“…May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully…”
I spent the Christmas Eve of 2016 bundled up in my coat in a cold monastery. You might not know that a fully working monastery is just up the road in Mission (they’ve got a kind of small cathedral up there with stained glass, as well as monks, Swiss cows, chanting, the whole deal. The monks do the chanting, not the cows). I’ve often visited the abbey for midnight mass once the Christmas Eve services at Living Waters are wrapped up, in order to finally welcome the arrival of Christmas. Not the arrival of commercial Christmas heralded by the advertisers, but the real Christmas that comes at 12AM on Christmas Day. Sitting there in the cold and candlelight of the abbey always felt like the right place to be when Christmas finally revealed itself. 2016 was a special year for me because in just a few days Sarah and I would be getting married; the anticipation of Christmas had been steadily compounding with the anticipation of our wedding day. There had been a lot of preparation, and a lot of joy was on the way.
One of the readings that Christmas Eve was from Isaiah 62, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” When I heard that, I cried. Maybe it was the pressure of pulling off a wedding in December; maybe it was because it was the middle of the night and I was tired from the other Christmas Eve services we’d held for Living Waters earlier that evening. But it felt as though that reading had been chosen especially for me that year, and so I broke down with tears of joy. I felt God’s love in that moment in a way I couldn’t quite contain or explain. It was too much to take in and hold in, so I didn’t and had a good old Christmas sob. The monks didn’t seem to mind.
Looking back, I think something of heaven’s joy was breaking through into my life that night in a special, albeit awkward way. A couple of lines of scripture, a dark Christmas Eve, a few hot tears and the clarity of God’s love comes springing up. That takes us back to the story we hear about the first Christmas. A couple on the road, an empty manger, and the clarity of God’s love comes springing up into our word. As others have put it, “Christmas comes in a burst.”[i]
TOO MUCH TO TAKE IN
“…May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully….”
There is often an assumption in scripture that when we welcome Jesus, we’re receiving a love that we can’t fully compute or quantify. It’s simply unfathomable as in some ways God is unfathomable. Some of us might shed a few tears now and then or feel like John Wesley who described opening up to God and feeling his heart being “strangely warmed”. But Paul says that no matter our experience, the fullness of Jesus’ love is not something we can entirely get our heads or hearts around. It’s too immense to understand fully. It’s a love not like a small cup of water we can easily down, but instead an abundance we are baptized into, like the waters of the Fraser River. In other words, Jesus’ love is not something we consume, so much as it’s something which consumes us.
Still, there are all kinds of ways we try to take in and reflect Jesus’ love. We try to box it up, string it up, light it up, dish it up and eat it up at Christmas, but we never fully capture it. We just catch glimpses, we stumble into moments, we get hints of God’s goodness. As Paul says elsewhere “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13). Even in those words you hear Paul’s ache for the fullness of heaven, for God’s presence that can’t possibly be fully taken in now. The world is still too dim, the love is still too bright. Have we ever felt that ache? Maybe we wouldn’t call it an ache for God, but there’s certainly an ache, a longing to be swallowed up by goodness like a warm blanket. We know there’s a generosity at work around us, but that it’s also evading us since we can never quite fully contain or capture it. Maybe that’s why we’re obsessed with Old Saint Nick. We see the evidence of gifts, but the gifts are just a hint at the mysterious character behind it all.
And yet, even though we can’t fully compute or take in the wealth of God’s love, that doesn’t stop Paul from praying that his friends would experience it. So he prays, May you experience the love of Christ, though you can’t possibly take it all in…
Pastors sometimes hesitate to preach about experiencing God’s love, because, if I’m totally honest, we’re worried God might not turn up. Pastors have trust issues as much as the next person. What if they don’t feel it or I give them the wrong idea, we worry. What if we’re telling people to put too much stock in a subjective idea of what love should feel like? What if God disappoints people and they want out of the deal? All these thoughts are why pastors need to listen to Paul elsewhere when he tells us to “turn your worrying into praying…” (Philippians 4). Paul knew better than to worry about managing people’s expectations of God. Instead he prayed for his friends and trusted they’d be nourished by Jesus’ love in the deep places of their beings. He prayed they would trust who they saw in the manger and on the cross, and be swallowed up by the presence of Jesus’, by his kindness and compassion.
So, let me ask a bold question. Like me, have you got any trust issues with God that are coming to the surface this year? Maybe this Christmas is the time to be honest about them; honest in prayer with God; honest with a loved one. Maybe this is the time to take a good hard look at the baby in the manger and the person on the cross and ask ourselves – who do I really believe God to be? And then to risk a prayer, “God, may I experience your love in Christ, even though it’s too much to take in entirely. I want to trust you, so help me when I don’t!”
If faith is anything it’s trusting we’re in good hands with God. But sometimes we like to think we love ourselves more than God love us. You hear people talking a lot these days about forgiving or loving themselves as if that carries the same weight as God’s love and forgiveness – when it doesn’t. The Christmas story tells us that love has an origin and that you and I are not it – Jesus is. Jesus is the onrushing river of life. Everything else, everyone else, is a broken cup.
Along those same lines we also often assume we love others more than God loves them. But God loves you more than I do. God loves our children more than we do. God loves our spouses, our friends, our parents more than we do. So, Christmas is a good time to turn our worrying into praying, trusting that there is an immense love at work in the world so much greater than you or me.
So who or what do we worry about? Why not turn that worrying into praying? Follow Paul’s lead and pray for that person that comes to mind that they would “experience the love of Christ this Christmas, though it is too great to understand fully…”
HOW DO WE KNOW WE’VE EXPERIENCED GOD’S LOVE?
