What Is Love?

What is Love

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

18 December 2016


Today marks the final Sunday of Advent. This season, with it’s build up towards the Christmas events, has any number of meanings to us. For some, it is perhaps merely the time to dust off our wooden nutcrackers, hang out all the decorative stockings, and untangle the Christmas lights. In modern time, Advent can essentially be the shopping season, where we scour the best deals on just the right presents. For others, it is a time of almost penitential reverence, preparing our hearts to welcome a savior whom we may not have deserved. Historically, this was the purpose of Advent – the purple candles on our wreath remind us of the other penitential purple season of the church – Lent. Still others see Advent as a exposition of the reign of God, teaching us what it means to live in a world that truly does God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven, culminating in the start of that reign in the birth of the Lord. Essentially, now that Jesus has come, God can shape our world as it was intended, and Advent is our time to learn what that might require of us.

Today, as we wrap up our Advent season, it falls to us as the Church to make sense of what this season was for, to cast vision for our immediate future, and to remember why we light the candle of love today. To begin, we’re left with a looming, foundational, Night at the Roxbury-inspired question:


What is love?


Love, is like oxygen. Love is a many, splendored thing love LIFTS us up where we belong all you need is love.


Now, that’s not actually my answer. That’s of course from the 2001 film Moulin Rouge, which in turn took lyrics from 14 songs about love and turned them into Ewan McGreggor’s musical pursuit of Nicole Kidman. In fact, it’s hard to find turn on music from any genre without hearing a metaphor, defining the abstract concept of love as something more concrete. Disney’s Frozen tells us that Love is an Open Door, Pat Benatar claimed that Love is a Battlefield, and Carole King told us Love is like a Boomerang.


But these songs, no matter how much they might inspire you to turn your car into a private karaoke bar, aren’t going to really tell us what love is. For as much as we can try to define it, for all the beautiful metaphors, for all the flowery language, we’re still very much at a loss when we try to provide a simple answer to the question, “what is love?”


Luckily, in the spirit of Advent which prepares us for the birth of Christ, I believe the Christmas event, when viewed through our Scripture today, is a telling example of not only what love is, or at least, what one possible understanding of love is, but also, Christmas demonstrates why it is that we struggle with defining love in accurate ways.


Most of you are parents, or at least you have had some dealings with little kids. Now, I’m not saying adults don’t do this, too, far from it, in fact, but little kids tend to be more honest and open about this worldview. Maybe it’s because we tell them things like, “if you are good, Santa will bring you presents,” or “if you get an A on your report card, you can get ice cream.” What I’m talking about is the propensity of a child to set up a mutually beneficial conditional action. Like say, “if I’m really good, can we get a trampoline?” or “If I take 1 one more bite, can I have dessert?” If they do something you think is good, they would very much like you to reward them, please and thank you. There is of course, the flip side, where they promise to uphold some hypothetical deal – if you cave first. “If you get me a puppy, I promise I’ll walk it every day.” “If you take me to Disney World, I promise I’ll keep my room clean.” Anyone who has spent virtually any time with kids knows that this is a common practice, maybe one of the few universal statements of truth we can count on in this crazy world.


But adults, we do this too. We think “if I say all the right things, this person will like me.” “If I edit my resume perfectly, I’ll land that new job.” “If I lose weight, I’ll be happier.” “If I get a raise, then I won’t be anxious about money.” If this, then that.


So much of our lives are spent navigating these “if then” statements. But that’s not a modern invention. The “if this then that” mentality has been around since at least the Bible, because that’s exactly what we find in today’s text.


Looking at Psalm 80, verses 17-19 say, “But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”


This is a text calling on God to send Israel the promised Messiah. In the midst of war, with the divided northern kingdom having fallen to Assyria, the people are torn. They believe, and in fact need, the saving power of God. And yet, they are in the midst of seeing rejection, leading to the lament of first part of the Psalm. They know the prophecies, that God will raise up from the shoot of Jesse a promised messiah to deliver them, and they believe this war was what God had intended to save them from. Or, perhaps, they felt they could make a deal.


