Christmas is Not Your Birthday: Scandalous Love
Rev. Sandy Johnson
December 18, 2016
It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, can you believe it? It’s hard to believe that Christmas is just one week from today. Three weeks ago, we began this Advent journey, the journey to understand whose birthday it is that we celebrate each year. I think we have all come to understand that Christmas is not our birthday, it is Jesus’ birthday. I am appreciating the returned focus to the purpose for this season and feel that I have received permission to make Christmas about Christ again, rather than the secular holiday, with all its craziness and push to over-spend, overeat, and over-indulge in all sorts of ways. I don’t know about you, but I am feeling a peace about the season and I pray that you are as well.
The first Sunday in our journey we touched on the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth. We were all called to seek the miracles that are around us today. Miracles exist, and we must identify them and expect them. Next, we talked about aligning our expectations with Christ. We were encouraged to give up on “perfect” and to reign in our frenzied activities and in doing so spend more time with God. What God finds perfect is our loving relationship with Him, not a perfectly trimmed tree, a gourmet Christmas meal or the most expensive gift under the tree. God simply wants us, in relationship with him.
Last Sunday we did the coolest thing. Last Sunday we shared the Peace Light with nine of our local churches. For those who maybe haven’t heard the story, the peace light here, was lit from a continuous flame that originated in Bethlehem, at the church of the nativity, the site of Jesus birth. There are oil lamps that have been burning there continuously for more than 1000 years and on November 26 an Austrian child lit a lamp which was then flown to New York City. Since that time, it has been passed, one person to another, driving across the country so that we might have it here, today. Last Sunday more than 40 of us worshipped with our sisters and brothers in Christ and we shared the Peace Light with them. The response was overwhelming. People’s hearts were touched by our gesture. This was some of our best work!
Today, as we draw ever closer to the birthday party for Christ, we stop to consider the scandalous love that God clearly has for us, that he would part with his only son and send him to live among us. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus had any idea before he was born, what his life would be like on earth. Was he aware of the range of feelings? Joy and sadness, anguish and pain? I know he was prepared, but did he know what was coming?
Or was Jesus also surprised by the scandalous nature of God’s love? I have to tell you I have struggled with this message. I thought first of scandalous relationships in Hollywood, and was drawn to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and their love affair while filming Cleopatra. Both were married and had an adulterous affair, which ended both of their marriages. They married each other for just ten years, divorced, remarried and divorced again. Miss Taylor went on to have eight weddings, to seven men. Scandalous.
Then I turned to the bible; the scandals were everywhere. David and Bathsheba, Sampson and Delilah, Lot and his daughters. Then I came upon Hosea. One of the most graphic examples of God’s scandalous love is told by this prophet, Hosea, as he shared about his relationship with his wife, Gomer the prostitute. I didn’t want to tell this part of the story, who wants to talk about prostitutes in church?! I wanted to skip this messy piece of scripture and move right into the blessed, yet scandalous, relationship between Mary and Joseph. But God had other plans.
Most of you know that I am not a morning person. I do not like getting up before the sun. I do it on Easter for sure, but do whatever I can to avoid it the rest of the year. Yesterday morning, I awoke at 5:15 a.m. It was as if God was pushing me out of bed. I was thinking about this sermon and the idea of scandalous love and God forced me up. So, I put on a pot of coffee, and went into my office to begin working on today’s message. You can ask Pat Benke – she emailed be shortly after 5am and I answered! I was waiting for some great revelation! You know, if I am forced out of bed before the crack of dawn, it better be good! Right?!
I was disappointed because you see, it wasn’t earth shattering, it’s just that God let me know that I was not to skip Hosea, that his story was vital to our lesson this morning. It’s scandalous, and I tried to keep it from you, but God had other plans. So, who is Hosea, you’re asking? He was a prophet of God, living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II. God instructed Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife, and have children with her. God wanted to regain the devotion of the Israelites who had wandered away, again from their commitment to God. The Israelite’s faith had become lukewarm and God wanted to get their attention.
“From a human perspective, we can equate God’s relationship with the Israelites to the sacred trust commitment made and then broken in marriage. That is why Hosea denounced Israel’s behavior as the worst kind of infidelity and compared it to prostitution (Hosea 1:2). Later, Jesus made a similar reference when speaking about the struggle between materialism and our faith focus, by saying, “You can’t have two lovers! You will always favor one over the other: (Matthew 6:24, author’s paraphrase). God was saying that “cheating” on him was akin to killing the relationship.
