It’s almost over. The year 2020. Many people have been waiting for this year to be over. It seems they will heave a sigh of relief rather than celebrate on New Year’s Eve. Indeed this past year has been filled with tragedy and death, from a pandemic, from racial injustice and reactions to it, from super storms and fires. And yet what changes when we flip the calendar page? (Does anyone do that anymore?) When 2021 comes, the Covid-19 virus will still be around, storms and fires will still come, angry, vindictive, and violent people will still attack. And we all will still have a sinful nature which can and will act out.
So what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for the right thing? What should we be waiting for? The men in our two texts give us direction in what we should be looking for. So let’s see what they were anticipating and what we can wait for that is truly certain and good.
Are We Waiting for the Right Thing?
I. Two Men Waiting for Salvation
Today we hear about two men in two very different times and situations. Jeremiah, almost certainly the writer of the book of Lamentations, was in or near Jerusalem after the Babylonians had destroyed the city, including the temple, and taken most people into exile, over 500 years before Jesus was born. Simeon was in Jerusalem, in the courts of the temple rebuilt twice since that destruction. Jeremiah concludes, “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Simeon “was waiting for the consolation of Israel” and from his lips we hear, “You [Lord] may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation.” Jeremiah and Simeon were waiting for salvation.
Salvation is one of those words we Christians use a lot. Others may not understand what we mean, and we ourselves may not stop to consider what it all includes. In its basic sense it is “the act of saving or protecting from harm, risk, loss, destruction, etc.” Waiting for salvation means recognizing that you are facing harm and destruction, and implies that you can’t get out of it yourself. Jeremiah, while a believer himself, lamented how Jerusalem had been destroyed because most of its people refused to listen to God, who was calling them to repentance. They were offered, many times, the opportunity to turn away from their evil and be saved from the coming destruction, but they would not. Now they were languishing in exile hundreds of miles away. Simeon, also a devout believer, was looking for salvation, which implies he recognized his situation of being less than holy and separated from God because of his sins. Like all people, he faced destruction, which he couldn’t avoid on his own. So he waited for salvation because he knew he was facing destruction by a holy God without it.
What about Us?
As we wait for the end of 2020, are we waiting for salvation because we recognize our lost condition? Why do we fear getting sick with Covid and dying from it or fear being caught in a flood or hurricane and dying? We know we can’t face our holy Maker in our present condition. Some will try to claim there is no God to give answer to, but only a fool says that. Our conscience tells us otherwise, the universe tells us otherwise.
The best way to face the new year is with a repentant heart, a heart that recognizes we have sinned, but a heart that waits quietly for God’s salvation.
II. Two Men Seeing Salvation
Unlike Jeremiah and Simeon, we don’t have to wait like they did; we can look up and clearly see how God’s salvation has come. We celebrate how that story began at Christmas. Now we just look up. What is that in the front of our church? Even our children know, that is a cross. It is in fact a place of death, the place where God’s Savior died for us, to save us. The cross stands there as an instrument of execution, like a guillotine or a gallows, and an execution did take place there, but it is empty, it is done. The God man who died there has come back to life. Sin has been paid for. Death has been overcome. These are the main problems, the overriding malady, of the human race.
Even while Jeremiah was lamenting over the rubble and desolation of Jerusalem, he knew that God had plans to bring his people back to this city in 70 years and rebuild it and rebuild the temple. He waited for that, he knew for certain it was going to happen, even though he never got to see it. It was a picture of the salvation Jesus would bring. And we know it happened that way, just as God had said. Just as the people of Judah were held in hostage by the Babylonians, the human race is held hostage by sin, death, and the devil. Even as the people were finally saved from that exile to return to their home country, the human race has been saved from sin, death and, the evil. And even not all of the people of Judah chose to return to Palestine, not all people turn away from sin to the forgiveness God has for them.
Simeon looked ahead to the crucifixion of Jesus, which would take place some thirty years after he spoke these words in the temple. He knew there would be people who would stumble because of Jesus, reject him, execute him. Others would believe him and follow him and be saved. It would be a sorrowful time for his mother, but as one who believed in him, she would accept it. In her own special song, she had rejoiced in God her Savior, who carried out his saving act for us through sacrificing his Son on this cross. Simeon probably did not know all the exact details of how this would be carried out, but he quietly waited for God’s salvation, and was ready to depart just having seen the baby who would grow up and carry out this salvation.
What about Us?
While we can look back and see how this salvation was carried out, we still do wait for the culmination of God’s salvation, when Jesus returns to raise us from the dead and take us to heaven to live with him there in total joy and blisss. No more pandemics, no more floods and hurricanes, no more devastating fires, no more murders or robberies, no more evil people. Yes, we ourselves will be stripped our sinful nature and confirmed in holiness.
So we can go into 2021 quietly waiting for the culmination of our salvation. We can go through much suffering on our way. But that doesn’t mean we ignore this world and its problems. God has work for us to do here. Jeremiah faced much suffering. He was ridiculed and mocked for predicting that Jerusalem would be destroyed. His preaching of repentance fell on mostly deaf ears. He was thrown in a cistern to die, and rescued from it to sit in prison until the king of Babylon came to destroy Jerusalem. His life was spared, but he had to witness the destruction of his city and temple and see its desolation. He had work to do. He continued to call people to repentance, to faith, to waiting for God’s salvation. As in Elijah’s, when there were still 7000 believers though God’s cause looked lost, there were certainly some who listened to Jeremiah, but for the most part he didn’t know them. And in any case, God has long since carried him off to heaven where he enjoys the salvation he waited for.
