Monday, December 24, 2012

"Love came down at Christmas"

Text: Luke 2 1-20 (the birth of Jesus)

When I was a child, I was a member of a junior choir that sang a musical setting of "Love Came Down at Christmas," an 1885 poem by Christina Rossetti. It has always stuck with me. And here is how it goes . . .

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

It is a poignant and moving image, love in the form of a newborn. Tonight, we may have come to church to experience the mystery, beauty and wonder of it all again.

Love is our most sacred value and lies at the heart of the work and worship of church. The Christmas story reminds us of how beautiful love can be, but also how fragile and weak it can seem.

As followers of Christ, we try to live our lives in the light of God's Love. But our faith in love is not an unreasonable one. Even when fear disappears and we are grasped by God's Amazing Grace, we do not forget that our lives are broken.

Children sometimes suffer neglect from their parents. Parents are sometimes disappointed in their children. All of us are forced to live in a world with too much destruction, violence, and irrationality. These are the harsh conditions in which we pursue love and to try to live by its light.

Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, does not escape the pain of life. In the verses from Luke that immediately follow our Christmas readings tonight, the holy man Simeon says to Mary: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

And of course, a sword does pierce Mary's soul when, 30 years later, she is one of the witnesses to Jesus' arrest and execution by the Romans. I am sure that many of us here can relate to her heartbreak at the loss of a loved one, even the loss of a child, which must be the deepest cut of all.

The stories of Jesus help orient our lives towards love and to live with faith. But today our faith does not come only from the church or the Bible. Today much of our faith is also humanist, secular, and scientific.

This past Friday, I watched a "special Holiday" show on ABC called "Back to the Beginning." In it, correspondent Christiane Amanpour looked at evidence for the historical reality behind various stories in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures. You can watch the second half of her report this Friday night. But although it was the #1 show on TV on Friday, I thought much of it was ridiculous.

One of the theologians interviewed by Amanpour quoted the famous line from the book Hebrews: "faith is belief in things unseen." Fair enough, except that he was speaking about Noah and the flood. He believed the flood had really happened, and personally, I don't see that as an example of reasonable faith.

Almost all of our beliefs are in things unseen. I have never seen Austria, but I have complete faith it exists. I also have faith that our final carol "Silent Night" was written by Franz Gruber in Austria on Christmas Eve 1818. This is a reasonable faith. Why would people lie about their experiences in Austria?

Today, it would take a lot of anxiety to fight belief in Austria or Franz Gruber. But Noah's Ark? In the 21st Century, belief in its historical reality takes a great deal of anxiety, which is the opposite of faith. While we can gain a lot by reading and discussing the story of Noah's Ark, searching for the Ark on a mountainside in Turkey is a big waste of time, in my opinion.

Our faith in Love does not have to be unreasonable. Faith does not mean that all sickness or heartbreak disappear from our lives. Instead, I think that faith involves accepting God's help to move through and beyond our fears about such things. It means trusting that Love is our source; that Love is born again in our hearts tonight; that Love calls to us; and that when we respond to Love's call, we may find death, just as Jesus did. We also trust that beyond the many painful deaths of our lives arises new life in Christ, a life within God's eternity.

Tonight, whether we are children or have now lived long and sometimes painful lives, God still calls to us as a baby. It is a call both to love God and neighbour and to be loved by God. And so we hear the story and sing the carols again. They remind us that God is with us. Emmanuel has come again. Love has come down again. Its light continues to lead us home to God.

Tonight as Christmas 2012 arrives, let us sense again how silently a wondrous gift is given. It is the gift of salvation, and it is born in us today. The gift is the birth of the Christ child in hearts turned towards love on this night as on any night. It is the mystery, beauty and power of the Christmas story. And it is available to each and every one of us tonight in this little town.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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