2 Adv Dec 9 2018

Malachi 3:1-4

Philippians 1:3-11

Last week, we started Advent with the Promise of Hope. Today, we turn to the second promise—the Promise of Love. Paul spells it out in our epistle lesson. In verse 9, he says, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more.”

How many tens of thousands of songs have been written about love? In 1967, over 50 years ago, The Beatles had a hit called “All You Need is Love.” It captured the spirit of the so-called hippie generation.

The message was clear and simple: All you need is love; love is all you need. Who could disagree? But what is love?

Christmas is one of those times when we talk about love. The jewelry stores tell us to buy diamonds to prove of our love. But when Paul says that he wants our love to overflow, what does that mean? How does that work?

Another blast from the past in 1967 was the musical Hair. “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars.” But a couple of years later at Woodstock, “love” seemed to mean getting high, getting naked, and rolling around in the mud.

Is that love? Is that all we need? Let’s look more closely at what Paul says….

(1)       First, love begins with awareness. Paul says in verse 9 that he wants our love to overflow “with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.”

That’s awareness. Love requires some insight into the needs and feelings of others. Love is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling of peace and goodwill. Love is focused on other people. Love seeks to be aware of others, and to understand deeply.

(a)       From that angle, the first barrier to love is being self-absorbed or self-centered. If we ask, What’s in this for me? or How does this affect me? we can’t truly love. The focus has to be on others. We always ask, What can I give? not, What can I get?

(b)       The second barrier to love is suspicion and distrust. If we’re always playing defense; if we assume that people are trying to cheat us or take advantage, then we won’t be able to love them.

True love requires patience, understanding and tolerance. Love assumes the best. Love gives the benefit of the doubt. When we do that, then we can be open to the kind of knowledge and insight Paul says we need to do the best thing for others.

Love requires a commitment to the simple question, What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say? Paul talks about knowledge and insight. He wants us to stop and think before we say or do the wrong thing.

Whenever we’re going to speak, we need to ask, will my words lift up this person, or bring them down. We don’t just say whatever we think other people need to hear, or whatever we think will make us feel better. Love requires awareness.

(2)       Second, love produces results. Paul says in verse 11 that the goal of our overflowing love is to produce “a harvest of righteousness.” We have to follow through on the love we feel in our hearts. Our love has to produce results—righteous deeds, a harvest of good things. We can’t just think about how we feel—we have to do something to make it happen.

Are you producing a harvest of righteousness or a harvest of words? In James chapter 2, James says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Too often, we Christians march around, waving our Bibles and saying Jesus loves you! Jesus loves you! But we do nothing more, and so it’s as though we’re saying, It’s a good thing Jesus loves you, because I could care less.

Too often, we live only for ourselves. All for me and none for you! I don’t care, and I won’t share. Go take care of your own problems. But we need to put our money where our mouth is.

Notice that Paul uses a farming analogy. He calls it a “harvest” of righteousness. There’s no big secret to farming. The more you plant, the more you get; the more you harvest. Plant one kernel of sweet corn and you’ll harvest 2, 3, 4 ears. Plant ten kernels, and you’ll have 20, 30, 40. Plant a hundred, and you’ll harvest 200, 300, 400 ears.

One of the biggest barriers to love is that we settle for such a crummy harvest. This time of year, we spend hundreds of dollars on ourselves, and don’t think about it. Then we throw a couple of extra bucks around to others, and congratulate ourselves on our good Christmas spirit. But we’re not really planting for a big harvest.

Who do you suppose are the most generous people? Surprise—it’s the poorest people. Poor people give away about ten percent of their income. The rich are stingiest. TV shows us the exceptions, like Bill Gates, but in fact, the richest Americans give on average less than two percent to charity.

See, we always fantasize that if we were rich, then we’d share the wealth. We’d give to all those good causes we see out there. But that’s not how it works. If you want to overflow with love; if you want to produce a harvest of righteousness, you have to start planting the seeds now—and plant as many as you can.

(3)       Finally, love keeps growing. Paul says in verse 9 that our goal in love is to become “pure and blameless.” Love is static. True love keeps getting better.

In our Old Testament lesson, Malachi tells us what this means. The messenger of the Lord is coming, he says, to be like “a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”

Both examples have to do with removing impurities. As you heat up gold or silver, you burn away impurities.

The fuller’s soap makes cloth fuller by dislodging impurities. It applies especially to wool. Wool, of course, is nothing more than sheep’s fur, and sheep are not known for their personal cleanliness. Fresh-sheared wool is full of dirt and oil, and whatever else sheep get into. And so the more you can remove the impurities, the closer the threads can be—the fuller the cloth.

And so love requires constant repentance on our part. Too often, we reduce repentance to a one-time act where we turn to Jesus in a highly-charged moment of desperation. We say the right words, and, presto-chango—we’re saved! But repentance is a daily thing.

When Columbus sailed from Spain in 1492, he didn’t just point and say, “Head west, boys.” Columbus was a skilled navigator. Navigators constantly measure distance, keep time, and record the angles of the sun and stars, to make continual adjustments. The waves and currents and winds are always nudging the boat off course.

It takes constant adjustment to stay on course.

We have to make those same daily adjustments to stay on the path of God. That’s how you get that love to overflow. We have to keep checking ourselves to make sure that we’re growing in knowledge and insight, and that we’re planting the seeds to reap a harvest of righteousness.r

Repentance requires that we listen to God’s word—that we actually hear what God says, and not just follow whatever version we’ve made up in our own minds. Repentance requires honesty. We can’t lie to ourselves, or continually make up rationalizations and excuses for our behavior. We’ve got to confess our faults and pray for the guidance of the Spirit so that we get it right the next time.

The Beatles probably had it right all those years ago: All you need is love. Love is a powerful force that can accomplish great things. But if you want love to overflow, then you have to love by God’s rules—you have to be aware, you have to produce results, and you have to be willing to make the constant corrections of repentance in order to stay on course. Then love is all you need, for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.