Topical Scripture: Isaiah 49.1-7
This morning I have good news for half of you, and information for the rest. The essay is titled, “Why men are just happier people.” Here are some of its disclosures: wedding plans take care of themselves; car mechanics tell us the truth; wrinkles add character; phone conversations are over in 30 seconds flat; we can open all our own jars; we get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness; if someone forgets to invite us, he or she can still be our friend; three pairs of shoes are more than enough; we can “do” our nails with a pocketknife; and the number one reason: we can do Christmas shopping for 25 relatives, on December 24, in 15 minutes.
There are better reasons for happiness. This Advent week of love claims that our Creator loves us. The King of the entire Kingdom loves his subjects. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
But what does this knowledge mean to us practically? No word is harder to define than “love.”
The Bible teaches us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22:39). So, how do we love ourselves?
At its core, our self-love can be summarized as seeking our good. We will always seek our own good. This is not a feeling or emotion. We often feel frustrated and unhappy with ourselves. Self-love is an action. I can be trusted to do whatever is to my own good. So can you. Seeking our own good is the most basic and fundamental characteristic of life. It is the instinct for self-preservation defined.
Therefore, to love my neighbor as myself is to seek his good as much as I seek it for myself. To “love” God is to seek his good with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
These are the two goals of today’s Advent message on love: that we would seek the good for God and for each other, even before our own. Why would we do so?
Know God’s universal plan
Our text is the second of four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah, four poems about the coming Messiah, each of which was fulfilled by the Baby of Bethlehem. This one tells us the “why” of Christmas: “Before I was born the Lord called me” (v. 1).
To what purpose?
“To bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself” (v. 5). To bring God’s chosen people back to their Creator and King.
However, “It is too small a thing for you” to limit your ministry to the Jewish people alone: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 6). God’s plan included all the nations, from the very beginning. This text is sometimes called the Great Commission of the Old Testament.
How would the Servant fulfill his calling?
He would be “the Redeemer” (v. 7a). To “redeem” someone in the Bible is to buy them back from the punishment they deserved, to free them from the slavery which was the consequence of their sinful choices.
How would he redeem us? He would be “despised and abhorred by the nation” (v. 7b). As the last Servant Song predicted, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). He was born to die.
With this result: “Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down” (v. 7c). These kings would represent the nations of the earth. They would come to worship the One who would die for them.
Rejoice in the universal love of Christmas
How would these promises be kept? The Christ of Christmas would die for the Jewish people whose race he entered as their Messiah. He would preach in their synagogues, heal their sick, raise their dead. He would do his best to persuade their religious leaders to trust in his Father. He would weep over the lost city of Jerusalem. Despite all the ways they rejected him, he would die to prove his unconditional love for them.
And he would die for the Gentiles and pagans as well.
He would invite the shepherds to attend his birth. They were unclean spiritually, unable to keep the Jewish laws, assumed to be thieves and criminals. No self-respecting Jewish home would invite them to the birth of a child. But he did, to prove his unconditional love.
He would invite the Samaritan woman to himself, and the lepers and the prostitutes, the demoniacs and the despised. All to show his unconditional love.
He would call the kings and princes, the Magi and wise men, from Persia to himself. Even though they were pagan astrologers and magicians, despised and rejected by his people, they would find his unconditional love.
And he would send his missionaries to continue spreading his unconditional love across his creation. In Paul’s first missionary journey, he quoted this very text as sanction and support for his evangelism among the Gentiles, where he spent his life to share God’s unconditional love.
If the religious leaders had planned Christmas, there would have been no peasant parents, no shepherds, no Magi. You and I could not come. But this Baby came for us all. No qualifications or exceptions, just unconditional love.
Consider your worst sin, your gravest secret and shame. Next, think of the person who would be most hurt if he or she knew of this sin. If you were to admit this sin to that person, and were to receive only that forgiveness which forgets, cleanses, and buries the sin so that it is no more, you would know you were loved.
What king dies for his subjects? Only this one. The Son of God became man, that men might become the sons of God. C. S. Lewis, commenting on such love, says that if you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. He did far worse. He was born to die, to prove his unconditional love to you.
Love as God loves
Christmas proves that there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more or any less than he already does. He seeks your good, at the expense of his own Son. What are we to do with such unconditional love?
Love God as he loves you. The shepherds gave him their joyous worship, not the mere habit of rote church attendance. Have you truly worshiped him today? The kings gave their offerings of two years’ travel, lives risked, their best gifts given. When did it last cost you something significant to love God?
