We’ve arrived at the last week of Advent, traditionally held as a thematic celebration of love. Though I preached on this topic Sunday, I’ve still struggled how to put this down into words to be read. I know it’s because, frankly, I’m still not sure what love is, and I don’t think I’m alone. As the years go by, Haddaway’s “What is Love?” can still get a crowd going. I can’t help but laugh when I hear Leslie Knope declare, “We’re just animals; we don’t know anything about love” to her friend Ann Perkins amidst an awkward situation over a guy. Brick Tamland’s admission of love for items around him (including a lamp) has remained a classic reference from Anchorman. We try to sing ironically or laugh at these follies but we fail, because we too don’t know what love is. And even when we think we do, we often summon up little more than a Brick-esque annunciation devoid of evidence.
On Sunday I preached from Isaiah 53. This text gives us a familiar Christmas message of love, but familiarity should not prevent it from shaking us to our core.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
I really struggle with this concept. Not the likelihood of suffering for love, as we often study in this passage, but the sheer plainness of Christlike love. Jesus, according to both the Messianic expectation in Isaiah 53 and what we know about Galilee in His time, came across as just some dude. Rough hewn, tempered by a rough existence in a rough, violent town and time spent with His earthly father in a rough line of work. Nothing to look at, and for many something from which to turn away. The God and very King of All, yet just another lowly life to ignore on the sidewalk.
We have no idea how to fathom a love like this. Tim Keller in his new book Hidden Christmas quotes a Christian speaker discussing a Blue Angel routine at a football game and adds his own complementary observation: “The speaker observed, ‘If I were God sending my son into the world, that’s how I would have done it—with spectacular special effects, a cheering crowd, and of course those silver flight suits. But that’s not how God did it.’ At every point Jesus defied the world’s expectations for how celebrities should act and how social movements should begin. The world cannot comprehend a God like Jesus.”
Look at the past year and a half of politics. Look at so many romance movies. Look at, irony of ironies, how we mark this season. We expect all good things, including love, to come from grand gestures in gilded rooms. We believe power emanates from cultural monoliths in their halls of marble. We claw so desperately to live out this expectation in how we love others, fail brutally, and live cut off as a consequence. But love, the greatest of all powers, came down as a little baby born in a smelly manger, fled as a refugee, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and lived a life of pure love while walking about as just some dude. We are free indeed this Christmas, for our imprisoning expectations of love have been forever ruined by the man Jesus Christ.