This is Love
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
December 18, 2005
Scripture: 1 John 4:7-21; Luke 2:8-20
“Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is Love; and the Love of God appeared among us, when God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” –Romans 13:8
Our text is not a traditional Christmas one; nevertheless it is the fullest statement of the spiritual and psychological substance of the event that the traditional texts narrate. In case the well-known narrative of the birth of the baby Jesus and the heroic love of his mother Mary and his stepfather Joseph has become by much repetition too familiar to stun us still, I have chosen this abstract statement of its meaning for our meditation today. This statement tells us that the event of Jesus’ birth reveals that God is Love, that divine love is perfect and casts out fear, that we reciprocate through loving friends and neighbors, and especially enemies, and that it is a good news of peace in a world of war. Today, I pray that we shall appreciate once again and at a deeper level than ever before this truth of the divine love, which is the beginning and end of our faith.
One of the memorable things of Christmas preaching for me is the number of times I have stood up to proclaim the prince of peace in the midst of war. I remember vividly when, as a young preacher in his early thirties, I faced thousands of people in Stanford Church on my first Christmas Eve there, while the tanks and troops of the 1973 Middle Eastern war were literally on the Shepherds’ Fields outside Bethlehem. What could the announcement of the arrival of the Prince of Peace mean in times like this, I asked, which are indeed all times in this world, if not a delusion and a refusal to see the world as it is? I shall return to this matter, because we are at war and the children of friends and acquaintances have been killed in Iraq. What might the remembrance of the event of the incarnation of the divine love in our mortal flesh mean for those who have been killed there, and their grieving families? How shall we deal with the presence of violence and death in the heart of the vulnerable, immortal and divine love?
The other memorable Christmas presence for me is precisely this divine love of which I speak, which comes to us in, with and under human love. On Friday I spoke briefly to a South African family, on the seats beside me at de Gaulle airport, waiting to board. The three of them were on the way from Durban, South Africa, to San Diego, to spend Christmas with a brother – human love going to extreme lengths to be together. We all do that sort of thing; Bill Baerg’s children for instance are here from Japan for the season, and we are about to hit the road again, this time for Oregon to be with the ones we love most. Human love going to extreme lengths to be together mirrors the divine love doing the very same thing, going to the extremest lengths, across the divine/human divide, to be together with us in the most intimate love of all, the love of the creator for the creature.
Let’s think briefly of the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus, the little child, by analogy with our own experience of little children. We have received a new grandson this year, and Bill and Erica Hurlbut a new son, so we have recent experience to remind us how a birth is an absolute declaration of divine love. How do we know that God is love? By the fact that our human love causes the creation of children and thus makes possible a special event and advent in our lives of the absolute love of God.
A second piece of reflection in this mode is how vulnerable and dependent children are. They demand from us care and protection, the spiritual and material gifts a Mommy and a Daddy give. They are a responsibility entrusted to us by the source of life. We must receive, accept and succor them. So it is with the divine; God does not force himself upon us as a great and powerful warrior, but entrusts himself to us as a dependent child, whom we choose to receive and cherish. This means that the divine power in the world is part and parcel of our human power, and that the core of our power is our ability to love, to say yes to the responsibility of love. The power of an entrusted child is greatest because is awakens in us the responsibility of caring love, which is the nature of the divine.
We all know intuitively, whether we have children of our own or not, that a large part of the secret satisfaction of life resides in that place where children and adults meet to serve each other. It is a nexus where love is potentially present with great intensity and satisfaction. It is a place of absolute demand and infinite succor, the place where love lives, where God appears.
Thus this birth of God reveals that God is love, and those who love are the ones who know God, and that Love is, despite appearances, the most powerful power in the world, most powerful because it creates us in the first place and then nurtures and develops us, until we become perfectly loving ourselves and merge again with God, the love from whom we came.
Having thought so far about the divine love by analogy with human love as exemplified in the birth of Jesus, we must go on to make the most important and most challenging point of all. It is that this one and only, concrete and unique, historical event, the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, is what gives symbolic substance to the analogy we have been drawing, and not vice versa. We know God is love not because all babies are lovable but because God humbled Himself to become a human baby and thus to declare His infinite love, His very nature as love. From that event there radiates into all human history, into every birth, the positive power of the creator’s love; we can see it in every birth because we have seen it in Jesus’ birth, the supreme beauty of the new creation.
This birth is not like any other birth, it is absolutely unparalleled. Here from the virgin womb of Mary issues once again, for only the second time ever, the power of creation, the love of the creator come to recreate the world, to enter its darkest corners of need and to bring the light of love and the joy of life. It is for this reason that we Christians see so much significance in the birth of any child; because we know from the birth of God in Jesus that God is love, every birth proclaims to us the birth of God, every birth is for us an instance of salvation and a pledge of peace; and when we see that we are seeing not a significance artificially added but the inner truth of things. That is what a birth really is, but only the living Jesus enables us to see that.
Thus I return to the matter of peace and war. We weep inwardly at the cruelty of war, the present loss of our service men and women, their maiming and suffering, and likewise over the 30000 other casualties in Iraq. I know that something like this will be the backdrop of every future Christmas of mine, as it has been of all the past ones, so I do not at this time blame but rather mourn the pathetic pride of our pathetic species, that learns nothing from history and cares nothing for the human life of strangers.
But what shall I say to those of my own nation who have given the lives of their children for the policy of our elected leaders? At my best times I see our service to the people of Iraq as an amazing exercise in love. If I take our current rhetoric at face value I hear the claim that we have offered the lives of our children and the resources of their healthcare and education for the salvation of people far away and virtually unknown to most of us. For their slim and outside chance at democracy we are willing to forgo our children’s education, healthcare and very lives. At Christmas I choose to interpret this as an instance of divine love. Whatever their leaders may have intended God sees the sacrifice of these young men and women under the rubric, “There is no greater love than to lay down ones life for a friend.” We have reached across the world to call strangers “friend,” we have given them our lives, and thus gone to great lengths to demonstrate the love of God that Christmas shows. Either that, or despair, and I cannot despair at Christmas, because Christmas celebrates the coming to me of my creator, and the dearest relationship of all my life. At Christmas I hear him speaking in the depth of my soul, ”Peace and goodwill to you and all the human race,” and that word is life and love to me, despite all the confusion and cruelty.
So, having said all that and offered all this interpretation I conclude that no interpretation can reach the core of Christmas. Life and joy and peace do not come from interpretations or explanations. Theory cannot create them. Life and joy and peace live only in relationships, and the bedrock of all our relationship is our relationship with God. God comes looking for us in Jesus, God humbles himself before us in Jesus, places himself all vulnerable in our arms as Jesus. To celebrate Christmas is simply to adore the baby and worship his precious name, and love him with all our heart, and give every gift as a symbolic re-presentation of his gift of himself to us, and to look for Jesus in the concrete moments of our relations this Christmas, and to believe his word of peace and goodwill, spoken uniquely to each one of us, in the deep place of the soul. This is Love; this is God!