In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians there’s an extended section in which the apostle is urging his friends in Corinth to be generous in their giving to support the poverty-stricken Christians back in Jerusalem. Paul apparently gave a lot of time and energy to this project, rather like us in this church giving a lot of time and energy to the various outreach projects we’ve taken on. Paul had worked hard to organize this appeal, and he had carefully arranged for trusted individuals to take the money down to Jerusalem as a gift to the Christians there. To him it was a vital symbol of the way Jewish and Gentile Christians were united in the one Body of Christ, and he wanted all the Gentile churches to take part in it.
But how would he motivate his Corinthian friends to take part? Not surprisingly, he did so by appealing to the example of Jesus himself. Listen to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 8:9:
‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’.
‘The generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Many other translations use the word ‘grace’ here – ‘You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ – and that would in fact be a literal translation of the Greek. But the translators of the New Revised Standard Version are right, I think, to make it more specific. To talk generally about ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ doesn’t make it clear that in this instance, Paul is talking about a particular gracious act: the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ chose to give up the riches that were his by nature as the Word of God, the Son of the Father from all eternity. He chose to voluntarily make himself poor, becoming a helpless human being and living as one of us. And he did all this for us, the poor in spirit, so that he could make us rich. A generous act indeed.
In a later letter Paul spells this out more poetically. Writing from prison to his Christian friends in Philippi, he says,
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).
This passage isn’t often thought of as a Christmas reading, but I would suggest to you that it is a Christmas reading. And as a Christmas reading, it makes an assumption that may be startling to some of us today, just as it might have been startling to some of the people who first heard it read in about 62 or 63 A.D. Just over thirty years before, Jesus had been walking the dusty roads of Palestine, his true humanity readily apparent to everyone he met, his hands perhaps still scarred and calloused from working as a carpenter in his younger days. But now Paul writes of Jesus as if his birth in Bethlehem was not the beginning of his life. He writes, in fact, as if the birth of Jesus was a conscious decision that he had made. There was a time, Paul says, when Christ Jesus shared the form of God – in fact, was equal with God – but he decided not to exploit this for his own self-interest. Rather, he emptied himself of his divine power and glory, and chose to be born as a human being; he humbled himself, lived as one of us, and walked the path of obedience to his Father, all the way to the cross. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich.
This is the central story of Christmas. This is what the angel was announcing to Mary; this is what Joseph’s dreams were about. This is what the angel choirs were singing about in the hills above Bethlehem when they appeared to the shepherds, and this is what old Simeon and Anna were talking about when they met the holy family in the Temple. Everyone who was caught up in this story was overwhelmed by the sheer wonder and generosity of Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. God hasn’t abandoned us; he’s come to us again, come to actually live on this broken and war-torn planet. He’s come to do something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves; “You are to name him Jesus”, the angel said to Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And surely when we look around us and see what human selfishness and greed and anger and hatred have done to God’s world and God’s people, we’d all have to agree that we really, really need someone to save us from our sins. More than anything else, that’s what we need. We can’t save ourselves. In fact, what we most need saving from is precisely ourselves!
So let’s stay in this place of wonder for a few minutes this morning. Later on in 2 Corinthians Paul will get to the part about how we need to follow Jesus’ example and be generous givers, and we all know how important that is. But let’s not go there right away. Paul doesn’t go there right away. Because Paul, in the New Testament, is the great theologian of grace. Grace is God’s free, unconditional love, poured out upon people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t done anything to deserve it, who may in fact have done quite a lot not to deserve it. Grace is not given to us because we are loveable; rather, it is given to us because God is love.
Remember that time at the last supper when Jesus is going around washing the feet of his friends? He gets to Peter, and Peter looks at him reproachfully and says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answers, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand”. Peter says to him, “You will never wash my feet”. Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:6-8).
It all seems so logical to Peter, and maybe to us as well. Jesus is the Lord and we are his servants. Lords don’t wash the feet of their servants. Servants wash the feet of their lords. So how can it possibly be right for Jesus to wash Peter’s feet?
Nevertheless, it is right. Before Peter can do anything for Jesus, first of all there is something that Jesus needs to do for Peter. Peter can’t come to Jesus as the strong fisherman, the capable one, the one who has everything to give. He’s got to humble himself and come as the one who is poor in spirit, who needs a spiritual bath that he can’t give to himself. He’s got to admit his weakness, his sinfulness, and ask Jesus to wash him. Only then can he offer anything to Jesus. ‘We love’, says old John the apostle in his first letter, ‘because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Grace comes first, as a gift. When we have received it, we can pass it on. But not before. Until we let God give to us, we have nothing to give to God, or anyone else.
And we do so love to give, don’t we? I expect that in your house this morning there was some really joyful giving going on. Maybe you spent weeks or months thinking carefully about what you wanted to give to the other people in your family or household or circle of friends. Maybe you spent a lot of time searching for exactly the right gift, or maybe it was a gift you created yourself – created lovingly, because you wanted the person you gave it to to be happy. Maybe you’ve given gifts like that today, and maybe you’ve received gifts like that as well.
