A sermon preached on November 26, 2011, the first Sunday in Advent, based upon 1Corinthians 1:3 – 9.
So, amazingly, we find ourselves only four weeks away from Christmas. How did this happen?! The sudden nearness of Christmas probably affects us in a variety of ways, but for most of us adults, I suspect, there is some measure of anxiety attached to this thought.
There is this lengthy list of things that we need to get done – or at least we assume need to get done – in order for Christmas to come off as it is supposed to come off, and avoid feeling like a failure.
The spiritual tradition that is Advent is intended to be one in which we become particularly conscious and mindful, but the cultural Christmas experience tends to generate the kind of stress and pressure that drives us in precisely the opposite direction – to shift into automatic pilot mode where we focus on little more than checking off our to-do lists. Advent gets hijacked.
So as we find ourselves at the start of Advent, let’s take a deep breath and remember basic truths we already know, but somehow manage to lose track of under the pressure of the season.
The most basic of which is: Christmas is about love. That God has loved us – given us a gift of love which we call “grace.” Here’s how Paul put it in the lesson Bob read for us: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…” God came to be with us human beings when we were lost in darkness, taking on human form in the baby born in the stable. We are loved. We didn’t do something to earn this love; it was simply given to us because that’s the wonder of who God is. We have already been given the love we most need.
So in a certain sense if you can hang onto that idea, it isn’t possible to mess up Christmas, because at its core, it’s not about what we do at all – it’s about what God has done and continues to do: come to us in the places where we feel forsaken, abandoned, unlovable, like lonely poor shepherds watching their sheep at night.
But of course, the gift of this love does call forth from us a response — that in turn we give love away in imitation of the love God has freely given us. So it is good to remind ourselves here at the beginning of Advent that we want to express love in the coming weeks.
It’s pretty simple, really. But the truth is, our intention to express love can easily get lost, and part of the reason for this is that we lose sight of the ways love is expressed.
Monica Hawkins loaned me a helpful little book entitled “The Five Love Languages,” by an author named Gary Chapman. Chapman points out the easily forgotten fact that love is expressed in a variety of ways. He suggests there are five basic forms — what he calls “languages of love.” (Who knows? maybe you can come up with other languages.)
Now one of these five languages of love is gift giving. To receive a well chosen gift from somebody can indeed be a profound expression of love, and there are some people in this congregation who are really good at this. (I don’t tend to be one of these people.) To give thought to what would truly bring pleasure to another, and then to give the gift with no desire other than to see the one you love receive pleasure – well, that is the sort of gift giving that makes the angels sing and dance.
But something distressing has happened over the last century or so, and that is that for the sake of turning profits and firing up the engines of our economy, capitalism has co-opted this simple, beautiful expression of love. We’ve been brain-washed into believing that spending money on gifts is the end-all of love. We are led to believe that if we want to be a loving person who does Christmas right we will throw all caution to the wind, spend endless hours in the shopping malls, run up our credit cards and go into debt in order to purchase the mandatory gifts that prove our love.
And here’s the dilemma: Real love can only be given freely. Our culture, however has moved to a place where gift giving is often seen as obligatory. And when gifts become obligatory, as in “you owe me a gift,” the capacity of gift-giving to express love becomes severely damaged.
But if gift giving is seen in its larger context: that it is simply one of several ways of expressing love, perhaps it can become more authentic and genuine.
So here, briefly are the other four languages of love.
The first is words of affirmation. This is one of the easiest ways to express love – to simply take the time to say a compliment, to say something about why we appreciate another person. Oftentimes the people we are connected to are desperate to hear such words spoken, but peculiarly, perhaps stubbornly, we withhold the words they long to hear. It’s good to stop and ask ourselves, what could I say to the people around me that would let them know I love them? And also, why have I withheld this simple expression of love?
A second language of love is quality time. Busyness is the curse of most of us in this society, and when a busy person makes time to simply be with another person it is a profound expression of love. I’m not talking about watching TV together. I’m talking about sharing the kind of time where real sharing and undistracted listening takes place — the kind of time required for souls to touch souls.
Can we make room for quality time this season?
A third language of love is acts of service. How do I know somebody loves me? Oftentimes it comes down to the fact that the person does things that bless my life – they reduce the burdens I carry, they bring beauty and order to my life. Meals that are cooked, rides given, jobs of various sizes great and small – oftentimes these are the most concrete expression of love. As important as gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation are, sometimes what a person most needs from us is that we do something for them that lightens their load.
A fourth language would be physical touch. The gentle caress, the hand that is held, the hug, the kiss. Again, so easy to give, but sometimes so stubbornly withheld. There are the persons with whom touching should come naturally: parents and children, spouses and lovers. But sometimes it is strangely missing.
There are also people who hunger for human touch who might be beyond our most intimate circle. Senior citizens living alone, for instance, starving for a gentle, loving embrace.
Now, when you think about how love is expressed in five different languages, certain things become quite apparent.
First of all, we realize that we are all different, all unique. We vary both in terms of the expressions of love we feel competent at giving, as well as in terms of the expressions of love we feel comfortable receiving.
Take touching, for instance. Some people are walking around with a great hunger to be touched; others feel easily invaded when others touch them, and want to be touched only at very specific times and in very prescribed ways.
One size doesn’t fit all.
Some of us may not feel very adept with words, and find ourselves easily embarrassed when we try to speak of what another person means to us. But this same person may have an extraordinary capacity for acts of service.
The second thing to notice is that since we are different from each other, the potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding when it comes to expressing love is endless.
Under stress, we all tend to become rather self-centered in regard to the languages of love. Perhaps I’m a quality time person, good at offering it to other persons. I listen well. I find myself wondering, how come I’m not getting the same offer of quality time in return? Maybe I’m the sort of person who is always telling others what I appreciate about them. How come I rarely hear such words spoken back to me?
We wait around for the people in our lives to spend quality time with us and speak affirming words to us, and all the while turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the countless acts of service that they have been showering us with along the way, which we never acknowledged, and for which we never expressed our appreciation.
It may be that someone loves us a great deal, and in their minds they have been showering us with love, but from our perspective, they don’t seem all that loving at all because they haven’t been speaking our preferred language.
So as we approach Christmas, it is important to resist the pressure the culture puts on us to think primarily in terms of the gift-giving language of love. It’s good to remind ourselves that love is expressed in a variety of ways. The one-size-fits-all mindset never works.
So take some time at the outset of Advent to think about who the people are in your life that it is important for you to express love to this season, and to ask yourself what would be the expression of love that that they would most appreciate. And to realize that it might not be a gift that can be bought in a store.
The cultural version of Christmas with its emphasis on rushing around tends to rob us of our imagination. One of the things I hear Paul saying in this morning’s lesson is to remind them that really have been given the capacity to think outside the box when it comes to expressing love: “in every way you have been enriched in (Christ Jesus), in speech and knowledge of every kind.”
This may be the Christmas in which we learn to express love in ways we haven’t been so mindful of in the past.
A part of this thinking outside of the box is to find ways during this season to show love for people who are beyond our intimate circle – those for whom, as it says in the wedding liturgy, “love is a stranger.” Whose life can I touch this season for Jesus who might otherwise be overlooked?