Sermon delivered by the Rev’d Sydney Maitland
One of the most misleading ideas of our modern culture is the idea of love as a sentiment and that alone. It is represented as security and affection, belonging and acceptance, the realization of self by another or family or community. It is mainly personal – and indeed individualistic.
The flaw in all this is that it becomes selfish and demanding, inward-looking and sentimental. And if that is all then it is brittle and hollow and will crack under pressure and testing. Maybe that is a factor in the failure of so many relationships in our era.
But when we look at the beginnings of love we find something else: it is in God, it is of God and it is the character of God. It is tied up with strength and not weakness, with effort and not feebleness, and with the desire to give which outweighs that of receiving.
Love in other words is not about self but about the other, and its character is to give but not to demand; it is to heal but not to hurt; it is in the expending of self rather than self-realisation.
The summit of love is about sacrifice and its denial is in demanding of the other.
And that is where all our readings lead us: in Isaiah, the whole drive is about the total and long-suffering self-giving of God, without restraint except in the ability of His people to receive it.
The prophet sets out to recall the gracious deeds of the Lord, His praiseworthy acts in saving and safeguarding the House of Israel. It is a theme repeated again and again by the Psalms, and is there even when Israel is being chastised, for whom the Lord loveth, He chastiseth. In the hands of God, love and correction and education all go together, and it cannot be love which leaves the beloved ignorant and feeble and futile when this can be amended and corrected.
The prophet rejoices in the abundance of God’s steadfast love, which is the saviour of His people when in distress. It is the Lord who exerted Himself at all times for His people and which mourns their rejection of that love and their repudiation of their relationship with Him.
And if it was true then it is still true among us today.
But then love moves on into deeper involvement and commitment, for in Jesus God has committed Himself to His people, revealing Himself first of all to those who were already expecting Him, and had the foundation of the law and prophets for their hopes and understanding.
Now, love is revealed in terms that should be comprehensible, for what is eternal has taken on a mortal form, and what is from one end of the universe to the other is now distilled into and contained by one human soul, so that people may indeed see and hear and understand and follow.
Love has undertaken to reduce itself from the heights of heaven to the ordinariness of human life within a recognizable social and economic and political context. Jesus may be the fullness of God yet He still lived within the limitations and constraints of human society.
Indeed, He subjected Himself to the laws He had inspired, and allowed Himself to be crucified by the perversion of those same laws. Even the Roman governors could not rule or pass sentence except that they had the authority to do so, and rule and authority and order are endemic in the character and structure of the universe.
The Son of God died indeed under laws He had provided and which human rebellion had debauched.
The gospel reading shows how love guides and leads. Matthew repeats the point several times, that God speaks directly and
personally to Joseph in times of crisis, and Joseph was sufficiently alert to respond and obey the instructions given.
Indeed early on in Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph is reassured personally that Mary is not facing a crisis but is the vessel of the glory of God to be revealed in a wholly new way.
Matthew draws attention to this intensely personal relationship and faith which will protect and nurture Mary and Jesus when they are at their most vulnerable.
And that is where it comes back to us, for we also are called into a deep and personal love affair with God.
We are called to devotion rather than sentiment, and to self-giving rather than self-advancement. We are called to love God with every aspect of our selves: heart, soul, strength and mind, and to express that love through our relationships with our neighbours.
We are called into a love with God though Jesus Christ that exceeds personal circumstances and indeed personal desires, but which is in touch with every aspect of the character and creation of God.
It is the adventure of a lifetime, in which we will know both the intimacy and the distance of God. It will affirm and support us even when faced with trial and disappointment, for it will lead us up to and then beyond the cross of Jesus.
But each of us is called by name, and whom He has called He will not fail or abandon. But He does look for our response and our commitment: but in this He has already shown us the way.