Love is a Decision
Texts: Matthew 1:18-25; Romans 1:1-7
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” one of my favorite childhood hymns, would always move me deeply. “Begotten,” what is begot? I actually looked it up: it’s bringing into being, birthing, it’s creating. The participle form is begetting. We do a lot of begetting in this congregation, a lot of creating of new things. Love—if we’re thinking about love today—may be the Presence, the beginning, middle & end to our entire Christian Story. So, where does an experience of God’s love, as this chant evokes, from the 4th Century, come from? Can we grow in understanding the origin and essence of God’s love in us, in and among us?
The kind of awe, mystery and opening of my heart that that particular chant evokes is something I felt as a child—not even understanding the words entirely. I still feel chills every year, up and down my spine, whenever we sing that. I don’t understand why.
I actually looked into this hymn a bit. The melody’s called corde natus ex parentis, “from the parents’ love begotten.” We refer to “Mother-Father-God,” so it’s of “the parents’” love begotten. It was written by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, who lived from 348 to 413 CE, 3 and a half centuries after the birth of Jesus. So, this hymn evokes that core of early church awe of the Presence of the Spirit. The emergence of the Christian community over those centuries really wrestled with who this person of Jesus actually was and how his coming actually saved us. And over those 3 and a half centuries it was approached from VERY different places. It was approached from a very human stance: Jesus was completely human, and then was chosen by God (literally adopted by God) throughout his life and ministry. So we see early on in Matthew, literally right after the birth sequence, Chapter 4, we see the ministry of John emerging and then the baptism of Jesus, where God speaks, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I a well-pleased.” And then again, we see in the Transfiguration story, we hear God’s voice coming: “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” And so, the early church really understood this was the way the humanity of Jesus was being evoked into a more Divine Union with God.
Matthew is very interested in making sure, for the mostly Jewish population it was intended for, that we know that God is with us. We hear, Emmanuel directly from the Isaiah passage, God with us, in that Gospel reading. At the very close of Matthew, Matthew 28, there is this amazing blessing and sending forth from the Ascension story, “I will be with you, even until the end of the ages.” Jesus is saying that. So there is this remarkable bracketing, in Matthew—if you set each of those statements as bookends, Immanuel and I will be with you until the end of the ages, from the very beginning to the very end of the life of Jesus—of God being with us in the person of Jesus. And there’s also this gradual adoption of Jesus by God throughout the entire Gospel. So, you can approach this from a completely earthy stance: Jesus was born completely human and became more aligned with and embodied by God’s Presence and God’s Light throughout his life.
Or, as the early church did, you could view that very much from the “top down:” that Jesus was somehow pre-existing with God, then was born by the Holy Spirit into Mary in a very Divine and Mysterious way, and then continued to grow in the knowledge and experience of the union with God throughout his life, and then ascended and became “unified with the Father” “at the right hand of God. This is what the early church’s theology spoke to. In fact, if you’ll turn in your hymnal to page 9, right near the beginning, there is the creed that folks were pulled together in 325 (by the first Holy Roman Emperor) to write. It’s called the Nicene Creed. This literally expresses for the first time who Jesus was, as a whole church. And, as you might guess, it was both the bottom-up and top-down theology expressed in this very passage. In that particular Council gathering, that convocation to dispute about what was true, they only got down to the part where it says, “conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.” So, read with me this passage, if you will:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
The only begotten Son of God,
Born of the Father before all ages,
God from God, Light from Light,
True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father,
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven
And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the virgin Mary, and became man.
If you pair this particular creed with “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” that chant makes very much different sense. You experience the same “top-down” and “bottom-up” universe. The word that appears in the Nicene creed, con-substantial, is a wild word. “Con,” meaning with, and “substantial,” meaning essence. So, was Jesus of one essence with the Creator God? This is the faith pledged in the creed. And how did that essence embody itself in Jesus through his birth, living and even death, and resurrection?
So, I would say, in the midst of that, that Love is much more than a feeling. Love is actually a Presence, an Awe, a Witnessing to that Presence, and it’s actually a Decision. It’s a decision, just as much the same set of decisions that Joseph was pushed into experiencing and having to make in this birth story. In fact, the focus in Matthew is not so much on Mary, as it is in Luke, but rather it’s really Joseph’s story, in a strange way. It’s Joseph whom the angel comes to in the dream, and it’s Joseph who encounters in 4 separate dreams in that 2nd Chapter the whole flight to Egypt, then the notice that it’s not safe to return to Bethlehem, and going to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem to fulfill scripture. In the midst of Joseph’s story, we have this amazing set of decisions: If love is a decision, then Joseph was a pretty decisive person.
- The first way he was decisive was that he was betrothed, engaged, to this young lady, Mary.
