City of Love

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, December 24, 2016

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Matthew 1:18-23

The gospel of Matthew begins with the grandfather of the Hebrew faith, Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.

The genealogy continues through fifty-two generations, concluding

Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah.

Jesus, the son of Abraham.
Jesus, the son of Jewish kings. Jesus, the son of a Canaanite prostitute.
Jesus, the son of David. Jesus, the son of Ruth, a beautiful, virtuous Moabite.
Jesus, the son of Mary.

Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus, the hoped-for champion of virtue and lowly people.
Jesus, the Servant of God, the instrument of divine will.

Jesus Immanuel.

As we heard in our Gospel reading this morning:

She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means, God is with us.

In the person of this little human being, God became visible, palpable. God came close. It is the testimony of the church that if you picked up this baby and squeezed it in a tight embrace, you would be squeezing the sweetness of God. If, three decades later, you followed Jesus of Nazareth around with a video camera, the YouTube videos of prodigious healings that you would upload would be videos of the healing power and presence of God. Your videos of mesmerizing preaching would be videos of the words of God. Your videos of hostility to Jesus would be videos of hostility to God.

Jesus was and is Immanuel. God with us. The stories of Jesus are declarations, pronouncements: God is with us. Our pain is present to God. Our acts of injustice are visible to God. Our aching longing for a better world is a mirror of the divine heart.

Since God is with us, it is also true that we are with God. Our own hearts tell us something of the divine heart. Our hunger for justice is evocative of the hunger of God. Our refusal to “be okay” with abundance and overflowing plenty for the few and paucity and privation for the many echoes the denunciations of heaven. Even our outrage at the normal process of getting old and diminishing vitality and function is an expression of the devotion of heaven to life and growth.

The birth of Jesus, seen through Christian eyes, is a defiant push back against the normalcy of evil, injustice, pain and death. Things ought to be better. Because Jesus was Immanuel, he looked at the world through the lens of human experience. Jesus knew “by experience” what we know.

And there is more. Through the eyes of faith and the words of Scripture, we have learned to see in babies, the face of God. Every human is indistinguishable from God. This is the foundation of authentic pro-life values. We owe support and protection to every human because that human looks like God.

Perfect, laughing babies.
Twenty-eight-year-old guys who can function only when they are on their medication, and frequently they are not on their medication.
Grandmas who are the special friends of their grandchildren.
Grandchildren whose addictions are breaking grandmas’ hearts.

Every single human being is precious. Every single human being bears the image of God.

We see this truth most vividly in the story of Jesus, the son of Abraham, the son of Mary, the son of God. This truth undergirds our Christmas generosity, our Christmas love. Why is it that a central feature of “Christmas stories” is love expressed in surprising ways, love shown to someone who might at another season have been repulsed or not even seen? Because the central truth of the Christmas story is just this deep truth: God is with us–incognito, hidden in ordinary human beings.

Last Friday night we celebrated the grand story of Christmas in words and music. Our annual concert was as glorious as always. Maybe better than ever. Then we took an offering. You gave $2500 dollars to help provide care for women who make their living on the street a couple of miles from here. These are not beautiful women, not cute girls. They are not “hot,” to use contemporary jargon. They are women driven by crushing necessity to sell themselves because they think that’s all they have to offer.

You owe them nothing in at least one telling of the story. You did not abuse them when they were young women. You did not offer them drugs. You have not told them they are worthless. But in the light of Christmas we see differently. We owe every child food and shelter and a chance at life, at least every child we can touch with our influence and money.

We are privileged. These women are our neighbors, walking the streets just blocks from where we sit, walking the streets in search of enough money to live for one more day. Our privilege and their need creates an obligation. And last Friday night you made a payment on that obligation. You gave dollars that will make a difference, dollars that will pave the way for a few women to exit their bondage and take steps toward a new life.

That’s what love does.

Last Sabbath morning, Page Byers from Greenwood Elementary was here to thank you for providing gift for the families of children at her school. Those cards will provide food and basic needs for families living within a few miles of our beautiful sanctuary. Can we imagine, sitting here this morning, being able to provide dinner for our families only because of the kindness of strangers? Many of the poor families at Greenwood Elementary School came here from other countries. Can you imagine the conditions in the places they left behind life so difficult that living in your car in a strange country is better than staying home?

If it weren’t Christmas, we might not notice the needs of these neighbors of ours. We might be tempted to think, they should have just stayed where they were and starve there instead of coming here. Or more likely, if it weren’t Christmas, we would have simply been unaware. We would not have felt their hunger. We would not have noticed their need. But Christmas with all its lights and music and candy and cookies also beckons us to notice God in the babies, the babies living in rough places, babies born to parents not yet married, babies at risk. Christmas teaches us to love.

You gave more than a thousand dollars to provide life-sustaining assistance to our neighbors. Christmas helped us to love.

Tomorrow evening, many of you will provide a special Christmas dinner for people with meager resources. You will be sharing bounty and sharing love.

That’s Christmas love. That is honoring the Christ child.

At Christmas time, we do not think of these acts of generosity as extraordinary goodness. Generosity is normal in the City of Love. Of course, we fail sometimes. We are not always generous. Sometimes our hearts are hard. Sometimes we are not generous because we are unaware of how we can assuage aching human need. Here in the City of Love, we expect one another to be generous.

The Mayor of our City, God, is generous. In fact, it is his most dramatic trait. God gave his son. And in giving his son, gave himself. And invites us to join with him in the giving.

This is the message of Christmas. This is what we do. Most of the time. It is what we aim to do always.

At Thanksgiving time, when you provided food and money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Throughout the year, you pack and distribute care packages for homeless people. You give hundreds of volunteer hours providing programming for children and grandchildren here at the church. You volunteer as a ski instructor for disabled people. You pay tuition for young people who otherwise could not attend the school of their choice. You care for parents and children and spouses whose lives are a bottomless pit of need.

You practice the family value: those with special needs receive special care. You are the hands and wallets of God.

Over and over and over you treat people as if they bore the image of God. Because, in fact, they do.
They are the Jesus in our present world. They are worthy of love and care. And you, as part of the community of Jesus, provide it. That’s the meaning of Christmas. That kind of loving care brings joy to the heart of God. Like any grandparent, God takes the greatest delight in his children living out in their world the highest values of heaven.

The greatest value of all is love.

Merry Christmas.