Beckett: Christmas Eve Sermon – What Is Love?

Date: December 24, 2021
Festival: Christmas Eve
Text: 1 John 4:7-16
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Sermon Hymn: LSB #367 Angels from the Realm of Glory

Let us pray: “God our Father, you sent your Son to free mankind from the power of death. May we who celebrate the coming of Christ as man share more fully in his divine life, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, [now and forever]. Amen” [For All the Saints, 117].

Introduction: What Is Love?

What is love? This is a question that philosophers, musical artists, theologians, and even scientists have tried answering conceivably since the dawn of man. The Apostle John gives us an answer to this question, and it is unlike any answer given. We usually characterise love as emotion or action, or both—or if you’re a scientist, as mere chemical processes in the brain. Emotion and action are how we love one another, which even John insinuates, but to fundamentally understand how to love one another we first must understand what love is.

Unlike any other philosopher, musician, scientist, or theologian before and after him, John characterises love as a person, and that person is God. Because love is the essence of God, John argues, one can only properly love another person not only if they believe in God, but also believe that He sent His only-begotten Son, which is the ultimate and final expression of love.

Therefore, whoever does not know God does not love; and consequently, whoever does not love does not know God. This is a love that flips the world’s definition upside down. People virtue signal with t-shirts, posters, billboards, memes, and social media bios that “love is love” and “love wins,” yet they express the vilest hatred and intolerance toward anyone who disagrees with them, so clearly love does not win, and love does not abide in them. Furthermore, neither does God. (Earlier, in 3:15, John writes that anyone who hates is a murderer, and no murderer has eternal life abiding in them, let alone God.) And the same goes for us if we hate anybody we disagree with rather than loving them with God’s love.

Similarly, people will innocently wear t-shirts with simply “Love” printed on it, sometimes in the shape of a heart. But do they really know what love is? According to John through through the Holy Spirit, if they don’t know God, then they don’t know what love is. So we have two series of questions set before us today.

God Is Love

But before we get to these questions, we must first deal with John’s axiom, “God is love.” Just like the hypocritical ideologies of “love is love” and “love wins,” we Christians also plaster “God is love” all over our own t-shirts, posters, billboards, memes, and social media bios that it has become a vain platitude to the point that we don’t love one another. Love is not only from God; but also, God is love. In other words, God is the embodiment of love. He has an unending supply no matter how short our human supply may run.

With this picture that John gives us, we do not have the picture of a wrathful judge, or a pedantic auditor, or someone waiting to ambush us with vengeance. Rather, He is presented as a Father who is unfathomably generous, self-giving, and compassionate. God’s love is a selfless, self-giving love—a love that does not count the cost, contrary to what we would expect. As Rev. Dr. Bruce Schuchard writes in the Concordia Commentary, “‘God is love’ is not an intellectual, ethical, or emotional abstraction; it’s who He is—His essence, His nature.”

What Is God’s Love?

Now that we know that God is love, our first series of questions come forth: “God is love, but what is God’s love? Furthermore, how do I know He loves me?” Fortunately, John gives us the answer, and it’s surprisingly simple, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” [vv. 9-10].

God’s love is made manifest among us in the sending of His Son on Christmas morning and as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, the purpose of which was to ensure that we live through Him. So, to rightly understand God’s love begins not with the question of our love for God or our love for one another, but with the manifestation of God’s love for us. This is why John writes, “not that we have loved God but that He loved us.” God loved us first.

In the ancient pagan world, it was only appropriate to love those whom we considered worthy of our love. This hasn’t really changed much in the world we live in, has it? But God flips this upside down; He loves sinners who are totally unworthy of His love and deserve His wrath. He sent His only-begotten Son to save us not because we’re lovable but because He is love. This is not a love of infatuation, or ethics, or affection, or “being nice,” or tolerance. This is a love that does not tolerate sin and evil to the point that He gave up His Son to take on the punishment you and I deserve.

There are multiple words in Greek to use for “love,” and the word John uses is agape, which is significant. The pagan religions around the Christians of John’s day, when they spoke of the love of the gods, used the word eros, which typically refers to sexual desire and sexual love. This hasn’t changed much today either, which is indicative of the mantras “love is love” and “love wins.” So, by using the word agape, John’s description of God’s love was totally new.

Agape can be described with at least three characteristics. The first is spontaneous. There was nothing of value in us that inspired God to act with such sacrificial love. God wills to love not because of some inherent value or lovableness in you or me but simply because it’s who He is and it’s what He does.

The second characteristic of agape is that it is self-giving. God’s love is not interesting in what He can gain but only in what He can give. His love is not concerned with self-satisfaction but with helping the one whom He loves no matter the cost, even the cost of His only-begotten Son.

And the third characteristic of agape is that it is active. God’s love is not merely a sentiment of the heart. Though feelings may be felt and expressed with words, it is primarily God’s attitude toward you that He moves to act to help the one in need of His love.