In the new year we will continue to face restrictions and economic problems because of the novel corona virus, there will be more storms and fires, there will murders and evil all around. We will face the death of loved ones. We ourselves may face death this year. But if we are waiting for God’s salvation, we will welcome it, though it is terrible to go through.
In the meantime, we will carry out the work God has placed before us. We may have a family to provide for or care for. There are young to be taught, things to be made for this life, business to conduct so this life can go on smoothly.
But especially there is the need to focus on waiting for God’s salvation, the need to remind ourselves that we are sinners, to bask in the news that Jesus was born, lived a perfect life for us, paid the price for our sins, conquered death so that it is no longer fearful for us. And as we get refreshed in our faith, we will be like Jeremiah and Simeon, telling others about God’s salvation, even when it means suffering and opposition. Others need this news in our present world, though many will reject it.
But it is good to remember that a large part of our life as believers in Jesus is waiting, quietly waiting for his salvation. This doesn’t mean doing nothing. Knowing that faith comes from hearing the word of Jesus, in the new year we drink in God’s through which God saves us, coming together when we can to hear it, sitting at home hearing it, letting it work in our hearts, waiting for it change and strengthen our hearts, waiting for it to change our attitude and lives. Then we will put that change to work in our lives because God saves and changes us, seeking ways to do good and tell others of Jesus and his word. We continue to live in a sin-ravaged world, and we will continue to face suffering and persecution. But we have joy and peace in our hearts, knowing our sins are forgiven, our guilt is removed, and we are eternally part of God’s holy family. Wait patiently for the culmination of his salvation when he comes to take us home. We repeat Jeremiah’s words, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Amen.
There was a dad who was reading his daughter the Christmas story before bedtime. He got to the part where the angels talk to the shepherds and decided to test her knowledge:
And the angels said to them, “Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you, you will find a powerful, well-trained soldier…”
She interrupted, “No dad. That isn’t right.”
Ok. How about…You will find a democratically elected president?
A motivational speaker?
A movie star?
A time-travelling cyborg?
None of those, Dad.
“Then, tell me,” he said, “How does it go?”
She smiled and continued, “Today, in the city of David you will find a baby.”
The Christmas story sounded strange to the girl.
And she called her dad out on it.
What about this year’s Christmas?
Is this how the story is supposed to go?
A half empty church.
Unable to visit family.
No parties to attend.
Barely any gifts.
It doesn’t seem like this is how Christmas is supposed to go.
Instead, Christmas 2020 seems strange.
I. STRANGE Events
But should it feel strange?
Let’s revisit the night of Jesus’ birth. Scripture says, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…And everyone went to their own town to register. (v.1-3)
In the Ancient world, censuses were important. They helped the government learn how much food the people would need, how big of an army they needed to protect their people, how dense to make the population spots on a map and…
…how much money they needed in taxes.
In the ever-expanding Roman world, censuses are recorded as happening every five years. That’s not strange.
What is strange is paying taxes and being forced to register for a census that was demanded by a government you hadn’t elected.
Caesar Augustus didn’t win the pools.
He simply took over.
He was #NotTheirCaesar.
And this census was forced on them without their asking.
(Kinda like a pandemic…and all the rules and regulations that go with it.)
This census was a not voluntary. You had to partake of it. There was no way that any average Joe…
Could avoid the government mandate.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth…to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. (v.4)
That’s about an 80-mile journey, if the family took the shorter and more strenuous route directly through the desert land of Samaria. If they took the easier walking route along the Jordan River Valley, it was longer.
And Mary was about 8 months pregnant.
I did my research.
I talked to some pregnant ladies.
Going on an 80-mile trip while pregnant isn’t preferable.
And there weren’t cars back then.
In fact, tradition usually places pregnant Mary on a donkey while Joseph walked alongside it.
Scripture never actually mentions a donkey.
It’s possible pregnant Mary had to walk that whole way.
Speaking of pregnancy…
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (V.5)
Pledged to be married.
Do you see that part?
They had not been intimate together.
Meaning Joseph had no part in producing that child.
This was long before science and test tubes and miracles of modern fertility clinics.
But it’s still more amazing.
Because even those clinics need two parts to create life.
This baby in Mary’s tummy?
Needed only one part.
And suddenly she was showing.
And suddenly people were talking.
And suddenly Aunt May was giving them both the cold shoulder.
There’s no family togetherness.
They were outcasts.
While they were there…there was no guest room available for them. (v.6-7)
Joseph frantically rapping at the doors.
Knocking at the Super 8.
The Motel 6 – They didn’t even leave the light on!
None of them have space.
And he’s running out of time.
Finally, some guy shows him to a pile of hay out near his animals.
And Mary lays down while she’s sweating and breathing heavy.
While Joseph is frantically fluffing the hay, wiping away the donkey slobber from the feeding trough and waving his hands in the air to get the nauseating smell of the animals out.
And there’s no midwife.
