June 2019   
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Message for 12-15-13 SHARING WHAT WE CAN SPARE


Luke 3:1-20


            As we heard at the beginning of today’s worship, Christmas is a season of sharing.  But it’s a season where we feel so much pressure to buy, when most of us already have more stuff than we’ll ever use.  Why buy more, for someone who already has everything?  In today’s scripture, John the Baptist calls us to do just the opposite.

            Now, we have to understand that John was a very different type of guy.  The guy who’s telling us to give away our extra change of clothes is a guy who only had 1 camel’s hair garment and a leather belt for his wardrobe (according to Matthew).  He had no job, no family, no retirement account, no transportation, he ate kosher bugs and honey, and the only home he had was the open desert.  The only reason he didn’t stink to high heaven is because he probably took constant rituals baths.  Why he was the star attraction all over Judea at this time, literally God only knows.

            So here’s the guy who’s calling us to unload whatever we don’t need.  His target audience is crowds coming to him to be baptized.  John puts on the brakes.  Before he’ll baptize anyone, John wants evidence that these folks aren’t just trying to get cheap fire insurance.  So John cries, “Bear fruit that befits repentance!”  Show me evidence that your life has turned around before you come to me for baptism!

            The crowd asks, “What shall we do?”  What kind of evidence do you want?  For starters, John gives just 4 examples of what a changed life would look like.  He could have said much more.  In all 4 examples, we see that genuine repentance will lead us to treat fellow humans justly. 

John spells out the unspoken assumption that it is unjust for anyone to keep more than they’ll ever need while others lack even the basic necessities of life through no fault of their own.  He tells the crowd that if they have even one more robe than they need, they should give the extra one away to someone who has none.  (The item of clothing here is not a coat, but the equivalent of a shirt or blouse.)  And whoever has food, he says, should do likewise.  (Again, these are the words of a guy who practices what he preaches, a guy who has no spare goods left to share.)

John then gives further advice to tax collectors and soldiers who want to be baptized.  Now, other Jewish groups would have turned these potential followers away, but not John.  John does not require them to give up their professions.  What John does expect them to do is to practice their trades justly.  And in both cases, that means they’re going to take a hit in their pocketbooks.  God will not let tax collectors cheat the taxpaying public.  And God will not let soldiers get extra income by “shakedowns” on civilians (a common practice).  Such is the cost of showing that one means business with God.  John tells both groups to be content with earning an honest living.

I want to focus today on the question, “How should we implement John’s call to share?”  To help us answer that question I would suggest these 2 questions: “Do I have more than I need?”, and, “Does someone else need what I have?”

TV preacher Joel Osteen writes in his book Your Best Life Now, “If you don’t need it, give it away.  If you don’t need it, someone else may.”  Osteen tells about having a garage full of lawn equipment he no longer needed because he no longer had time to do his own yard work.  He says God spoke to him and said, “If you don’t give that lawn mower and other tools away, I can arrange for you to go back to where you’ll have to mow your own lawn again.”  Osteen says he gave it all away that day.

“Whoever has two, let them share with whoever has none” has been a haunting question for me lately.  I definitely feel that I have far more than I need.  After Mom and my sister Linda died, we ended up with 3 households full of possessions, including (at one time) 5 vehicles and another house.  We gave a lot of furniture and household items away to the women’s shelter in Belleville.  We gave away a lot of clothes.  But I still wonder, “How much more am I responsible to share?  And how much does God want me to keep, so that my family will not be a burden to society in the future?”

John’s call to share does not demand that it be done all at once.  If you should suddenly find yourself with a large amount of resources that you believe God wants you to give away, if you give it all away immediately, you may have nothing left to give when the next need comes your way.  A better way might be to commit yourself to spread out your giving over a span of 10 years.  The drawback of that approach is the temptation not to keep your commitment.  The advantage is that this way you can meet a variety of needs over time, whenever those new needs arise, on a more long-term scale.

