Recent world events have guaranteed that during this holiday season we are more than usually aware of the preciousness of relationships. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I have chosen to deliver a series of messages on the theme of love. We will walk together through C.S. Lewis’ classic book, The Four Loves. In that book Lewis writes of the ascending levels of love, ending with the greatest love of all — God’s love which came to us in the human form of Christ at Christmas.
We are going to begin with what you might call “entry-level” love: our love of the familiar, both things and people. Next week we will look at the type of love called Eros (which ought to fill the pews, I am sure). C.S. Lewis says that Eros love is not just sexual; it is the love we feel for anyone or anything that is beautiful or desirable or lovable. Friendship is a wonderful aspect of the celebration of Christmas, and so the week after next, we will look at brotherly love — called philia in the Greek language. Then we will discuss agape love — the love that came down to earth and was born in a manger in Bethlehem as the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
We begin with entry-level love: the love of familiar things and people. If you are a church member, you will see many familiar faces as you look around the sanctuary today. Many families are seated in their customary pews. As a matter of fact, some Sundays I feel like I could take roll, row by row: “Oh, yes, where are the Smiths? They usually sit right there.” Human beings are creatures of habit. We love what is familiar to us.
Our scripture passage highlights a couple who were very familiar with the daily routines of the temple: Simeon and Anna, marginal characters in the Christmas story as told in Luke 2:22-38. Simeon and Anna were elderly people who spent day and night in the temple, fasting and praying and worshiping God.
(Read text: Luke 2:22-38)
I want to begin with a personal confession. It is a little embarrassing because it has to do with an old love affair, one that I tried to break off many times, but it lasted for decades. This love affair was not with my wife, Becky … it was with a 1963 Plymouth Valiant. She wasn’t some flashy, foreign job. She was true blue, faithful as the sunrise, Slant 6, push-button drive. She was purchased new in 1963 by Becky’s grandmother, Nana, and for the next seven years, Nana drove the Valiant to church every Sunday.
In 1970, when Nana’s granddaughter, Becky, was about to marry her Princeton Seminary-bound, beat-up-Volkswagen-Bug-driving boyfriend, Vic, Becky’s father came to see me. With all the diplomacy of a future father-in-law he said, “If you think I’m going to let my daughter drive cross-country in that piece of junk you call a car to Princeton, you’re out of your mind! Your wedding gift from us is Nana’s Valiant.” I was overwhelmed.
Not long thereafter, we packed everything we owned (mainly unopened wedding gifts) into the back of Nana’s ’63 Valiant and drove cross-country 3,000 miles from Seattle to Princeton, New Jersey. For three winters, we drove it on ice-covered streets. Every summer, we piled into the car and drove 3,000 miles back, where I did beach ministry in Southern California. At the end of the summer, we would drive another 3,000 miles back to Princeton. We had that car all through the early years of our marriage.
Finally, I bought a new car. Because the dealer would not give us anything for the Valiant, I dropped it off at my parents’ home, where it was given to my sixteen-year-old kid brother, who painted it yellow, jacked up the rear end, and put racing wheels on it — which looks ridiculous on a Valiant. His friends told him so; and he hated that car. He tried to destroy it. He would take it out on lonely roads and rev it up to 8,000 RPM’s and then put it in gear. He couldn’t kill it. Finally, he went away to college — mainly to get away from the car. My mother got the car and painted it gray. For years she drove the car to school where she taught third grade.
Well, Nana died; we had children; and as they started to grow, I said to my daughters, “Have I got a car for you!” In the mid-1990’s, I got a phone call from my mom. She said, “Vic, are you sitting down?” I said, “Yeah, Mom.” She said, “Well, Vic, today the Valiant died.” It was like losing an old friend.
Isn’t it interesting how we bond with physical objects that are familiar to us? I’m not talking about an expensive piece of jewelry or a priceless art collection. I’m talking about that old hunting jacket your wife has been trying to throw away for years. I m talking about the closet containing all those yellowed letters you dig through like some sort of archaeologist, refusing to discard a single precious scrap of paper. Or that plastic angel that has been on the top of your Christmas tree since you were tiny. We bond with material things and they become more than things: they become a part of us.
If we bond with things, how much more do we bond with people — people we have known for thirty or fifteen or ten years? In fact, we even put a special prefix in front of those people’s names sometimes. We say, “Good old Aunt Bertha.” She always gives you a tie for Christmas. You put it in the back of the closet and never wear it. Or, “Good old Uncle Charlie with his wacky sense of humor.” He cracks us up every Christmas dinner. “Good old Vic — he goes up into that pulpit, rain or shine, Sunday after Sunday.”
C. S. Lewis says that it is no compliment to be loved with affection. All you have to do is hang around a while. He says:
Almost anyone can be an object of affection: the ugly, the stupid, even the exasperating. There needs to be no apparent fitness between those whom it unites. It can exist between a clever young man from the university and an old nurse, though their minds inhabit different worlds. It ignores even the barriers of species. We see it not only between dog and man, but more surprisingly, between dog and cat. Gilbert White claims to have discovered it between a horse and a hen.
Then Lewis goes on to make an interesting point. He notes a strange similarity between this lowest form of love, affection, and the highest form of love, agape: both agape and affection love the unlovely. But he quickly points out the crucial difference between the two loves: while God’s agape love is unconditional, affection attaches the condition that the one we love must not change, in order that we might remain comfortable and our life be untroubled.
It reminds me of that silly thing high school students write in each other’s yearbooks: “Don’t ever change!” God is in the business of changing people.
