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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Advent Conspiracy: Give More (John 1:1-5,14)

The pressure to find the perfect Christmas gift goes back to the very first Christmas.  Don’t take my word for it, just ask The Little Drummer Boy.  Jesus is only a few hours old, and already the social pressure to find the perfect gift is beating down on him as steady as that haunting “rum pum pum pum” throughout the song.  Jesus is still in the manger, and already a competition is underway about who will give the best gift.  Some of the other guests have brought gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, and the Drummer Boy comes up with the brilliant idea to play on his drum, “rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.”

 

What a lousy gift.  Who bangs on a drum for a baby?  What mother says, “Yeah, that’s an appropriate gift for a baby!”?  Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a sweet story about a boy who had nothing of monetary value to give and so he banged away on his drum for a baby, and it’s a beautiful gift because it came from the heart and it’s all he had to give, but let’s just go ahead and name the gift for what it was – a total dud, or perhaps a total thud.

 

There is a history of giving bad gifts at Christmas.  Expensive for the giver, maybe; awkward for the recipient, likely, and the only one who appreciates the gift is the retailer who sold it.

 

Welcome to week 3 of the Advent Conspiracy.  Recognizing the mess that Christmas has become in our culture, we are turning Christmas upside-down.

 

The conspiracy began with the encouragement for us to Worship Fully: to surrender our hearts and lives to Jesus.  Too often during Advent and Christmas, we find ourselves worshiping the gods of What’s-Under-the-Tree and What’s-In-It-For-Me.  Worshiping fully invites us to find our meaning and purpose in Jesus.

 

Last week, we looked at how spending less on gifts can help us focus more on God.  Christmas is about the stuff because we make it about the stuff.  Most of us have more than enough stuff.  Our closets are jam-packed with stuff.  We can’t park our cars in our garages because we have too much stuff.  We rent storage units where we keep all the rest of the stuff that won’t fit in our houses.

 

Too often, we complain about how materialistic our kids and grandkids are, while we buy them all the material stuff they ask for.  But, if we really want to pass on different values, how about we change our behavior, and spend less?

 

But then, what if we gave more?  Maybe you’re thinking, “You just told us to spend less, and now you’re telling us to give more?”  That’s right.  Spending less isn’t a goal in and of itself.  Giving more is the other side of the coin of spending less.  Spending less allows us to give more.

 

Like God does.  If you have your Bibles, turn with me to John Chapter 1.  I invite you to stand for the reading of the Gospel:

 

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
    through the Word was life,
    and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

14 The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth.

 

These opening lines of John’s Gospel are a different take on the Christmas story.  Whereas Matthew and Luke begin with narrative about people, places, and events, John begins with theology about who Jesus is and always has been in relation to God, moving quickly to who Jesus is in relation to us.

 

It’s a story of giving.  The tradition of giving at Christmas is rooted in the reality that God gives at Christmas.  But God doesn’t give stuff.  God gives more – God gives himself.

 

In the beginning was the Word.  “The Word” comes from the Greek, logos, and it means the eternal self-expression of God.  “The Word” here refers to Jesus Christ.

 

Think of it this way: we use words to express ourselves.  We write, we speak, we use words.  When God wants to express something, God also uses words: words of scripture, words of prophets, words of teachers and preachers, words of wise friends, words of songs and poems, and indeed, all of these words tell us a bit about who God is and what God desires.  But, all of these words pale in comparison to “The Word,” who is Jesus.  God’s greatest expression is not in words but in “The Word.”

 

“The Word of God” is a person, not a book.  “The Word of God” is Jesus.  God’s clearest self-expression is in Jesus.  If you want to see God, get a good look at Jesus.  But as long as Jesus, “The Word” remained in Heaven, we’d never have that opportunity.

 

And so, the Word became flesh and made his home among us.  Jesus, God himself, took on our humanity with all its frailties and brokenness and weakness and pain, and moved into our world.  Why does that matter so much?  Because, on our own, we humans can make a real mess of things.  Given to our own devices, we can be selfish and corrupt, using violence and injustice to serve ourselves at the expense of others.  Without God, the world can be a pretty dark place.

 

And so, God comes to us in the person of Jesus, who takes on our flesh, who moves into our world and makes his home with us.  Jesus comes to us as light in our darkness, and though the darkness is real, it cannot overcome the light of Christ.  God gives his very presence to us in Jesus; if you want to see God, get a good look at Jesus.  If you want to see God’s heart, God’s love, God’s will, God’s desire, get up close and personal with Jesus.  We can best understand and know and relate to God by understanding and knowing and relating to Jesus. 

