December 16th, 2018, Pastor Galen Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
Making Room For Presents
Well there are eight days until Christmas, and how many of you are finished with your Christmas shopping? I usually like to purchase my gifts online because I really don’t like shopping at the mall, but I realized the other day that I’m running out of time to get any more gifts shipped here in time for Christmas, so I may indeed end up at the mall on Christmas Eve along with everyone else!
A few years ago, our family decided to do something a little different to prepare for Christmas. Knowing that we would be getting a lot of gifts of clothes and toys from the grandparents and other relatives, we decided to spend some time before Christmas getting rid of things in our house in order to make room for the presents we would be receiving.
Now, this was an interesting exercise, because we didn’t know exactly what gifts we would get on Christmas, so we couldn’t get rid of stuff that we absolutely needed. But we just decided to get rid of the few things in our house that we knew we no longer needed or wanted, in order to make space for the new things we’d be getting on Christmas.
And you know what we found out? We found out that we had a LOT of stuff in our house that we didn’t need – even before we received any Christmas presents that year. If you’ve ever tried to declutter your house, or if you’ve ever moved from one house to another, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s amazing how much stuff we can accumulate, and before we know it we have so many things that we don’t know what to do with them all.
The Fruit of Repentance
In Luke 3, John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Lord, and he tells the people to repent. Now if you remember from last week, “repentance” entails a shift in one’s perspective, a change in one’s mindset. It’s a 180 degree turn, it involves admitting you were going the wrong way, and turning around and going in the right direction. John the Baptist knew that the people had a distorted perspective of who they thought the Messiah would be. He knew that they needed to have a mindset change if they were going to see and recognize Jesus for who he really was.
In response to John the Baptist’s call to repentance, the people asked John what they should do. Instead of giving them some sort of abstract, otherworldly, uber spiritual-sounding answer, John gives them some pretty concrete, down-to-earth advice. He tells them that if any of them have two shirts they should share with someone who has none, and if anyone has food they should do the same. To the tax collectors, John says, “don’t collect any more than you are required to [collect]” (Luke 3:13). And to the soldiers he says, “don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14).
It’s interesting to note that each of these responses deals with money or possessions. But it also makes sense when you stop to think about it. We deal with money and possessions every day. They’re the stuff of life. We spend the majority of our time working to earn, save, spend or invest our money, buying things, or wishing we could buy more things, so it makes sense that any sort of major life-change would have to involve how we relate to money and things.
How Many Shirts Do We Really Need?
Now in our society, if someone only had two shirts, we would think that they really needed more shirts! I came across an article in the Gentleman’s Gazette that suggests that a man who works in an office setting should own a bare minimum of 10 dress shirts, but author says that it would probably be better to have 20 to 30 dress shirts, and the author admitted that he himself owns somewhere between 60 and 70 dress shirts! And according to Forbes magazine, “In 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 outfits — one for every day of the month.”
Now, whether or not you own that many shirts outfits, most of us probably own more than two. But according to John the Baptist, if you own two shirts then you have enough to share with someone who has none!
Now we know that sharing with those who are in need is a good thing, but what does this have to do with repentance, and why would John the Baptist tell people to give extra clothing and food away in order to prepare themselves for Jesus’s arrival?
It’s been said that every time we give away something that belongs to us, we’re undoing a decision that we made in the past — a decision to either buy that item, or to receive it, or to hold onto it. So when we give something away that’s near and dear to us, there’s very much a spiritual element to that act, as we’re consciously making a decision to let go of something that is or was once precious to us.
When our family decluttered our house in preparation for Christmas, we found that we already had so much more than we needed, and giving things away gave us a whole new perspective as we gave and received gifts that Christmas.
You Don’t have to Be Rich to Do Good
For the people in John the Baptist’s day, coming to the place where they were willing to part with their goods or where they were willing to be content with what they had was very much a necessary act in order for them to see and receive Jesus as their Messiah.
You see, most of the people that John was speaking to probably didn’t have very much. They most likely lived day-to-day, with barely enough to get by. There really wasn’t such a thing as a Middle Class in that society, so unless you were extremely wealthy, then you were considered poor.
At the same time, health and wealth were seen as blessings from God. According to the prevailing mindset of the day, if you were healthy and wealthy, then God must be happy with you, and you must have done something right. Generosity was held up as an ideal in Jewish culture, so those with wealth had the capacity to give more, and thus they were seen as more righteous and more holy. Whereas if you were poor or sick, then you really weren’t able to help others and the thought was that you must have done something wrong to deserve the state that you were in in the first place.
If we’re honest, it’s not too different in our society. While we may feel pity or compassion towards those who don’t have enough to get by, it’s easy to find ourselves wondering how they got into that situation in the first place. At the same time, we look at those who are wealthy, and we think to ourselves, “if I were rich like them, I could do so much good in the world!” or “If I made as much money as they make, or if I won the lottery, I would be able to give so much more money away!”
But John the Baptist was inviting the people of his day (and us today) to consider that perhaps wealth does not equal righteousness or God’s favor, and that perhaps we don’t need to be rich in order to do good in the world. I think John was saying that God is calling each and every one of us to do good with what we already have. If all we have is enough for today and tomorrow, then we already have more than someone who is hungry, or starving, or in need of food today. I think this was exactly the mind-set change that John’s audience needed and we ourselves need in order to welcome and embrace Jesus as our King.
God Invites Everyone to Join In
Zephaniah chapter 3 tells us that “at that time…I will rescue the lame, I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame” (Zephaniah 3:19). I think this is a beautiful picture of what Jesus came to do. Jesus gathered the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, the people who society overlooked, the people that others thought were useless. And Jesus gave them praise and honor. He lifted up those who were downcast, and healed those who were sick. He invited anyone and everyone to be a part of his kingdom.
And I love this phrase from Zephaniah, that “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17-18).
Isn’t that beautiful? God taking great delight in us, and rejoicing over us with singing!
This is what John the Baptist was inviting the people to see, hear and experience. Through shifting their perspective, through giving to those who were in need, through learning to be content with what they already had, John was inviting them to see, hear and experience the goodness, and grace, and mercy of a God who saves, a God who is with us, who delights in us, who wants to rejoice over us with singing, and a Messiah who came to invites anyone and everyone to follow him and to participate in God’s kingdom here on this earth.
Make Room for God’s Presence in Our Lives
And so this Advent Season, I want to invite us to make room, not necessarily for more presents under the Christmas tree, but for God’s presence in our lives.
In order to do that, it might actually be helpful to get rid of some stuff. Maybe there are physical objects that you could give away to help you shift your perspective about what you really need and want. Or maybe you need to ask God to clear your mind of the thoughts that if you only had more money, or power, or education, or wealth then you could do more good in the world, and ask God to show you how you can live for God with what you’ve already been given.