This sermon was delivered on December 16, 2012, at Wallace UMC.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
You know, it’s hard to live up to the high expectations that were set from last week’s Youth pageant.
It really is; the kids and adults of this congregation have worked hard, and it shows. A lot of work and preparation went into that service, and everyone had a good time. Good feelings were had by all. The thing with that is, though, it falls back to me to deliver a message to you all today. It’s a message much like the messages of the prophets of old, of Elijah and Isaiah and Amos. It’s a message with sharp thorns, and not much of a flower to make the pain worth it. That message comes out of the mouth of John the Baptist. And I, for one, am terrified of being the one who has to deliver it.
I’m terrified because, frankly, I have a rough relationship with this man named John the Baptist. I do, because he’s a pretty scary guy. Nevermind the fact that he had a tendency to wear camel hair all the time, or the fact that he never cut his hair, or that he had a diet that consisted of locusts and honey mostly—never mind all that. It’s not so much what the guy holding the microphone looks like—it’s what comes out of his mouth that scares the dickens out of me.
Advent is a time of waiting and expectation, a time where we anticipate and prepare the way for the coming of Christ into the world, both for the first time and the second time. This season of Advent, we’ve been trying to be a part of the Advent Conspiracy, an effort to reclaim the season of Advent, and remember why we even have all of these festivities in the first place. Advent is more than just anticipation for Christmas, though. The conspiracy itself is all about 4 core principles: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All. We’ve talked about the first two already, and today I’m going to talk about Giving More.
We all love Christmas, I’m pretty sure. It’s one of those days that almost everyone can agree that it is a holiday, a Holy Day. It’s a day that we recognize something incredibly holy happened, and not necessarily despite the circumstances but because of them. The circumstances of Christ’s birth, of the Incarnation, are tremendously important to the way we as Christians identify ourselves. Christ took on humanity in the least likely way possible, in the least expected way possible. He came not as a conquering emperor in a place riding on a white horse. He came into the world as a baby laid in a feeding trough, born in a stable, and born to a poor family far from home. This is important for us because the way in which God came into the world should be a reminder to us of the kind of faith we claim. It’s not grand. It’s not ostentatious. It’s not filled with bells and whistles, with earthly fanfare and lots of…stuff. Meaningless stuff. Empty stuff. God came in a simple way. A humble way. God came to us in a way that was and is present to us. God came to us personally. In a way that was costly, and dangerous, and ultimately fulfilling. But the way in which he came to us was heralded, and prepared for. It was predicted, and we are expected then to make preparations ourselves.
Let’s go back to John the Baptist, and his message. The message from John the Baptist is not a typical Christmas message. It’s not like the angels, singing glory hallelujah, holy holy holy. It’s not a very cheerful message. But not all messages are cheerful, least of all from prophets. For one, just the opening address Johnny boy gives us is enough to put anyone in their place. “You brood of vipers! You children of snakes!” There is no pleasant holiday greeting from John. There is no Merry Christmas. There’s not much merry about this guy in the first place. No, for John, you start with the insults, and then you get to the meat. The meat though? It’s good meat, and it’s a message worthy of chewing on for a bit.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
5 words. 5 amazing, powerful words, that shape his message, and really, the message of Christ. Simple, yet also powerful. I love it. I wish he would stop talking. But he doesn’t. “Don’t even begin with me. Don’t even start by saying “But we’re children of Abraham!” That doesn’t matter unless you bear fruit. Any tree that isn’t productive, that isn’t bearing fruit—it doesn’t matter what kind of tree you are—if you don’t bear fruit, you’re going to get cut down.”
Wow. John doesn’t pull any punches. At all. Naturally the people were a bit taken aback—as I would be—and asked him, okay Mr. Camel Hair Locust Eater, what are we supposed to do then? What kind of fruit should we bear? Well, of course he has an answer, and it’s an answer worth listening to, especially if we want to live up to the principle of giving more. He says, if you have two coats, and your neighbor has none, you should give him the extra coat. If you have an abundance of food, give that food to your neighbor who needs it. Simple. Bearing fruit for John revolves around generosity.
Generosity is a lost art, I think. We aren’t inclined to be generous most of the time. In fact, all the time. Think about being a little kid, teaching a little kid. What’s the one that kids have the hardest time learning? It’s sharing. Kids hate to share. Guaranteed, the two words a kid loves saying most of all is “No!” and “Mine!” We are greedy from the get go. We love our stuff, and we don’t want to let anyone else touch our stuff. Our stuff is our stuff, and nobody’s going to get their grubby little fingers on them. Which is why sharing is such an important lesson for kids to learn, or for anyone to learn for that matter. To share something is to teach kindness, but not only that, it’s to teach empathy. To share is to say “I’m not only interested in my happiness, but for your happiness as well.” Such as it is with giving. If you can make the leap from sharing to truly giving, you are well on your way to bearing fruits worthy of repentance.
The season of Christmas has become the season of giving, and that’s a great thing. However, I think what we need to do is recalibrate how we give. We love getting presents for Christmas, but how many of the presents we actually get are ones we truly appreciate? Sure we make a list of all the things we like—those aren’t bad, and sometimes what we need are what populates those lists. Sometimes we list things that are our interests. But sometimes, what we get is not really something we appreciate, or that we appreciate as deeply as something that we might if it was a gift that truly came from the heart.
