Abounding in Love
by the Rev. Paul J. Nuechterlein, delivered at Zion Lutheran Church, Racine, Wisconsin, the first Sunday in Advent, December 3, 2000
1st Sunday of Advent (Cycle C)
Texts: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
It has officially begun. The Christmas Rush! Like a row of hulking linemen on a professional football team, the season is down and set, poised to plow over us with all its demands, distractions, details, dilemmas, delights and duties.
For retailers, it’s a “make-or-break” time of year. Or maybe it’s make-and-break, because the more exhausted and overworked they become, the better their business is doing. They make it business-wise by getting broken physically and spiritually.
For children, it’s deciding what to put on a list, where to hang the decorations, and who will take them to the mall.
For teachers and parents, it’s the challenge of keeping a gaggle of fidgety children focused on their schoolwork while arranging some special programs and projects that will honor the season.
For us at church, it’s a time for arranging frantic rehearsals, for getting all the decorations out, for extra activities, and services that are suddenly fuller than ever.
Are you prepared for all this? Is your master list ready with everything you will need to do over the next month? Wait a minute! … Before you start scrabbling through your schedules, your agendas and your calendars, consider that perhaps for each and every one of us there is an item that might be helpful to put at the top of our lists. The Advent Attitude that St. Paul urges from the Thessalonians: “Abound in Love,” he says. Abound in Love.* The question might be: how? How does one abound in love?
We speak of Advent as a time for preparing to welcome Jesus into our hearts at Christmas. Isn’t that how we abound in love? By welcoming Jesus into our hearts? St. Paul talks a lot about Christ living in him, and he in Christ. I think this is all Advent/Christmas language about how to abound in love: by welcoming the one who comes to bring us God’s love.
The question might still be asked, however: how does you welcome Jesus, and God’s love, into your heart? I’d like to try answering this question by going back to what I introduced to you my first Sunday here—namely, the insight that we get our desire by imitating other people’s desiring. This morning we are talking about welcoming God’s desire into our hearts, which we have come to know as the love of Jesus Christ.
In general, I’d say that the thing we welcome into our hearts would fall into the category of “desire.” If I’m right, then, we welcome desires into our hearts by watching others and imitating the desires that they convey. One of the examples I used the first Sunday I was here was that of the advertising industry. Advertisers understand this principle all too well. They don’t just show us their products; they show us other people enjoying their products, so that we might catch their desires, so that we might ‘welcome them into our hearts.’
Advertising and retailing has become the seeming backbone of Christmas in our society, hasn’t it? They want us to welcome all kinds of products into our hearts and then into our homes, under the Christmas tree. This catching of desires is by imitation. Already I’ve heard a lament that no single product has seemed to catch people’s fancy, thereby getting the shopping stampede going. In recent years, that irresistibly desirable product has been Beanie Babies, or “Tickle Me Elmo.” Once a desire for such a product gets a stampede of imitation going, people are there in the malls following the herds to other counters and departments. Before you know, all kinds of things have themselves into hearts and under our Christmas trees.
What does all this holiday activity get us? Not love, does it? I think that if we understand the nature of desire, and the fact that we catch our desires from each other, then we would admit that all this activity is more likely to lead us into envy and resentment of others, or at least disappointment and depression.
The Good News of Christmas is that God intervened into this sort of mess to give us someone else to catch our desires from. God sent the Son into the world to live out for us God’s loving desires in this world that we might begin to abound in love, rather than abounding in envy or resentment or depression.
I’d like you to take a quick look at how St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians begins (p. 203 in your pew Bibles):
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. (1 Thess. 1:6-7) How do we abound in love? It begins with a life focused around imitating our Lord and his saints—saints being those who themselves work at making their lives an imitation of our Lord’s. As we said, St. Paul himself constantly talked of Christ living in him, and he in Christ. This, for me, is basically language about in whose life we are imitating. If it’s not Christ, then it might be that guy next door who is buying the latest and best toy for his children. In other words, our neighbor’s desires end up living in us — and we in them, as we are caught up in rivalry with one another. But God at Christmas offers us a way out of these vicious circles by giving us the Son — one who came to truly live God’s loving desires so that we might abound in love.
I have one example I’d like to focus on this morning—one that might get me into trouble. If I spoke out against the Trinity—which I never would, by the way—I might be safer than speaking out against what I’m about to: Santa Claus! Yes, I’m afraid that I don’t find Santa Claus to be just another fantasy—partly because so many people don’t treat it as one. They don’t lump Santa in as a fantasy among the other fictional characters to which their children are introduced. With Santa as someone that children should believe in, I think we might pause to examine the effect of this, for a moment.
And I’m not going to even get into all the commercialized aspects of Santa Claus as part of that holiday activity that we’ve wondered about. Rather, I’d like to go directly to a theological issue that I find quite serious. I find the popular Santa Claus lore to give essentially the polar opposite message as the Christmas Good News. Bound up with the Santa Claus lore is this idea that Santa doesn’t come unless we’re good. Santa is going to check his list twice to see who’s naughty or nice. I’ve been amazed, when my children were younger and getting antsy in stores around Christmas time, that complete strangers would walk up to them and, with good intentions, I’m sure, lay on them something like, ‘Be good now, or Santa won’t come to your house.’
So here’s the thing: the popular message about Santa Claus is that he won’t come unless we’re good. Now, what is the message about Jesus coming into our world that first Christmas? That he doesn’t come unless we’re good? No! Quite the opposite. Jesus came precisely because we were being bad. We have this problem with sin, and we can’t get free of it unless Jesus comes to forgive us as an absolutely free and undeserved gift. Isn’t this quite different than the gifts that Santa Claus may or may not bring? The gift of God’s gracious forgiveness is the gift above all others, one that truly deserves our thanks and celebration. It is a divine love come into our midst that begins to free us from sin and its partnership with resentment and the powers of death. It is the only gift which can begin to help us abound in love as we seek to be imitators of our Lord and of his saints.
With that, I can give you a specific suggestion for this week. If you’d like to do something a bit different than the popularized Santa stuff of today, then do something this week with the real-life person from whom the Santa legends descend: St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (in modern day Turkey). The day we set aside to commemorate him (see p. 12 in the Lutheran Book of Worship) happens to be this Wednesday, December 6. St. Nicholas is said to have given anonymous gifts at Christmas time to poor and needy families. How might we imitate him? In our recent bulletins and newsletter we have notices about how we can volunteer to help the Salvation Army reach poor and needy families this Christmas. Could first on your to-do list this month become doing something with your family to volunteer with such a program? As we look to saints like St. Nicholas, and as we follow in their footsteps and encourage one another to deeds of reaching out, this, I think, is how we abound in love. It is not only a way to prepare for welcoming Christ in our hearts, not only a way of honoring and celebrating Christmas, it is a way to live Christmas and to experience its peace. Let us pray with St. Paul that the Lord help us to abound in love for one another and for all. Amen.
* The beginning of this sermon was shaped by the sermon “An Advent Attitude,” from Homiletics, Vol. 10, No. 4 (October - December 1997), pp. 54ff.
By the Rev. Paul J. Nuechterlein, Interim Pastor, Greater Milwaukee Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. Used by permission.