And there’s no family.
And there’s no epidural.
…The time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger… (v.6)
In the midst of the unwanted mandate, at the end of a strenuous journey, separate from their families, alone in a barn…
II. More STRANGE
But that’s not all that’s strange about this Christmas.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. (v.8)
In Ancient society, shepherding is a lowly job.
It produces a lowly income.
It is looked as lowly in society.
These guys are probably not wearing the finest fashion.
They probably don’t smell the best.
They were probably sitting around a fire, eating some beans and gambling for the file bite with a pair of dice.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
What a strange visitor!
And his face is gleaming
And can’t look straight at him so you cover your face and squint your eyes, incredible!
And they are terrified.
They probably thought he was coming to tell them bad news.
An increase in taxes.
More Roman occupation.
A pack of wolves on its way.
God was mad at them.
God could see they were cheating at dice.
God was about to fry them for all their sins.
Something they knew was right.
They’d done wrong.
They deserved justice.
But the message is actually much stranger than that.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (v.10-11)
A Savior – as in God wants to save you from all your sin, all your guilt, all your shame.
The Christ – as in God has been prophesying this for millennia. It’s always been the plan.
The Lord – as in master, ruler, Chief. The baby is God himself.
His plan would fail.
He never fails.
And if that message told to lowly shepherds isn’t strange enough, suddenly: Music!
It’s not coming from Alexa either: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (v.14)
Friends, do you get it?
That first “Christmas” was not the Christmas celebration we consider normal.
It wasn’t filled with peace among people, togetherness and joy.
But an unwanted mandate, strenuous work, loneliness, stress, and pain .
But the strange events only amplify strange glory of Jesus’ arrival.
God had come.
God was born.
God was going to bring peace.
And as strange as this year it has amplified the glory of this message:
God has come.
God was born.
God defeated your sin.
God defeated your guilt.
God defeated your shame.
God has brought peace
Even during 2020.
Because of your Savior, you are forgiven.
III. STRANGE Response
This strange truth produced strange responses among the people part of that first Christmas.
I pray it produces the same strange responses in us.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (v.15)
The one thing shepherds are supposed to do?
Watch the sheep.
And as soon as the angels leave, what do these shepherds do?
Stop watching the sheep.
I suppose they could have brought the sheep with them
But verse 16 says, they “Hurried off to find Mary and Joseph.”
That implies it was fast.
Since it might be hard to “hurry off” when you’re chasing your sheep, I doubt they brought them.
Nothing was more important to the shepherds than seeing their Savior.
1) Hurry to see your Savior.
There is still nothing more important.
Not a certain gift.
Not a paycheck.
Not a type of Christmas cookie.
Not time with a relative.
Not wearing a mask.
Not getting a vaccine.
The most eternally important thing for you to do this Christmas (and always) is see your Savior.
Whether it’s in person.
On your own.
Go; see your Savior.
Because there you see your salvation.
But when they shepherds had seen Jesus, they had more to do:
they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. (v.16)
Who cares if we need to get back to our flocks…
Who cares if the beans are getting cold…
Who cares if we are getting cold...
We need to tell others about the Savior.
Because they need this good news too.
2) Hurry to tell about your Savior.
If you’re watching this online, can you share this with a friend who needs to hear this?
If you’re here in person, can you text a friend a line or two from Luke 2 tonight?
If you’ve got plans to open gifts, eat a meal, and shove 7 candy canes in your mouth tonight, can you first tell your family about Jesus?
Maybe read Luke 2.
Reading Luke 2 rather than watching a Netflix special?
That might seem strange to our world.
But there’s nothing more eternally important.
One more thing.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (v.19)
Honestly, this seems odd.
She had such a weird day.
A strenuous journey.
Disapproving looks from others.
Inability to find a room.
Camping out in a barn.
Pain without a midwife.
The smells of the cows.
The birth of her boy.
And strangers busting in telling her that he was the Savior!
Honestly, it seems like the kind of events that you might try to forget with a couple of spiked Egg Nogs.
Mary treasured them.
Strange as they were.
She treasured these things.
Because God worked his plan through them.
3) Treasure this Christmas.
2020 is unlike any other.
Your Christmas is unlike any other.
But in the Strange sadness of this year…
The strange glory of God is amplified.
God has come.
You are loved.
God is working his plans.
And he is working in your life…
May this strange Christmas draw you closer to his strange glory.
The other day I was putting up some Christmas lights.
I started by getting the extension cord out and plugging it into the back of the house.
I went back downstairs and got a second cord, because the first one wasn’t long enough.
Then, I went downstairs a third time to get a third cord, because the first two weren’t long enough.
I got out the lights and began untangling…
I thought: “Who put these away last year?”
I finally got them straight, ran the lights across the front awning, when my wife stopped me. She said, “Could we not put those light there? And instead take those downstairs on our bookcase?”
I rewound the lights.
Took them downstairs.
Carefully lined the entire bookcase without knocking down the knickknacks on each shelf.
I inserted the plug into the outlet and…
It was about that moment that I said to myself, “Is this worth it?”
Maybe you’ve been thinking the same thing.
As you make cookies that could have used a bit more sugar.
As you wrap presents that are uneven on the end.