Unfortunately, “God is love” has led to some misunderstandings about His love. Some people think, “Because God is love, this means God cannot punish or judge.” In the age of “tolerance”—which is really just doublespeak for apathy—it is not surprising that the world will use “God is love” to put limits on His person rather than embracing the universality of His agape. Everything God does, He does in accordance with His nature—in accordance with His love. When He provides, it’s because He loves you. When He saves, it’s because He loves you. When He disciplines and judges and punishes, it’s because He loves you. As parents, why do you punish and discipline your children when they disobey? It’s because you love them, right? Why do we go to war to stop and punish evil? Because we love our neighbour.

So, how dare we think God is not loving when He disciplines, punishes, and judges. As our Father, He disciplines His children when we go on temper tantrums against one another. And just as a king punishes and judges the enemies of his people, so God our King punishes and judges our enemies for having the audacity to persecute His people. If God did not judge sin and evil, this would be most unloving. If “God is love” meant that He did nto punish and judge sin, then He would not have spontaneously and selflessly acted to send and sacrifice His only-begotten Son upon whom your punishment fell. Because God did this, you know God loves you. Answer this: Are you a sinner? (You can participate. Yes.) Did Jesus come to save sinners? (Yes.) Then because Jesus came for you, you know God loves you.

What Does It Mean to Love?

And so, we come now to our second series of questions: “Now that I know God loves me, what do I do now? How do I love others until His Advent?” These questions are brought on by John’s saying, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” [v. 11]. So, the answer to “what do I do now” is: love one another. The answer to how you love one another is a bit longer.

First, a brief explanation of the wider context of 1 John is necessary. Not only is love a dominant theme in all of John’s letters, but so is his description of the church as a family. Beginning in this first letter, he warns his hearers against those who would divide the church family with false doctrine. These divisions are not simply disagreements on doctrine that create divisions in the church. For John, these divisions are people who specifically leave, or secede from, the church. If we were to read the whole letter of 1 John, secessionists are described as the following:

  1. For John, the evidence of the true church community is those who gather together to love one another, which is made possible only by the Holy Spirit. That people had left the church was evidence to John that they are not real Christians since, by seceding, they cannot love one another. By doing this—by refusing to love their brethren—they did not know love and, therefore, did not know God since God is love.
  2. They claimed to be sinless, which is why John writes at the beginning of this letter (and this should sound familiar to all of you), “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” [1:8-9].
  3. They also claimed that Jesus is not the Son of God, which is problematic because God’s sending His only-begotten Son manifests His love for sinners like you and me.

So, for John, God’s love not only transforms us from being God’s enemies to His beloved children through His only-begotten Son, but His love also creates a community or family—what we call church—that reciprocates God’s love to one another. Because God has loved us so much in this way, there is only one thing left for the beloved to do: to love one another. This might seem like a surprise to us. If we were reading this letter for the first time, we might expect John to say that since God has loved us in this way, we should in turn love God in the same way. But John is not concerned with our failure to love God, the first great commandment; he is instead concerned with showing God’s love to one another, the second great commandment.

As he continues exhorting this love toward one another, John writes, “No one has seen God,” which seems a bit random, but it does serve a purpose. Here, John is not speaking on God’s invisibility. It’s also true that in Jesus’ own words, whoever has seen Jesus has seen the father [John 14:9]. But John is not speaking of this privileged eyewitness of the Apostles either (after all, John himself has seen Jesus, yet he still writes, “No one has seen God”). Rather, this statement should make us think back to Exodus 33:20, that no mortal human can see God and live. So, no one has seen God, but we have seen the manifestation of His love in the sending of His Son. God loves because it’s who He is; likewise, we love because of who He is.

Conclusion

In summary, on this Eve of Christmas, you know God loves you because He sent His Son into the world as a baby. He was born not in a palace or noble family, but in a poor and humble family, and in a manger—a food trough for farm animals! God is love, which means He spontaneously acts to give of Himself to you. He sent His Son to manifest His love for you.

Being born in a manger, Jesus would die on the cross for you. He came into this world with infant cries on this Eve of Christmas, and He died on the cross with His final cry, “It is finished.” What was finished? The mission of God’s love in the manifestation of His Son, who atoned for all your sins. And in His resurrection, He rose that you might live through Him for all eternity. And it is with this same agape that Christ is coming soon to bring you and me into the new creation, and to judge and punish our enemies, including death.

Until then, because we have been baptised with His Holy Spirit, His love for us moves us to love one another in the community of believers, the church. Not a love that thinks, “What’s in it for me,” but is interested only in what we can give to our neighbour—spontaneous, self-giving, and active. Because Christ abides in us by faith, we abide in Him by loving one another in His church community, so that others may see and confess the love of God that sent His only-begotten Son into the world to die and to rise for them. Therefore, as we depart from these pews at the end of the service, let us not depart with the apathetic “love” of the world but with an eagerness to return and love one another with the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.

May this love of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Bibliography

Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorothy A. Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume 1. Year 1: Advent to the Day of Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1994.

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