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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent Conspiracy: Love All (Matthew 1:18-23)


Today’s message is the conclusion to the “Advent Conspiracy,” a series we’ve been in for the last several weeks to help us turn Christmas upside-down.  Christmas needs to be turned upside-down, because the greatest story in the world has been traded it in for a story of stuff, stress, and debt.

 

I hope the Advent Conspiracy has given you a different way of looking at the season and given you an alternative to simply participating in the commercialism.  I hope it’s helped to make the season less about the stuff we give and get, and more about Jesus, the greatest gift that money can’t buy.

 

The first week of the Advent Conspiracy encouraged us to Worship Fully.  Remember, the word, “worship” comes from the Old English, “worth-ship” – meaning “to ascribe worth or value to something or someone.”  The encouragement to worship fully invites us to find our worth and value and meaning in Jesus, rather than in what’s under the tree.

 

The second week encouraged us to Spend Less.  Spending less is a way to free ourselves from the cycle of stuff.  How much of our time in December is typically devoted to the acquisition of stuff?  Time and money are precious – let’s recover more of both by spend less on stuff.

 

Then, the third week encouraged us to Give More.  We spend less so we can give more.  Spend less on our own social circle so we can give to places of great need.  Christmas is the story of God’s giving – God giving himself in Jesus – in order to bring light into darkness.  As people of faith, we are called to give in the same way.  We spend less on gifts so we can give more of ourselves – our time, our energy, our resources – into the dark places in our world.

 

If you remember the challenge I gave last week, it’s that whatever you spend at Christmas on decorations and parties and gifts, to give the same amount into our Christmas offering on Christmas Eve.  Our Christmas offering will be split between Greensboro Urban Ministry, which helps the most vulnerable in our community, and the Ann Pridgen emergency fund, which helps people in our own congregation in need.  Ashley and I will give $500 to the Christmas offering.  In addition to what we spend on our friends and families, join us in giving a gift that brings the light of God’s love to the dark corner of someone else’s world.

 

That brings us to the fourth corner of the Advent Conspiracy we’ll explore today – Love All.  This should be the easy one.  If love really is the point, let’s just skip all the preaching and the planning and be good to each other.  Is that so hard?  Surprisingly, it is.  If Diana Ross has taught us anything, it’s that love love don’t come easy.

 

If love was easy, I’d be out of a job tomorrow.  And while I appreciate the job security, I’d much rather live in a world where love came naturally to all of us.  We know that Jesus told us to love one another, which is easier said than done.

 

Just ask Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.  Joseph’s story is one that is told too seldom and celebrated too little.  Joseph is one of the greatest stories of faith and love found in the whole of Scripture, and yet Joseph is often an afterthought, an asterisk, a footnote at Christmas.  Let’s look at a piece of his story – turn in your Bibles to the 1st Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, verses 18-23:

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

 

Joseph gets a backseat in the Christmas story is because we all know he’s not the real father of Jesus.  In our time, the whole scene could play out on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, and the name of the episode would be, “Who’s Your Daddy?” with DNA tests to determine the paternity of Jesus.  Incidentally, I’ve always thought The Jerry Springer Show could do one such episode specifically for residents of Indiana, and they could name the episode “Hoosier Daddy.”

 

Back to Mary and Joseph.  Person 1 plus Person 2 equals Person 3, just the same now as then, and Joseph knows he played no part in the equation.  The math hasn’t changed, and so Joseph reaches the only logical conclusion available – that some other person played his part.

 

The penalty for such an indiscretion could be as severe as death by stoning, depending how far Joseph wanted to push it.  At the least, it called for public shame and humiliation of the woman involved.  Here’s the first place Joseph shows us that love is a choice.  He resolves to dismiss Mary quietly – not making a public spectacle of her, not shaming her, not subjecting her to the condemnation of the whole community.

 

We don’t really know his motivation, and we don’t have to.  We simply know that he chose the path of compassion over condemnation.  That’s what love does.

 

Joseph chooses to love a woman who is carrying a baby that’s not his.  Joseph chooses to raise that baby as his own.  Joseph chooses to love that baby.  Joseph is every bit a father to Jesus as if he were his own flesh and blood.  He demonstrates that you don’t have to be biologically related to someone to love them.

 

The holy family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is not bound together by biology or blood.  This holy family is the family of God, a family to which we also belong, and it is joined together by love and grace.  The family of God, like Joseph, chooses compassion over condemnation.

 

Joseph practices compassion even before he knows the whole story.  Even early on, when he thinks Mary has committed some indiscretion, he shows compassion by dismissing her instead of publicly humiliating her.  Joseph’s default setting is to be compassionate even when he doesn’t know the whole story.  He doesn’t wait for the facts to come in and then decide whether or not to be compassionate, he doesn’t weigh the evidence to decide if Mary is worthy or deserving of his love.  In many ways the facts of what exactly happened to Mary and how she became pregnant are immaterial to Joseph, because he is going to show her unconditional compassion.