While most of us have more than we need, that doesn’t mean our neighbor needs what we have.  John’s call is not for us to simply unload unwanted junk, or be like the well-meaning soul who sent some missionaries a shipment of used tea bags.  We cannot imagine the trash trucks full of junk that have to be hauled away from Goodwill and the Salvation Army because people donate stuff that belongs in the garbage.  John calls us to give what our neighbor has NEED of.

 Still, we need to take a look in our closets.  How many suits of clothes do we have?  How many pairs of shoes?  Once, I counted 8 pairs of shoes that I had, 2 pairs of which were not fit to give away, 2 pairs of which were dress shoes.  I currently have 2 suits and 3 coats (all of which are too ragged to give for resale).

Think of appliances you rarely if ever use.  We buy a new vacuum cleaner or computer.  Who can we give the old one to?  We save stuff because we “might need it someday”?  God may need it somewhere else right now.  We don’t even have to give it away; we can sell it cheap to someone who can’t afford to buy it otherwise.  We don’t need to give away or even sell our cabin on the lake, or our boat, or our motor home, or cutting-edge digital technology.  Instead, we can ask, How can I make this available to God to be used wherever God needs it?

Think about food.  Scraping our plate won’t feed the poor overseas, but changing our spending habits might do so.  Another way we might put John’s words into practice is by giving as much to feed the poor as we spend to feed ourselves.  We can do that when we go out to eat (give an equal amount to our local food bank).  We can even try that with our monthly food bill.  (I haven’t tried it myself, but it’s worth thinking about.)

In 1776, the British tax office accused John Wesley of having silver that he had failed to pay taxes on.  Wesley wrote back, “I have 2 silver spoons at London and 2 at Bristol.  This is all the [silver] I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many around me [lack] bread.”  Here’s a guy who took John the Baptist’s words to heart.

John the Baptist is not giving us a law by which we must measure whether we are saved or lost.  We are saved only by what Jesus Christ has done to put us right with God.  Jesus paid it all.  We will never be able to earn His mercy.  He has taken away our guilt in the eyes of God. So let’s forget about feeling guilty.  (I don’t want anyone to go home and say that the pastor tried to make us feel guilty for having more than we need.)  Let’s focus on living changed lives, lives with a passion to do what thrills the heart of God.  Let’s focus on making our goods totally available to God, to whom they all belong.

John reminds us that God has a passion for justice.  If we claim to know God, we will likewise have a passion to share whatever we can spare, so that others who have nothing can have what they need.

Can we all live exactly like John the Baptist?  Not unless we are willing to bring civilization to a halt and all go live off the land, while sacrificing advancements in medicine, technology, and basic utilities.  Few can live like John lived, and few are ever called to do so.  But all of us can be inspired by this man who practiced what he preached.  And each of us can be legitimately challenged by his words.

John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the One whose birth we celebrate in this season.  This Christmas, instead of brainstorming as to how to shop for those on our Christmas list who need nothing, let’s scale back or opt out of our great American spending binge on one another, and let’s write a different Christmas list this year.  Let’s figure out how to maximize our gifts to those who really need it.  We can do that through food banks and toy collections.  We can do that through orphanages.  We can do that through disaster assistance.  We can do that through our Christmas Joy Offering, and through One Great Hour of Sharing next spring.  We can do that through Heifer Project, where families can receive animals they can raise as a means of feeding themselves. 

The world is full of people in need.  We bring glory to God whenever we let God use us as part of the answer to their needs.  Would that Christians were so well known for the way we care for those in need, that the outside world could say, “Christians?  They make this a better world for everyone.” 

John the Baptist’s words point us in that direction.  Giving away our overabundance, so that others who have nothing can have what they need, is one serious clue that a person is probably in tune with God.  And the more radically we do so, the stronger the likelihood that only God’s undeserved mercy could inspire us to do so.

Let us pray.  God, help us all to take some new steps forward to share what we have with those who need it most.  Help us to be inspired by Your own infinite self-sacrifice for us, through which You have taken away our guilt forever.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.       

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