Rediscover Christmas
Advent Week 4: Finding Love in Our Differences
VIDEO – 12/20/20 SERVICE
There were once two old farmers. They’re neighbors, but they have a feud that’s been running for a few years. They haven’t even spoken to each other in that time.
The whole thing got started over a cat. The cat was a stray, but both of these farmers began feeding the cat and claimed it as their own. From there, everything went downhill. The neighbors quit talking, and the grudge escalated to the point that one of them dug a ditch to reroute a spring and make sure it divided their properties.
One day, a carpenter came through the area looking for work. He knocked on the door of one of the farms, and the farmer said, “Well, if he’s going to try to divide us up with that ditch, then I might as well finish the job. I don’t even want to have to look at him!” So he asked the carpenter to build a fence all the way across the property, a nice, big, tall fence.
The carpenter said, “OK, I could do that, but it will take a lot more wood.” So the farmer went into town to buy more wood, and the carpenter started working with the wood in the shed.
That farmer came driving back down the dirt road to his home, but when he looked across the field, he didn’t see any fence going up. Instead of the barrier he’d wanted, he saw that the carpenter had built a bridge across the creek. And there across the bridge, his neighbor came walking toward him with his hand outstretched, a big sheepish grin on his face. “You’re a brave man,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d want to hear the sound of my voice again. Can you forgive me?” The first farmer was surprised, and as he reached out to shake his neighbor’s hand, he found himself saying, “Aww, I knew it was your cat.”
That story is by the singer-songwriter David Wilcox, who uses it as an introduction to his song called “Fearless Love.” The song goes on to weave together another narrative about a church protest and a person caught up in it remembering Jesus’s teaching to His disciples to love their enemies by using the example of carrying a Roman soldier’s pack twice the distance required. The chorus goes, “Fearless love makes you cross the border.”
The love that Jesus embodied in our world is indeed fearless love. Besides simply lacking any fear, the love of Jesus defies and overcomes fear. Today as we continue our journey through Advent, we are focusing on the love that Jesus brought into our world and our lives.
As a quick recap, the word Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and the season is marked by expectation, waiting, anticipation, and longing. Advent is not just an extension of Christmas—it is a rediscovery of Christmas, a season that links the past, present, and future. Advent offers us the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, to celebrate His birth, and to be alert for His second coming. Advent looks back in celebration at the hope fulfilled in Jesus’s coming, while at the same time looking forward in hopeful and eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when He returns for His people. During Advent we actively and hopefully wait for both. And each week, we are focusing on a different attribute of God represented in the coming of Jesus: hope, peace, joy, and love.
The Whole Cast of Christmas: Love United
As we’ve journeyed through Advent, we have been looking at different people in the Nativity story. We have dug into the experience or process usually of one individual, but today I’d like to take a little different approach. I’d like to look at all the people in the biblical account of Christ’s birth. When we do, we realize that the birth of Christ brings together a wide variety of people across many different divides and contrasts.
If we walk through the story in order, we start with Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph—the old and the young. The prophets and covenants of Israel’s past and the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah and the new spiritual future. The separation and death of the past and the restoration and life now present.
Then we meet the shepherds and the angels—the beings of earth and of heaven, the physical and the spiritual. And as they head to the stable, there are animals as well as humans, the beings of creation. And here we can look to Matthew’s Christmas account and meet the Magi.
Who were these mysterious visitors from the East? We’re not entirely sure, but we know they had followed a star a long distance to find and worship the promised Messiah. Some scholars think they may have been from China. At any rate, whether they are most likely astrologers or some kind of rulers, the Magi are noble and wealthy men who demonstrate God bridging even more divides. The Magi are the esteemed opposite to the lowly shepherds in human social structures. But importantly, they are Gentiles, not Jews, and their inclusion in Jesus’s birth story echoes the radical idea that Christ the Messiah brings salvation and restoration to all people, not just the Jews.
The Magi are also holy men of some sort. They seem to belong to more of a mystical tradition than the Jewish leaders’ structure, but they importantly contrast the spiritual Jewish leaders of the day. There are no Pharisees and Sadducees and spiritual VIPS of the time who are invited to Jesus’s birth. Instead, there are these travelers of a different race who receive an audience with King Herod (albeit one with sinister intentions), yet who are willing to disrupt their lives with a great journey and humble themselves to worship the baby of a poor, unassuming couple in the countryside.
The cast of characters God assembled for the arrival of His Son on earth is far from the expectations any of us would have imagined. And probably even farther from the expectations of the people of that time, who lived and breathed within that culture and its divisions. To us, it may seem like a ragtag bunch. To them, it was downright blasphemous that the Messiah would be so lowly and associated with the full spectrum of unclean humanity and creation. 
Could Jesus have united any more divisions simply by being born? Hardly. He pretty much covered them all. And in so doing, God revealed several things about His love that I’d like for us to explore today.
