Love: Every Heart Prepare Him Room
I think I’ve told some of you that my Greek professor in college had a stamper that he’d use when marking our papers. The stamper said “Be Specific!” in big, red letters. It was his huge pet peeve when students would write papers and not give clear examples to support the claims they were making. I’m afraid I saw that stamper on my papers more than once. Be specific, be specific, be specific! I hope I learned my lesson. Dr. Lateiner wanted to see supporting evidence for our claims in our work. You couldn’t just make a claim in a research paper unless you could show that you had good reason for your position. You needed to demonstrate that your claims could be supported. Be specific!
I was thinking about Dr. Lateiner this week when I posted some questions to ponder on facebook. For the past few weeks, I’ve been asking questions online about our weekly Advent theme. Last week, I got to share with you a lot of the great responses about peace that really shaped my thinking for my sermon. This week, I posted that today we would be focusing on Love, and “thinking about how we prepare room in our hearts, our lives, our world for Love Incarnate.” I asked, “What about you? Being as specific as possible, how are you preparing room in your life this Advent for Christ to dwell in your heart?”
I had a few responses. One friend talked about her upcoming journey to the Holy Land, anticipating the impact it would have on her faith, and she talked about the joy she has in knowing Christ’s love. Connie Waltz wrote about loving more, helping when someone needs help, and being confident that Christ is already and always dwelling in her heart. Nicole Fullerton, who is the youth leader at Richville United Church, wrote: “I think when I started leading the youth group at my church it opened my heart up more. Although I always believed and loved the Lord, his lessons have more meaning now. When preparing my lessons I think about how my lessons relate to my life and how it could relate to the youth.” And then Donna Peck commented, “[This topic] is more difficult than the other two topics.” I agree with Donna! It is difficult when we start trying to get specific. We like to talk about love all year round, not just on this Sunday, the Sunday we light our “love” candle, and it is easy to use the language of “preparing” during Advent. But what are we actually doing about preparing for Advent? Yes, we’re here together in worship, so that’s a good start. But how else are we preparing for Christ? And what about this “love” thing? We talk a lot about loving God and loving neighbor. But what specific examples can we point to that demonstrate we’re disciples of this one who is Love Incarnate in our midst? I worry, sometimes, that we are really good at theoretical when it comes to practicing our faith, and not so good at the actual practicing.
I’ve been reading a book called The Art of Neighboring by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak. I’m only a couple chapters in, but I’m already feeling convicted. The authors start by talking about Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. Runyon and Pathak say that we gospel readers immediately turn the specific commandment into a metaphor. Jesus just doesn’t mean our literal neighbors, he means for us to love everyone. And while this might be true, they argue, the result is that as we embrace this metaphor of “general” love for others, we are actually pretty bad at the specifics. They lay down a challenge: think of the 8 neighbors closest to you. Your literal neighbors, the people who live closest to you. And then write down everything you know about them. Not things you can observe from your window, like what kind of car they drive, but things that come from relationships you have with them. I know that I’ve only lived in Gouverneur for a year and half, but my personal results from this self-reflection were pretty depressing. I know the names of several of a few of my neighbors, but I can’t tell you much else about most of them, and with some of them I’m kind of cheating since I really know them from church, not from being neighbors. My mom, on the other hand, is such a great example of truly loving her neighbor. My mom lives in an apartment complex, and she knows the name of everyone in her building, and probably the next couple of buildings near hers, and has probably given a ride to, or made food for, or made a visit to most of them. Mom and I might both talk about loving our neighbors – but which of us has the evidence to support the claim?
Today, on this third Sunday of Advent, our theme calls us to two tasks: Let every heart prepare room for Christ, and let us prepare through showing love for God and neighbor. That’s what I’m asking us to think about this week, this season. We know we’re supposed to prepare room in our hearts for the Christ Child. And it is easy to assent with our lips: “Yes, I’ll do that, I’ll prepare room in my heart for Jesus this Advent.” But imagine that my Greek professor is standing by you – by me too – with that stamper, saying, “Be specific!” What are you actually doing or actually going to do to prepare your life for Jesus to take up space, or to take up more space in your heart and life? When you commit to a life of loving God and neighbor, what do you mean by that? Specifically?
