Can Christmas Change the World? — Give More
by Pastor Mike Fortune
December 5, 2009
Introduction Video: A Christmas Carol The Musical
Christmas can change the world if we...
- Give more to others [Luke 3:10-11; Matthew 5:40; Ezekiel 16:49]
- Pray more for others [Jeremiah 29:7; Psalm 122:8-9; Jonah 4:11]
- Live Immanuel [Matthew 1:22-23; Jeremiah 29:13-14; Acts 2:44-47]
In 2004, NBC created A Christmas Carol the Musical based on the famous novel by Charles Dickens. I think Disney has just created a new cartoon version, but you don’t have to have seen the movies or read the book to know some of the details. Miser Ebenezer Scrooge is awakened on Christmas Eve with the revelation of his own miserable existence, the opportunities he wasted in his youth, his current cruelties, and the dire fate that awaits him if he does not change his ways. Scrooge is faced with his own story of growing bitterness and meanness, and must decide what his own future will hold: death or redemption. And thankfully, he chooses redemption. Which is what our clip was showing with Kelsey Grammar as Mr. Scrooge singing about being willing to give more.
And though that was make believe, the Christmas story I want to remind you of today is absolutely true. And because Christmas changed the world once when Jesus was born, I believe it can change it again. If, as we talked about last week, we begin by spending less and then like Mr. Scrooge, we choose to give more. Did you know Americans spend $450 billion on presents each year? Which amounts to $900 per family? What would happen if just the Christians in America decided that this year they were going to spend less on themselves and give more to others less fortunate? That’s what we’re going to be talking about today.
The magi did this of course. Traveling a very long way to bring Jesus, really his parents, three precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Which is why I suggested last week that one way we could spend less on ourselves is to simply give our children or grandchildren no more than three gifts since that’s as many as Jesus received. But long after the magi arrived and shortly before Jesus began his official earthly ministry, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner to his ministry, John the Baptist said something very similar about spending less and giving more. And that’s what I want to begin with today. So turn in your Bibles with me to Luke 3:10-11. I’ll give you the context of verses 1-6 as you’re looking up those verses. The Bible says, “‘1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea— 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Quoting the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3-5, Luke adds, “4As is written: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation.’”
And then in response verses 10 -11 say this, “The crowds ask John, “‘What should we do then?’” And John replies, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” The word tunic is a near direct translation from the Latin word tunica and is an ancient garment the Romans stole from the Greeks [according to http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-tunic.htm]. It was typically about knee length and usually worn belted with blousing above the belt. It generally featured short sleeves. Matthew 3:4 says John’s tunic was made of very course camel hair while he accessorized with a simple leather belt. Modern translations of the same verses in Luke, like the New Living Translation, calls the tunic a shirt while older versions like the King James simply call it a coat.
So John would spend his days, not just his December days, shouting, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” And when the people got confused and wondered what that meant, he told them, if you’re on the wrong road go the other way. If you have two coats give one away. When Jesus comes, prepare the way. There’s a great little kid song about that I won’t sing for you now. Because I hope you’ll remember point number without me embarrassing myself: Christmas can still change the world if we spend less on ourselves and give more to others.
After Jesus showed up and started his ministry, he repeated this point in numerous ways. Perhaps the most obvious and still challenging one to this day can be found in Matthew 5:40-41. Jesus begins by saying, “‘38You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not [even] resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.’”
We miss the significance of this ‘take your tunic’ thing today because we don’t understand the interest rates of loans in the Old Testament. Exodus 22:26-27 describes how often the least and the last would often have little or nothing besides their coat or tunic to offer as collateral for a loan. In a section on social responsibility, the Bible in those verses prohibited a creditor from retaining this garment overnight. Listen to this: “25 If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. 26 If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, 27 because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”
How cool would that be if we still did that today? Payday Loans with their exorbitant interest rates preying on the poor and trapping them in a cycle of revolving debt would be out of business. Why? Because Christians would be giving loans out left and right for no interest! And when the less fortunate have to stand in lines for hours or walk up to twenty miles a day to get wherever they need to go, they would have warm feet because they’d have plenty of socks. Which reminds me to plug our wooden bin in the foyer.
We’re starting our annual Hannah’s Socks collection this week so if you can, please bring your six packs of white adult socks to church with you to throw in the bin. This year we’re also collecting thermal underwear and shirts in the same bin. All of which will be collected week after week and then given to Hannah who will then give them to Toledo’s neediest people this winter. A rep from Hannah’s Socks will be here during worship on December 19 too so if you’re new to Toledo First and have no idea what I’m talking about, hang in there, bring some brand new packs of sock or thermal underwear, and you’ll find out.
This is such an easy ordinary outreach that our children in James Meade Learning Center are also partnering with us this year in collecting socks. The students in Toledo Junior Academy are doing something different. They’re spending less and giving more gifts to sixteen needy children who, along with their families, will be our guests on Thursday December 17 @ 7pm here in the sanctuary for the annual Christmas program after which they’ll receive their gifts. But the TJA students will need some help because there area only 35 families in the school and we need to purchase 48 gifts—enough for three per child. So if you’re able to take an ornament today off the Christmas tree in the foyer, purchase the item on it or donate $25 by writing Christmas Families on your check and envelope, please do so and bring it back before December 14. Please read your bulletin for more info about the school’s Christmas outreach if you’re willing to partner with them. We’re depending on 10 or 12 of you to do so.
