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We gather tonight in that darkness to mark this momentous act of love and to say that there is power in love. Love is a light that shines in the darkness. It begins as a small flicker and eventually it catches to ignite a movement – a love movement. Whether you feel powerful in the face of darkness or small and insignificant, no matter how large or small the light that you shine into the world, it serves a purpose; to banish the darkness. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Christ came to drive out the darkness in the world, not with the power of war or of force, but with the power of love. And you and I are here to be witnesses to that power.
Isaiah says that what makes the people of God stand out is that they have seen a light. They lived in deep darkness and yet, a light shines brightly on them. Suddenly, like an after image from a bright flash, they see things that aren’t there yet. They see an end to war; they see a reason to be joyful and have hope, and they see the one who loves them like no other has before. For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son. His Son who was and is a revelation of himself. We are here tonight to remember this great gift of God and to receive it again. Christ really is the gift that keeps on giving. Because while the events we read about tonight happened over 2,000 years ago, he is still alive today. And though he is physically with the Father, he is still enfleshed in his people; by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with us through the body of his Church. Mary bore the Christ-child and Christ bore the light of God, and we, the Church, bear his love and are tasked with carrying that love out into the world.
One thing I enjoy about being a pastor is that I often end up in interesting places and I get to meet interesting people. A few weeks ago, I ended up downtown and in the company of a young nun. We got to talking and I asked her about her life and how she knew she wanted to become a sister. She told me that growing up in the Church, it never once occurred to her that she would take her vows, until she changed the way she understood her calling. Initially, she thought of calling as “What am I supposed to do?” But one day that changed and she realized a better question to ask is “How was I made to love?” It was once she tried to answer this new question, that she realized her calling. That’s a good question for us to ask ourselves. How did God make us to love? How are we uniquely gifted and skilled and placed in communities where we can demonstrate love? And how is that love shining into dark places and bringing the hope of Christ to the people who need it most?
The calling for all of us will be different and it might not even require us to change where we are, but rather to pay attention to what God is doing. This was the case for the shepherds who were waiting in the field the night Christ was born. Their calling to love was a calling that had been passed down generation after generation to care for sheep. Their calling, while not very glamourous, meant they were awake while the world slept around them and made them witnesses to the heavens opening. They were tending their flocks in the darkness of night when the angles shone heavenly lights around them to proclaim that Christ, the newborn King was born in Bethlehem. The shepherds were invited to go and see what God was doing and to become a part of this great love story.
That invitation is still there for us today. Come, come and see what God has done. Come and hear this love story. Because love isn’t just a word, or an action, it’s a story. If you’ve ever been in love, you most likely have a story that goes with it. There are people who have gone before us who have loved us and are a part of our story. Christmas invites us to remember our own stories and to remember those people who are no longer with us but have played a significant role in our life story. And Christmas invites us to remember The Love Story – the God-Israel-Jesus story that began at creation and continues on today. The story of God creating a perfect and lovely creation. The story of sin entering the world and separating us from God. The story of humans trying to earn their way back to God and failing time after time. And then the part of the story we read about today. Where God sends his Son so that through his birth and death and resurrection, we have a way back to God. This is God’s love story to us. It’s not about a passive love but an active and powerful love that breaks down barriers and removes hostility so that we can experience true reconciliation with our Creator. This is the love that God shines light into the darkness.
If you grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible, you’ll remember that the word for ‘love’ in this version is ‘charity’. Biblical charity refers to love that inclines us to do good to one another and to think favourably of one another. The Reformers identified the uniqueness of God’s love as unmerited love, so it is based not upon the desirability of its object but upon the transformation of its subject through the power of divine love. What that means, is that there is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love. Unlike Santa Claus, who doles out gifts to those are nice and coal to those who are not, God’s love is for all us, regardless of our behaviour. It is when we receive that love that we are transformed, not because we resolve to do so on our own, but because God’s love is so powerful that when we receive it, we can’t help but let it spill out so that we can share it with others.
Unfortunately, the word ‘charity’ has been reduced to describe an organization or a donation instead of the sacrificial love that the Bible talks about. There are many words used in the Bible to describe love and two are particularly relevant to us tonight. Hesed love is persistent, sacrificial action that sustains relationships. Ahavah love teaches us that giving is the heartbeat of love. So sacrificial action that sustains relationships and giving are the two keys to love here. While we often associate gifts with Christmas, we probably don’t associate sacrifice with the day. After all, it is a time of abundance. But there is a call to sacrifice here – there is an invitation to do as Christ did and step humbly into places that we may not want to go. For some of us, that place could be church, for others, it might be a youth shelter or the NICU of a hospital. It’s an invitation to step into a place where you have no power and simply to love as Christ loves.
Speaking of nuns, there are few people in recent history who have demonstrated this concept better than Mother Teresa. She didn’t show love by giving a handout or a hand up. No, instead she got down into the trenches with those who were considered hopeless and unlovable and she served them. Her calling to love the poor meant that she would leave her convent where she lived in comfort, to go and live in the streets of Calcutta. She cared for all who were unwanted, unloved and uncared for in society. At times she herself had to beg for food in order to survive. Twelve other nuns joined her in her call to love. She was a small light stepping into the darkness. Today, the order that she founded, has over 4,500 women working to serve the poor. Mother Teresa’s ministry was incarnational; a reflection of Jesus coming down into the messy world to serve us. Jesus didn’t give us a hand. He gave us his hands, his feet, his body, his blood. He made the sacrifice that was required in order to make a way for us to have a relationship with God.
Let’s return to Isaiah for a moment, back to the light that shines in the darkness. There is something quite comforting about seeing Christmas lights adorning houses in the darkness. When the sun is scarce and it’s cold outside, Christmas lights can remind us about the good parts of Winter. We have a Filipino Christmas light up at our house. It sits in our window and flashes obnoxiously into the darkness. It can be overwhelming to look it, but somehow, you can’t look away. I really enjoy turning onto my street and seeing it beckons me home; a cascade of colours moving and pulsing and shining into the dark Winter night. I do like white icicle lights or the timed colour displays that some people put up, but there is something about my Filipino Christmas light that reminds me of God’s love for us. Maybe some of us are okay with a gentle flicker of light. But for those of us who need God’s love in a big way this Christmas, know that God’s love is shining for you like a Filipino Christmas light. For while it was a humble birth in a manger that brought Christ to us, it was a significant event in that heaven came down to earth. Isaiah describes it as great light; a light that causes burdens to be lifted and brings an end to oppression. There is power in this light.
In a few moments, we will light candles as a reminder that Christ, the light of the world came down into the darkness. We’ll start with a flame, and it will spread to fill this dark sanctuary, with light. As your candle comes alive, I encourage you to say a prayer, to ask God how you can love as you were made to love. Let this be your goal or your resolution to step into your calling to love. May it be a love that is inspired by the love of Christ; one that gives sacrificially and works to sustain relationships. May it be a love that goes to where the needs are and identifies with those who are being served. May it be a love that tells a story; the story of Christmas, and the story of what God has done for you. And as you love and spread light, I pray that you will return home rejoicing like the shepherds, glorifying and praising God for all the things he has done and all the ways he is working to dispel the darkness.