The Bethlehem Candle of Love (Luke 2:1-7)

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (New International Version)

The Christian season of Advent is a time of preparation and expectant waiting for the promised Savior. Each Sunday this month, we will focus on the theme of the Advent candle for that day. Today, we look at the Bethlehem candle, love. Next week, we consider joy, then peace, and on Christmas Day, light.

Advent Love

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and placed in a humble manger, a feeding trough, because of love. The Lord was quite literally conceived in love – a love which originated within the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and mediated through a virgin, Mary, whose own love for God enabled her to raise the Messiah in love. The world revolves on the axis of love. Without love, we do not exist. With love, there is deliverance, there is a Savior. It’s all about love, my friends, and always has been from the beginning….

God’s Love

God’s loving plan for us started, not with the incarnation, but with the very first act of creation. Out of nothing, and out of sheer love, humanity was created in God’s own image. Since God is Love, we were made to receive love and give love. (Genesis 1:26-30)

However, the first humans, Adam and Eve, began to doubt the truth of God’s goodness and love for them. And so, they disobeyed their Creator, believing that God was withholding love from them.

Yet, despite humanity’s fall into sin, God’s loving mercy did not abandon them altogether. God did not destroy Eve and Adam. Even as they began to experience the serious consequences of their sin, God made a promise of future redemption: that Eve’s own offspring would one day crush the head of the serpent who tempted them. (Genesis 3:15)

God’s Loving Plan

The Lord had no intention of simply leaving people in their wretched state of separation and rebellion. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessed people who, in turn, would bless the world. (Genesis 12:2-3)

God foretold of the One, born of a virgin, who would free the captives, bear our transgressions, suffer in our place, redeem people, and usher in a peace unlike anything ever known.

Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10, NIV)

The Bible is a long, extended, and unfolding drama of redemption spanning several centuries. Even though the plan of redemption takes time, God lovingly walks with people through their suffering, temptation, loss, grief, and trials.

The Nativity by Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)

When the Lord heard the cries of the ancient Israelites under their cruel yoke of slavery, God led them out of Egypt (Exodus 3:18). When the Jews were exiled from their land, God reminded them of the ongoing plan of redemption:

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you. (Isaiah 43:1-3, NRSV)

For generations, God has remained faithful to people even when they doubt and have weak faith; and even though they question God’s motives and power and turned away from the Lord. The plan of God is simply an extension of the character of God:

They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their necks and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9:17, NRSV)

Love Is with Us

Revisiting the big picture of God’s love for people during Advent helps us understand the significance of the first advent, the coming of a Savior. The incarnation of Christ is the hinge of a larger story of God’s good love and redemption for us. Love, incarnated in the form of a vulnerable baby, came to fulfill a promise God made centuries before.

Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.
Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

Christ was humble.
He obeyed God and even died
    on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, CEV)

The motivation for the first advent of Jesus, the incarnation of Christ, was because of love:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16, NKJV)

True love is God’s love for us, not our love for God. He sent his Son as the way to take away our sins. (1 John 4:10, ERV)

Advent Love Is Our Calling

In remembering that first advent, we know that a new era of God’s restoration has been ushered in. And we await a second advent when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Now, living in between these two advents, God’s people are called to love others as Christ has loved us and gave himself for us.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, GNT)

This Advent season, let us ask how we can love God and love our neighbor more fully, so that we might fulfill the call of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray with the encouragement of Scripture (adapted from 1 John 4:7-12):

Loving God, help us to love each other since love comes from You. We understand that everyone who loves is born again and experiences a relationship with You. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about You, because You, God, are Love itself—no one can know You if they don’t know love.

Merciful God, we give you unending thanks that You showed Your love for us by sending Your only Son into the world so that we might live through him. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us; and that is the kind of love You are all about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that You loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with You.

Gracious God, since You loved us like this, we pray that You will enable us to love each other. No one has seen You, ever. But if we love one another, You will dwell deeply within us, and love becomes complete in us. May it be so, to the glory of Jesus Christ in whose Name we pray. Amen.

The Longing of Christ’s Heart (Matthew 23:37-24:14)

“If Thou Had’st Known” by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (New International Version)

Christ’s cry of love for the city of Jerusalem– the longing to bring the people together and shepherd them with care and compassion – came after a very pointed pronouncement of woes against a distorted religion that was in vogue at the time. Jesus saw the current state of worship, found it to be terribly wanting, gave a scathing rebuke, and saw ahead to its ultimate demise.

Jesus did not just blast the establishment, then humph and walk away disgusted. Instead, he looked with sadness over the city and broke into a tear-filled, heart-wrenching love song for his wayward people. Jesus was both angry and sad because of his deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God and to find their ultimate purpose and meaning in him.

