One of the greatest theologians that ever lived, Karl Barth, was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School. At the end of a captivating closing lecture, the President of the seminary announced that Dr Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn’t be expected to handle the strain. Then he said, ‘Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us.’ He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, ‘Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?’ It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print. The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time. Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, ‘The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”’
Love is at the very heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. The Apostle John, writing many, many years after the birth of Jesus Christ (and after many, many years of reflecting on the coming of Christ in human form) summed it up like this, ‘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’ (1 John 4:9). John here in this passage (vs. 7-12) does not separate the Incarnation from the Passion but clearly sees both these events as the head and tail of the same coin. He sees God’s gift of his Son as being to both the Manger and the Cross. As John tells us here, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (v.10).
In the Greek language (the language of the New Testament) there are various different words for ‘love’ (in contrast to the English language), and the word John uses for ‘love’ here is indicative of the highest form of love – a love that gives and gives unconditionally and is not dependent upon the response it receives. It reminds us of John’s reflective comment in his Gospel on Jesus’ sacrificial love at Calvary: ‘God loved the whole world so much that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but receive eternal life, For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the whole world but that the whole world might find abundant and eternal life in and through him’ (John 3:16,17).
John goes on to remind us here that not only are we to be the recipients of this Godly love but sharers of it also: ‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (v.11). In our daily devotions during Advent Julia and I have been using the excellent Journey to Christmas material produced by a team from 24-7 Prayer. This last week we have thought a lot about Joseph – one of the unsung heroes in the Nativity narrative – and his selfless love for Mary. As such, he is an example to us all, of the importance not only of receiving God’s love but sharing it with others.
‘If I speak in the tongues of Christmas materialism and greed but have not love, I am only a tinny Christmas song or an out of tune choir. If I have the gift of knowing what Aunt Agatha will give me this year and can even understand last year’s present, and if I have the faith that I won’t get yet more socks and ties this year but have not love, I am nothing. If I clear out the house and give everything to charity and my credit cards are snapped in half but have not love, what can I possibly gain? Love is patient when the fourth store you’ve tried doesn’t have a bottle garden. Love is kind and lets the couple with only a few items go in front of you and your bulging shopping cart. Love does not envy your friend who gets mega-presents from everybody. Love does not boast about the £400 bike, the Xbox 360, the TV, VCR, and computer your dad gave you. Love does not attempt to out buy, out wrap, and out give the rest of the family just to impress. Love doesn’t cut Aunt Flo off your Christmas card list because she forgot you last year. Love is not self-seeking and leaves a copy of your Christmas list in every room of the house. Love is not easily angered when the young girl at the checkout takes forever because she is just temporary staff. Love doesn’t keep remembering how many times your mum forgets you don’t like Brussels sprouts. Love does not delight in the commercial bandwagon but rejoices with the truth of a baby born in the stable. Love always protects the family from Christmas hype. Love always trusts that the hiding places for presents will remain secret for another year. Love always hopes that this year more neighbours will drop into your open house coffee morning. Love always perseveres until the cards are written, the presents all bought, the shopping done, and the Christmas cake iced. Toys may break, socks wear thin but love never fails. Where there is the feeling of the presents to guess their contents, and mum going on about being good so Father Christmas will come and searching through the cupboards to find your hidden presents, they will all stop. For we think we know what we are getting, and we hope we know what we are getting but when Christmas Day arrives all will be revealed. When I was a child I talked with big wide-open eyes about Christmas, thought that Christmas was all about me, I reasoned that Jesus should have been born more often. When I became an adult, I forgot the joy, wonder, and excitement of this special time. Now we just hear about the angels, shepherds, and wise men, then we shall see them all the time. Now I know as much as the Bible says about the first Christmas, then I shall know just how many wise men there were and where they came from. Now three things remain to be done: To have faith that the baby born in a stable is the Son of God. To hope that the true message of Christmas will not get discarded with the wrapping paper and unwanted gifts. And the most important to have a love for others like the one that God has for us.’ ~ Claire Jordan