Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How to honor God (at Christmastime or anytime)

For as long as people have been able to stand upright, they have been debating the nature of God. Is God vengeful? Does he punish those who sin against him? Does he demand payment in return for his mercy? Or is God capricious? Does he just allow random things to happen to us because he can, or even worse, because he doesn’t care? The Hebrew scriptures bear witness to the way that God’s people have struggled to understand the nature of God through the centuries. Within its pages we get every possible interpretation of God, from an angry tyrant to a tender lover. And it’s downright confusing.

God decided to clear up the confusion. He did this by revealing himself to us in a very remarkable way. He took all the guess-work out of it. As John’s gospel tells us:  “No one has ever seen God. But it is God the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” So, if you want to know what God is like, look at the evidence. Exhibit A: Jesus.  And let there be no doubt about it, God is love. Yes, love. That’s what God is.

Of course, God is pure love, not the kind of stuff that poses as love in our very human, self-serving understanding of love.  So often, we talk of love and act in ways that have nothing to do with love at all. It’s about us. We give to others because it feels good for us. Or we love another person because we so desperately want them to love us back. The love of God is just the opposite.

We can see God’s love both in the manger and on the cross. There is no regard for the self. It’s not self-protective love. It’s not comfort-seeking love. It’s not love that plays it safe. It’s love that risks everything. It’s bold. It’s courageous. It’s love that knows no limits. Love that gives all, without holding back. That’s the way God so loved the world. That’s the way God showed his love for the world in Jesus. That’s how we know that God is love.

There really is only one way to truly honor the birth of the Christ child at Christmas. And that is to love in a way that reflects the one who is love. Don’t worship him and think that’s enough, because it isn’t. In fact, Jesus never asked people to worship him. He asked them to follow him. We do that in the way we live our lives. We do that when our lives are spent in love.

Certainly, we can never love as God does. Our human attempts fall short of that kind of love. And yet, the love of God that took on human form in Jesus is still incarnate in this world. Through human beings like us, we catch glimpses of a love that transcends our self-protective, needy behavior that so often seems to have its way with us. The love of God shines through us, despite ourselves. For some people, it seems to happen more often than it does for others. But we’re all capable of reflecting God’s love in our lives. We all have our God moments.

Not too long ago, in 1993, Isaac Schnitzer was a five-year-old boy living in Billings, Montana. On the first night of Hanukkah he lit the candle on his menorah, and placed it in his bedroom window. That night someone threw a cinder block through the window and shattered it. When the family went to the authorities to report the incident, they were told, if you don’t want that to happen again, you’re going to have to stop displaying Jewish symbols in your windows. (As if they were responsible for the violence that had been committed against them.)
Two days later, the director of the Montana Association of Churches contacted the pastor at the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ and asked if the church members would be willing to display menorahs in their own windows. Well, the pastor not only printed out paper menorahs for his congregation, but he also called some other pastors in town and they did the same. One store manager put a sign up in his store that said: “Not in our town. No hate. No violence. Peace on Earth.” On December 8, the town newspaper ran an editorial asking the people of Billings to display menorahs in their windows. Thousands of menorahs were then provided by businesses in town and the newspaper itself included a full-page menorah for people to display.

When the Schnitzer family drove around their town, they saw menorahs on houses, storefronts and billboards. Little Isaac said he didn’t know so many people were Jewish. His mother responded, “They’re not all Jewish, but they’re all our friends.”

That Christmas, 10,000 homes in Billings, Montana proudly displayed menorahs in their windows. Ironically, in displaying this Jewish symbol, as a community they honored the Christ child in the best way possible -- by acting boldly, in the face of hatred, with love.  

Reflecting the love of God in our lives can mean making a grand gesture that is so much bigger than ourselves. Like fostering a child who faces extraordinary challenges in life. Or caring for an aging parent who can no longer remember your name. Or finally making peace with someone who has hurt you deeply and doesn’t deserve your forgiveness.

But it doesn’t take a grand gesture to allow God’s love to shine through you. It can happen when you offer a simple word of kindness to someone who is feeling discouraged and beaten down. It can come through a telephone call to someone you know is alone. God’s love shines through you when you muster the courage to stand up for those who are in no position speak for themselves. Or when you bother to inconvenience yourself for the sake of someone else, knowing you have nothing to gain for yourself. Perhaps it’s a person you’ve never met. Maybe someone who hasn’t even been born yet, but will inhabit this planet long after you’re gone. Or it might mean encountering another person who isn’t anything like you and realizing you have every reason to judge them, but choosing to love instead.  

How will you honor the Christ this Christmas? How will you follow in the way of the one who is love? 

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