As you put up the do it yourself ornament that looks nothing like what you saw on Pinterest.
Perhaps you thought…
Is this worth it?
Am I making a difference?
Especially this year.
I’m not churning out the vaccine.
I’m not curing COVID.
I’m not helping hundreds of people with their rent.
Can I make a difference this Christmas?
Today, pay attention to Jesus. Because he thinks you can. But before we begin, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. A STRANGE Statement
The words we are going to meditate on were spoken by Jesus himself. It’s only three verses, but it’s jam-packed with significance for you this Christmas. We’re in Matthew 5 beginning at verse 14. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”
Jesus is talking to believers: the believers that were listening to him back then and believers who would read it in the future.
Jesus calls believers “light.”
This is a compliment.
People like light.
People enjoy light.
People need light.
Light helps to guide people.
Light keeps you from being afraid in the dark.
Light catches people’s attention.
Light warms people up.
Light can be breathtaking.
Jesus calls believers light.
But I want to draw your attention to the tiny, insignificant-looking word right before that.
As in, believers are the light of the world.
Do you get the implications?
He didn’t say that you are a light of the world.
Or one of many lights of the world.
Or even part of the light of the world.
He says, “You are the light of the world.”
According to Jesus, there is no other light in this world than believers in Jesus.
That might seem strange to you.
Because, could not a person of any faith type be a spiritual light for another?
Kinda like Christmas lights.
There are many varieties:
There must just be different kinds of spiritual lights too.
An unbeliever could be a light and bake cookies for their neighbor.
A person of the Jewish faith could be a light and buy a dreidel of chocolate for a family member.
A Buddhist could be a light and inspire you with a rousing rendition of Walking in a Winter Wonderland – all while being in a yoga pose.
People of all faiths or no faith can do nice things, right?
In fact, in preparation for this sermon, I read an internet article called, “We asked a Satanist what he’s doing for Christmas.”
I was expecting to read about some kind of creepy ritual.
“Well, we'll probably open our presents in the morning, then have Christmas lunch. My dad's not very well at the moment so maybe we'll go and see him in the afternoon if not on Boxing Day. After lunch we'll probably watch a few films and then go for a walk before tea – if it's really nice we'll go to the beach and have tea on the beach…”
That sounds kinda nice.
How is then that Jesus would have the audacity to imply that believers in Jesus alone are the light of the world when even a Satanist can do a nice thing?
Let us examine a very dark situation.
A woman has been caught in adultery.
She cheated on her husband.
She disappointed her children.
She frustrated her parents.
She made her dad cry.
Her friends have disowned her.
Her coworkers gossip about her.
If she would have lived at a time of the internet, there would have been a whole blog post written about how awful she is.
And the comment section is filled with horrific names all attributed to her.
Worst of all, she lives at a time when adultery can legally be punished by death.
So, the local religious leaders have gone to her house.
They confronted her with her sin.
They have taken her into the streets.
They are getting ready to throw stones at her until they kill her.
“What are you guys doing?”
“We’re getting ready to punish her with death. She sinned. She committed adultery. The wages of sin is death so…You want in?”
Jesus looked at the rock the guy was handing to him.
He looked at the woman.
He looked back at the men.
“Sure. But why don’t we do this…The person who hasn’t done any sin; they get to throw the first stone.”
It isn’t long before someone does throw a stone….
…to the ground.
And all the other stones follow.
Until it’s only Jesus remaining.
He approaches the woman.
He asks her to get up.
He looks her in the eye and says, “I don’t condemn you.”
That’s a story from Matthew 8:1-11. Read what Jesus says in the very next verse:
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (8:12)
Have you ever thought what would have happened if some other religious leader approached the situation?
If it would have been a Rabbi, he might have said, “You are right to stone her, but you don’t have regulation size rocks. Here. Let me join you.”
If it would have been a Roman pagan, they might have said, “You don’t have to die, as long as you sacrifice your child to the gods.”
If it would have been a humanist, they might have said, “We’ve all got urges. Leave your family and move on. Make more mistakes. And enter into an even deeper depressive state.”
If it would have been Mormon, they might have said, “I’m not gonna kill you. In fact, here’s some iced tea. But know that you are forever outside of eternal paradise.”
If it would have been a Buddhist monk, they might have said, “These urges can be defeated, if your soul is strong enough. So…I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
If it would have been a “Christian” priest, they might have said, “You’re going to have to try really hard to make it up to God,” leaving her with a constant stress of trying to do enough her whole life.
Even if the person would have been some nice person who listened, took her out for lunch, and nodded as she told her story.
That’d be nice.
But it doesn’t effect eternal change.
But the person that met the woman wasn’t some nice guy.
It was Jesus.
He looked at her with God’s own eyes.
And said to her, “You are forgiven.”
Jesus is the Light.
He shines through the darkness of gloom.
He penetrates the darkness of sin.
He illuminates the darkness of guilt.
He is God, who is light, speaking light to your soul.
And in case you did not think Jesus was serious, he also said, “Kill me and three days later, I’ll come back to life.”
They did kill him.
And he did rise from the dead.
Jesus speaks the truth.
He alone is God.
He alone is the Light that shows us the reality of sin and the reality of our Savior.
No other being in history does.
And if you, dear believer, know that truth, then you, dear believer, are the light of the world.