If this, if you raise up our savior, them one whom we have prophecies about, the one who will fix the world and restore Israel, if you raise up that strong one, then we will never turn away again, then we will uphold our end of the bargain. We will finally be your people, without question, without grumbling in the desert, without making false idols, without forsaking Your laws, and You will be our God, just as You had always commanded.


The ancient author of this Psalm fell into the classic trap we still fight today – making the world conditional, as if we could control the things around us. Certainly, I do not put myself above this psalmist. If anything, they were far more open and forthright about their intentions than I ever am. And because of their earnest writing, we have the chance to learn about making our relationship with God transactional.


We, as a whole, are quite familiar with transactions. Imagine how you would feel if today, after service, someone came up to you and unexpectedly handed your a beautifully wrapped box. Inside, you found a gift that was just perfect – you weren’t expecting it, but you immediately understood why they picked it out special for you. Now, consider this horrifying realization – you don’t have anything to offer them. Not a single possible gift you could quickly tear the tag off and hand over. You are stuck, empty-handed save for the thoughtful, perfect, and probably expensive gift that they gave to you.


I’d imagine most of you are like me, and your skin is crawling a bit. As it turns out, according to a 2013 article in the scientific journal “Frontiers in Neuroscience” we are to varying degrees hardwired for reciprocity – our brains want us to give something equal when we are given something. And, we want others to do the same. This might be one reason why it is so hard for many of us to receive a compliment without offering up something nice to say in return – our brains yell at us the the right thing to do is to take, and then give.


But here’s where this all ties together – God didn’t allow us to be transactional, buying Christ in exchange for our unyielding allegiance. God didn’t take the bait, with the Israelites legitimately trying to control their situation, earning the right to the promised Messiah by their faithfulness. No, Christ came in a wholly different, wholly unexpected way, a way which did not rest on the promise of any person or people. God was apparently in no mood to play the “if this, then that” game.


Rather, as Advent ought to remind us, our penitence, our preparation, even our shopping, is all in vain. Even if we were to completely miss on the Advent season, the baby will be born, whether we are prepared or not, whether we have learned the right lessons or not. We cannot say to God, if you give us one more week to get ready, then we’ll have our act together in time for Christ. No, we will receive the gift of Christ regardless. God is beholden to nobody, and no one then can claim that their faith, their peace, or their hope brought about the Messiah.


As hard as it is to accept the non-transactional nature of God, it is freeing. It is good to know that God’s love runs deeper than any action we can do. Deeper than any promise we could make, and deeper even than any promise we would inevitably fail to keep. I don’t know why God didn’t send the Messiah to be born during this Psalm, but I do know that it had nothing to do with the Israelites being unable to keep their promise. I know because we can’t keep that promise, and yet, here we are, wrapping up Advent and preparing ourselves for Christmas. God and Christmas are not transactional, but that also means they are not conditional, and that is something for which we should all be joyful.


And so after all this, after seeing that God cannot be bought with our faith, what is love? Love is giving without receiving. And sometimes love is receiving without giving. No matter which side you find yourself on, you are participating with the Christmas event when you separate giving from receiving, disavowing the conditional, transactional, ‘if this then that’ concept that we typically associate not just with this holiday but with God.


Any time you give, and don’t expect anything in return, it’s hard. But it’s also love. And any time you are willing to let someone else give and serve you, without trying to reciprocate, it’s love. And that’s what the Christmas event is. God, coming, serving, giving, without taking in return. Without our reciprocation. That, is love. Amen.


Hailing from the great state of Indiana, Topher is the Minister of Education at UCC. Though he is only two years into his work at University Christian, he has done ministry in various contexts for the past decade. As the Minister of Ed., Topher is responsible for both the internal (Sunday School classes, youth and children’s ministries) and external education (community conversations, bringing in local and national speakers, open events). He also holds a role as the Faith and Disability Inclusion Program Manager, where he writes disability theology and practical guidance for churches who are looking to become more inclusive. Topher holds a BS from Purdue University (Boiler Up!) and an MDiv with an focus on Disability Theology from Vanderbilt University. If you need to find Topher outside of UCC, look for him running on Town Lake, spending time enjoying being a newlywed, or on the nearest tennis court (unless it’s college basketball season – then he’s glued to whatever screen he can find).

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