For advent I’m going to challenge you to change the way you give.
Christmas is a little more than a week away. That means there’s still time to do something extraordinary, to bear fruit worthy of repentance, worthy of changed life you have received from Christ. The way you can do this is to model your giving on the way Christ gave of himself to others.
The first way that Christ gave of himself was with his presence. Christ made himself present to people. He was present to the disabled man lowered down through the hole in the ceiling. He was present to the crowds when they needed food. He was present to the woman at the well. He was present to everyone he met. He knew them, deeply and truly, and was attentive to their needs, and the truth is, he does it for us too. Jesus gave his presence to the world that desperately needed a savior. By the incarnation of Christ, salvation was made available to everyone. That’s why we sing, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel—God with us.
We can give more by giving of our presence to others. We live in a fractured world, more disconnected to each other, despite social media and access to rapid transportation. There is a flesh and blood aspect, and incarnational aspect, to relationships we miss if we don’t take time to be present with one another. Having a meal, having a conversation, a simple embrace—it means so much more than we can really measure. For instance, picture this: a young man gives his father for Christmas a simple bag of coffee. His dad enjoys coffee so it makes sense. However, he gives it with one condition: the father is only able to drink the coffee when he’s with his son. In the days and hours that it takes to go through that coffee, the son wants to just be there with his dad, and talk, and enjoy each other’s company, to reacquaint himself with his dad. What does this gift say? It says “I want to spend time with you, to build a relationship with you, and to pay attention to what matters.” That’s just one way, but I like that idea. Give the gift of presence, of time. Presence is a fruit worthy of repentance.
Christ also gave himself personally, so we should give in a way that makes it personal, and meaningful. One of the gifts Christ gave us was his very body. He personally came down from heaven to earth, and gave us a personal relationship with God that could not be possible without him. In the gift of communion, he gave his very body and blood so that we could be the body redeemed by his blood. In everything Christ did, he gave of himself personally, relationally, so that we might build a closer relationship to God, and thus build a personal community with one another.
So too can we give personally. And yes, this means getting to know someone closely. This can lead to some fun gifts, honestly, and I’ll give you a personal anecdote. One year, for my mom’s birthday, my dad got her a power hedge trimmer—you know, like a chainsaw designed to trim hedges in the lawn. And the truth is, she loved it! My mom really loved being a part of doing the housework, and taking care of the plants around the house. She loves to garden, and tend to things that grow. Her sisters, my aunts, learned of this gift, and thought it was absolutely ridiculous—why that? That seems terribly utilitarian for a Christmas gift! But that’s what my mom wanted, and that’s the kind of speaks to her. So I’ll encourage you—give something that is meaningful personally to the person you give to. We’ve all gotten gifts we know were last minute, thoughtless gifts, and we’ve also known when we’ve gotten gifts that we can tell had a lot of thought was put into it. So give personally, because doing that is bearing a fruit that’s worthy of repentance.
Finally, the gift Christ gave us was costly. It had a real cost. It cost him time. It cost him his ministry, his reputation—the gift Christ gave us cost him his very life. It cost everything. It was one of the most costly gifts that has ever been given. It’s not about the money. It’s about the cost.
So we are called to give something that is costly. A gift that costs nothing isn’t a gift at all. Gifts should cost us time, and energy. It doesn’t have to cost much money, but it should cost more of ourselves. Of course, we can’t give the gift Christ gave us—that was the gift for us that only Christ can give. But relational gifts have a cost. They can also be risky. You give a gift based on a relationship, it’s going to be a risk, because you are putting yourself out there as a gift as well. They very well may not like it, or not get the intent of it. When you give a costly gift, however, it’s another aspect of the incarnation. Jesus took the risk, and that risk resulted in his death, but also his ultimate resurrection.
We can take a risk, and give in ways not only to each other that reflect the incarnation, but to people who are in need. On Christmas Eve, we’re going to be having our candlelight service to celebrate the day of Christ’s birth, and part of that day will be a couple of special offerings. As part of the Advent conspiracy, one of the things we are asked to do is to give charitably as well as relationally. One of the special offerings we will be giving will be to the Manna ministries of Canton—something we always do, but it means so much to this community. There will be another one that will be going to Living Water International, an organization that works worldwide to dig wells for communities so that people can just clean water. We take our access to water as a given, when many people don’t even have access to that. I think that will be a wonderful way to take a risk and make a difference in the world. The other special offering will be to the International Justice Mission, and organization that seeks to end human trafficking and slavery as we know it. Slavery still exists, and that in and of itself is a tragedy. Giving to IJM can work to end that horrible trade and save lives.
These are incarnational gifts. These are fruits that you can bear that are worthy of your repentance, your life that has been changed through Christ. They don’t have to be expensive—but I do ask that they are relational, that they are personal, and that they are costly. Bear witness to the birth of Christ, the incarnation, this year. Bear fruit to the transformed life you have in Christ. Join the conspiracy.