Because you know the Eternal Light…
Jesus calls us the LIGHT because we have HIS Light.
This is what makes believers different.
It’s not about who we are or what you do.
But the reason you are different is because of who Jesus is.
Jesus is the ONLY Savior.
He is the ONLY one who will make an eternal difference this Christmas.
If you, dear friend, know that.
Then, it is imperative of you to share it.
That’s the whole point.
II. The Bright Solution
Jesus continued his illustration. He said this:
A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
There’s simplicity in these illustrations.
If you set up one of those porcelain Christmas villages, putting out some matching Hallmark figurines like the tiny Christmas trees, the tiny baker’s shop, the tiny school, the kid that fell of his sled, all matching parts to the town (except for the off-brand Skate Shop that Uncle Joe bought you…it’s a different size), would you set up that brilliant village underneath your bed?
No one would see it.
Except maybe the cat.
Or if you get a new lamp set up in your house because you’re having trouble reading the fine handwriting of Aunt Sally’s Christmas letter, once you have the lamp plugged in and the light bulb screwed in place, you don’t cover it with a blanket.
That’d be silly.
Why buy the lamp in the first place?
Why not just ask Aunt Sally to write more legibly?
Friends, God did the same thing.
God has placed you into his light with a purpose.
He wants you to shine.
He wants you to tell your unbelieving friends about the hope you have this Christmas.
He wants you to help your unchurched family understand what it means that “The Savior is born.”
He wants you to tell your kids that Jesus loves them dearly and that’s why he was born in a manger.
He wants you to bring light to the darkness.
Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (v.18)
Because if you know that Jesus is the light.
And you tell someone else that Jesus is the Light.
God may just work through that message…
…to bring them into the light.
In fact, you might be more uniquely positioned to share Jesus with them.
Back to Christmas lights.
You know how they come on a strand.
What happens if you remove one of the lights?
But sometimes, when you remove one light, you are removing a light that is instrumental in relaying electricity to the other lights in the strand.
Meaning that without that one light.
There is no light.
Here’s what God is calling you to think about.
Who are you connected to?
Who is next on the strand?
Who do you know that by sharing the Light of Jesus God works to make them shine too?
A coworker having a rough time.
A girlfriend searching for comfort.
A family member who is downright scared of COVID.
Be sure to shine in front of them.
Because God put his light into you.
God might use you to shine Jesus’ light on them.
God might work through you to bring them into the light.
God might then work through them to bring his light to someone that you don’t even know!
That’s a big deal.
That’s a huge deal.
That’s an eternal deal.
And so, friends.
The answer is yes.
The kind works.
The small conversations.
That 1-minute social media post.
Shine the light.
Have you ever seen the Garfield Christmas special?
It starts out with the lazy, lasagna-loving feline dreaming about a special Christmas gift. The mind-reading device uses a mechanical Christmas hat that reads your thoughts and instantly delivers whatever gifts you can think of.
Immediately Garfield begins thinking of gift after gift after gift until he is literally swimming in presents.
But then he wakes up…
Over the course of the 20-minute special, Garfield’s opinion on Christmas changes. He meets his owner’s grandma and befriends her. Even going so far as to find old love letters from her deceased husband that Garfield gives to her as a gift. It’s a heartwarming moment and Garfield learns that Christmas is wonderful…even if you don’t get a magic, mind-reading, gift-giving device.
Christmas is a time for giving.
Believers know that.
Unbelievers know that.
Even Garfield the cat knows that.
But God calls believers to be the light of the world.
That implies that they live differently.
How do believers give in such a way that is different at Christmas?
In a way that’s unique?
Today we’re going to talk the concept of STRANGE Giving. Before we do, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. STRANGE Generosity
The lesson is found in 2 Corinthians 8. A bit of background on this section:
In Acts 11:29, it is revealed that a severe famine had ravaged Jerusalem. The effects of the famine were intensified in part by the harsh taxation of the Roman government and the severe persecution of early believers.
This means that if you were a believer in Jerusalem, you might head to your backyard garden looking for some kind of veggies to roast for dinner. But as you look out back, you see the vines are dry because of the famine. There hasn’t been rain in days.
You head to the grocery store with a few coins you scraped together from work and under the sofa cushions. Along the way you get stopped along the way by a Roman centurion, who tells you that he has just instituted a walking tax. You owe him ½ of your coins to avoid getting stabbed in the stomach. You decide you like your stomach and hand him the money.
When you get to the local grocery store you try to buy some potatoes with the coins you have available, but the merchants see the cross necklace you are wearing. He says, “I’m sorry, but we that’s not enough money. You’ll have to put that food back,” even as his hand reaches out to accept the exact same amount of money for the exact same amount of potatoes from the very next person in line -- who happened to not be wearing a cross necklace.
Poverty was a part of life for believers in Jerusalem.
Neighboring churches wanted to help. They organized a special offering for the church in Jerusalem.
One of those church was located in Corinth. This group had pledged a significant amount of money to the church in Jerusalem. Something that lifted people’s spirits. “If only we get the money from Corinth, we’ll be in much better shape. We can stop eating Ramen noodles. We can introduce veggies back into our diets. We can hold potlucks again!”
