What is your idea of a picture-perfect Christmas? All the decorations are perfect. You were able to find just the right gift for everyone on your list. Everything was on sale. You are surrounded by family and friends. The kids get along. The cat behaves. The new recipe you tried out works and everyone loves it! No one gives you a sweater that doesn’t fit and needs to be returned. Perfect, right? And, most likely impossible! Seriously, have any of us ever attained the picture-perfect Christmas?
For some, a picture-perfect Christmas would be full of love! I’m pretty sure most of our “picture-perfect” Christmas wishes are out of reach this year. However, love, joy, hope and peace can be the foundation of our Christmas, regardless of the circumstances in the world around us.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed we can be a bit flippant in our use of the word “love.” We say that we love coffee, chocolate, pizza and tacos? All great things, but, seriously, do you really “love” tacos? We say we love our favorite sports team, favorite show, author or movie. But, is that really love?
Many of us also know what it’s like to feel the absence of love. We have wrestled with loneliness, isolation and feeling unlovable. For some of us, our ideas of love are easily confused with whatever the latest Christmas romance on the Hallmark Channel happens to be.
God offers us a complete and full love. God’s love is something we receive, something we experience. As we experience God’s love, we are left with a choice…we can embrace or reject God’s love. As we embrace God’s love, we must then embody and extend that love.
A complete love would focus on giving our all that we are to God and one another. An altogether love allows God to fully know and lead us. A full love is experienced when we offer ourselves completely to God.
From our Scripture reading, we see that Mary is a great example of this kind of love. She gave not only her spirit and mind to God – she gave her full self – including her physical being – to God.
Let’s think back to the story we heard from Luke. What was Mary’s initial reaction? She heard the angelic proclamation and responded with a question. “How can this be?” Mary pauses to reflect and ask that very important question.
The angel’s answer is, “Well, the Holy Spirit has all of this under control. Don’t worry for nothing is impossible for God.”
Mary’s question reminds us that God makes room for questions in our faith journey. If you look at the story just before this morning’s Scripture passage, you will see that Zechariah had a question too. He was informed by the angel that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a very special child (who is known to us as John the Baptist). Zechariah says, “You’ve got to be kidding me. How can that be?”
Honestly, it’s a fair question, Luke 1:7 says that Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children, and really didn’t see that has a possibility because both were, as the New Revised Standard Bible puts it, “getting on in years.” In other words, they were old! Zechariah even pointed that out to the angel, “don’t you think we’re a little too old for that?” The angel responds that, because Zechariah didn’t believe, he will be silenced until it all comes to pass. And, Zechariah was unable to speak until he wrote down that the child should be named John on the day of his birth.
Maybe you see the difference in the questions? Zechariah’s question is out of disbelief? Mary just wants more details.
Mary shows faith, trust, obedience and love in her response, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
The fullness of Mary’s love for God created within her a willingness to step out in faith-filled obedience. Mary was taking a serious risk in choosing love, in choosing obedience, in choosing to say “yes” to God’s call. She would face ridicule. She would face the potential end of her relationship with Joseph. She would face rejection from family, friends, her community.
I mean, put yourself in Joseph’s shoes…this is an irrational, unbelievable story…
- “So, you’re pregnant?”
- “And, I didn’t have anything to do with it?”
- “That’s correct.”
- “And, you expect me to believe that God did this?”
- “All righty then!”
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph also received an angelic visit telling him this would happen, that everything was under control and he should not be afraid to go through with his marriage to Mary. That makes it easier to believe Joseph sticking by Mary’s side, right?
This call from God, to the outside world, would seem irrational, unbelievable. Yet, Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be.” Joseph stands by Mary’s side.
Mary chose to love. She said “yes”. Joseph chose to love. He said “yes”.
We must choose to love.
Altogether, full, complete love can appear irrational as it involves loving one another with all our flaws. We don’t extend love to others only after they have their lives together – once they behave the way we desire – that’s an “almost” and conditional love.
The kind of love God calls us too is not conditional or dependent on the actions and appearances of another. We are simply called to love – no conditional strings attached. Why? Because that’s the way God loves us.
Let us remember, God didn’t send Jesus into the world because humankind had it all figured out and had it all together. God sent Jesus into the world to heal and save a hurting and broken world that is incapable of saving itself.
When we love others, even when they are seemingly unlovable, that’s when the light of God’s love begins to breakthrough the deepest darkness. April Casperson writes, “Goodness is stronger than evil, and love is stronger than hate. Love is the thing that conquers evil – love cannot be confined, it cannot be destroyed, it cannot be crushed. Love will enter into any space that is considered to be evil. It fills up that space, and it transforms darkness into light.”
Now, let’s be honest – there are times it is difficult to love. Choosing to love others, flaws and all, doesn’t mean we overlook or excuse inappropriate behaviors. It means that love, not judgment or conflict, is the foundation of our relationship with those around us. We are called to stir up love, not hatred, judgment or conflict. In loving others, even those seemingly unlovable people, we begin to build the foundation of trust that allows us to have difficult conversations from a place of love and grace.
John Wesley defined the “altogether Christian” as one who fully loves, as one who exudes love for God and neighbor.
When we experience God’s love, when we embrace God’s love, we have a call to embody and extend that love to the world around us. As we extend love in our world, we are doing our part to shine the light of Christ into the darkness.
We fear being unlovable. As a result, we sometimes hide our true selves – we hide our flaws – we filter everything in order to create the appearance and image we desire. In fully experiencing and embracing God’s love, we have to let go of our desire to control our image and focus on being open and honest about our fears, hurt, shame, questions and doubt.
People who consider themselves spiritual and open to Jesus are closed off to the church because they fear they will not be accepted or welcomed as they are. They question whether or not they can be themselves or if they have to project an alternate and incomplete image. Many within the community of faith struggle with those same questions.
John Wesley, a founding father of the Methodist movement, would say the “almost Christian” is one who goes through all the appropriate religious routines and “performs morality” without the deep foundation of love. An altogether Christian would maybe do the same things an “almost Christian” does, but for different reasons. The “almost Christian” goes through religious routines out of a sense of duty, expectation, obligation or to earn their ticket into heaven. The “altogether Christian” goes through religious routines out of a sense of love. Our good deeds in the world should be the outward response and expression of our inward experience of God’s love.
Mary and Elizabeth were both unexpected vehicles to usher in God’s Kingdom. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was well advanced in years when she became pregnant. Mary was young and yet to be wed. When God calls these women to be part of the story, it’s a reminder that God often works through the unexpected and even irrational.
Advent is an opportunity to be reminded of the fullness of God’s love. God loves each and everyone of us just as we are. All are loved and welcome in God’s eyes. We don’t earn God’s love…we receive it. Some of us choose to embrace that love. Some choose to reject that love. But, God will not stop loving us.
Alison Casperson writes, “Advent reminds us that love shows up in the most unexpected places, transforming flawed, imperfect people into people redeemed by love. God compels us to move from an almost love (the love that we think is based upon who we are and what we do) into an altogether love (a love that grows to fill all spaces, bringing light wherever there is darkness).
In choosing love, we have to be open to loving one another. If we aren’t interested in extending love to those around us, we are not embracing an altogether love. In other words, if there is someone in our lives we have deemed as unlovable, we have to discover ways to extend love.
If we have experienced God’s love – if we have been transformed by God’s love – we must share that love with the world around us. If we, as followers of Jesus, would get serious about embracing, embodying and extending love, our homes, churches, schools, community and world will be transformed.
Will we choose to love? Will we extend that love by choosing to shine God’s light wherever there is darkness?