Love him as he requires. Jesus was clear, and blunt: “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (John 14:23).
I have often been troubled by the sense that I do not love God enough. Here is the answer: act as if I do. Act into feeling, rather than waiting until feelings produce action. Submit to his word and will. Fulfill his ministry. Find a way to seek his good.
Love others as he loves us.
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). This is an order, an obligation, a directive from our King.
“Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Martin Luther said, “Love begins when we wish to serve others.”
Our love for each other is to be as unconditional as his (Romans 8:35-39). E. M. Cioran taught, “Love is an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other.” I read this week a challenging statement: “Jesus never gave us the option of deciding who does and does not deserve our love.” After Pearl Harbor, the tragedy which occurred on this day in 1941, a whole generation of Americans hated the Japanese for what they did to our soldiers. But God has forgiven what we did to his Son. Our love for others is to be equally unconditional.
And sacrificial: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3.16).
Mother Teresa commented on her ministry, “We must not drift away from the humble works, because these are the works nobody will do…We are so small we look at things in a very small way. But God, being Almighty, sees everything great. Even if you write a letter for the blind man, or just go and sit and listen, or you take the mail for them, or you visit somebody—small things—or wash clothes for somebody or clean the house. Very humble work, that is where you and I must be. For there are many people who can do big things. But there are very few people who will do the small things.”
If you seek just one person’s good each day, in ten years you have loved 3,650 people.
Someone said well, “When God measures a man, he puts the tape around his heart instead of his head.” How do you measure?
Love is seeking someone’s good. Christmas proves God’s unconditional love for you. Will you seek his good through your worship and obedience? Will you seek the good of his children this week, even before your own?
I still remember the day I read this man’s story: “Bad luck—the light turned red, and I was trapped standing at the corner. I prayed for it to change quickly. He was standing too close to me. And besides, it was cold and I was getting wet from the snow.
“‘Can I have something for my file, mister?’ he asked. This one was crazy—no doubt about it. The grimy box under his arm gave him away immediately. Crazies always carry something, usually a shopping bag with handles. They can be unstable, but this guy looked pretty safe. ‘Sorry, no money.’ I had repeated the old lie so often it came out automatically. ‘Have you got anything for my file?’ he repeated.
“Finally his message sank through. I fished in my pocket, pulled out a brochure, and handed it to him. ‘No!’ he shouted. Then, almost pathetically, he finished, ‘I don’t have a file for that.’ I took it back and turned away. Come on light—change. I stepped over the curb to look for a break in traffic.
“‘I’m Howard,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Mark.’ One syllable was all the information I intended to give. I had no desire to have some crazy calling me all the time. I knew people who had to change their telephone number to stop calls. I liked my number.
“I chanced a quick look to see what he was doing. He had a pencil in one hand and was stooping to pick up a piece of paper from the snow. Just then the light changed, and I took off. Halfway down the block, I slowed down and looked back. The crazy had just closed his box and begun to look around for another victim.
“A few days later, I was walking the same route when I noticed an ambulance parked outside a dingy alley. I joined a crowd of onlookers. Two attendants in white jackets wheeled their stretcher out of the alley. It was the crazy. His face was showing, so I knew he wasn’t dead. But as the attendants shut the door, I could tell by their conversation that he wouldn’t stay uncovered for long.
“A policeman questioned some of the people in the crowd but received no answers. Nobody seemed to care that much. It was just a little added excitement on an otherwise dull December day. The cop raised his voice and asked, ‘Did anyone know this guy?’ Nobody answered. Finally, I volunteered, ‘His name is Howard.’
“The people around me backed away—as if my knowing the crazy’s name made me a crazy, too. The cop came over and began to pump me for more information. ‘His name is Howard. That’s all I know, sir.’ ‘Well, at least there will be a name for the headstone. Thanks for your help. Oh, by the way, would you take this for me?’ He reached down and picked up the crazy’s box. ‘I’d like to skip the paperwork on this one.’
“He shoved the box into my hands and walked away before I could say anything. ‘Why would I want this guy’s garbage?’ I looked around for a trash can, but maybe it was the stories I had heard of millionaires who lived like bums, or perhaps it was just my slightly misguided sense of loyalty to the human race. Whatever it was, I opened the box.
“I was disappointed. There was nothing but old clothes and a file folder. I pulled out the file and dumped the rest of the stuff. Then I noticed the crude printing on the folder: ‘FRIENDS.’ I opened it and looked inside. It held only one small scrap of paper. On it was written, ‘MARK.'”
Let us pray.