I was in talking to an atheist the other day. (Pastors meet more atheists than you might imagine.) This fellow had a question – “What should I expect, as an unbeliever, if I go to a church for the first time?”

Without saying it directly, he was a little apprehensive. He was afraid, I think, of being judged, or mocked, or simply told “You aren’t welcome.”

I told him not to worry. “Remember,” I said, “that you are going to visit a place filled with people. Like any other people, mostly. But what sets them apart is that they are there because of love. They love God, they love each other, and they are predisposed to love strangers. Including you.”

If you are here tonight with any of my friend’s apprehension, let me put your spirit at ease. You are among friends. Some of us gather here each week; some a couple of times each year; some are here for the first time. But we are all drawn here tonight by the same thing, which is love.

Love, which we like to say came into the world in the shape of a human being, a small and vulnerable child. Christmas is the feast of Love. It paints pictures in our mind of parents glowing as they look upon their new baby. Of shepherds, of angels, all bathed in that same light, all moved by that same power. Love, with a little bit of joy and a dose of wonder. Christmas celebrates birth – not only the birth of a single child long ago, but also that moment – those moments, over and over in history – when love comes to life.

That’s a phrase to remember: When loves come to life. What does it mean? When does it happen? When love stops being an abstract emotion, and becomes a real thing that you can see and touch.

When we our kids take a mission trip to Appalachia, and fix broken floors and unsafe trailer homes. When our quilters stitch hundreds of quilts for the church relief agency, for refugees and poor people all over the world. When an Army veteran, well-dressed and proud, comes in and quietly explains that she and her husband and their two sons are homeless, living in the back of their car, and asks if we can help a little, and we do.

And in a million other ways, when we pray for people who are sick, or console people who are mourning their dead, we love each other. Because the church – this church or any other – is called by God to be a place where people love each other. A people who love the world.

And we do. Most of the time. But still, I know why my friend the atheist was worried, and why you may be as well. We’ve all heard the stories. We’ve all, at one time or another, been judged and found wanting – and too often, that happened in a church.

Let’s confess it, Christians, on this holy night: let us confess our sins. Sometimes we do not love that way we should.

But then sometimes, even if it is a struggle, love wins.

Fifty-some years ago, First Baptist Church in Opelika, Alabama, wanted to sing Handel’s Messiah. Why wouldn’t they? It is as beautiful a piece of music as has ever been written. The church choir could not handle it themselves, but the pastor had an idea. He invited trained singers from two nearby universities to join in – singers from Auburn and Tuskegee. They were happy to accept.

But you know the Tuskegee Institute, don’t you? It’s an historically black university. And this was Alabama. In the 60s.

The church found an unwelcome gift planted on their lawn, a new cross. A burning cross.

And worse yet, the church backed down. The members and the pastor let the forces of hatred win. They canceled the performance. They sent the choirs home. They killed The Messiah. (And I don’t just mean an oratorio).

It’s a terrible thing when love fails. When the greatest symbol of love in the history of the world – the cross – is enlisted by the agents of hatred and division. When religion, and the values of religion, are conscripted by other things entirely, whether it is ideology or politics or the raw need for personal power.

No wonder some people don’t trust the church. We are so easily swayed by fear, so easily manipulated by our enemy the devil. Our love, for which we make such great claims, so often fails.

But not always. And not forever. This year, 2018, just a week or two ago, First Baptist, Opelika, held its concert. After fifty-some years, they did it. Their choir, and Auburn’s choir, and yes, you bet, the choir of Tuskegee University, they all sang. And it was beautiful.

It took half a century, but the Messiah (and I don’t just mean an oratorio) came back to that church. It took half a century, but love won.

And that’s the point. To Christmas. To Christianity. To Christ. The point is that love wins.

Not judgment, not fear. Those things have no home here.

Look at our beloved story, of the mother and father, the baby, the angels and shepherds. This story shows the core values of God’s People. There is no judgment in that story, no prejudice, no arrogance. There is only wonder, joy and love. Those are our values, and as St Paul says, the greatest of these is love.

Love wins. That is why we are here tonight, together. Because no matter what we believe or don’t believe with our minds, there is something calling to our hearts. Can’t you feel it? In the darkness of the night, it is like a beam of light – a single star in the sky, perhaps, blazing overhead, leading us toward something we cannot quite perceive but know in our hearts we want, we need, more than we have ever wanted or needed anything. Getting there is hard, and we can’t all move at the same pace.

It is easy to get lost, wander down the wrong path. But still we feel the pull, still — if we are wise — we follow. Until at last we find what our hearts’ desire. We find Jesus, the Christ, almighty God in the humblest form imaginable, a baby in a manger. We follow until we find what our hearts all need most – the place and the Person in whom love comes to life.

Amen.

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Michael Church, at  Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Virginia, on Christmas Eve 2018.