 

It’s a story of giving.  The tradition of giving at Christmas is rooted in the reality that God gives at Christmas.  But God doesn’t give stuff.  God gives more – God gives himself.

 

When I think back to the best gifts I’ve received, all of them have some significant connection with the giver – gifts that were given as if the presence of that person was also part of the gift.

 

When Ashley and I got married, we had a small, intimate wedding with 525 guests.  You can imagine that receiving gifts was part of what happened in that.  We got a lot of stuff – some of it very nice stuff, most of it stuff we wanted.

 

As we opened our gifts, we carefully kept a list of what we received and who gave it to us so we could thank them.  One of our favorite gifts was from some retired friends of ours who also are a clergy couple.  The gift was their collection of liturgical accessories they had used and worn in their ministry together, and they gave them to us in the hopes that we would use them as they had.

 

They have very little monetary value, yet to this day they remain among our most prized possessions, because they represent both the love and trust of these friends of ours, as we use them when we lead worship together as they once did.  We think of them every time we put them on, it is as if they are present with us every time we use them.

 

Friends, that’s what makes for a good gift.  When some piece of the giver comes along with the gift, when the giver is present with us in the gift.  God gave himself to the world.  God gave his very presence in Jesus Christ – as people of faith, what if we gave the same way this Christmas?

 

We make a living by what we get.  The question that defines Christmas for too many of us is “What did you get?”  What if we defined the significance of our Christmas with a different question – “What did you give?”

 

The scriptures say it is more blessed to give than receive.  In my experience, that’s true.  For Ashley’s birthday in October, I gave her the surprise of staying in a suite with a private balcony overlooking the Grand Canyon, when she thought we were staying at the Motor Lodge ½ a mile away.  I can’t tell you how excited I was to give her that gift.  As the giver, I think I derived greater joy from planning that gift, anticipating that gift, surprising her with that gift than she had in receiving that gift, although, let’s be honest, she was pretty happy and nominated be for husband-of-the-year, and I don’t mind telling you, but I think I’ve got a pretty good shot!

 

It’s fun to give!  It’s more blessed to give than to receive.  Why?  Because God’s a giver.  God so loved the world HE GAVE his Son.  It doesn’t get much more generous than that!  God is a generous giver, and we are made in God’s image.  So when we give, we reflect the image of God, which brings glory to God.  The more generously we give, the more we reflect God’s image, and the more God is glorified.  What is a greater blessing than to reflect God’s image and glorify God?

 

God is a giver, and we are made in God’s image.  It is more blessed to give than receive.  As people of faith, we are called this Christmas to give as God gives.

 

One of the ways we’ll be giving more as a church is through our Christmas offering.  Our Christmas offering will be split between Greensboro Urban Ministry, which helps the most vulnerable in our greater community, and the Ann Pridgen Emergency Fund, a fund of our church that helps members in financial crisis.

 

And so here’s my challenge to you for our Christmas offering: whatever you spend on Christmas, give an equal amount to the Christmas offering.  If you spend $500 on gifts and parties and decorations, give $500 to the Christmas offering.  If you spend $100, give $100; if you spend $1000, give $1000.  You get the picture.

 

The entirety of what is given on Christmas Eve will go into our Christmas offering.  Christmas is the story of God’s greatest gift to the world, and so as you prepare to come to church on Christmas Eve to celebrate that gift, to give thanks and worship the One who gave you that gift, to consider how the presence of God in Christ has brought light into the darkness of your world, bring a gift to help put the light of Christ into the darkness of someone else’s world. 

 
Be sure to tell everyone you know that we’re giving away the Christmas Eve offering as our way of spreading some light in the darkness and making a real difference in the world.

My experience is that people want to be part of something that makes a positive difference.  People want to be part of a church that thinks more of others than it does of itself.  Let’s show that we’re that kind of a church.  Let’s be the light God has called us to be.

 

If you won’t be here Christmas Eve, you can make your Christmas offering any Sunday in December – just mark “Christmas offering” on the memo or on the outside of your envelope.  As we spend less on ourselves, our families, and friends, we will give more to those in the greatest need.

 

The idea behind “Giving More” is not to give more stuff to those who already have lots of stuff.  Jesus wasn’t born so we could all have stuff.  Jesus wasn’t born so that who already have lots of stuff can have even more.  The idea behind “Giving More” is to give more of ourselves.  To give more of our time, our experience, our attention.

 

At Christmas, God gave.  He gave himself in the person of Jesus.  He gave light into darkness.

 

We spend less so we can give more.  We spend less on stuff so we can give more of ourselves.  We spend less on presents, so we can give more of our presence, and spread God’s light to the places of greatest darkness.

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