1. Christ is love embodied.
The Bible talks about love in many places. God is love and the Bible is His love story for all humanity. From Creation, God made people and shared time with them in the garden as companions and children. When sin entered the world, bringing death and brokenness and separation from such a close companionship with God, He continued to work and covenant with humans. Through generations and generations, He worked His plans and promised a Messiah to make a way to restore relationship with humanity. That way is Jesus, who is described as the groom and the church as His bride. This relationship with God that He brings us into is a relationship of love. It is a reunion with love itself. 
John the apostle eloquently describes the love of God in the fourth chapter of his letter 1 John.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. (1 John 4:7-16, NIV)
John tells us that God is love. God personifies it. Love is His nature, and He has shown it to us by sending Jesus. When we come to Jesus, giving Him our lives, we are restored to love. We are fulfilled in love. We live in Him, and He lives in us. We can count on God’s love; it won’t let us down. It fills us and fuels us. It calls us and enables us to love each other. And that brings us to our second point.
2. Love defines and propels us.
Jesus brought this reconnection and restoration to love Himself when He entered the world. Near the end of His earthly ministry, as He is gathered with His twelve disciples for their last Passover meal together, He tells them:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35, NIV)
As Jesus teaches His disciples, He wants to make sure that they love like He does. And here’s the most important part: How will people know that they are followers of Jesus? By the love they show to other people. You’ve heard this before. How will people know we are Christians? By our love.
Love is what defines us. It marks us and characterizes us. At least it should.  The Church hasn’t always done so great a job of this. We as the church body don’t always do a great job of this. It’s easy for us to point the finger at some pretty big wrongs by the Church through history. And we can all probably think of public Christians and churches in our time who make us cringe with anger or embarrassment at their rigid, unloving actions.
But we must also look at ourselves too. Of course, none of us is perfect, as individuals or as a collective Church. But each of us can certainly find opportunities in this Christmas season and in our current cultural climate to allow God’s love to flow through us to others.
On that note, we move to our third point.
3. Love empowers us to cross the borders.
Wow, these are divided times. It seems our culture, our nation, our world, our people have multiplied the ways to divide us. It seems the us and thems have been running very high as of late. It’s by no means an excuse, but throughout history, our world has been filled with wars and plunder and oppression. There have always been the weak and the powerful, the haves and the have-nots. There has been too much us versus them since Jesus’s day and even farther back in history. Sadly, there still is.
It’s why Jesus’s teaching was so radical. It’s why God’s love is so radical. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44, NIV).
Jesus didn’t only tear down the walls of division at His birth, He continuously reached across the chasm of separation and exclusion. He befriended hated tax collectors, and even invited one, Matthew, to follow as one of His twelve disciples. He spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, which broke a couple societal taboos at once. (Jews did not associate with Samaritans, and Jewish men especially did not talk with women like this in public.) He told His listeners that if a dreaded Roman soldier forced them to carry his pack for a mile, which the soldiers could and did do, to carry it two miles instead.
One of Jesus’s most powerful stories about this kind of unexpected love in action is the story of the Good Samaritan. You know how it goes. A traveler was robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest came along and crossed the road to avoid the bloody scene. An assistant priest did the same. But finally a Samaritan came along and saw the man, and stopped to help. The Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds, put him on his donkey, and delivered him to an inn, where he paid the innkeeper to take care of the man until the Samaritan could return (Luke 10:30-35, NIV).
This is a good and challenging story for us today, but it was astounding to Jesus’s ancient listeners. The Jews hated the Samaritans. Their racism against the Samaritans went back centuries when the kingdom of Israel split. The Samaritans intermarried with foreigners and established their own temple to worship in. The Jews considered them an inferior race with a corrupt religion and viewed them with prejudice and disdain. But this is who Jesus was holding up as an example of loving our neighbor.
Jesus was crossing the divide. He reached across the cultural, spiritual, political, and racial divisions and calls us to do the same. He was illustrating the kind of love John describes later in 1 John 4: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18-19, NIV).
Jesus’s love is fearless love that calls us and enables us to cross the borders, to tear down the barriers, to reach out above the disagreements. The fear that is driven out by love is the fear within ourselves. Love overcomes the fear of the other, who may not look like us or sound like us or share the same perspective or experience as us.
Maybe reaching across the divide begins in your family. Maybe in your home or neighborhood or workplace or community. Jesus at Christmas and all the time calls us together into His loving presence and invites us to make room for all, whether we think they deserve to be there or not.
There is a humility in love, a willingness to put someone else first. Sometimes love means taking the simple step of building that bridge as a gesture and an invitation. Sometimes it’s being willing to listen and not defend. It is always being willing to choose to see someone else, not as other, but as us, equally loved by God, equally welcomed into His presence, equally drawn into and propelled out of His miraculous, divine, all-consuming love. This is God’s love. This is the gift of Christ. This is the heart of Christmas.
Friends, as we rapidly approach Christmas Day, I invite and challenge us all to rediscover Christmas by rediscovering the overwhelming, all-encompassing, all-welcoming love of God.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV)