This story from Matthew 11 seems just a little out of place in the middle of the Advent season. What’s really going on here is that John, cooling his heels in prison, wants to know what’s going on with Jesus and why he hasn’t started something. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asks. What he means is: What are you waiting for? You have the power…when are you going to lead the rebellion against Rome? So Jesus sends the message back to John: “Go and tell John what you see and hear. Tell him all the good things that are happening for the people.” What he means is: He didn’t choose the way of might or power or anger; he chose the way of love. Jesus chose to bring the kingdom with love because he knew the true power of love.
French priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) wrote: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” One of the most important discoveries of early humans was FIRE – with it came the power to keep warm, to cook, to see after dark, and it led to thousands of uses early humans never dreamed of. The power of love has the potential to change the way humans live with one another and to shape the course of history beyond our imaginings. We live in a culture and time almost completely dedicated to the various concepts of power…We love power. We want more powerful cars that have 400-horsepower engines and reach speeds of 120 MPH, even though we spend most of our lives riding around under 50. We need more and more computing power for our laptops, tablets, and smart phones. It doesn’t matter that we now carry in our pockets more computing power than what currently controls the US military missile defense system. We have to have more stain-fighting power, more whitening power, and more deodorant power. We sleep better at night because we have a sense of security that stems from believing we live in the most powerful country on the planet. We tell our children that “knowledge is power,” knowing full-well that the real power belongs to those with the biggest bank accounts. Living in this power-hungry, power-conscious, power-obsessed culture, do we really know what the most powerful force on earth truly is? Is it military might? Is it political clout? Is it influence?
The Bible tells us that the most powerful force in the world is LOVE. It seems to me that the culture in which we live has us chasing after the wrong kinds of power. In the middle of the chase, along comes Christmas and we find Bethlehem calling us back to the Power of Love. I know this sounds trite and that what we see in the real world doesn’t always support what I’m saying. So, let’s take a look at a few specifics and see if we can begin to see what Jesus is talking about.
LOVE is more powerful than fame: Fame and fortune are popular goals because they lead to the power that comes from being recognized and being able to get the best of everything. These days it seems that one can become famous just by wanting to be famous, not based on any actual talent or skill. The truth is that fame is fleeting and culture has a way of moving on fairly quickly as fame and its power fades.
In his book, Dr. James Moore tells us about Muhammad Ali, the amazing three-time world heavyweight boxing champion. For those of us of a certain age, Ali’s name immediately conjures images of a brilliant Olympic athlete who became the most famous professional boxer in the world. He is certainly one of the greatest athletes of all time and there was a time when he was the most famous person in the world. In 1988 sports writer Gary Smith went to visit Ali in retirement, at home in Louisville, Kentucky. The champ took him to a barn on the property filled with the memorabilia of his life. The pictures, the trophies, the championship belts – all the symbols of his fame – were left to gather dust. Ali simply said: “I had the world, and it was nothin’. Look now…”
Today, most young people don’t know who I am talking about; his fame is long past. In spite of the progression of Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali is now a respected philanthropist who travels the world to help those in need. In 1998 he was chosen to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace; in 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That same year he opened the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown; it focuses on six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality. He said: “I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.” Young people may not know about Ali’s boxing career; his fame and power are long gone. But his focus has shifted from the power of fame to the power of love as he uses the fruits of his fame to share love with others. My guess is that this work will last much longer than Ali’s fame did.
Love is more powerful than force: Our culture seems to reflect the belief that the best way to get something done is by force. We see this acted out so often that many people have stopped questioning it or even noticing it. If we really look at history, though, we realize that force is not the best way to accomplish anything. What is gained by force seldom lasts. Here is a simple example: As a parent you can choose to exercise control over your children through force. That will only work as long as the child is at home with you where you can constantly monitor behavior and the child is physically small enough for you to control. When your child is old enough to move away, or is simply big enough to tell you “no,” then you no longer have control over them. On the other hand, if your relationship with your child is based on love, then the concept of “control” is different. With love, we can teach our children the rules and they can learn self-control. No matter where that child goes, they will know what is expected of them and how to behave. Think about it: who are the people who have the greatest control or influence over us? They are not the ones who threaten us with force. The truth is most people tend to do the opposite when threatened. The people who have the most influence over us are the ones who love us; we want to please those we love.
Before Moses came along, people lived by a pretty violent set of rules. If you steal my ox, I will destroy your village and take everything you have. If you break my finger, I will break your arm and maybe a leg or two. Whatever you do to me, I will get you back and then some! Moses came and introduced God’s law that provided a step forward out of this ‘survival of the fittest” mentality. This new law set limits on revenge. If someone steals your ox, do no more than take one of theirs. If someone breaks your finger, do no more than break one of their fingers. “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth;” as primitive as that sounds to us, it was amazing progress toward civilizing human culture.
Then Jesus came along and shined a whole new light on the idea of power and the power of love. He reminded the people of the heart of God’s law they seemed to have forgotten. There in the midst of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus found the most important rules: Love God and love your neighbor. Jesus showed them something very different from what they were accustomed to. He said: “You don’t have to get them back. You don’t have to exact revenge or retribution. You can forgive. You can reconcile. You can love!” Over and over again, Jesus demonstrated the power of love as he welcomed people, as he healed, and as he gave his own life. Jesus showed us that love really has the power to change a person’s life forever; love transforms us, while force just fills us with resentment. I look at the world in which we live, I watch the news and I see people who are fueled by resentment, greed, and hatred, not love. Ages-old feuds continue to run on the fumes of one group trying to force the other group to do something contrary to their beliefs. New battle lines are drawn when “these people” think they have been treated unjustly by “those people.” Through it all, neither side can let go of their opinion long enough to even begin to listen to the real issues. There is only room for one side trying to force the other side to bend or break.
We find Bethlehem when we discover the strength and power of love given to us through Jesus Christ. The promise of God’s love is this: leaders will come and go, fads will flourish and fade, military establishments will rise and fall; but God’s truth and love will keep marching on because love really is the most powerful force in the world. The good news of Christmas is the message Jesus sent to John: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus could have easily chosen to confront the Roman Empire and lead the people to a successful rebellion. He had that power and could have taken everything by force. Instead, God chose to come and live among us, full of grace, full of truth, full of love. He came as a Suffering Servant and a sacrificial Savior. He came to live in love so that we might follow his example of love. That really is the Power of Love.
Let us pray…O God, help me to see and to believe that love is the most powerful force in all of your creation. Help me to find ways, day by day, to love others as you love us. In Christ, I pray. Amen.