1 John 4:7-16 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
On this holy night, the necessity of being reminded to love one another may seem far removed from this place and time. And yet if we are just a bit reflective, we know that we need this reminder to love for we do not always love as we ought.
Perhaps we are at odds with some of those who will gather with us beneath the tree and around the table tonight and tomorrow morning. We will be friendly of course, and put a smile on our face, but the pain and anger beneath is real and deep. Maybe we are resentful that this is our kids’ year to be with the other set of parents and it is loneliness that fills our hearts. Maybe we are at odds with a brother or sister in Christ and even on this night—we avoid them.
We need this reminder to love because even during the Christmas season we don’t always love as we ought. The judgment that we hear from God’s Word is that those who don’t love—don’t know God. And this is a hard judgment indeed—but it is the righteous judgment of the Law which is summarized and fulfilled by love.
On several different occasions Jesus was asked about the will of God for mankind—what God was looking for from us if we are to be saved and how should we treat others—and he always answered the same way: love. Love God and love your neighbor! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself! Such is God’s holy will for our lives --and as we reflect on our lives—even on this holiest of nights—we find that we have not loved this wholehearted way that is commanded in the Law.
In fact, by nature, we don’t even know how to love this way. By virtue of our birth as Adam’s children, our natural response to God is to flee from him in fear and shame. Our natural desire towards others is to love those who are kind to us so long as they are kind to us—merely using them as a tool for our own good. And the world around us has simply lost any concept of what true love is when all kind of hateful, evil, immoral things go by the name of love in our culture of death.
Death. That is exactly where the command to love God above all things and love our neighbor as ourselves leaves us—with God’s judgment hanging above our heads. And so what are we to do? How are we even to know what this love really is that God calls us to live out in our life with him and one another? How can we begin to love God and one another as we ought?
That is what this night is all about—God breaking into human history to show us what true love really is by giving us the greatest gift of all—the gift of his own Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Directing our attention to the Christ-Child, God says: This is love. John writes:
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Right smack down in the midst of a world that commits evil and calls it love—into the midst of our own lives where so much of what we call love is distorted by our own sins—God sends his Son and says: this is love. At the end of the day, when it comes to knowing what love really is, the Bible says that love is not a concept or an idea or a command over even an abstract attribute of God—love is a person named Jesus who was given to the world by his heavenly Father so that we might live through him.
Where before there was only judgment and death because we cannot love God and one another as he commands in the Law—now there is life for us in the gift of his Son. But this life we have in Jesus still required a death. God’s wrath over our failure to love as we ought is real --and the punishment that he promised mankind had to be given to take away that wrath.
That is what the word propitiation means that John uses to describe what Jesus came to do: make a sacrifice that takes away wrath. That is why God gave us his Son. We will not understand what Christmas is all about—why it is such Good News-- if we fail to see that shadow of the cross that lies over the manger and the baby who laid there. In love he was given by his heavenly Father to die for our sins.
His sacrifice upon the cross took away God’s wrath over our sins and his resurrection has made the way for a new and everlasting life for us that is filled with love for God and one another. John writes of that new life of love through faith in Jesus:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
The love and forgiveness that God has bestowed on us in Jesus Christ means something in our lives with others—it means that we will love as we have been loved—it means that in Jesus we not only have an example-- but we have his life within us that empowers us to love as he loved us.
During his earthly ministry Jesus told a parable about a man who owed the king a fortune which he could not pay. Throwing himself on the king’s mercy, the king forgave his debt. But when this same man saw a friend who owed him just a pittance, despite the friend’s pleas for mercy, he had him imprisoned until he paid what he owed. When the forgiving king heard about the man’s lack of love and forgiveness, he was furious and had him imprisoned for eternity.
The point that Jesus wants us to understand in this parable is that the love and forgiveness and mercy that God has bestowed upon us—he intends for us to give to others in the same way it was given to us. John says, Beloved, if God loved us, we also ought to love one another. We began by talking about how sad and wrong it is --that on this most holiest of nights—when the love of God has been made plain for us to see—we can still harbor bitterness and resentment and anger in our hearts towards others.
And so dear friends in Christ, beloved in the Lord, in the light of God’s love for you: set it aside. Set aside the bitterness and anger and resentment that fills your hearts. Let the love that God has for you fill your hearts to overflowing so that it pours out into the lives of others—sharing the gift of love that God has given to you in his Son.
That is what John means when he says that God’s love is perfected in us. He doesn’t means that God’s love is somehow lacking until we love in the same way—but that God’s love has a purpose in our lives—that it would be given to others around us, by us—not because they have earned it or deserve it—but because God wants us to give it to them. No one has ever seen God in his essence-- but his living presence in our lives is clearly seen when we love others as he loved us.
And this love that we have for others—this love that looks like Jesus—is a powerful testimony about our own relationship with God—that the Spirit of Jesus lives within us because we find ourselves loving others simply because Jesus loves us.
God wants the world to know about that love through our lives and through our witness. John writes:
We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
I am thankful that you are here to worship Jesus but there is a world of people who do not “know and believe” what we “know and believe”—people who are still lost in the darkness of sin and unbelief—people who don’t know what it means to be loved or to love others. But God’s loves them too and he wants them to know about his love.
The Christmas story contains a cast of characters who testify to what they have seen and heard: the angels to Mary and Joseph and
Elizabeth and Zechariah--the shepherds to those
living out in the countryside around Bethlehem--and
the magi to Herod’s court. All of them
bear witness to God’s gift of love in Jesus.
The story of God’s gift of love continued to be told down through history so that people from all over the world—in every place and time—came to know the Good News that God loves them. Now it is our turn to take our part in telling about God’s love in Jesus just as it has been told to us. The Bible says:
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
Dear friends in Christ, what God wants you to know and believe tonight, is that his love for you is not an abstract theological concept or philosophical attribute of a divine being who can never really be known. Instead, God’s love for you is a Son that he has given to the world so that all people could have a life with him through faith.
That life we have with him is a life of love—that having been loved by God we would love those around us in the same self-sacrificing ways, confident that God abides with us for Jesus is our Immanuel.
May God grant that each of us here tonight, loved by God in Christ—loving others in his name—can look to the Christ-Child and say in faith: This is what love is—and that we would abide in that love all our days even as he abides in us! Amen.