- Suddenly, she came up pregnant. So what does he do THEN? How does he wrestle with this? It says in the scripture, “he decided to dismiss her quietly.” This likely meant he was not going to unleash the full blast of his anger on her in a public way, shame her and disgrace her by saying she was NOT going to marry him. That there was NO way he was going to have anything to do with her. This shaming literally would have made Mary an outcast in the Jewish society and culture in which they lived. He refused to do that. Somehow, that did not align with his sense of what it meant to be a Jew, or what it meant to take the right action or have the right relationship with God or his fellow human beings. He may have also been somewhat self-protective in this. He may not have wanted to himself be shamed as one who would reject a woman who was pregnant. There was also this baby involved in this. I’m sure he was thinking of that baby. He was quite clear he was “going to dismiss her quietly,” when he went to sleep. It may have been one of those first nights after he learned she was pregnant.
- That’s when he was encountered, in that dream, by that angel. The angel is very direct and matter-of-fact in this dream; in fact, I imagine it to be a pretty confrontive presence, which was probably very awe-inspiring: “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins.” That’s all that’s recorded, and maybe that’s all he experienced or needed to experience in that dream. But in THIS encounter, this mysterious onslaught of confrontive love from the angel, I think, was a complete conversion experience. It literally led to a level of obedience, faithfulness, peacefulness, commitment to Mary, an embodiment of the commitment to hold the awe-inspiring presence of this strange child. This strange child, who was not really part of him. It’s hard to get my head around that. It may be hard for you, too.
So, confronting that kind of love is something we are called to do in our community as well. And how do we wrestle with that love, as Paul says in Colossians, “clothe ourselves in love.” By choice, by experience, that’s something we all need to figure out to do. I wrote a song about this a couple years ago, and I included the lyrics in your liturgy. This speaks to me of the value of love, or how we experiencing one another as love in community, and how we actually become a new self—through love.
Things you’ve prepared, whose will they be now? What’s their worth?
Store up your treasure to be rich toward God.
Set your mind free on things above, not the things on the earth. You’ve died, your life is hid with Christ in one God, maker of all in all,
Who is above all and thru all in all.
- Strip off the old self and its practices, clothe yourself in the new self.
Renew in knowledge in accord with the God’s image, fully conscious,
Discern the will of God, what’s good, acceptable and perfect among us.
Strip off the old self and its practices, clothe yourself in the new self.
- As God’s chosen, holy and beloved, above all, clothe yourselves with love:
Clothe yourselves with compassion, meekness and kindness,:
Clothe yourselves with humility, patience & forgiveness among us.
As God’s chosen, holy and beloved, above all, clothe yourselves with love!
To me, that describes part of that encounter, how love overcomes us. There are only a couple other things I wanted to share about.
We continue to be changed and transformed by this holy Presence of God’s Spirit, this nature of God’s creativity and wisdom that shines forth in all creation. And how we participate in that love and that light becomes a way in which that part of God “which is in all of us” (as the Quakers say) becomes more alive. It becomes more real as we engage each other, as we open to each other.
So, it’s my prayer today that God’s incarnational Spirit, that embodied Spirit, becomes part of you and part of your life in this Christmas season. May it also be part of your faith life. This love may be a power of God’s holiness that’s told throughout our whole lives. Love is God’s faith-filled decision to act through Jesus; love is God’s faith-filled decision to act through us in Jesus. In the same way as Joseph was, we are forged by a dream; our direction and decision is formed by a dream of the Kingdom of God. It’s a vision of “being and belonging,” as Paul says at the end of the Romans passage from today’s reading, we are “called to belong.” We are called to be part of this.
We are “called to belong,” Paul says, and so it’s my prayer that we can live out of that. Just as Joseph was released from his negative decision of not-shaming, not putting a poor person away who he thought he loved, but actually turning and being converted by that love to “do the right thing,” even when it’s not comfortable or easy. Love is a decision, not a feeling. Indeed, it says in the Song of Solomon, that love is “stronger than death.” Maybe love is a decision that actually crosses the boundary of death.
So, we can search for love everywhere, but where do we actually find it? We find it unexpectedly, before a candle in silence. We discover it in friendship that continues to expand. We find it in a dog that we adopt & love, and who adopts & loves us in return. And, yes, we find love in the power of the Spirit in the relationships of our community. We find love in our decisions of faithful obedience. It’s love that shapes and pervades our living and breathing and changing lives. Love is the power, love is the choice, through which we are called to belong and live our commitment to Jesus.
There is a second song that came to mind as I was writing this. It’s the first song I wrote on the guitar, and I remember playing with Connie in my apartment in 1981 or 2, on the second floor of a building where I was living with my first wife.
For Songs and Love of Light”
- Thank you, Lord for songs and love of light,
For ears to hear and eyes to see.
Much in me still longs with human sight,
To still be heard and break myself free.
Be our Song, come, belong with us this night.
- Help we ask for wrongs we may have done,
For thoughtless words and careless acts.
Much in us still yearns, without the sun,
To still be known and know the facts.
Be our bread, keep us fed, our daily meal.
Be our song, come, belong with us this night.
Love we know before we think or feel,
In freely given, fragile gifts,
Opens to us more, please come to heal
Our broken hearts and from death lift.
Be our choice, our voice our Sacred One.
Be our bread, keep us fed, our daily meal.
Be our song, come, belong with us this night.