“God demonstrates unrelenting love for God’s people through Hosea by telling him to go and marry a wife of “whoredom,” a hooker, and have children with her. The suggestion is bold and outrageous. Can you imagine marrying someone you knew would be unfaithful and spending the rest of your life wondering if your children were really your own? Who would ever knowingly set themselves up for such a life of hell?
“To fully understand this biblical analogy, we must go back to God’s unique commitment with his covenant people, Israel. Of all the peoples on the earth with whom God could forge a covenant-binding relationship, God chose a rather obscure people, and one of the smallest, most picked-on tribes to ever exist on the planet. Why? Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and love cannot be defined rationally. We do know, however, that God certainly didn’t choose Israel on the basis of merit or moral fortitude. God willfully entered into the “marriage” knowing full well that God’s people would play the whore.
“Hosea represents God’s relentless pursuing love, and Hosea’s wife, Gomer, the prostitute, represents God’s people -not only the Israelites but you and me, also.
“We have been created to find life and meaning through exclusive devotion to our lover, God, but in the spirit of prostitution we sell ourselves out to the consumerist johns of materialism and greed. This is never more obvious than in the way we celebrate Jesus’ birth: in a self-focused, hedonistic feast of gluttony, oblivious to what God really wants from us. What God wants for us, for Jesus’ birthday and every day, is love. God craves that we return God’s scandalous love with our own, demonstrated by how we treat those in need.”
Jesus has taught us that we are to take care of the least and lost, the widow and orphan, those who have no voice; we are their voice. God is calling us back from our own sinful selves, our obsession with the secular and he longs for us to live simply and honestly, as devoted followers of Jesus Christ. God longs for us to take our commitment to Him seriously and give him all of ourselves. Not only our words, but our actions too.
In Hosea and Gomer’s relationship we see Hosea committed to his wife, regardless of her past, or present behavior. It is hard for us to imagine this type of love. If my husband was having an affair it would be devastating and I would very likely divorce him as a result. But that’s not how God’s scandalous love works. “This is the de-sanitized version of the Christmas story: God loves us and wants us even while we remain under the influence of unworthy lovers such as greed, selfishness, addiction, and deceit. So, God has come to buy us back! The magnitude of this type of love is beyond my comprehension!”
Let’s turn to another scandalous love affair, Mary and Joseph. Mary was put in a scandalous position by God, being a young girl, betrothed but not yet married, who faced stoning if the story got out that she was pregnant and the baby wasn’t Joseph’s. Instead of wallowing in her situation, Mary clung onto the promise that God made her, and responded with faith and hope.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says,
47 “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.”
“The Christmas story exemplifies how God’s ways are not our ways. We may dismiss people of such low esteem as Mary, people whose lives are marred by humiliation and scandal, but God works miracles in unexpected places, and in unexpected ways. Mary trusted in God’s promise, knowing God’s scandalous way of working good out of seemingly bad situations.
“Do you trust God’s promise to redeem your life? To love you and want your love in return, no matter what kind of mess your life has been? This is the scandalous love we testify to when we profess faith in Jesus Christ. You may be saying one thing with your lips but quite another from your spiritual core. Mary’s core magnified the Lord. That means that in the company of others, her presence and attitude made God more visible, not less visible. Is your presence making God more visible in the lives of the people that you come into contact with on a daily basis?”
We are living in uncertain times, there is much unrest in the world and our own country is facing a transition that is bringing concern and fear to many of our citizens. The divide within our own church is troubling for many and the future is unknown. But what we do know is that God offers us his grace, God’s scandalous love and that, sisters and brothers, is the central message of Christmas. “In spite of our failures, God wants us and comes to redeem us back. In spite of his failure, David chose to sing of God’s promise in Psalm 139:13-17.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
“Those of us who have messed up the most, respond with the greatest gratitude for God’s relentless love.” In this season of scandalous love, may we accept God’s offer to love and be loved, and to share our greatest resources with those in need. I am delighted that we are so close to meeting our goal for our mission trip to Baton Rouge. When we step outside of ourselves, putting the needs of others ahead of our own, we will then be imitators of Christ in a most beautiful and transformative way.
Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we thank you for your scandalous love for us. When we can’t seem to accept, or understand how great that love is for us, remind is of your son Jesus, who you sent to live among us, first as a precious baby, born in Bethlehem. Let us feel your love with each breath and share your love in unique and inspiring ways, today and always. Amen.