What is the ultimate expression of love?
Although I am not a theology ‘geek’ I do like theology — the study of God — and if I am honest, I have spent a far greater amount of time thinking about the significance of the death of Jesus rather than his birth. Despite having preached probably close to fifty sermons on the birth of Jesus, and thinking I have little left to learn about the incarnation — God becoming a human — it was only recently that I felt the full weight and comprehended the significance of Christ’s birth. Again, if I am honest, I feel a little stupid that I had not fully understood just how wonderful the event is that we celebrate at Christmas, and so, in the spirit of honesty, I would like to share my discovery with you. Please, do not roll your eyes at me, snigger behind hand-covered mouths, or facepalm your foreheads on my behalf! Here goes…
God loves us. Yes, I know, we know this, but what we need to realise is that God loves us with a godly love, a perfect love, and a love that is consummate, passionate, complete, intense, and holy. In fact, such is the love of God for us that there is no adjective that fully describes just how eternally and infinitely loving it is. It is unwaveringly indestructible, and however great you think God’s love is, it is greater. However strong you think God’s love is, it is stronger. However powerful you think God’s love is, it is more powerful. If you can imagine, for a moment, the most love you have ever felt for someone, then amplify that a billion billion times, it still will not be as much love as the love God has for you.
In Greek there are four words to describe ways in which love can be expressed. There is erotic, intimate love; there is friendship love; there is familial, parental love; and finally there is self-sacrificial love. God, who is love, simultaneously expresses all four kinds of love for us, however it is the last kind of love on which I would like to focus. We call it ‘agape’ and it is the idea that self-sacrificial love is the ultimate expression of love from one person to another. When we love someone we can give them everything. We can give them presents, hugs, our time, our words, and our talents, yet, after all those things have been exhausted, the ultimate expression of love we can offer someone is to give them ourselves — to literally lay down our lives for them.
When a person risks their life to save another, we instantly recognise it in our hearts and minds as being the most moving, impactful, and meaningful act of love. Again, the adjectives do not do it justice. When we hear of a firefighter risking their lives to save a child from a burning building, or a bystander diving into a frozen lake to save a drowning puppy, when we hear of a soldier taking a bullet to save a friend, or someone donating their organs to save the life of a patient on an operating table, in that moment, we get a glimpse of agape love — the ultimate expression of love that God has for us.
God, who longs to express love for us, has given us everything, yet the last thing, and the ultimate thing that God can give us is him or herself. God, who is spirit, needs to give him or herself in a way that we will understand and feel; a way that is grounded in reality and in creation; a way that encompasses all it is to be a human being. And so, God, the creator becomes the created, and is born.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9.6)
Born with no special privileges, born an outsider, born into poverty, born into mundane reality, born into a world with dirt under his fingernails, blisters on his feet, a heart that feels pain and loneliness, hurt, and anger, and a mind that races, doubts, and wrestles with unfulfilled hopes and dreams. One of us. Fully human.
Jesus, the Christ, embodied the full expression of God’s love for humanity and was born so that God could demonstrate the ultimate expression of love for us, for we cannot separate the end from the beginning. There can be no death without life, no crucifixion without nativity, and no atonement without arrival. Today, on Christmas Day, we not only celebrate the physical birth of a child, but the reality of God’s all-consuming, passionate, complete, intense, and holy love for us.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1. 14).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have life now and forever.” (John 3.16)
“And Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2.7)