Now, I imagine some of us are thinking, but how do I know that I’ve really experienced God’s love? Should I expect warm fuzzies or to break down crying awkwardly in public? And those are perfectly reasonable questions. Well, maybe we’ll feel some things, and those feelings may vary depending on our personalities or circumstances, but there is more to experience than emotion.
On another year at yet another Christmas Eve service at the monastery I heard the preacher comment on the nativity story in Luke’s gospel. “The experience of salvation” he said, “is humility and joy.” Another way of saying that is that humility and joy are clues that we’ve met the real God. That’s what Jesus’ love does when we welcome him – he plants in us a seed of softening humility and a deep joy – a seed that grows the more we let God water us.
Feelings and circumstances can be complicated and can change, so being confident in our experience of God’s love is sometimes hard to detect on a daily basis. So what’s the evidence of God’s love in the deep places of our beings? Well, God’s love, God’s Spirit produces what Paul elsewhere calls “fruit”, clues that God is rubbing off on us. The clues about God’s presence are also seen early on in the stories about Jesus’ birth in the gospels. And when people meet Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love, they often respond with humility and joy.
What is humility? Humility looks like Jesus. Humility, isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of others more often. Humility is using what you have to serve others. It looks like being willing to listen, or to help out, to spend yourself so that others are enriched. And what is joy? We know joy doesn’t always result into bursting into tears on Christmas Eve, or constantly grinning like Will Farrell’s Elf, but joy does run deep. No matter our personalities, joyful people tend to be hope-spreaders. In the nativity story we’re told the shepherds ran off joyfully telling everyone about the newborn named Jesus. To put it another way, joyful people tend to be happy to share.
So I’d wager that someone who’s had an experience of God’s love will tend to be humble and helpful, happy to share what they’ve got – like the news about Jesus or that news in action by way of a helping hand. Conversely, if someone tells us they know God and they’re arrogant and stingy, we should be a little suspicious – especially if that person is looking us in the mirror. Humility and joy are always tell-tale signs that someone has bumped into God. And that’s the same sense we get in the Advent reading we heard earlier. When God turns up, Mary says there is cause to rejoice because God is generous, and that generosity is humbling.
So in the end it might be more simple than we think. If we really want a clue as to whether or not we’ve experienced God’s immense love, this love we can’t fully take in, we needn’t worry so much about how to compute it, as profound as it might be to reflect on. We needn’t worry so much about how we think we’re supposed to feel it, as wonderful as those feelings can be. Instead, if we really want to know if we’ve experienced God’s love, we should look for clues in how we treat the people around us. Is there a generous joy that runs deep, a loving humility that leads us to prioritize and serve the people around us? That’s how we know Jesus’ is rubbing off on us.
This year we’re probably seeing less of a lot people, and more of a few people. What will those people find when they bump into us? What clues will they catch of our experience of God in how we see and handle them? In a real life with Jesus will we become tributaries of kindness, run offs from his river of compassion. And by that I think I mean that experiencing God’s love is directly connected to expressing God’s love to the person beside us.
That’s why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray about forgiveness the way he does (Father, forgive us as we forgive others). For Jesus there is a kind of foregone conclusion that wrapped up with God’s forgiveness of us is our forgiveness of others. John puts it another way when he says “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4)
So with those words in mind, it might important to say that Christmas is a good time to forgive someone,especially as this lengthening isolation can easily turn a small cut into a festering wound. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, but it can also make the heart grow colder. Is anyone coming to mind, even now, that we might extend forgiveness to across this distance we’re facing? Why not let God give us the gift of forgiveness this Christmas? Jesus will help us. He’s very good at forgiveness.
RENDERINGS OF GOD
For lots of people this has been difficult and draining year. But as people of faith, if we’re at all feeling a bit arrogant and stingy as 2020 comes to a close, all the more reason to pray Paul’s prayer together: “Jesus, may we experience your love, even though it’s too much to take in entirely. Help! We need it!”
And if we find ourselves worrying about someone this December, and there are lots of things we might worry about, all the more reason to pray Paul’s prayer for that person: “Jesus, may they experience your love, even though it is too much to take in entirely. Help! They need it!”
I don’t know if you saw that story recently about an 86-year-old man from Atlanta named David Deutchman, who died in late November from pancreatic cancer. There was an enormous outpouring of love for David because he had spent his final fourteen years of life volunteering at a local hospital in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. His nickname was “ICU Grandpa”, because he’d go in twice a week to comfort and cradle premature babies whose parents couldn’t always be there to hold them. They also called him “the baby whisperer”, because one nurse said that in the eight years she had worked at the hospital she had never seen a baby crying in his arms. David refused to let those babies feel lonely. In their fight for life he held and comforted them so they would know they were loved and not alone.
You know, as much as it’s impossible to take in all of Jesus’ love, and as much as every picture of Jesus’ love we try to paint is incomplete, that’s not a bad rendering of him. Jesus is a little like ICU Grandpa. Only he doesn’t work shifts; he doesn’t come and go. He’s holding us right now in our fight for life, assuring us that we’re not alone. He’s a river, swelling around us, carrying us toward hope.
The manger and the cross were both filled and then emptied, so that our emptiness could be filled. It’s twelve days till Christmas. Twelve days to open up a little wider to Jesus’ love. To find some stillness to pray in this hard and strange December together:
May we experience the love of Christ, though we can’t possibly take it all in.
[i] Fleming Rutledge