Words of encouragement are special words. They melt through the skin and leave a warm feeling in the heart. Encouragement can be the best dose of medicine when we are just about ready to lose interest, give up, or just plain tired. Encouragement is life medicine.
How was your week? Do you feel you accomplished anything this week? What kind of challenges did you face? Anything unexpected happen? Did you make a difference in anyone's life? Would you like to do anything over again? What were your happiest as well as most frustrating moments? Is there anything you regret having happened? Or do you have any resentments built up from this past week. On the scale of joy to disappointment .... where do you place yourself?
What encouragement would be most helpful right now? Erich Fromm one of the leaders in the psychoanalytic movement said: "The essential difference between, the unhappy, neurotic type person and [the person] of great joy is the difference between get and give." (Tim Hansel. Holy Sweat p. 144).
The essential point of this morning's sermon is this: Christian giving is the source of joy and the foundation of hope! Christian giving is our best defense against burnout and stress. Christian giving provides us all with a sense of purpose and mission in our life.
LLoyd Ogilvie, the former pastor of Hollywood Presbyterian Church and now the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate puts it this way, "What if we gave ourselves away as if in each person we were meeting our Lord Himself? (Ibid.). Christian giving is the source of joy and the foundation of hope because each act of giving is a Christmas Present to Jesus.
The Gospel lesson today is the story of John the Baptist. Most of us are pretty familiar with this story, but if you were to hear it for the first time what's unusual about this man who lives in the wilderness dressed in camel's hair eating locusts and honey. He not only has a message to give but he has an audience to hear it. As strange as he is, people come to him from the whole providence of Judea. He was not in a place that was easy to get to. To get to John the Baptist who risked your life going in the desert where wild animals; namely, the lion was likely to be found. WHY on earth would anyone want to go on such a journey. Because his message comes with a gift. John is giving the gift of joy and hope. Through repentance the burden and guilt of sin is removed. This is the source of joy. The promise of Jesus Christ is the foundation of hope. John's message is a gift. John is showing us a way of giving. Through personal sacrifice on his own, he offers a gift to others. There is no doubt that John was demonstrating to others a sacrificial life style. This sacrificial life style stands in the shadow of the coming of Christ, whose giving and sacrifice will surpass that of John. Sacrifice comes from the Latin root word "sacer-facere" which means: to make holy.
Our Christian giving is the source of joy and the foundation of hope because it is sacrificial; it makes holy the one to whom the gift is given. John's gift was baptism. Today we baptize to acknowledge our holiness. John was introducing Jesus to people, he was preparing them for their savior. Our Christmas present to Jesus is presenting Jesus to others. The gift to Jesus is the gift of Jesus brought to the heart of another person through our giving.
The world we live in is a hurting world. This past Thursday morning, I sat with a woman who had just witnessed the murder/suicide that occurred at the Arrowhead Apartments off Branch Hill Guinea Pike where she resides. The police had called and asked if I could come over to speak with her. I learned that she was a member of the Loveland Presbyterian Church. She had witnessed a horrible and senseless act of human rage, hurt, suffering, and desperation. "What makes people do something like this especially at a time like Christmas?" People need the gift of Jesus in their lives. We all do when faced with stress, burn out, fatigue, disappointment, loneliness, family tension, being overworked, trying to pay all the bills.
This week we were all touched by another tragedy in a family whose two children were killed in a car accident. What made the news if their act of giving. Their boys became organ donors, a sacrifice so that others might have life. A holy gift.
We are always faced with life's most difficult challenges. We need to reach out to those who are hurting so desperately that they want to take the life of someone else and their own life. We need to comfort those whose lives are broken. We are called by our Lord Jesus Christ to give it all. When you look back at last week and are trying to figure out how this next week is going to be and all the things you face. The message is we've got to give our all this week. But our giving has to reflect the face of Christ. There's no joy and no hope if we just get up and go to work or school and don't care. If it's just same-ol', same-ol', we've missed the mark. Remember John 3:16. Remember the widow who gave her last coin. We are baptized in order to treat the world's hurts and frustrations with the medicine of Christian giving.
This week someone from the church called me. They had been asked by the nominating committee to consider becoming an elder in this church. "Can I do it? Will I be able to do everything that is expected?" I responded by saying, even though someone called you on the phone about this, the real call to serve comes from God. When you accept the call to serve from God, you will always have God's help. When we serve God we give a Christmas present to Jesus by sharing Jesus with others. It is only when we lose sight of that and become consumed with our own self interest that our service to God begins to fail.
George Bernard Shaw in the play Man and Superman wrote an interesting line ... "This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
Joy is not the effort but the determination to make the effort happen. Joy is the fuel that is in our soul to live for the sake of making every gift a Christmas present to Jesus. Hope is the promise that we give yet another and another and another. The horror, the tragedy of life is when the giving stops and there is no one there .... one of the saddest lines of scripture is found in the book of Ezekiel: "and I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap, but I found none." (Ezekiel 22:30 KJV). Will we take up our stand for the Lord and defend our faith by finding the gaps where people are slipping through needing the care and embrace of Christ. Will we join John in the wilderness, preparing others to meet the Christ?
The blessing of the Christ gift to us, the joy and the hope that comes to us from the divine giving of God is in the sacrament of communion. Now is our time to receive so that we might have the encouragement to bring our Christmas present to Jesus. Amen. References: Hansel, Tim.(1987). Holy Sweat. Waco, Tx: Word Books. Shaw, George B.(1960). Man and Superman in Plays. New York: Signet Classics.