Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Today we meditate on Love.
Hope, peace, joy, love- these are the themes we’ll have discussed in Advent here. But, I’m reminded of Paul’s words from his letter to the Corinthians; you know, the wedding passage: “Faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” The greatest of these is love. As Lutherans, that passage can be hard to stomach because we like to think that faith is the greatest thing. And it’s true we are saved by grace through faith. We are not saved by the strength of our love—thanks be to God, by the way! But still Paul’s words ring true. The greatest of these is love.
But, to ask that question you likely knew I would have to ask in this meditation: what is love? We throw this word around a lot. And as we do so, I think we do damage to it. For example, I think of when I was in high school and I watched the dating lives of myself and those around me. That would be a big deal when the phrase I love you was spoken, but I think even still it was done in a way that at our age we couldn’t recognize the gravity of those words. In contrast to that, as I’m often critical of things from the Navigators when I was with them in college—that was the non-denominational Christian group I was a part of for my Junior and Senior years. I’m critical of how legalistic we could be in there. And one thing that we were very legalistic about was dating. But while it maybe went too far for many, there was some wisdom in some of it. The goal was to be cognizant that relationships didn’t jump in too quickly and cause undue harm to feelings. The phrase used was to guard each other’s hearts. Which was something intended in love. This at it’s heart had love more in mind than many of us high schoolers as we told those we were dating that we loved them.
But what is love? As I speak of throwing phrases around, we have a phrase in our contemporary parlance: love is love. Of course, tautologies are always true, and so is this one. You know, when you use circular reasoning it can’t go wrong. But what’s meant by that? It’s meant that whoever loves whomever in a romantic way is justified in that action. It doesn’t matter if that love is between man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, or now everything in between. And so what is love in view of that? It’s an emotion. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of affection, of draw, of maybe a connection. So, is that what love is?Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God. There we have some insight. Love comes from God. But what do we learn from that? Well, look at how God speaks of love. How do we see Him speaking of it? Well, just like we hear from John here, God tells us to love, doesn’t He? Think of all the times we hear Jesus telling us to love one another. He tells us that as Christians we will be known by our love. He tells us that we are to do this. As He’s asked about the commandments, He says the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, with all of our mind, with all of our soul. And He says the second is like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love. Love God and love neighbor.
But still, we hear that we’re supposed to do that, but what does it look like? Do we just follow our feelings about it? Do we just see what spontaneous emotion springs up telling us how to have compassion or to feel bad about other people? Sometimes, sure. Jesus is spoken of as having compassion on people a lot. I’ve mentioned that a number of times. It’s that word that tells us that Jesus looks at people and He feels it for them. He feels it in His guts. But is that all there is to it?
Think about me with my kids. I can watch my kids struggle with something. I can see the littlest struggle with trying to get clothes on. Maybe it’s the challenge of clothes inside out and upside down. And he can get really frustrated, and I can feel bad. And so, I do help, but at a point it will be unloving for me to continue. Or I can watch him melt down because he was hoping to watch one more show at night, but as much compassion as I might feel in that moment, it’s better for me to love him by sending him to bed. In those cases, we see that love isn’t governed by emotion.
No, we see this love from God in the Commandments. Hopefully, you knew I was going here. Those Ten Commandments tell us how to love. Love God by not having other gods, but calling upon His name in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Love Him by hearing preaching, not despising His word, but gladly learning it; by going to Church. And love your neighbor. Love your neighbor by honoring authority, both in the positions of authority in which you stand and under which you stand. Love your neighbor by caring for their physical needs and not murdering. Love the neighbor of your spouse, of your neighbor’s spouse by honoring marriage. Love your neighbors by not stealing, not bearing false witness, not coveting; caring for their possessions and reputation. That’s how you love. That’s what love looks like. It looks like overlooking your own wants and desires and caring for others.
In other words, love is a sacrifice in view of those commands. And it’s surprising how inclusive they are. You know, I remember when I was still young in my Lutheranism, and I went on a youth retreat with the pastor that confirmed me. As he spoke to the kids, I remember him pointing them to the commandments to know how to live as Christians. And, of course, on the one hand,
I knew this. There were commands that I knew I needed to abide by. I knew I shouldn’t kill anyone. I knew I shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage. But I also heard Jesus talk about all these ways we are supposed to love and I didn’t get the connection to the commandments. I didn’t get that the call to care, for example, for the poor was grounded in the fifth and seventh commandments. The commandments to not murder and not stealing. I didn’t get that caring for the poor was honoring the commandment to not murder because that commandment meant to care for their bodily needs. I didn’t get that the command to be generous meant that not was stealing from my neighbor, not protecting their possessions and income. And as I phrase these this way, hopefully you hear the catechism in there. Christians, those explanations in the catechism are gold for helping us grasp these things. Learn them again if you’ve forgotten them!
But as I say that, does that still encompass all of love? Well, it gets closer. In fact, it gets close to what Jesus says when He says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” doesn’t it? Those commandments help us to restrain our desires that we would lay them down in the name of love.
But as I speak of commandments, what do we always have to remember about them as Lutherans? Or to draw it out a little more clearly in Lutheran terms, are the commandments Law, or are they Gospel? They are law. Even the commandment to love is law.
You know we hear that call to love and it sounds so good. In fact, if you go to a lot of churches in our day, they’ll tell you that love is the Gospel, it’s the good news, and the good news that Jesus gave us is that we should go love one another. That sounds all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? And to be fair, should we love? Of course, I’ve just spent the last few minutes telling you that Jesus has told you to do precisely that, and making the point that no matter how our society defines it, you need to do it the way that God ordained in the commandments. But it’s still Law. What does the Law do?
Paul tells us. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The Law shows us our sin. It shows how we haven’t done what God wants us to do. Do we still try? Of course, because that’s what He tells us to do. But we won’t get to heaven by it. Our love won’t save us. But, beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.
Love is from God, and that’s what today is all about. Our love can’t save us, but the love of our God can. 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.
Hear that again. In this is love. NOT that we have loved God. That’s the reality. We haven’t loved God. Well, we try. We fail, but we try. And as John says elsewhere, we love because He first loved us. No, it’s not about our love. It’s about His. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us. He loved us, and what? He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Christians, what a beautiful love we see there. We see the light glowing from the manger. The light of the love of God in the darkness of that night, wrapped in swaddling cloths. As I say it that way, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen art that reflects this, but it’s such a magnificent image, and a fitting one. We were looking at this with my family last week. There was a painting that had Mary and others around the manger, and it was clear that the source of light for the painting was the Lord in the swaddling cloths. That’s this love. The love of the God who sent His Son into this world. The love of that Son who in love gave up all of the riches of heaven to be born to us. The love of that Son who lived the perfect life of love and never broke the commandments; the love of the Son who carried sin to the cross to be our propitiation.
Yes, Christians, as we meditate on love this day, that’s what we see. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for friends. And this Christ child is that love. He is that love born as the light in the darkness at the first Christmas. He is that love that teaches us to love. And He is that love that finally brings hope, brings peace, brings joy, and brings love to us.
That is just what we need in our world. We need that love. Yes, faith, hope, and love; the greatest of these is love. Amen.