“How great is the love that the Father has lavished upon us,” John writes. More literally, John says, “See what kind of, or what sort of, love the Father gives to us.”
The inspired apostle asks us to open our eyes. He spends much of this letter writing about love: the love that Christians have for one another. He repeats the command that Jesus gave on Maundy Thursday: “A new command I give you: Love one another.” Time and again John nails it: “We should love one another.” “We know that we have passed from life to death, because we love our brothers.” “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
John’s words, Jesus’ words, set the bar high. They expose the shoddiness of our Christmas moralism: peace on earth, good will to men. We think that if we just tolerate each other and put up with each other for a time we’ve mastered ourselves and Christmas. “Just get me through these three hours with these people, Lord.” And then we go right back to hatred or indifference. “But hey, I put up with them at Aunt Ethel’s house…and I bought them a present! What more could you expect!” Except God says no such thing. God simply says love, your brother, always, in every way. This is the true Christian faith lived out in a true Christian life.
“But I don’t want to!” we bellow. Of course we don’t. The world and our brothers don’t love us that much. They aren’t our brothers, just some neighbors. And they aren’t neighbors, they’re enemies. Well, God has you there. For he says not only love your brothers, but also love your neighbors and love your enemies. This peace on earth, good will to men sentiment God intends as a 24/7, 365 day a year way of living. This is the life Jesus intends when he tells that Jewish lawyer, “Do this and you will live.” This exact love Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Confess. You’re not perfect. You never have been. You never will be. You have not loved your enemy, neighbor, or brother as you ought. You have demanded of them love first. It’s all reciprocal: I’ll love him if he loves me first. A prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi and included in the front of our hymnal captures our shortcomings ever so well:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Again, confess. This is not you. It is not me. But thank God it is God. Imagine if God waited for us, for us to console, understand, and love him. Oh how long he might be waiting! But John says, “Confess! God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
In other words, “See what kind of love the Father gives to us.” Look in the right place, up, to heaven above, to the Father. “He loved us first.” He gave while we refused, while we would not, while we were damned: “While we were still sinners,” Paul writes. Or, from John’s pen in this same letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt gives us these words to sing: “For God’s own child in mercy mild joins you to him – how greatly God must love you!”
And coming down from God, all from God, all from his love for us is the amazing word: “that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are.” This is the sort of love God gives. He offers no half-measures or probationary love. With God it’s all or nothing. And he gave everything so that he might say those glorious words: “My child.” Dear Dr. Luther wrote other Christmas hymns than “From heaven above,” and in one we sing: “You came to us in darkest night to make us children of the light.”
Again, he comes to us. The Word made flesh. The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in our paradise, that manger that holds our Mighty God, our Prince of Peace, our Wonderful, who grew up to be the Son given over into death for our sins, because he didn’t love us half-way there or provisionally, he loved us to death. He lived a life of love, love for the Father, love for us, love that caused him who was born of Mary to die at our hands. And yet, it was what we needed, God’s love. Luther again: “Let hell and Satan storm and rave, Christ is your brother – you are safe!”
This same fullness of love God continues to give. He gives all of himself in Word and Water and Meal. There’s nothing halfsies in the words God speaks: good news of great joy for all the people – a Savior has been born to you. There’s nothing halfsies about a Baptism where God says he kills and makes alive, and then brings you up wrapped completely in Christ. There’s nothing halfsies about a meal in which Jesus says: My body, my blood, for you, for forgiveness. Christ is no half-brother or monkey’s uncle, he’s all our brother, battling against Satan’s raving, winning, making you safe!
Christ, our brother! And our camouflage! God’s love gives us camouflage: “the world doesn’t know us,” John writes. As Paul says, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” We could also say that the world doesn’t understand us. “I am crucified to the world,” Paul says to the Galatians. I look foolish and dead to the world when I love as God loved me. But, joyfully, “The world is crucified to me.” In Christ, in this adoption as sons, the world and all its vaunted pleasures, the world and all its sin, death, and hell, are dead to me as I live in the love God pours out upon me. More, the devil himself, my greatest foe, and his work, has been destroyed by this child, my brother, God’s Son.
No wonder Paul Gerhardt wrote, “Lord Jesus Christ your manger is my paradise where I am reclining. For there, o Lord, we find the Word made flesh for us – your grace is brightly shining.” See God’s love for you. It caused him to become your brother. It causes him to call out to you and say, “You are my child.” Which means you are safe, because you have a dear Father in heaven, now and always. Amen.