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Worship and Sermons
December 24, 2018

“Self-giving Love” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, December 24, 2018, Year C / Christmas Eve – Isaiah 9:2-7  •  Psalm 96  •  Titus 2:11-14  •  Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

THEME:  Embrace God’s gift of self-giving love to change the world, starting with our own hearts and homes.

 

Would you like to change the world?  I suspect we’d all like to do that. 

So, let me ask that question another way.  If you had the power to do it, how would you go about changing the world? 

Haven’t you ever said to yourself, “If I were God, I would . . . ”  Fill in the blank.

But if you’ve ever seen the movie Bruce Almighty, with Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston, you’ll have some idea that fixing things here on earth might just be a little more complicated than we think.

For those of you who’ve not seen this comedy classic, it’s the story of a guy named Bruce Nolan.  Bruce is a TV news reporter in Buffalo NY.  He seems to have one bad break after another.  When he gets passed over for the job of his dreams - news anchorman – he loses it, live and on-air.  Then he loses his job.

He takes out his frustration on God.  He shakes his fist and yells up at the heavens, “The only one around here not doing his job is YOU!”

The next day Bruce mysteriously gets a job offer.  When he responds in person, he finds himself face to face with God, played perfectly by Morgan Freeman. 

God says, “You’ve been doing a lot of complaining about me, Bruce.  You think you can do it better, so here’s your chance.  When you leave this building, you will be endowed with all my powers.”

But instead of helping others, Bruce first uses his new power to help himself.  Of course, chaos ensues, with a large helping of humor.

That’s the movies.  Real life, as you and I know, is not necessarily a comedy.  As we look around us, we see an awful lot of chaos and suffering.  And it’s not funny in the least.

Climate change, constant war, income inequality, racism, sexism and every other ‘ism’ that, if I can steal a line from Ferris Buehler, is, in my opinion ‘not good’.

Not to mention poverty, corruption and lack of education, clean water and economic opportunity.  If you were in charge, how would you try to fix all that?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just snap our fingers and make it all better?  Sometimes, don’t we even catch ourselves asking God, “Hey, why don’t you fix this?”

That’s the question Bruce Nolan was asking.  Frankly, the only difference between him and many of us is he just said it a little louder.

But, friends, that’s not how God decided to change this world.  And, on this sacred night, we are reminded of that.

God chose to change this world from the inside. He became one of us, by becoming one of the least of us:  a helpless infant, born downstairs among the animals to an unwed 13-year old mother, from a dirt-poor family in a dirt-poor town way off the beaten path up north in those distant hills, far away from the big city of Jerusalem.

That’s the plot of this Christmas story that you and I celebrate tonight.  It’s not about God stepping in to instantly set everything right, at least not yet. 

That’s why God didn’t send Gabriel to Caesar or his Senators to share the good news of his Son’s birth.  Instead, he sent Gabriel and the angelic armies to deliver the Good News to a group of poor shepherds, people who were so mistrusted and despised they weren’t even permitted to enter many towns.

God saw how far we had strayed from the path he laid out for us at creation.  He sent prophets to call us back to his way, but we chose to go our own way instead.  We chose to love ourselves - more than him, and more than our neighbor.

We needed to learn again how to love, the way God loves us.  So, he came to show us. 

In my work as a pastor, I get poignant reminders of his love every time I do a wedding.

The most recent one was last weekend.  It was spectacular.  The bride was radiant.  The groom was beaming. The venue was fabulous. 

We were up at the Rusty Rail Brewing Company in Mifflinburg.  It’s a converted Ford factory where they used to make Model T’s.  Now they make really good beer.  Definitely worth the drive.

In preparing my wedding sermon, I ran across this familiar passage from the Gospel of John:

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you . . .  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

That’s the recipe for a good marriage:  husband and wife giving themselves to one another.  Each sacrificing for the other, putting their spouse’s happiness ahead of their own.  That’s the definition of self-giving love.

From the cradle to the cross, Jesus was the embodiment of that love.  He is the gift: the gift of God’s own self, given so you and I might live abundantly – in God’s constant presence.  As John puts it:  

 ‘For God so loved this world that he gave his only Son, so that by trusting in him, we might have eternal life.’

And, God created humanity so that selfless love spreads contagiously from one person to the next.  We’ve often thought that intuitively.  Now we have scientific proof.

Over the last 20 years, researchers have conducted experiments on the influence of a particular chemical in our brains called oxytocin.  It’s a reproductive hormone that is active in sex, childbirth and social belonging.  You can think of it as the kindness chemical.

When our levels of oxytocin rise, we respond to family, friends - even complete strangers - with greater empathy, generosity and care.  That’s true of all relationships – not only the intimate and personal ones, but in business, politics and social settings.

The truly surprising thing is how it works.  All it takes to trigger this "kindness chemical" is receiving a hug, a compliment, a smile, or a simple act of kindness.  The greater the kindness we experience, the higher our levels of oxytocin rise.

And when they do, we’re more inclined to do kind things for others.  That, in turn, leads them to be kind and loving to still more people.

That’s how God has made us.  You and I are hardwired to receive God’s loving kindness, and to share it.  And so, if we want to make this world better, the place to start is by welcoming God’s love into our own hearts.  That’s what Bruce Nolan found out.

A thousand years ago, a Christian writer explained how it works.  He wrote,

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. As the years went by, I found that I couldn’t change the town, and so, as an older man, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I understand the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and so I could indeed have changed the world.”

Friends, that was God’s plan from the beginning.  To change the world from the inside - beginning with our own hearts.

You and I have already been offered the power to change this world.  It comes by receiving God’s gift of himself – that babe in the manger, and embracing what he taught us about loving God and one another.  If we’re open to his love, we’ll naturally want to share it.  And who knows where that will end?

A Baptist pastor named Ronnie Floyd recently spoke of the power of that love.  He was invited to preach last month at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  You’ll remember that this is the historic black church where, 3 ½ years ago, a young white supremacist named Dylan Roof killed nine people at a Bible Study group.

        Rev. Floyd spoke of the privilege of witnessing firsthand the extraordinary forgiveness demonstrated by the grieving relatives of the victims.  He recounted how, one by one, they stood up at Mr. Roof’s bond hearing two days after the shooting and offered him forgiveness.

As the sister of one of his victims said, “We are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.” 

As you can imagine, she was angry.  But, even so, God’s self-giving love persuaded her to see beyond her own desire for vengeance, just as Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who condemned him to die.

Rev. Floyd’s conclusion was this:  “When you belong to Jesus, you belong to love, and you forfeit your right to choose whom you will love.  Love is the better way. Love is God’s way.”

This Christmas, who in your life can you love better?  Who in your family can you forgive?  With whom can you share a hug, or a kind word?

What difference might it make – months, years and generations from now, as they share the love you showed them?

 That’s the power of the gift God gave us in that tiny babe in a humble manger, over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem.

May we each receive it.  May we all share it.

Merry Christmas.

 

Last Published: December 27, 2018 9:49 AM
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