 

That sounds a lot like God’s love and grace.  Joseph’s life is marked by selfless, sacrificial love that so closely resembles the character and love of God – and that is what makes him a righteous man.

 

I can see in Jesus traits of his heavenly father, and his earthly father.  Don’t tell me that Joseph’s lifestyle of choosing compassion over condemnation didn’t have some influence on Jesus as he grew up.  Yes, Jesus is Love because God is Love, but growing up in a house filled with the kind of love embodied by Joseph also had tremendous influence.

 

During Jesus’ ministry, when he comes across a crowd confronting a woman caught in adultery, when they are on intent on stoning her, perhaps Jesus thought about his own mother, and his own earthly father who didn’t have her stoned to death in a similar situation, as he told the crowd, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”?

 

Jesus grew up in a household where unqualified compassion was practiced, where grace was extended unconditionally, a house whose rule was to love first and ask questions later – Jesus lived and practiced that same compassion and grace and love throughout his life – and thank God he did.  Romans 5:8 tells us, “God shows his love for us in this way: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Though we were sinners, though we were rebellious, though we had done nothing to earn or deserve anything, Christ gave himself on our behalf.  Friends, that’s what love does.  Love is to have a default toward compassion over condemnation.

 

Like Joseph.  In Joseph’s dream, the angel tells him that Jesus will be known as “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”  Not God is judging us, not God is condemning us, not God is reprimanding us, not God is against us. His name matters – we worship a God who is with us in every way.

 

Christmas is nothing less than the celebration of God’s love in the world.  Emmanuel: “God is with us,” and if God is Love, Christmas means “Love is with us.”

 

Friends – “Love is with us.”  There is no greater good news I could give you – “Love is with us!” Love is with us!  Jesus is God’s love with a human face!  The birth of Jesus means God’s love is with us!  Jesus is the greatest gift we have ever received.  The point of this whole season is that God’s love has come to us.  And, if love is the point, then it is not enough to sit in a church service, sing some songs and go home.

 

No –the Christmas season is our call to demonstrate compassion over condemnation, like Joseph, like Jesus, like God.  We are part of a family who loves first and asks questions later.

 

Are you familiar with the practice of re-gifting?  You didn’t like something or it was the wrong size or you already had one, and so you gave it to someone else?  Be honest, anyone here ever re-gift something?

 

This year, what if we re-gift Jesus?  In a sense, that’s what the people of faith are always called to do – to receive God’s love and grace and forgiveness, and then to offer that love and grace and forgiveness to others.  So this year, let’s re-gift Jesus – not because you didn’t like him, not because he’s not your style, not because he doesn’t fit – re-gift Jesus because you enjoyed him so much you can’t keep him to yourself.

 

This year, re-gift Jesus by loving all.

 

Maybe there’s someone in your circle you have a hard time loving.  Maybe someone in your family or your neighborhood or at work or in your church who annoys you simply by opening their mouth – maybe that’s who God is calling you to love.

 

Maybe you have a hard time loving people who’ve done you wrong.  Maybe your ex, maybe your boss or a co-worker, maybe someone in your family.  Maybe there’s a broken relationship somewhere that needs some reconciliation and healing and forgiveness – maybe that’s who God is calling you to love.

 

Maybe you have a hard time loving people you don’t know.  On one hand, I hear that you want the church to grow.  On the other hand, I hear that you want to know everybody.  What I want you to see is that we can grow, which means everyone won’t know everyone.  Or, everyone can know everyone, which means we are done growing.  Plain and simple: we can know, OR we can grow.  But at this point in our history, we can no longer do both.

 

Everyone knowing everyone is a good thing.  That’s why it’s hard to let go of.  But everyone knowing Jesus is a God-thing.  The hardest choices we can make as a church are those in which we are asked to let go of a good thing in order to grasp a God-thing.

 

Sometimes our desire to know everyone is actually more about us than about others.  Because, if I know everyone, then everyone also knows me.  But, research indicates that most people need 10-15 meaningful relationships beyond their family to feel connected to a larger group.  10-15 people they know, and who know them.  10-15 people who care about them and will be there for them.  Everyone doesn’t need to know everyone, so long as everyone is known by someone.

 

So, love people you don’t know, love them enough to be willing that they might not know you, do that to embrace the God-thing of people knowing Jesus.

 

This Christmas, Love all.  People who are difficult to love, people we don’t even know.  Joseph loved Jesus before he knew him.  Jesus loved us before we knew him.  Jesus loves all.  Let’s re-gift Jesus by sharing his love in the same way.

 

Love like Jesus, a love he learned from both his heavenly father AND his earthly father.

·        Love like Jesus – demonstrate compassion over condemnation.

·        Love like Jesus – love first and ask questions later.

 

Jesus and Joseph weren’t related by biology or blood, but Joseph was every bit a “real” father to Jesus.  The love Jesus embodied and taught was inherited from both his father in heaven, and his father on earth.

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