When a familiar person changes, particularly a spouse or someone very close to you, relationships become stressed. My wife, Becky, and I have been married for thirty-one years, and sometimes she gets these passions for things. I’ll share her current enthusiasm with you. She has befriended a group of rock musicians who come through Atlanta from time to time. They have a standing invitation to stay at our house when they are in town. Well, early this morning as I was going to church, they were coming in. They play gigs in Atlanta and are friends of my daughters. A big van containing all their gear is parked out in front of our house. Their name is “Cast Iron Filter,” and I want you to buy their stuff … so that they can afford to stay in a hotel. (Really, they’re a great bunch of guys.)
There is a spiritual parallel to this story: when a spouse suddenly develops a new spiritual passion, it puts a similar stress on a relationship. I have witnessed the following scenario again and again in my ministry. A couple has been married for 25 years. For 25 years they have been reading the same books; they have been watching the same television shows; they have been going to bed at the same time; they have been getting up at the same time. Suddenly, one of them becomes a serious Christian, begins attending Bible studies, and starts reading different books. This couple has a 25-year ritual: they sleep in on Sundays, enjoy breakfast in bed, read the New York Times from cover to cover, and go for a long walk. Now, suddenly, she is getting up at the crack of dawn and heading down to Peachtree for worship on Sunday morning. The man thinks, “Who stole my wife? I hope this is just a phase. What is this religion stuff?” You see, it is very difficult to allow those we love to metamorphose into the persons God wants them to become.
William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells of receiving a phone call one day from a very irate father. The caller exploded on the other end of the line, telling Will furiously, “I hold you personally responsible for this!” He was angry because his graduate school-bound daughter had decided to (in his words) “throw it all away and go and do mission work in Haiti with the Presbyterian Church.” The father screamed, “Isn’t that absurd! She has a B.S. degree from Duke, and she is going to dig ditches in Haiti! I hold you responsible for this!” Willimon said, “Why me?” The father said, “You ingratiated yourself and filled her mind with all this religion stuff.”
Will Willimon is not easily intimidated. He asked the father: “Sir, weren’t you the one who had her baptized?”
“Well, well, well, yes.”
“And didn’t you take her to Sunday School when she was a little girl?”
“Well, well, yes.”
“And didn’t you allow your daughter to go on those youth group ski trips to Colorado when she was in high school?”
“Yes … what does that have to do with anything?”
“Sir, you’re the reason she’s throwing it all away. You introduced her to Jesus. Not me!”
“But,” said the father, “all we wanted was a Presbyterian.”
Will Willimon, who has an instinct for the jugular, replied, “Well, sorry, sir, you messed up. You’ve gone and made a disciple!”
Are you willing to release the people nearest you to allow them to grow into the people God is calling them to become, even though it may turn your familiar world upside down? And are you willing to let God say something new to you?
Simeon and Anna were wonderful people: steeped in the traditions of Israel, but still willing to hear a new word from God. Simeon would stand on the top step of the temple every day and scan the faces of the infant babies who were being brought in by their parents. All the while he was wondering, “Is that the one? Could he be the one? Is that the Messiah?” — because God had promised him that he would not die until he saw the baby. One day at the temple, the Holy Spirit whispered, “Simeon, that’s him!” Reading this passage, we can picture an elderly gentleman who has waylaid a young couple in a temple corridor. He reaches out; his face, lined as a road map of Jerusalem, crinkles into a wide grin as he takes the baby into his arms. Of course, we all know the wonder of holding a baby in our arms.
We adults make fools of ourselves when we take a baby in our arms. We emit strange noises: “boo, boo, boo,” or “goo, goo, goo,” or “ha, ha, ha,” — anything to make the baby smile. Can you imagine the wonder of holding that baby, the baby that Simeon had waited his entire life to hold? The Bible says he threw back his head and began to sing acapella. Perhaps he had prepared the song years before in anticipation of the moment when he would at last hold the child: “Now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
I can just imagine that as he threw his head back and began to sing, the little baby reached up with his hand to play with the fringes of Simeon’s beard.
I believe the Holy Spirit is still speaking this morning as we worship together in the temple. Are you willing to let God break through all of the familiar Christmas traditions to speak a new word?
My friend, Tim Hansel, tells a wonderful story about a Native American man visiting his close friends in Manhattan. They were walking along a busy street at Christmastime, when suddenly, the native American stopped and said, “Whoa! Did you hear that?” His friend said, “Hear what?” The native American replied, “I hear a cricket.” The New Yorker said, “Wait a minute! Here we are walking down a midtown street in Manhattan, with horns blaring and taxis squealing all around us. You can’t possibly hear a cricket!”
Meanwhile, the Native American walked to the intersection, waited for the green light, and crossed the street. On the opposite street corner stood a planter with a tree in it. He bent down, flipped over a leaf, and said, “Aha! Come here, little fella.” His friend was utterly dumbfounded. The Native American said, “Oh, no. Your ears are no different from my ears. It all depends on what you’re listening for.” With that, the Native American reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change — nickels, dimes and quarters. He dropped the change on the sidewalk. Every head within a city block turned and looked. The Native American said, “You see, it all depends on what you’re listening for.”
Amid all the cacophony of our Christmas celebration, it is very hard to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit’s voice. If you are here in the temple like Simeon, and you listen very carefully, you will hear a still, small voice, no louder than a cricket in Manhattan. The voice will say, “There He is: My Son is there among you. Take Him into your arms. Treasure His presence. Behold My salvation.”
This sermon is the first of a series entitled “The Four Loves”. The next three can be found in the November, 2002 issue of Preaching On-Line. For more information or to subscribe to Preaching On-Line, visit our web site at

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