As we prepare for the arrival of Jesus this year, we are taking a look at our growing edges, the places where we long to see new life in ourselves. We’re paying attention to the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, and how we can choose them anyway when situations don’t seem to call for them. On the first week we considered how we can choose to hope anyway when all the evidence says there’s no reason to hope. On the second week we considered how we can choose to have peace anyway even in the midst of threats. Last week we considered how to choose joy anyway as an act of resistance to the systems of domination. Which leads us perfectly to this week’s theme of love. How can we choose to love anyway when love seems like a weak option?
This morning we turn a page in our reading from the Old Testament to the New Testament so I want to set the stage for you. (Much of this little intro comes verbatim from this book The Story We Find Ourselves In, by Brian McLaren, which I love and would heartily recommend if you want an interesting and helpful way to frame the Scriptures.) This morning my hope is that we can pull a bunch of ideas together into something that really makes sense. I’m going to try.
We have spent the fall in the Old Testament, exploring the covenants God made with the ancient Hebrews: they were blessed to be a blessing, chosen to represent God’s love to the whole world. But the temptations of wealth and power proved too strong for the kings and the people and the nation was destroyed by their own greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy. One ancient united country split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah (where Jerusalem was located) in the south. Both kingdoms were invaded and destroyed and many of God’s people from the southern kingdom of Judah were exiled to the empire of Babylon. After about 70 years some of them came home, but not all of them.
“And even though they were back in their homeland, they were’t free. So in their mind, the sense of exile never really ended. They were always under the domination of some Mediterranean superpower: the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. And this becomes formative in their identity. Nobody likes wants to be oppressed or dominated, especially when you believe yourselves to be God’s chosen people and you’re being dominated by idol-worshippers. So in the centuries before Christ, an intense anticipation and expectation builds up in God’s people. A deliverer is coming, the word is Messiah, someone like Moses and David and the prophets all wrapped up into one. And when he comes, he’s going to kick out the oppressors and lead the people of God to glorious victory. But here’s the problem: 500 years after the Exile and still no messiah. On several occasions, heroic groups of Jewish militants stage rebellions hoping that God will give them victory, maybe even believing that the messiah will emerge among them and give them miraculous success. But no miracles come, and many of their greatest heroes are slaughtered. And as the time drags on and on and on, the people become more and more desperate and more anxious for a messiah.” (McLaren 117-18)
We pick up the story in the book of Matthew, chapter 1, page 1497 in your pew Bibles. This is the first book in the New Testament. The first half of the chapter is genealogy, and the story picks up in verse 8.
“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
This week’s theme is love. The word doesn’t show up in our reading, but the concept is there. So I want to point out to you a few important things in the text and then I want us to think together about love and power.
Let’s notice the names and titles for Jesus in this text and what they mean. The first one is Messiah. A better translation of verse 18 is, “This is the origin of Jesus Messiah.” As all superhero fans know, an “origin story” is not about the moment when a hero gets born; it’s about where she comes from and who she’s connected to and what she is supposed to do for the world. The word Messiah tells us that Jesus is the one the Jewish people were waiting for. He fits perfectly into the history of his people. He is the deliverer, as we said last week he is the covenant. But we know, and Matthew’s original audience knew, that Jesus wasn’t going to be the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting.
Next is the name Jesus itself. It’s a derivative of the Old Testament name Yehoshua, or Joshua, which means the Lord saves. And not just any lord, not just divinity in general. Yahweh saves. Yahweh, whose name means “I AM.” The God who is “the Ground of Being.” This God saves. Jesus will not save militarily like the character Joshua did in the Old Testament. This new Joshua will save his people from their sins.
Most of us can’t hear that phrase without making a lot of assumptions about what it means to “save his people from their sins.” And since being progressive is important to us, we can’t just blow by this. Some progressive Christians don’t want to use the word “sin” anymore because of how it has been used in the past. But I think it has not been used correctly in the past. So I suggest that instead of not using it; we use it correctly.
The word “sin” is the Christian way of saying, “Something is wrong here.” Look around – something is wrong here in the world! If everything were fine, we wouldn’t need saving. But everything’s not fine. Everything’s not fine with American society. Everything’s not fine with the way our country relates to other countries. Everything’s not fine with the planet. Everything’s not fine with me and with my own relationships. Something is wrong here. It includes me but it’s way bigger than me. It’s systemic, and I’m part of it. Sin: something is wrong here.
It’s important to remember that the reason we can even recognize that something is wrong is because we were created for goodness. The United Church of Christ’s statement of faith begins: “God creates humankind in the divine image.” If we did not have goodness and beauty and dignity at our core, we would not recognize that anything was wrong. But we are good so we can clearly see the bad, in ourselves and in the world.
According to the book of Matthew, Jesus comes to “save” us from sin. This sin, this “wrongness,” this deviation from what we truly are and what we were created for, this sin that includes us as individuals and transcends us, including all relationships and all systems, this sin is something we can’t fix on our own. We need to be saved, which is a word in the Bible that is used for rescue, and healing, and victory. The sin, this wrongness, that includes and transcends us, that we do and that is done to us, that we can’t fix on our own, Jesus comes to bring rescue, and healing, and victory over that sin.