Why? Because the Bible is saying we have a social responsibility before God to give to those in need. Not only to take care of those inside God’s people group you’re a part of, but in this case, even those outside of it! We know this is true because the context of Matthew 5 immediately after this passage says that our social responsibility even extends to our enemies. Jesus says, “43You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
But is that easy to do? No. Living grace is the single hardest thing you’re called to do as a Christian. But make no mistake, we are called to do it! And the advent of Christmas is meant to remind us that Christmas is about Christ’s birthday, not yours! And when we don’t remember that, I think it hurts the heart of God! We know this is true because Ezekiel 16:49 says: “49Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
How many of you thought Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of sexual promiscuity? That’s the story I heard growing up. But that’s not the prophet Ezekiel’s take. In his book he says Sodom’s biggest problem was not sexual promiscuity or homosexuality, rather he says their biggest problem was they failed in their social responsibility to spend less and give more. Whether they’re our friends or even our enemies. That’s the unsugarcoated Gospel truth and point number one.
But Christmas can also change the world if we pray less for ourselves and pray more for others. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t thought of this much earlier. But a couple weeks ago God used a providential circumstance via email to teach me point number two. I got an email out of the blue recently and here’s what it said: “Hi! My name is Tim and I am from Duluth, MN. I listen to a lot of sermons online from iTunes. I love what you and pastor Rachel are doing in Toledo. I just listened to the Noomanautics-Connecting sermon. I believe that the Holy Spirit connects those of similar heart. I am sure the Spirit connected me to you. I have been given an idea that the Duluth Adventist church and Toledo First should become prayer partners for each other. So I think that if we were to pray for each other and not necessarily focus on ourselves that the Holy Spirit might bless that. What do you think? Peace be with you. May God pour out his blessings and His Nooma on you and your church. Tim.”
Well, Tim, if you’re watching this service live online, as we started streaming last week, or if you’ve typed Toledo First into the iTunes store and subscribed to the Toledo First podcast, we want you to know that we think this is a great idea and so we’re going to commend you for suggesting it! Church, you know what to say after I finish my spiel right? Let me pray first. “Tim, may God’s grace and Nooma pour out on the Duluth Adventist Church. May you and your pastor and church members not only know, but also see the incomparably great power of his mighty strength working in your church. May the same power that resurrected Christ from the grave be poured out in the community you serve. Not because of your worthiness but because of Christ’s. Amen.”
And now, Tim, as is our tradition at Toledo First, we’re going to commend you now. For reminding us this Christmas that praying less for ourselves and more for others is a great idea, we commend you and what do you say? Way to go!!! Since then, Tim and I have exchanged some emails and he’s connected me with his pastor in Duluth, Minnesota which is way up there but it doesn’t matter how far away we are, because we’re both praying to our God known as Immanuel which means God with us right? We’re gonna talk about that in a minute. But before we do, let me give you some texts for why this praying for others things is such a good thing to do.
Psalm 122:8-9 adds, “8For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’ 9For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your prosperity.” Which is cool all by itself. Even if you didn’t know it’s the text that Israelites sung as they traveled up toward Jerusalem. But get this, God even asks us to pray for Babylon! Jeremiah 29:7 says, “7Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” How do you think that went over among God’s people in Babylon? They’re thinking, “Wait, let me get this straight God. You send us into exile in Babylon after watching our city get torn apart and our brightest youth taken hostage to serve a pagan king in his court even changing their names to the gods of Babylonians and now you want us to also pray for them? Are you serious? Are you kidding me? The next thing you’re going to tell me is you want us spend less on ourselves and actually buy them Christmas presents too!”
And apparently, that’s exactly what God told the prophet Jeremiah to do. Well, minus the Christmas gifs. But not just Jeremiah. Jonah as well. God says in Jonah 4:11 says, “11But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Jeremiah prayed for Babylon. Jonah would not pray for Ninevah. Christmas can change the world if we spend less and give more. Point number one. And if we pray more for others than ourselves. Point number two. We’re gonna be gathering some more info about the Duluth church and we’ll make a little display to put in the lobby to remind us to pray more for them than for ourselves.
And finally, point number three is living Immanuel. Matthew 1:22-23 says, “ 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘23The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’” Christmas can change the world if we remember that. We know this can be done as well because God promised the Israelites living in captivity at the time all alone in Babylon that He would indeed be found by them. Just a few verses after God tells Jeremiah to pray for the Babylonians Jeremiah 29:13-14 says, “13You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD.’”
The God we give for and pray to is a God of Immanuel. Which means God with us. He can be found by us. Through nature. Providential circumstances. Music. And if we were adding one more way to the PRS series we just finished, I’d suggest imperfect people as a fourth way to hear back from God. When imperfect people gather in community to share life together, God is present there. Acts 2:44-47 says it this way. “44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
God was Immanuel with them. That’s what Immanuel looks like. And I believe God is with us as well. Messing with our minds and changing our desires. Motivating us to spend less and give more. Helping us start new Christmas traditions. Encouraging us to pray for others instead of ourselves. Those are Immanuel kinds of things don’t you think? So let’s give more. Pray more. And practice the presence and ways of Immanuel because God is with us. That’s how Christmas changed the world once. And it can change it again.
Before we close, as I promised, each week in this Christmas series I want to introduce you to another non-profit organization looking for volunteers willing to spends less and give more of their time and talents and treasure. I didn’t have to look far this time because newlywed Ellen Casganette moved to northwest Ohio recently from Nebraska with her husband Curtis who is studying art at Bowling Green and she works for Hospice of Northwest Ohio. She’s gonna come up here now to plug hospice and explain how being present with people while they’re dying reminds her of Immanuel. And don’t forget at the end of the service, deacons will be collecting offering that at the end of our series we’ll be sending to the non-profit organization of your choice.