Examine how you love. Do you know how to examine your love? Or do you just assume that you are good at loving? Have you ever thought about that?
As we continue studying Honest Advent, we are learning what gifts Jesus wants us to give him for Christmas. Last week we learned to give him the gift of vulnerability, and this week we are learning to give him the gift of love. We have been studying 1st John, written by the man who was perhaps Jesus’ closest friend (and maybe cousin!). John writes that, “We love him because he first loved us.”
Let’s start by looking at how John describes this love in 1st John 4, verse 18. I appreciate that John makes it very clear for us what this love looks like in real life. It is not just epithets, or statements about what we believe. God desire love that is evident by our actions. We show that God’s love is flowing through us by the actions of our lives. This is exactly how we see God’s love in action, right? God didn’t just say, “I love you,” and leave us stranded in our sins. He did something active about it. He embodied love, through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His love was a body broken and blood poured out for us, which is what we symbolize and remember every month when we celebrate communion. Communion is a re-enactment of the symbols pointing to God’s love.
But perhaps even more importantly we also re-enact God’s love through the actions of our lives. Our actions, John says, show us whether or not we have God’s love in us. He goes on to illustrate this to make sure there is no doubt we understand the kind of love he is talking about. Go backwards to verse 17, and read there how John describes what love in action looks like.
We may never need to give our lives to the point of physical death like Jesus did on the cross. Some may, and many have through the centuries. But we do all have the opportunity to be generous to those in need. I would like us to dwell on verse 17 for a moment longer.
Last week I mentioned that Christmas, as commonly practiced by Christians, can be very strange, because it is Jesus’ birthday party, but instead of giving him gifts, like you would at a normal birthday party, we give each other gifts. What John writes in verse 17 is that we can give Jesus the gift of our love by blessing other people with gifts, and Christmas is as good a time as any to do so. It is not wrong, therefore, to give gifts to people, in Jesus’ honor, at Christmas. Those of you accustomed to receiving gifts for Christmas might now be thinking, “Whew. Good. Thank you, because last week you kinda had me nervous, saying that at Christmas we should be focused on giving gifts to Jesus.”
Well, take a closer look at verse 17, and you might start getting nervous again. Who are the people in John’s illustration? There is the one person who has material possessions, and there is the other person who is need. At Christmas we tend to identify with the person in need. We want to receive gifts. In fact, our culture wants all of us to identify with the person in need. But the reality is that John asks us to consider if we are actually more like the person who has material possessions. He makes it a test case for how to evaluate if God’s love is resident and alive in us. Are you and I people who have material possessions? I ask this even of the younger people who are dependent on your parents to provide for you. I ask this even of the older people who are trying to make ends meet on a fixed income. I ask this even of the people working like crazy trying to pay the bills and wondering how you are going to make it through Christmas and all the extra expense. John wants all of us to try to identify with the person who has material possessions. If we seriously examine our lives, the vast majority of American Christians in 2020, young, old, and everyone in-between, will find they have material possessions.
And what does John say about the person with material possessions? He says we should be on the lookout for people who have need, and we should give of our possessions to help that person. That is what the gift of love at Christmas looks like. So when you think about Christmas, rather than thinking about what gifts you want to receive, think about who the people in need are, and how you can give them gifts.
I’m writing this in early December, and my family put our Christmas tree a few weeks ago. As a kid, I remember looking at the space under the tree, excitedly thinking about how the space would soon be filled with gifts for me and my siblings. A pile of gifts under the tree is such a deep part of our culture. It looks so beautiful.
What John is telling us is that we should perhaps think less about filling up the space under our Christmas trees, and instead we should be thinking about how our homes and closets and attics and garages and rental storage spaces are already full! A few weeks ago some friends mentioned to me that they were working on cleaning out their storage unit, hoping to downsize because there was a lot of stuff in there they haven’t touched in years. How many of us could say that same thing about our stuff? Many of us have loads of stuff that we rarely touch. How could we use those possessions to bless those in need? Could we downsize to bless people in need? Could we sell off our extras and use the money to help people in need? What if Christmas was focused on that?
Christmas, so often, is an exercise in the rich blessing the rich with more riches. Yes, kids, I’m talking to you. And all the adults as well. The likelihood is that you don’t need the vast majority of the gifts you’ll receive for Christmas. Quite frankly, if you do have a need throughout the year, you just go buy what you need then.
The gift of love, John says, is when we open our eyes and hearts to those in need and we bless them. While it is not wrong to bless our kids and family and friends with gifts, the real heart of love in the Christmas story is God reaching out in love to those in need, to those who cannot help themselves. We show that God’s love is alive and working through us, and thus we give the gift of love back to Jesus, when we give selflessly, sacrificially to those in need.
I saw this heart of sacrificial selfless love when my congregation Faith Church, decided to loan ourselves $10,000 from our Building Fund to our Care & Share Fund, making that money available to people and organizations in need during the pandemic. To date, we have given over $8000 away. Some of gifts were matching gifts, and for some of the gifts we invited other Ministerium churches to join us, and they generously gave too. That means our $10,000 has expanded to over $12000! I praise God for that kind of generosity.
How can that kind of selfless love continue? I ask that question to all of us. Choose to have different mindset about Christmas, moving your heart from a focus on what you will get for Christmas, to what you will lovingly give for Christmas. Who are the people in need in your life? Who are the people that don’t already have abundance, and who really have needs?