A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon (December 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Reclaim Christmas: Scandalous Love"

     Scandalous love. That’s an intriguing sermon title, isn’t it? Actually, it’s from the title of a chapter in the book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, by Mike Slaughter. In his book, Mike makes the case that the Christmas story is really a story about God’s scandalous love for the world.
     It’s scandalous because, we didn’t do anything to deserve this love. God loves us even though we have not always loved God. There’s nothing that we can do to make God love us any more and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less. God’s love for us is always full and complete.
     This is why God was willing to take the incredible risk of sending his only Son to be born in our world. That’s how much God loves us. God was willing to take that risk because love is at the heart of who God is.
     God sent Jesus into our world of brokenness and pain knowing that it wouldn’t be easy for him. Jesus would be born in a manger that was really a feed trough for livestock. From the very beginning, King Herod sought to kill Jesus and his family had to seek refuge in another country.

     Raising a child is one the most challenging things in life because of all of the responsibility that is involved. When our first child was born, I remember the incredible joy of holding her little body in my arms for the first time. But I also remember feeling the pain just an hour later of watching the nurse draw blood from her little foot.
     We know that at some point, they will fall and scrape their knees. We know that at some point, they will probably fall off the bike. We know that at some point, they will walk into a classroom on their own. We know that at some point they will step on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal when learning how to drive. This is all part of what it means to be a parent. You do what you can do, but at some point, you need to let them learn on their own. Love involves risk.  The Christmas story is a story of God’s risky love on our behalf. That’s how much God loves us.

     This story of God’s risky love isn’t new. It’s throughout the bible, especially from the Book of Hosea. You don’t hear the Book of Hosea read too often during worship. That’s because it can get a little too graphic.
     I’ll do my best to explain what I mean without going over the top. Hosea was a prophet who lived during a very dark time of Israel’s history. Even though God had loved them and given them everything they needed, they turned away from God and things really started to fall apart for them.
     To give you some idea of how bad things became for Israel, four of their kings were killed in a span of just fourteen years. They were facing warfare and anarchy. And all of this was because they had turned away from God’s love and became very selfish and greedy.
     Desperate times calls for desperate measures. God tells the prophet Hosea to marry someone who he knows will be unfaithful to him. If that sounds like a crazy thing for God to ask Hosea to do, then you’re right. It was crazy! It was also a very scandalous thing for Hosea to do. But that’s what God told Hosea to do.
     Hosea, wanting to be faithful to what God wanted, did as God instructed. He married this person who he knew would be unfaithful to him. To make a long story short, Hosea’s wife was unfaithful to Hosea. Even though his wife cheated on him over and over again, in the end, Hosea publicly received her back. Hosea’s willingness to receive her back as his wife was unheard of during that time period.
     The point of this story is simple, but profound. Hosea symbolizes God and God’s unconditional love for the people of Israel. Hosea’s wife who had turned her back on Hosea is symbolic of how Israel had turned away from God over and over again.
     This story is why God’s love for us can be called a scandalous love. Even though we turn away from God again and again, God doesn’t turn his back on us. Like Hosea, God receives us back and offers us a forgiving love.
     This understanding of God’s scandalous love is probably what the Apostle Paul was thinking about when he wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.”
     Amazing Grace is probably the most popular hymn because God’s grace is amazing. It’s a grace that is offered to us even though we have turned our backs on God. It’s a grace that is stronger than anything we might do to offend God. That’s why we call it amazing. It is amazing!

     When I was growing up, I loved to see how far I could throw a football down a big hill that overlooked my house. Because of that hill, I could throw the football really far. My dad kept warning me to not throw the football so close to the house because I might break a window.
     One day, I was on top of the hill throwing the football as far as I could. It was windy that day and sure enough, when I let go of the football, the wind just blew that football into our dining room window. The sound of breaking glass is not a pleasant sound.
     When I made it to the bottom of the hill, my mom told me to have a seat in the kitchen. She asked me, “What did your father tell you about throwing the football so close to the house? You’re going to sit in this chair until your father comes home.”
     This was not looking good. Mom was right. I should have known better.
     As I sat in the chair, I remember praying for God to perform a miracle like fixing the window before dad would arrive home. Once in a while, I would peak into the dining room and sure enough, I could still see broken glass everywhere. “So much for miracles,” I thought to myself.
     Finally, dad came home. I expected the worse. He first went to the dining room to look at the damage. He came back to where I was seated, looked me in my eyes and said to me, “Next time, don’t throw the football so close to the house and help me clean up this mess.”
     Even though I deserved a whole lot worse that day, my dad offered me grace. No wonder they call it amazing grace. Actually, my prayer for a miracle was answered, just not in the way I expected.
     Hosea’s scandalous love is similar to the kind of love at Christmas when God sent Jesus. It’s an over the top kind of love, a love that we don’t deserve, but are invited to receive again and again.

