When we love somebody, we want to be with that person. We want to spend time and share life with that person. Or at least, we want to stay in touch with the person we love. It’s very natural. My parents-in-law visit Jee Hei and me all the way from South Korea. Even though the flight takes more than fourteen hours and the flight ticket is quite expensive, they come to see us because they love us and want to be with us. Love has such a strong gravity, the force that pulls those in love to one another. Aristotle, one of the greatest western philosophers of all time, found this character of love and thought that god might move the world with this kind of force.
He said that god moves the world as the beloved draws a lover, and as the lover gravitates toward the beloved. It is such a beautiful idea that has inspired many theologians in history. But there is an issue with Aristotle’s worldview, that is, god never moves. For Aristotle, god is so perfect and unchanging that god never changes god’s position. God has to take the ideal and static position as the beloved so that the world only gets motivated and moved as the lover.
Yes, I have a certain issue with this unmoving god of Aristotle. Why? It’s because the God whom we know is very different from this philosophical god. If we reflect on the God testified in the Bible for a while, we can immediately see that God is always on the move. God always comes to God’s people first, when they don’t know who God is, when they are yet sinners, and even when they deny God. And in the Bible, we find more often that God is the lover and we are God’s beloveds. The Bible tells us, God came to Abraham to make a covenant with him. God revealed Godself to Moses to save the Hebrews from the slavery. God spoke to the prophets to turn the people of God back from their wrong ways. Truly, God so loved the world that God came down to earth and incarnated Godself in Jesus to save the world. Indeed, our God is love. This true love doesn’t only stay in a higher or lofty position to be adored, but this love doesn’t mind coming down to lowly places in our midst because God wants to be with us.
Today, we are celebrating the very first Sunday of 2018, as Epiphany Sunday. The word “epiphany” means a manifestation of something divine. And it particularly means an event wherein the divine unveils itself to us. For Christians, this epiphany is about Jesus and the day of his humble birth. On this day, the Magi, the three wise men, followed the starlight, traveled a long way to visit the baby Jesus, and finally, they witnessed the shimmering revelation of something divine in him. What would be that something these three wise men witnessed? It’s still a great mystery with full of wonder. But we do know one thing for sure. The baby Jesus in a manger manifested the heart of God for the world. God loves us and wants to be with us, so God comes and dwells among us. As the Angel Gabriel announced, the name of Jesus is indeed, “Emmanuel, God with us.”
The love manifested in Jesus Christ is not an idealistic or philosophical love like Aristotle said. It is a down-to-earth love, the love incarnate. To be with us, this God of love doesn’t mind taking a human form, having flesh and blood. The true love of God doesn’t mind coming to dwell in humble places among us. Jesus was born in a shabby and smelly stable. There was no crowd and no visit from any family or friends. However, in this shabby and smelly stable that looks farthermost away from divine glory, God’s concrete love is manifested in Jesus. From this we know… even in the lowliest and loneliest places of our lives, God is with us. And God wants to be with us no matter where we are.
The true love of God also doesn’t mind enduring any suffering and danger with us. In the story of the Gospel of Mathew, Jesus’ birth was immediately followed by a great threat and danger. All of them in the stable were overjoyed. But they needed to hide that joy because Herod, the king of Judea, looked for Jesus to kill him. His life was set in a vulnerable and precarious situation. However, in this situation that seems farthermost away from divine blessing, God’s empowering love is manifested in Jesus. From this we recognize, even when our circumstances are unstable and unfavorable, God is with us. And God wants to be with us no matter what we are going through.
Finally, the true love of God doesn’t mind taking up the cross on behalf of us. As we all know, Jesus’ life was not just a happy one. He was not the majority’s favorite at all. He was constantly accused by the Jewish authorities and excluded by his hometown people. He was only a friend of the unfavorable people of the society. Although he healed numerous people and taught the good news to many, at the moment he was dying on the cross, there were few people beside him. Even his disciples betrayed him. However, in the life that seems farthermost away from divine favor, God’s life-giving love for us is ultimately manifested. Jesus on the cross indeed perfected God’s love for us. From this we realize, even when our lives are tough, God is always with us and suffers with us. And God wants to be with us no matter who we are.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this first Sunday of 2018, I hope we all keep this Epiphany faith that through Jesus we have this love manifested. Whenever you feel weary, tired, or lonely through this year, I hope you remind yourself of this core Christian faith in God. Our God is love, the true love that is concrete, that is incarnated, that is enduring, and that is life-giving. God, because God loves us so much, comes into our humble lives and stays with us. Upon this divine love, on this foundation, let us confidently build our life and our church in 2018. And in Christ’s love, let us be joyful always no matter what. As John Wesley teaches us, indeed, “Best of it all, God is with us.” Amen.