“And Jesus Wept” statue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Any religious fool can rant about the ills of the world, ungodly persons, and defective institutions. However, it takes a person with the heart of Jesus to weep over it all and follow him into suffering on behalf of others so that they might come to the peaceable kingdom of righteousness. 

If our hearts are not unraveled over the sin and injustice of the world, we are in no position to rant about anything. That’s because grace and mercy is the currency of God’s economy. 

Thus, we need to repent like we mean it, pray as if our lives depended on it, and proclaim the good news of Christ as if there is not a tomorrow.

In a results-driven culture, congregations want clear strategy plans for ministry. Yet, a group of people can implement the best of ministries and still not realize their well-laid plans. If Jesus didn’t see what he wanted to happen come to fruition in Jerusalem, then I’m not sure how any of us can always expect success in ministry. We may fail in many ways; but let us not fail to weep over our communities and neighborhoods and long for them to know Christ.

It’s okay that neither every ministry goes as planned nor every person is blessed by what we do. If we find it hard to accept this, and feel out of control, then we want to know the future – how everything is going to shake-out. This is precisely what the disciples wanted to know, since their expectations weren’t realized.

Jesus essentially told them that things were going to get even tougher. Therefore, they need to be ready and persevere through the adversity. And some of that trouble will be downright cataclysmic. Jesus did not give his disciples a seminar on having a successful ministry; he simply told them to endure suffering and focus on proclaiming the gospel.

But for that to happen, we need to accept that we cannot control every variable of ministry and plan for every contingency. The only guarantees we have is that God is with us, and Christ is coming again. That’s it, my friends.

So, instead of control, we must accept our limitations and practice self-control. We can continually monitor our own internal motivations and desires so that they are in constant alignment with the words and ways of Jesus – including a heart of love that weeps over the brokenness and stubbornness of the world. 

Followers of Jesus walk the only true road of Christian discipleship: the path of humility. Out of all the characteristics that Jesus could have described himself, the only two words he ever used were “gentle and humble.” (Matthew 11:29)

Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem, by Enrique Simonet Lombardo (1866-1927)

Jesus is the perfect example of a leader who always ministered with a complete sense of his divine power, human limitations, and concern for others. Christ never believed he was the reason for his own success, nor thought he was the reason for another’s failure of faith. Instead, Jesus always connected what he was doing to the will of his Father in heaven.

You can only avoid the seduction of arrogant pride when you recognize that you are not God and need the help of others. Truly humble folk dig a hole, throw their ego into it, and pour concrete on top of it. This allows them to listen deeply, give generously, and encourage others liberally.

Standing firm to the end doesn’t come through crafting complicated charts of the end times; it comes through being humble, being grounded in the here-and-now, being attentive to the people around us, and being a guide for the lost. More importantly, it’s what Christ wants us to be.

Loving Lord Jesus, let me have your zeal for God’s house and your heart for lost people! Change my heart, O God, and let it reflect your grace and truth in everything I say and do; through Christ my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, reign now and forever. Amen.

John 10:11-21 – The “Good” Shepherd

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, by P. Solomon Raj (1921-2019)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So, the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

There was another division among the Jews because of Jesus’ words. Many of them said, “He has a demon and has lost his mind. Why listen to him?” Others said, “These aren’t the words of someone who has a demon. Can a demon heal the eyes of people who are blind?” (Common English Bible)

Many people in today’s urban and suburban world are completely unfamiliar with sheep and shepherds. So, when it comes to picturing Jesus as the good shepherd, idyllic scenes might come to mind, full of green meadows and pastoral landscapes, where there is perfect peace and rest, at all times.

Having been raised in rural Midwest America, I can confidently say there is little romanticism to the life of shepherds and sheep. Sheep eat a lot. They’ll eat just about anything that’s growing out of the ground. Think about how you would feel if you ate copious amounts of plants…. Lots of gas, trips to the bathroom, and stink.

That’s how it is with sheep. They continually poop and the smell is downright awful. A lot of a shepherd’s daily work is helping sheep deal with all the gas inside them. Sheep are easily prone to bloating from excess gas. This isn’t just an uncomfortable situation for a sheep; it’s an emergency life-and-death scenario. The shepherd must continually be vigilant to the sheep and take care of such circumstances immediately and carefully.

Taking care of sheep is dangerous, difficult, and tedious work. Historically, shepherds were rough characters, constantly on the move to find lush pastures for the flock’s voracious appetite. They had to deal with both animal and human predators looking for an easy meal. Being mostly outdoors, even at night, led to their reputation as drinkers – keeping up a consistent nip of spirits to remain warm. And, of course, they smelled bad.

So, when Jesus described himself as the “good shepherd,” this was anything but a pleasing picture for people in the ancient world. The closest equivalents to our modern day might be for Jesus to say, “I am the good migrant worker,” or the “good carny” (carnival employee).

