, and that is God’s love for you. When you have a bad day, He still loves you. When you have the best day of your life He won’t love you any more than He does at this moment…He can’t love you any more than He loves you right now. When you run out of money they might not love you any longer, but He will still love you. When you mess up royally and hurt those closest to you, they might stop loving you, but He never will. He loves you with an everlasting love and that’s why He sent Jesus into our world.
Stop and think about that just for a moment. I love Eugene Peterson’s, The Message translation of the Bible, where he translates John 1:14 as, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” What a mess He found! I shouldn’t say that because He knew what He was getting into before He ever came. The mess we had made was why He came. We were in a predicament that the brightest, most brilliant minds could never figure out. We were suffering from a sickness that needed healing, but no doctor could find a cure. We had broken everything so badly, but no engineer could reconstruct the broken pieces. It looked like there was no hope since no help could be found with a solution to what ailed humanity.
It reminds me of something Carl Sagan, the late astronomer and agnostic once said when he saw the picture of earth sent back from Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. Voyager 1 was about 4 billion miles away from Earth when it snapped a picture of our planet. Because the picture was taken so close to the sun the Earth appears in the center of scattered light rays. When Dr. Sagan saw the picture he wrote these words.
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space)
Now that ought to put you in the Christmas spirit! The tragedy is that Carl Sagan, like so many others who have lived throughout time, was looking for a different solution than the one offered by Jesus. He was looking in all of the wrong places for love, for joy, for peace, and for hope. Like hope, peace, and joy, real love, lasting love, agape love, the kind of love we are longing for can’t be found in people, experiences, or things. The kind of love we long for originates in God alone. Jesus said,
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34 NIV)
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” We can’t love someone the way the Lord loves us unless we allow Him to love them through us. With all of the problems we’ve got going on in our personal lives, in our nation, and around the world today, our greatest need is not counselors, the United Nations, doctors, engineers, politicians, preachers, or the Peace Corps—it’s God’s love. I know some of you hear that and think that I’m so naïve, I’m too simple-minded, and that I don’t understand the complexity of the problems we face individually and globally. You are probably right, but I will tell you what I do know. I know that God’s love covers over a multitude of sins, even the most grievous of sins.
I was working on this lesson when I heard an interview with Richard Gonzalez, who is a cousin of Rafael Ramos, one of the police officers who was executed in New York City last weekend. Mr. Gonzalez was asked about the man who shot and killed Rafael. He said,
We don’t blame him. We forgive him. The Ramos family forgives him because God forgave us. And I know if Rafael was here he would say the same words. He would forgive him. (Richard Gonzalez)
Let me ask you, “How has Rafael’s family forgiven Ismaaiyl Brinsley? Was it because they are better people than the rest of us? They sure wouldn’t describe themselves that way. I think Mr. Gonzalez made it clear for us when he said, “The Ramos family forgives him because God forgave us.” That’s God’s love in action doing what is impossible for us to do in and of ourselves.
I also know that the love of God will cause us to lay down our lives for others, to enter into the suffering of others, even complete strangers. I read the article about Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” the Ebola workers. Salome Karwah contracted Ebola along with her family. In one week’s time she lost her mother and father to the disease, but Salome recovered. Now, Salome spends her time working as a Doctor’s Without Borders nurses assistant. She said, “It looked like God gave me a second chance to help others.” She went on to say.
Now I am back at the treatment centre, helping people who are suffering from the virus to recover, working as a mental health counsellor. Helping people brings pleasure, and that is what brought me here. My efforts here may help other people to survive. When I am on a shift, I counsel my patients. If a patient doesn’t want to eat, I encourage them to eat. If they are weak and are unable to bathe on their own, I help to bathe them. I help them with all my might because I understand the experience – I’ve been through the very same thing.
Why is Salome so willing to work day-in and day-out in the place where she lost her mom and dad, the place that holds so many painful memories for her? She knows the love of God and she has to allow His love to flow through her to others.
Oh my friend, Christmas is so much than ribbons and bows. Underneath the big pile of boxes, torn wrapping paper, toys, trinkets, and something new is the gift of love sent from Heaven, wrapped in a Baby who grew up to be the Gift of Forgiveness, the Gift of Reconciliation, the Gift of Restoration, the Gift of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. I hope this Christmas you will be still, even if only for a few minutes, and give Him thanks for the most wonderful gift ever given.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
December 24, 2014