Welcome to the second Sunday of Advent. Advent can be an amazing season, an amazing journey, if we use it as it was designed. The word advent is a Latin term which means “coming.” Advent was designed to be a season of great expectation as we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ first coming at Christmas as well as looking forward to His second coming, the day He returns to make all things right. So we use these weeks leading up to Christmas to prepare for His coming by focusing on the four gifts of Christmas delivered through Christ: hope, love, joy, and peace.
Our series this Advent is called “The Star, A Journey to Christmas.” I mentioned last week that out of the four Gospels where Jesus’ life is recorded, the Star of Bethlehem was only recorded in the book of Matthew. The star today receives a whole lot more attention in Christmas pageants than it ever got in the Gospel accounts. But maybe that’s because we realize today how important this simple star really was. Over 2,000 years ago, it appeared as a symbol of hope, as a guide to the long awaited one, the newly arrived Messiah. It was a star that led people to Jesus then, and it still leads people to Jesus today.
So together we’re following the star this Advent looking for those four gifts of Christmas. Last week, the star led us to hope, that even if we can’t see it very well, hope is always there. This week we’re on the journey towards love. It’s a love that never gives up, a love that conquered sin and death, a perfect love that surrounds us daily and fills us eternally.
As we continue our exploration this morning, let me ask you a few questions and see a show of hands: How many of you are finished with all your Christmas shopping? How many of you haven’t started yet? How many of you plan to just skip the whole shopping thing and go straight to the Christmas dinner?
Well, wherever you stand on Christmas gift shopping and giving, let me tell you this, Americans spend a lot of money on Christmas. Retail sales from November through December in 2022 are expected to grow 6% to 8% over 2021’s record sales despite all the inflation. That’ll make a new record between $942 billion to $960 billion.1 At that rate, we’ll be over $1 trillion next year. Do you know how many zeros that is? ($1,000,000,000,000)
But while that number is a bit mind-blowing, here is another fun number for you: $124 billion. That’s how much Americans spent on their pets last year,2 compared to $60 billion in 2016. Which leaves me with one question: Why?!?! Don’t get me wrong—I love animals as much as the next person, but $124 billion!?! That’s equivalent to buying 2,638,298 new cars! All for animals that really just cause a lot of work—we walk them, clean up after them, vacuum up the hair, give them allergy pills, apologize to the neighbors…. Really, our pets should be paying us. But we love them, so we spend our hard-earned money and time caring for them. It’s not because of anything they’ve done for us, but simply because we love them.
Okay, I admit this is not the best comparison. Please don’t leave here thinking that I’m telling you God loves us like we love our dogs and cats. But the example does start us down the path of recognizing some things about love.
So let me ask you to consider several other questions: How do you perceive God’s love for you? Do you feel you need to earn His love? Do you wonder if God’s love is really meant for you? Do you see the overflow of God’s love in your own life toward others?
If we take a deeper look at God’s love, we see it’s a love that was present from the beginning of time, a love big enough for each and every one of us, and it’s meant to overflow in our lives…my cup runneth over (Psalm 23). It’s a love so deep that caused God to physically enter our dark world that first Christmas. Let’s look at the first point.
- God’s Love was Present from the Start
We often talk about Christmas as the time “when love came down.” We say God’s love entered the world as a baby. And that is all true. But we would be mistaken if we didn’t take a deeper look back in time to the beginning of the world. The history of our entire world, the story of the entire Bible, is a love story from the very first day of creation. It is the story of God’s love for His people and His plan of redemption to bring us back into relationship with Him.
God is not some distant uncle who suddenly shows up with a gift nobody knows what to do with. Nor is He a cold and stingy distant figure grudgingly offering us an occasional token. Yes, love came crashing into that stable in Bethlehem, but Jesus’ birth was actually the culmination of a long history of love. And His love for us today, this Advent season, is not something new.
The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians:
4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves.
God’s love does not depend on us. It’s not something we have to earn or perform for to maintain. It starts with God, not us. God is love. It is His nature and character. His love for us was there from the beginning of time and will continue throughout eternity.
It can be a mind-boggling concept to grasp, I know. But as we pursue the journey of love, let me encourage you to simply accept that God’s love for us exists beyond the constraints of time, space, and our limited understanding. It’s a love worth focusing on and meditating on during this season of preparation.
- God’s Love is Enough
Do you ever have a hard time loving God? Do you ever have a hard time accepting His love for you? Do you ever doubt that His love is enough to cover all the pain, hurt, selfishness, and evil of our world? Or that His love is enough to cover the pain or hurt in your own heart?
Cause if we’re honest, I think most all of us would have to answer yes to all those questions. Despite what we may know in our heads or believe in our hearts, there is a daily struggle to live in the reality of God’s love for us. It’s so different from our own ability to love. It may be vastly different from the love—or lack of it—that you’ve experienced in your human relationships and life overall.