Our song focus today is Joy to the World. You might think the song makes more sense for next week, when our focus is Joy, and truly, I got myself quite mixed up this week on which song and theme were when. But there are two phrases in Joy to the World that point to our themes for the day. Joy to the World was written by English hymnist Isaac Watts and first published in 1719.The very first verse of the hymn brings us our theme for the day: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.” Watts draws on Psalm 98 for his inspiration, but this language of preparing our hearts comes from him, not directly the text, and is perfect for Advent and the themes we heard echoed in John the Baptist preparing a way for the ministry of Jesus that we talked about two weeks ago. How are we preparing for Jesus – Jesus the Christ Child, Jesus the Savior who we follow as disciples, Jesus who promises to come to us again, and again. How are we preparing?
And there’s another phrase that goes with our theme of love, from verse four of Joy to the World. We sing: “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.” Sometimes when we’re singing, the way that the phrases of hymns get broken up means that we miss the meaning because we’re taking a big breath right in the middle of a sentence. I’m not sure how often I’ve thought about this whole sentence of a verse and what it means. Jesus rules the world with truth and grace, and Jesus makes the nations – that is all people, – Jesus makes all people prove his righteousness – that is, his just and right relationships with us – and the wonders of his love. In other words we are the proof of Jesus’s righteousness, the proof of the wonderfulness of his love in the world. Wow! That just struck me. We are a demonstration, a proof of the love of Christ in the world. If my Greek professor was saying to Jesus: Be specific! How are you showing your truth and grace in the world? How are you righteous? How are you love incarnate? Then Jesus would respond by pointing to us; we’re the proof, the specifics, the supporting evidence of the love of Christ in the world.
Today, we heard in Luke’s gospel a young woman named Mary finding out from God’s messenger, Gabriel, that she would give birth to Jesus, God’s child. Mary quite literally prepares room in her own body for Jesus to enter the world. Gabriel tells Mary that nothing is impossible with God, and Mary believes it, and acts accordingly. Mary will head from here to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, preparing by turning to a friend, a mentor, a family member who can help her in her pregnancy, as Elizabeth, too, is pregnant. And Mary prepares her heart, pondering and reflecting, and embracing God’s plan to come to earth and turn the world upside down. Everything an expectant mother does has the potential to influence the unborn child she carries. The way a mother prepares for a child’s birth can have a big influence on the health and well-being of the child at birth and beyond. The preparing makes a difference. We see its impact, with often tangible results.
We’re preparing too, hurriedly or calmly, thoroughly or half-heartedly, grudgingly or joyfully, earnestly, or reluctantly. Jesus is coming. We say we are preparing our hearts, and I challenge us, I’m asking us to give an honest answer: How are we preparing our hearts for Jesus? Be specific! We say that we love all people, that yes, the greatest commandment is loving one another, and I challenge us, again, I’m asking us to give an honest assessment: How are we loving one another? Be specific!
Here’s a hint: we can do work on the one by making progress on the other. The more we actively practice loving God and loving one another in tangible ways, ways that can be felt, ways that bear fruit, ways that can leave the other feeling loved, the more we will find that our hearts and lives have more and more room for Jesus to dwell there. And the more we actively make room for Jesus in our hearts, the more we truly make growing in faith a priority that we pursue with at least as much planning and intentionality as we put into other meaningful things in our lives, the more we will find our capacity to love increasing.
So, again: specifically, what will you do this season to prepare room for Christ? It is already the Third Sunday of Advent, and in two short weeks, we will celebrate Christ’s birth, but it isn’t too late. What will you do? What will I do? Here’s my start. This Advent, I’ve been being faithful and diligent in my devotional life. Just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean I don’t sometime neglect nurturing my spiritual life, but I’ve committed, this Advent, to daily spiritual reflection and study of the scripture. This Advent, I’m committing to knocking on the doors of my literal neighbors, introducing myself where needed, and bringing them some Christmas cookies. It’s not much, but it’s a start. Ask me, over the next couple of weeks if I’ve done it! For the past couple of months, I’ve been giving myself weekly reminders about contacting my representatives in Congress. I see this as an act of love, because I’m calling to speak up for people who seem to get shoved to the sidelines. This Advent, I’m being mindful of my schedule, and trying to make room for God instead of cramming my schedule full of things that don’t really need to be a priority. This season, I’ve been working on plans to start having some of my office hours in the community instead of in the church building, so that I can be more intentional about meeting people. This Advent, I’m trying to prepare for Christmas Day and beyond for how I might spend more of my time on those days doing something for others, and less time thinking about myself, so that I might more meaningfully celebrate God-with-us in the world. I’m trying, friends, to be specific. I’m preparing room for Christ, and I’m preparing to love God and love neighbor more fully, and I plan to have some evidence, some specifics, to show for it. Because as wild as it seems, we – you and me – we are the proof, the wonder of God’s love in the world! Let’s go out there and show it. Amen.
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