But after their incredible pledge, word had gotten around to their former Pastor, a guy named Paul, that the people were talking about not fulfilling their financial commitments to the offering. 2nd Corinthians is a letter he writes to them, in part, to encourage them to complete the offering.
In chapter 8, he begins the section on fulfilling their offering by writing about the incredible generosity he had already seen from the church in Macedonia.
A generosity that was a bit strange…
We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. During a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. (2 Cor. 8:1-2)
Did you catch that part?
The Macedonian believers were also undergoing severe trial.
They were also dealing with persecution.
They were also struggling with poverty.
You might expect them to say, “I’d like to help. But I have to put food on my own table first.”
Their poverty welled up in rich generosity. This leads to the first principle of Strange Generosity.
1) Strange Generosity Gives when in Need
If ever there was a year to NOT give, 2020 might be it.
You might have lost your job.
You might have lost your childcare preventing you getting a new one.
Everyone else losing their job might have affected your sales.
Isolation might have emotionally affected your ability to apply for jobs.
Your 401k might have gone down.
Your grandma’s 401k might have gone down meaning you didn’t get that early Christmas monetary gift you are used to.
Many will forego giving this year because they don’t have what they normally do!
God calls you NOT to give up giving.
Even if you’re hurting.
Even if it’s difficult.
Even if it’s hard.
Don’t give up giving.
Because God has still given to you.
Because God will still give to you.
Because God will give through you.
Maybe you’re saying:
I can budget a dollar or two out of my couple thousand-dollar paycheck for a trip to the Dollar Tree.
But not much more.
Before you finalize that number into your Excel spreadsheet. Read Paul’s next description of the Macedonians:
For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. (v.3)
Did you see that?
I’m not even entirely sure what that means.
It’s as if they looked at their budget.
Saw that they could give $5 to the offering without holding a negative balance.
And said, “Let’s put down $20. I’m sure God will take care of us.”
Then, went home, sold their last jar of olive oil, and gave the money to Paul.
2) Strange Generosity Gives ABUNDANTLY
It’s like the time that Jesus and his disciples were hanging out near the temple treasury. One by one they watched people enter into the temple courtyard to drop off their offerings. Rich person after rich person came one by one and dropped off a big old bag of money.
But finally, it was a widow’s turn.
She didn’t have a big old bag of money.
She just had a handkerchief with two small coins in it.
She dropped them into the jar.
And Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “I tell you the truth. She gave more than all of them. Because they gave a small portion.
They still have plenty in their accounts.
She gave it all.
Because she trusts God with it all.
This concept is all about trust.
That woman trusted that the God of the Universe who created such fine gems as diamond, rubies, gold and silver…
…would be able to replenish her copper coins.
Unbelievers have to chalk it up to luck or hard work.
But you know you have a God who loves you abundantly dearly taking care of you.
The strange generosity continues. Read verse 4:
Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.
Pay attention to that.
This group of believers were begging to be a part of giving.
That’s not usually how our world works.
Usually, it’s the reverse.
Christmas fliers stuffed in mailboxes asking to be GIVEN some money.
Christmas emails stuffed in your Junk folder asking to be GIVEN some money.
Text messages from people on Facebook, that seems fishy because you already were friends with that person, asking to be GIVEN some money.
In a world where people BEG to be given….
3) Strange Generosity BEGS to Give
It begs to give to family.
It begs to give friends.
It begs to give coworkers.
It begs to give church family.
It begs to give to the guy down the block that you talked to that one time.
It begs to give to that guy on the corner asking for money.
It begs to give to anyone.
It begs to give for any reason.
It begs to give.
Can you imagine this in action?
Urgently texting your friends…How can I give to you?
Running from your car to the guy on the corner? How can I help you?
Standing on the corner with signs as cars drive by – Have Help & Ready to Give!
This is godly.
God loves giving.
He was thrilled in giving us a Savior.
He is thrilled in giving us blessings.
As part of his family, God wants to delight in giving to others
As he delights in giving to us.
This applies to more than money. Read verse 5:
And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves…. (v.5)
They said to Paul:
Here’s my time. I’ll donate it to the project.
Here’s my feet. I’ll use them to go door to door to collect.
Here’s my mouth. I’ll use it to encourage others to give.
Here’s my mind. I’ll use it to count the money.
Here’s my right bicep. I’ll use it to carry the collection in a big old money bag.
The strangely generous know that giving means more than giving money.
It means giving yourself.
4) Strange Generosity Gives SELF
This is important.
Because you might not have a lot of money this year.
You might be listening to this sermon and feeling disappointed.
You might feel if you’re unable to participate in giving.
Giving involves your time.
Giving involves your talents.
Giving involves your treasures.
Giving involves some time to listen to a friend’s relationship struggles.
Giving involves your graphic art skills to design a Christmas greeting for a coworker.
Giving involves your extra Tupperware to your neighbor because they were baking Christmas cookies and ran out of storage containers.
Giving can involve all kinds of things.
But one thing giving always involves?
Check out verse 6. Paul stops complimenting the example of the Macedonian’s giving and turns to the matter of the Corinthians. He writes,
So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. (v.6-8)
Because the Corinthians had made big plans.
They had promised big amounts of money.
They had created big expectations.
And were about to bring a BIG disappointment.