And there are other gifts, too. Today our special offering envelopes are going to support World Vision’s work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, the places that are so dangerous that they can’t even set up a permanent infrastructure there. One of those places, of course, is Syria, which has been so much in the news with millions of refugees fleeing for their lives from a civil war that has been going on for years. ISIS is part of it, but ISIS didn’t start it; it had already been going on for a long time when ISIS joined in. Millions of people have lost homes and loved ones and livelihoods. ‘Raw Hope’ is World Vision’s project that provides basic necessities of life to people in situations like that. So of course we’re going to support it, and give generously to it. That’s a vital part of our life as followers of Jesus.
We often hear that Christmas is ‘a time of giving’, and indeed it is; somehow, at Christmas, it’s easier to motivate people to give. We give to our families and friends and loved ones, but our hearts are softened to those in need as well. The Food Bank, the Salvation Army, Hope Mission, the Mustard Seed – they all do well at this time of year. Even the CBC runs a turkey drive, although I suspect that for the poor and homeless in Edmonton a turkey would be welcome at any time of the year, not just at Christmas! But somehow, at Christmas, it’s easier to motivate people to make it happen. It’s a time of giving.
But I would like to suggest to you that it’s all to easy for us to focus on the time of giving, and to forget this vital truth: that Christmas is a time of receiving as well. In fact, if we don’t celebrate Christmas as a time of receiving, we’ve missed out on the central message of the season. Christmas is the time when God, the Creator of all that exists, came to us on this little planet and gave us a stupendous gift, a gift no one could have imagined, a gift that even today has people scratching their heads in disbelief. How can it possibly be true that God would come to us in Jesus, that Jesus is somehow God? How could the infinite, almighty God limit himself to a tiny human body in a tiny human lifespan? What can it possibly mean?
Here is what it means according to John’s Gospel: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ – or, as the Good News translation puts it, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’ (John 1:4-5). In a world of darkness – the darkness of ignorance and greed, hatred and violence, selfishness and tyranny – God came among us as a burning light in Jesus, and when there is a light shining in the darkness, it’s the light that you notice, not the darkness. It’s the light of God’s love, of God’s truth, of God’s vision for what the world was created for and what humanity was created for. This was the light we had lost, and this was the light that Jesus was and is, the light Jesus has brought to us.
And we have to receive that Light. Not everyone chooses to receive him. John says,
‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1:10-12).
This is another example of the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he offers the Gift – the Gift of himself – to all people, but all people are not compelled to receive it. He stands at the door and knocks. He doesn’t use brute force to smash the door down. He doesn’t compel Peter to let him wash his feet. The Gift is offered, but whether or not it is received is up to us.
And sometimes we’d much rather be givers than receivers! I do so love being a giver! I love it when I can take someone out for lunch and pay the bill! And I have to admit, I don’t just love it because I love being generous. I love that it gives me a sense of power as well, and perhaps even a sense of pride. I’m the man of means here; I’m the one who can afford to do this. Don’t even think about paying that bill; it’s an important part of my self-image that I’m the one that pays it.
Years ago when we lived in the Northwest Territories we had a friend who just could not accept a free gift. He was married to the community nurse, and they lived at the nursing station, and quite often I would go over there mid-morning and join the staff on their morning coffee break. Sometimes I would bake a few cookies and take them over for everyone, and whenever I did that, I knew that before noon, this man would be at my door with a gift to give in return. Usually it was a bigger gift. If I’d brought a dozen cookies, he’d come back with a home-made apple pie. He just could not let himself be in the position of receiving a gift and giving nothing. He could not be beholden to anyone. I’m sure you’ve all known people like that.
Brothers and sisters, this Gift that God has given us at Christmas is not something we can reciprocate in kind. When God the creator of the universe comes to live among us on our planet, there is no possible gift we can give in return that could ever match that. God is no-one’s debtor. Yes, we can and will give generously to help others who are in need, but we can never out-give God. It’s a fundamental fact of our Christian identity: to the end of our days, we will be the recipients of his grace. We will never be able to earn it or repay it, and he doesn’t want us to. He simply wants us to receive him, in joy and thankfulness.
Each of us gets to receive him for ourselves, of course; the Gift is given not just to the world in general, but to each human being in the world. St. Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Jesus says in Revelation, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door. I will come to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).
This morning, this Christmas morning, let’s listen to that knocking again, and let’s open the door again. We may have been Christians for many years, but maybe during that time we’ve gradually gotten so busy giving that we’ve forgotten that there is a receiving that needs to take place as well – that we love, because God first loved us. Maybe it’s a terrifying thing for us, to see ourselves not as rich and capable, but as the poor in spirit who know their need of God. But that’s what needs to happen at Christmas. At a time when so many gifts are given and received, one gift is fundamental. It’s not a gift that we give, to God or anyone else. It’s the Gift that God gave to us when he emptied himself and took our humanity, and lived and died and rose again to save us. It’s the Gift he continues to give, when we open our hearts and lives and welcome him right into the centre of our very being. It’s the Gift that is truly a gift – not something we earn or pay for, not something we can ever pay God back for – but only something we receive with joy and thankfulness, today and for the rest of our lives. Sisters and brothers, today and every day, let us receive that Gift from God, in thankfulness and joy. Amen.