But let me remind you of some good news this morning—the best news. God loves you!
Not because of anything you’ve done or anything you have to do. Not just for today, and then He’s going to take it all back tomorrow. Not like the father or mother or spouse or ex-spouse or friend or enemy who let you down, who hurt you or abused you or twisted the concept of love to inflict damage and heartache that can seem so hard to heal from and let go of.
God loves you purely, perfectly, wholly, extravagantly. You don’t have to earn points to get love from God. He pours love out on us—no matter how unlovable or unworthy we may feel. And He pours out love continuously.
Think of the Christmas story characters. They didn’t fit into the “most lovable people” box. They were a bewildered, young, average, and humble engaged couple, a band of smelly shepherds, a group of foreign mystics. Dig a little deeper behind the bathrobes and kid animal costumes of the typical Christmas pageant scene, and you’ll get the picture.
No matter where you are on the journey of life, God’s love is for you. It is more vast and perfect than you can ever fully and completely grasp this side of heaven—and it’s so worth opening your heart and mind and soul to.
Maybe that was the reason behind the apostle Paul’s prayer that he offered for the Ephesians when he wrote…
17 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 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, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
God’s love is deep, wide, long, and high. And it doesn’t change even if our feelings do. Even when we feel distant from God’s love, He is there beside us.
The people of Israel must have felt abandoned many times. They must have struggled to believe that God still loved them when it took so long for the promise of a Messiah to be fulfilled. But even when they grew weary of waiting and questioned God, His love still never failed. It was there all along to carry and sustain them through uncertainty. And in the right timing, God’s love was delivered in full through the birth and person of Jesus Christ, God in flesh.
Nothing can change that love. Nothing can tear us away from it. And that love will never fail us as we wait for Jesus’ second coming to earth to complete His ultimate work.
In Romans, Paul gave us a description worth clinging to when we struggle or doubt or simply need a hopeful reminder:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- God’s Love Overflows
Does anyone have company coming this Christmas? Anyone have company that might be staying for a couple of days? Christmas is such a wonderful time to be together, but here’s the real question—will anyone be sick of their guests after day three of their visit?
It’s the very nature of God’s unending and unlimited love that it cannot be contained. God doesn’t want it to be contained. The Bible tells us to love others, even the people who seem unlovable. Sometimes that is easy, and sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world. And those holiday houseguests—sometimes the unlovable are the people closest to us. They can be the people we truly love most, but who also have the most power to drive us crazy, remind us of our weaknesses, and even bring up our deepest pain.
So on a very practical level, this Advent journey of love is also about God’s love in us overflowing to others. In reality, that’s not something we can do—or do for long—on our own effort. It must come from the source of love, God.
Peter describes it like this.
1 Peter 1:22
Now you can have real love for everyone because your souls have been cleansed from selfishness and hatred when you trusted Christ to save you; so see to it that you really do love each other warmly, with all your hearts.
That doesn’t mean it is easy, but it shifts our focus from trying hard to love others to experiencing the depth of God’s love in a way that allows it to overflow in our lives to the people around us.
Today, we are going to celebrate the love and relationship we have with God through Holy Communion. And as we get ready for that, I want to read to you a passage of Scripture from 1 John that sums up that connection between God’s love and our love for others:
1 John 4:7–19
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.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 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.
We love because he first loved us.
There is so much that could be unpacked in that passage, but I want us to capture and take away three main things today:
- God is love, and He sent His Son as a sacrifice for us. This was Jesus, God’s love from the start and His gift to each of us.
- We can know and rely on God’s love—God’s love is enough for us today, tomorrow, and always.
- We love because God first loved us. God’s love overflows within and through us to others.
God’s love is truly the whole reason we celebrate this season. So let me encourage you to dwell on it and abide in it throughout Advent. Read these Scriptures we’ve discussed over and over again, and let their truth wash over and through you. Then walk in God’s love as it penetrates and changes your heart.
This journey of love is not just about words and feelings of acceptance—it’s also a journey of action and truth. The gift of Jesus was God putting love into action. His love is an overwhelming love that calls and moves us to similar action. Look at it this way….
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
That’s God’s gift to you, His action. Then He calls us into action.
1 John 3:16 tells us,
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
As we prepare our hearts for the celebration of Christ’s arrival, let allow His love to penetrate our hearts, and let’s put into practice His love flowing through us.
God, thank You that in this season of Advent, that You invite us to follow the star on a journey of love. Help us to experience the depth of Your love, which has been there from the start, is enough for all of us, and overflows in our lives to others. Please continue to fill us with expectation as we live in Your love and wait for the complete fulfillment of that love when Christ comes again. Amen.
Benediction: “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)