     We often associate the word, “scandal” with tabloid news stories of crazy things people do. There’s a reason those scandals make it on the front page. They peak our interest. We want to know why somebody would do something so out of the ordinary.
     God’s love is scandalous, but in a good way. Mary knew that she was being called to bear God’s scandalous love when she was told that she was with child of the Holy Spirit. She couldn’t believe that God called someone like her to be the one who would carry God’s love full term.
     Just listen to her words which we know as the Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
     God’s scandalous love did become scandalous for Mary and Joseph as they had to endure the suspicious looks and the hurtful gossip regarding her pregnancy. God’s scandalous love for the world has a way of turning heads and creating a stir in the crowd.
     The Christmas story doesn’t just invite us to be spectators of God’s scandalous love. Like Mary and Joseph, it invites us to become part of the scandal in which we becoming willing participants in offering God’s love to the world.
     In his book, Surprised by Scripture, Tom Wright shares a story about a youth group that became willing participants in offering God’s scandalous love in their community. As their Bishop in northeast England, he had invited teenagers from the various churches in that area for a week long gathering. They had bible studies in the morning, social projects in the afternoon, and worship rallies in the evening.
     His favorite memory from that week was when he went with one of the dozens of afternoon groups to paint the back walls of a lane of dark and dismal houses in the wrong part of one of the nearby old towns. They also hung flower baskets all the way down the road.
     People came out of their houses our of curiosity, something they didn’t normally do because they were afraid of those dark back alleys and what usually went on there. They asked nervously whether they were from the town’s council or whether they were going to have to pay for these improvements.
     The teens would just smile at them and say that they were from the church and their work was a present to them and to the people of their community.  The town’s people were taken aback by all the beautiful work they were doing on their behalf.
     The story didn’t end there. A year later, the Bishop went back to this town and he noticed something very interesting. The residents had begun to do more things in that back alley, planting little gardens and hold barbecues and getting to know one another.
     All of this was the result of just one small gesture of love and generosity from young people who had come together from various churches to live out their faith in a very practical way. God’s scandalous love takes a life of its own when lived out in even the smallest of ways.
     The reason that God risked everything by sending us Jesus was because of scandalous love, a love that turns heads, a love that makes people step out of their homes to see what new thing is happening in their community, a love that offers grace even though we have been unfaithful, and a love that comes to us as a little baby born in a manger.
     And like Mary, God invites us to offer this love to the world, a world that God loves and seeks to redeem. Mary knew that the baby inside her was not just meant for her, but was also meant for the whole world.
     Christmas is a time for us to share in God’s love for the world. How can we not share in God’s broken heart wherever there is pain and suffering?
     God feels the pain of those who are unemployed or who live in communities where there is little or no hope. God feels the pain in knowing that a child dies from hunger related causes every five seconds somewhere around the world. God feels the pain in knowing that a child dies from Malaria every sixty seconds.
     God’s scandalous love calls each one of us to reclaim Christmas, to not have Christmas be about us, but about what God wants for the world. We are to reclaim Christmas by joining Mary in accepting God’s call to be a blessing to our community and world.
     Over these first few weeks of Advent, we have been extending the invitation to reclaim Christmas through our special Christmas missions offering this year. Our special Christmas gift is going to support four vital mission projects. These include supporting our Lithuania United Methodist partner church, the Africa Development Fund, Imagine No Malaria, and Good Works Outreach in Athens, Ohio.
     Can you imagine what a difference our church can make through this special missions offering? We’re just one church, but when we reclaim Christmas and offer ourselves to the world, great things can happen. Lives can be saved. People can receive hope. Communities can be transformed.

     This year, reclaim Christmas. Receive God’s amazing grace. And here’s the really important part. Let’s offer God’s scandalous love to the world.

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