Paul reminds them that…
5) Strange Generosity Takes ACTION
It doesn’t just talk a big game.
It doesn’t just say it’s going to be generous.
It doesn’t just nod in agreement at pastor’s sermon on strange generosity.
It does the strange thing.
And actually takes action.
There was a study done recently about people on Social Media. It found that when people get angry at the poverty and injustice in the world and they say mean things about society and are outraged that people are struggling. People who post about those problems on a day to day basis?
They aren’t the people that actually give in such a way to change it.
Who gives then?
People who don’t use time complaining.
Probably because they are too busy giving.
Be that kind of giving.
The kind that sees a need.
The kind that doesn’t lament the need.
The kind that takes action.
II. The STRANGEST Generosity
There’s one more aspect of strange giving that motivates all these principles of strange giving. It’s found in verse 9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
There’s no one richer than God!
He owns storehouses of lightning.
He built the golden streets of heaven.
He owns everything.
But he gave it all up.
About 2000 some years ago, God gave it all up.
He was born in a barn.
He was placed in a feeding trough.
He was clothed with a few pieces of old cloth.
He grew up the son of a blue-collar worker.
He took to the streets at age 30.
He was homeless as he taught others about the riches of God’s kingdom in the sandals on his feet and the clothes on his back.
He lost that.
The only thing he had at the end of his life?
A crown of thorns jammed into his head.
And your sin.
All of it.
But he did all of this, so that you might become rich!
Because Jesus became poor.
You have the riches of heaven.
Because Jesus became poor.
You have the riches of eternal life.
Because Jesus became poor.
You own the rich news that you are forgiven.
6) Strange Generosity Gives FOR JESUS’ SAKE
We give because we have all we need.
We give because we have a savior.
We give because we have a place in heaven.
And we give that others might learn about the Savior too. Amen.
The other day I was working on plans to get this church ready for Christmas. I had sent out an email on how we were going to decorate: A big tree, ornaments, wreaths, etc.
Someone, very thoughtfully and wisely pointed out:
Those candles that we usually pass out for the candlelight service…
Should we do those?
You’d have to wipe them between every use.
Wear gloves as you pass them out.
And when people lowered their masks to blow them out, well…that kinda defeats the purpose of the masks.
And I said:
No candle preparation necessary.
Christmas preparations are strangely different this year.
But maybe that’s by design.
This year, more than ever, God has blessed us with a much shorter To-Do List.
Rather than fill it up with virtual versions of holiday busy-ness.
Perhaps we fill it up with something of eternal benefit.
Something to bring us closer to God.
Today we are going to look some STRANGE preparations. Before we learn about them, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. A STRANGE Messenger
The lesson we are looking at comes from Matthew 3. Time-wise, it occurs years after the birth of Jesus, but before Jesus begins his earthly ministry. It is a section of Scripture filled with a certain type of strange preparation promoted by a rather strange individual.
In those days, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness of Judea… (Mt. 3:1)
The word for wilderness indicates a place in the desert.
A place far apart from civilization.
A place surrounded by bugs and wild animals.
A place…that would be a very strange choice as a preaching station.
Most preachers preached in the synagogues.
Most preachers preached in the towns.
Most preachers preached where people were.
John’s location was a strange place to start preaching.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. (v.4a)
Again – a bit of a strange choice.
Most of the people who served in the local synagogues did so while wearing fine robes.
The high priest was especially well dressed.
He wore a golden crown around his head.
He wore priestly breastplate.
He wore an expensively fashioned breastplate.
He had fines gemstones like rubies, emerald and diamonds fastened to it.
He wore a delicately woven ephod.
He wore a fine linen underneath the ephod.
But John didn’t wear any of that.
He wore camel skins.
Something that even your average, everyday citizen wouldn’t be caught going to church in.
His food was locusts and wild honey. (v.4b)
Well, look at one of them.
Aren’t they cute?
The beady eyes.
The sinewy legs.
The creepy antenna.
Who wouldn’t want to eat a locust?
Everybody that wasn’t John the Baptist.
But perhaps one of the strangest things about John the Baptist wasn’t his look, his location, or his food choice.
It was how well his “wilderness church” was growing.
Then Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him. (V.5)
Essentially this would be like large groups of people abandoning their Sunday church homes.
Heading out to the shores of the Neuse River.
Maybe under a dirty bridge.
And listening to a guy that looked kinda like a hobo!
John was a STRANGE messenger.
II. STRANGE Fulfillment
Why were so many people abandoning their traditional religious spaces and headed out to the wilderness to hear what this wild looking man had to say?
Because of his message.
It wasn’t your typical message.
It was a bit…STRANGE.
“Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near!” (v.3)
The word “repent” in its simplest form means to change direction.
If you are driving down the street and you miss your exit, the nice lady on the phone will tell you to, “Take a u-turn ahead.”
Because you are going the wrong direction.
You need to turn around.
Outwardly, “repent” means that if you’re doing a sinful action, you change direction and not do it anymore.
In a deeper sense, full repentance means that if you’re doing a sinful action, you change the direction of your heart.
That you turn around to follow the course that God wants.
Rather than the sinful course that you want.
Why was this such a strange message?
Those people that gathered in the synagogue with the fancy clothing.