Anyone or any profession in which we might deem a person in that line of work as of dubious character – that is precisely how a shepherd, and their work, were viewed by ancient people. It’s often the low-wage workers of society who get down and dirty. Because of their work, they get a suspicious and contemptuous reputation. Remarkably, Jesus unabashedly aligned himself with such people.

And yet, it is the discounted professions and the dismissed people from which we must pay attention; God is probably at work in their midst.

The despised Samaritan gained the label of “good” by Jesus for giving himself fully to save a stranger. Jesus puts the same adjective in front of shepherd. Whereas no one in polite society would use “good” for shepherd, Jesus labels himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

Jesus, this incredible figure who puts good and shepherd together, also goes out of his way to bring other sheep into his fold. Since Christ identifies himself as a stinky lowly shepherd, he has no problem connecting with everyone. After all, when one is already low, there’s no looking down on another.

People everywhere, no matter their station in life, can hear the voice of Jesus speaking to them when they, too, are low enough to be able to listen.

The Good Shepherd by He Qi

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is also the sacrificial lamb. In laying down his life he takes it up again (John 10:17). And when we participate in that dying and rising, when we eat the bread and drink the cup of salvation, we know he abides in us(1 John 3:24). Remaining in Christ with our Good Shepherd means, we, too, lay down our lives:

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves.

If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. (1 John 3:16-18, MSG)

Community is messy. People are stinky. Stepping into another’s life is rarely picturesque or idyllic. Yet, it’s at the same time elegant and aromatic. For we discover that our old ideas of beauty are obsolete. We gain a new spiritual sense which is redolent with the fragrance of Christ.

O God, Shepherd of all your people, deliver us from all troubles, worries and cares that assail us so that we may always do what is pleasing in your sight, and remain safe in the care of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Peter 3:8-12 – Bless and Do Not Curse

Ethiopian artist depiction of Jesus teaching on love

Finally, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble. Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but instead bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing. For

The one who wants to love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from uttering deceit.
And he must turn away from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the Lord’s face is against those who do evil.
(New English Version)

It’s one thing to bestow a blessing to folks when they seem worthy of it – but it’s quite another thing when you have stinkers in your life. Bless the very ones who are abusive toward me? Some might think the Apostle Peter was off his rocker to instruct believers to bless the insufferable persons in their lives.

Peter, however, was only passing on what he had learned from the Lord Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said: You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 

If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5:43-48, CEB)

The instruction to bless the hateful ingrates in our lives only seems strange when the avoidance of suffering and experiencing a pain-free existence is the summum bonum of life.

I get it. We don’t like to suffer. I don’t like to suffer. It hurts! I’m not really into pain. I’m not a high tolerance pain kind of guy. I have no problem taking a pain pill at the first sign of discomfort. Even so, I know there will be times I am going to have pain – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – and there is going to be no way around it. 

To live in this broken world is to experience suffering. To suffer as a Christian, however, is different because we are following the way of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just as Christ suffered, we can expect to suffer as his followers, as well. We are not above our Master. The real issue is whether we will suffer because of our own foolishness and selfishness, or because of our devotion to Christ in being kind, humble, and gracious. 

When insults come our way, we don’t need to respond in the same way with our own insults. Verbal cruelty is not the way of Christ. Anger, slander, gossip, lies, manipulative words, and belligerent bullying have absolutely no place in the kingdom of God for any reason. 

God takes a zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech, manipulation, and gaslighting.

The consistent witness of the New Testament is to bless and do not curse, to love and not to hate, to use our tongues for spreading words of encouragement and not of condemnation. Peter’s instruction and Christ’s teaching also totally jives with the Apostle Paul:

The Apostle Paul also learned from the Lord Jesus and upholds the need to bless and not curse:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…. Live in harmony with one another…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21, NIV)

Christians are to us their words for blessing, not cursing; for love, not hate; for truth, not lies; for building-up, not tearing-down; for proclaiming good news, not bad news laced with insults. 

If we suffer because of love, we shall receive blessing from God. If we suffer for giving-in to retaliation and our base desires for revenge, then we will suffer the consequences of our own stupidity.

God has called us to bless the world, not condemn it. 

Christians are to be on the front lines of spreading respect, civility, kindness, and the gospel. It is no problem showing love and respect to people we like. It’s a whole other ballgame to do the same for those who treat us with disrespect and hate.

Yet, God watches over all who obey him, and listens to their prayers. God will handle the hate-filled person; that’s not something we are to do.

Our task is to have a deep concern for humanity, both the ones we like, as well as the ones we don’t.

Loving Lord Jesus, you suffered and died on my behalf. It is a small thing for me to follow you and walk in the way of suffering. I know and have the confident expectation that blessing awaits. Keep me true to following you through all the adversity I face in this fallen broken world. Even so, come Lord Jesus, you who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.