Which means we need to talk about Noah. Waaaay back in September we read the story of Noah. If you weren’t here that week, or if you just don’t commit everything I say to memory, the story of Noah clearly says that the evil, the wrongness, that humanity was doing before the flood, they also did after the flood too. God tried something to fix the wrongness, the sin, and what God tried, didn’t work. It didn’t change people. Destroying almost all the humans that existed did not bring about rescue, or healing, or victory. Destruction didn’t work. But God is also not willing to just leave us to our fate, and so God commits to continue trying to bring us back to who we were created to be. The rainbow, the bow as in “bow and arrow,” that God hangs in the sky as a sign of the promise, that bow points towards God as if to say, “I will not destroy you again. And even as you continue to do evil, I will absorb the pain of that evil. Instead of destroying you, I will take that evil on myself. I will not destroy you, but I also won’t turn away from you. The evil you do pains me because and I choose to take on that pain.”
God tries to deal with the evil by choosing a group of people to represent what it means to be in relationship with God: who are blessed to be a blessing. But that doesn’t work. They won’t simply trust and follow God; they want to have a king like the other nations. But the king is just a human and so he piles up wealth, and weapons and women: an insatiable lust for money, and might, and sexual control of others. And the rest of the people are just human too, so even though we each choose good sometimes as individuals, we all together as societies tend to drift into greed and violence and religious hypocrisy. Rules don’t help, because we won’t follow them. Perhaps at some deep level, we can’t, because we don’t really trust that we are safe and loved. But God keeps trying to find ways to rescue people and heal people and give victory to people, and finally as we read last week there’s a prophecy that one day someone will come who IS the covenant. A person who, in their body, demonstrates relationship with God. This one is Jesus.
The final title in this story from Matthew is “Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.” This is the most revolutionary point right here. This long-awaited Messiah who has come to rescue, heal, and give victory over everything that is wrong, this one is actually God and is actually with us. And here’s where we need to talk about power.
The Jewish people at the time Jesus was born lived in the very worst experience of empire. For 500 years they had been taxed for the benefit of foreign societies, conscripted into foreign armies, and practiced their religion in a manner approved by foreign kings. Because empire thrives on control. Empire controls some people by taking away their power and it controls other people by giving them power. Both are methods of control. In empire, power and control are synonymous. In fact, the only reason you would bother to have power is so you can control everything and everyone around you.
Friends, whatever you may believe about the American government, the spirit of empire is alive and well and colonizing our souls every day. And it is warping our idea of God. We have bought into empire’s mindset that the greatest power is the ability to control things, and it follows that if you are able to control things then you have the responsibility to control things. Might makes right, and might IS right. That is how empire thinks, and it’s how we think, unless we are very deliberate. We want power so that we can control our situations. Speaking of superheroes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you CAN do it, then you MUST do it. Now that sounds OK and even sort of noble, until we realize that’s essentially the same philosophy as “might makes right.” That’s empire.
Here’s the problem: as Christians we affirm that love is the most powerful force in the universe and love doesn’t work that way. Love is absolutely not controlling at all. In fact, I think we would all agree that love is pretty much the opposite of control. One of the hardest things to do is let the people we love make their own choices and live their own lives. Control is outside of love’s nature.
So this raises the question: What kind of power does love have if it’s not control? And if God is love, what kind of power does God have? See theologically we have a problem if we say that this all-loving God is all-powerful, which means that God has the ability to control everything. But the world is a hot mess which means either all-powerful God is not controlling everything and thus is not all-powerful, or it means that all-loving God is controlling everything and thus is responsible for all the bad things that happen. You see the problem?
This is why the gospel and the Kingdom of God are so hard for us to understand. Because empire’s idea of power has colonized us so that we don’t understand the true power of love and the true power of God. Love is not powerful in the way we think of power. Allow me to illustrate: How many of you now or in the past have loved someone with an addiction, or a mental illness, or a terminal disease? Could you love that person enough to change their situation? Could the force of your love alone do it? No. You can’t love someone enough to make them clean and sober. You can’t love someone out of their depression. And you can’t love someone enough to heal their cancer or their Alzheimers or their undiagnosed disease. And God is love.
Here is where many people say, “Then what good is God?” Which according to our scriptures is the same as saying, “What good is love?” You see how the power of empire colonizes us? It makes us believe that if God is not controlling things then God is of no use to us. And that is simply not true, because God is love and love is still after all the most powerful force in the universe, just not in the way we were expecting.
The fullest expression of God’s love, the best demonstration of God’s power is a baby and a cross. Not a half-God baby who could smash the planet in his little tiny baby fist, but a miraculous beautiful weak astonishingly loved human baby. The weakest type of human. Emmanuel: God with us.
The power of love is not in its control, but in its staying power. God with us. Love with us. The God who is love rescues us, and heals us, and gives us victory by accompanying us, by being with us. This is the most radical and most powerful thing that love is actually able to do. Love cannot force; that’s outside its nature. But love can hang on. In the addiction, and the depression, and the dementia, love says, “I will not leave you. I will not say that your suffering doesn’t matter. I won’t abandon you so that I can spare myself the pain of watching you suffer.”
The most powerful thing that love can do is to take you by the hand and go straight into that hell with you, even though it doesn’t have to. The most powerful thing that love can do is to not save itself. On the cross, the love of Jesus compels him to not save himself.
This is why we choose to love anyway, even when it doesn’t fix things. Love is not about control. God tried destruction, which is the ultimate control, and it didn’t change anything. In order to fix what is wrong, in order to bring rescue, and healing and victory, love has to physically show up, and stay put. The most powerful thing that love can do is to hang on, to never, ever, ever give up hope. Which leads us in a circle right back to the beginning of Advent. Hope when there’s nothing obviously good happening. Peace when we choose to physically show up in unsafe places. Joy as an act of resistance to the systems that rely on the power of destruction. And Love: the power to hang on, no matter what. Christmas is coming. The birth of Emmanuel: Love with us. Amen.