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Love Comes Anyway

 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4:11-12

The theme for the fourth week of Advent is Love. I believe that God is love and that love manifested in human form on earth in the person of Jesus. The stories of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, present an unusual way for love to appear. The familiarity of these stories to those of us raised with them has perhaps caused some of the mysterious particulars to become commonplace, and so we embellish and romanticize them. It is the peculiar details, however, that point to the deceptive simplicity, the laser focus, and utter purity of the love of God for and with us.

As the Christmas story goes, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census. The town was crowded with others gathering there for the same reason. There was no place for the child to be born, so the birth occurred in an animal stable. We recreate this today as a quiet, peaceful scene with calm, domesticated animals, fresh hay, and gentle lighting. The reality would have been much different – loud, smelly, dirty, and dark. The point we miss from the original setting, however, is that God enters into the chaos and the messiness of our everyday lives. For most of us, God does not come with a clap of thunder, marching bands, or with pomp and circumstance. Rather, God comes as a baby. Just as the baby’s cries in Bethlehem were lost in the noise of the animals and pandemonium around the stable, so today we cannot hear the baby’s cries for the Christmas messages blaring incessantly around us. It would have been easy to miss the birth of this God-child in Bethlehem. In fact, it would have been difficult to even find it there, just as it is difficult to experience it today for all the noise and distractions.

James Finley, in his Advent reflection* for 2017, says one lesson of the Christmas story is that God comes anyway. Even when we are too busy to prepare, God appears and abides within us. It did not matter that Mary and Joseph were far from home. It did not matter that Bethlehem was crowded and chaotic. It did not matter that there was no room at the Inn. God came anyway. Nothing was ready for the baby. There was no nursery, no safety, no soft clothes, and no appropriate shelter. There was no welcome fitting for a king, so Jesus was born in squalor with farm animals. Yet, he did not seem to mind or even notice.

Life is complicated because we have made it so. Love at its core, however, is simple. In spite of our messiness and unworthiness, God comes. This is the nature of love as taught by the Christmas story, that even when nothing is as we feel it should be, love comes anyway. It is there, lying unnoticed beneath the self-imposed complexity of the season. If the house is dusty and unkempt, it all-the-more resembles the original setting for the birth of Jesus. Love is an unstoppable flow – it is given and received independent of the circumstances around it. God choses to come to us because God loves us, even and especially in our imperfection. God cannot wait to be with us and will not wait until we think we are ready. God choses to be in relationship with us knowing all relationships require a give and take to perpetuate, and accepting the risk that we may not reciprocate.

Nothing matters as much as our attentive and conscious reception of this unfathomably generous gift of God’s self. Once received, this love can be passed along to others as freely and generously as it was given to us. In being giving away, love mysteriously returns to us all the more. It is almost too easy and simple to believe. Yet, this is the meaning and purpose of the season – not the noise and chaos we have built into Christmas, but the silent simplicity of a new life being gently born into our lives, just as we are, here and now. Love comes.

*James Finley, Faculty Advent Reflections, https://cac.org/faculty-advent-messages/, sourced on December 18, 2017.

 

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A New Body

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. Luke 24:36-39

After Jesus rose from the grave on the morning we celebrate as Easter, he appeared to his disciples a number of times. All four Gospel accounts of the post-resurrection days record appearances of the risen Christ. Based on those accounts, however, the body of the risen Jesus is clearly different than before. Often, his closest followers do not recognize Jesus until he speaks to them. He enters rooms through locked doors. He appears, and then disappears from gatherings of his disciples. He reprises his walk upon the sea. Jesus rose from the dead, but he did not return in an identical body. His new body resembled the old, however, and it still bore the holes and scars from his crucifixion. He eats and converses with his followers, as he did in his previous life, but this is not the same Jesus.

In his final hours on earth, Jesus suffered a litany of the worst types of torture imaginable. One of his closest friends betrayed him to the religious authorities, who promptly convicted him of blasphemy in a sham trial. He was beaten, scourged, humiliated, and mocked. He suffered inconceivable physical and emotional abuse. Finally, nailed to a cross for hours in the hot sun, he died. And when it was finished, he rose from the dead and returned to earth. Jesus returned to earth changed, however, and with a new body.

There are many profound lessons from the death and resurrection of Christ, one of which is that there is new life on the other side of suffering. While we do not always return to an earthly life, there is always life on the other side. And we are always changed as a result of our struggles. We may look similar, but our bodies and spirits bear the marks of our experiences. Often, we rearrange our priorities, and what was important before, fades into obscurity. That type of rebirth is one purpose of death – when something needs to change or grow, something else must die first. Like a chick, persistently and exhaustingly pecking its way out of the egg; like a mother giving birth; like Jacob wrestling with God; like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. New life comes at a cost; our souls reach for a higher experience, and a new life emerges from the old. Jesus showed us – on the cross and out of the tomb – that there is always life on the other side, often in a new body.

Come home to church this Sunday. There comes a time to begin again.

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