They didn’t tell each other to change their hearts.
Because they thought their hearts were just fine.
It was everyone else who needed to change.
This message bread a very different version of repentance.
Other’s hearts need to CHANGE; my heart is FINE.
The funny thing about this.
As you read that on the screen right now.
You are probably thinking:
Man, that is awful.
Man, they really needed to change.
I’m glad I don’t a heart like that.
Responding to the pharisaical repentance of the Pharisees.
With some pharisaical repentance of your own.
Pharisaical repentance is a huge temptation in 2020.
You know who needs to change: it’s the rest of the world.
All those people who don’t wear their mask enough.
All those people who wear those masks too often.
All those Democrats.
All those Republicans.
The problem is with my spouse.
The problem is with my friend.
The problem is with Great Uncle Joe.
The problem is with my kids.
The problem is with mom and dad.
The problem is not my problem, because I don’t have a problem.
Another way to say Pharisaical repentance is…
John’s message was different from that of the Pharisees.
John’s message challenged each hearer to stop looking outside themselves for change.
Instead, to look inside.
John’s message led to godly repentance.
I need to change; MY heart is a MESS.
It’s not like the Pharisees were entirely wrong.
The world was filled with sinners.
The world was certainly a mess.
But they had forgotten that they were a part of that world.
Don’t you forget.
Don’t hear this message and think – I should send it to someone else.
Don’t hear this message and think – I hope so-and-so is listening.
Don’t heart this message and think – This really applies to my spouse.
Apply it to yourself.
Repent of your sin.
Repent of your lust.
Repent of your greed.
Repent of your hatred.
Repent of your racism.
Repent of your selfishness.
Repent of your pride.
Repent of your hatefulness.
Repent of your sins.
Repent of your sinful heart.
III. STRANGE Urgency
One of the most powerful things about John’s message is the timeline that he gives.
He doesn’t say repent sometime before the end of 2020.
He doesn’t say repent in the next couple of days.
He doesn’t even say repent after you think it over for a while, like the next couple of hours or something…before the Panther game starts.
“Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near!” (v.3)
We have all been eagerly anticipating the vaccine for COVID-19.
It appears to be very near.
Scholars are releasing timelines that suggest a select few will be able to get it before the end of 2020.
That high priority groups might get the vaccine by early 2021.
That the general population will be able to be vaccinated into spring and summer.
That’s good news.
What if you don’t make it until then?
What if you get COVID and it’s fatal?
If there’s anything we’ve learned during the pandemic, it’s that life could end very quickly.
You know – a big question that people are asking themselves before they leave the house today is: “Am I ready for COVID?”
Do I have my mask?
Do I have my sanitizer?
Am I ready to get in and out of the store without lingering?
But there’s a better question to ask.
There’s a much better question to ask than simply “am I ready to face COVID?”
Are you ready to face God?
If you’re deeply engrossed in sin, you aren’t.
God’s kingdom is near.
Of course, there’s another way to look at John’s message.
Go a little farther in Matthew 3: The one who comes after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. (Mt. 3:11)
It turns out that John is just a hype man.
He’s just the opening act.
He’s not the headliner.
But the headliner was near.
Then Jesus came… (Mt. 3:13)
And suddenly the kingdom of God…
The King of the kingdom of God…
…was no more than a few feet away.
He was just standing over there.
You could talk to him without having to shout.
You could look at the God of the universe eye to eye.
And in those eyes.
You would see…
God’s deep love for you.
Love that brought the kingdom of heaven onto the kingdom of earth.
Love that is bringing the kingdom of heaven to your heart right now.
And Mightier than John?
John warned against sin.
Jesus took sin by the neck and crushed it.
John baptized with water.
Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit himself.
Jesus died…and then came back to life.
Because of Jesus’ work…
The kingdom of heaven that only brought judgment for our sin, now brings peace.
The kingdom of heaven that was impossible for us to enter has a door, wide open.
The kingdom of heaven that seemed so far off is near.
IV. STRANGE Preparations
(1) Prepare the Way
This doesn’t happen as much down here. But when I was growing up winter meant snow.
(Since I lived in Wisconsin, it might be more accurate to say autumn meant snow – and sometimes late summer).
But when it snowed a significant amount, dad would wake me up.
Get out there and start shoveling.
We had a driveway about as long as this church. We had to shovel a path because our garage was at the back of it and a foot of snow was blocking the exit, making it impossible to leave.
“Prepare the way of the Lord.” (v.3)
What things are in the way of your relationship with Jesus?
A TV show?
Unfiltered internet access?
Prepare the way.
Take a big old metaphorical shovel this December and…
Prepare the way for Jesus.
Even if it’s the world thinks it’s strange.
I know a guy who struggled with pornography.
He was convicted by God’s Word.
He was called to repentance.
He deeply desired to please God, but he knew that it had become a type of addiction to him.
He installed filters on his internet.
He got an accountability partner.
He made his home a safe place.
But he also traveled for business.
He had to stay in hotels.
Some of those hotels have HBO.
And HBO has some late-night objectionable material.
So, you know what he did?
Whenever he got to the hotel, he would immediately enter in the room.
Unplug the TV.
Carry to the front desk.
And tell them….
I won’t be needing this tonight.
But the kingdom of heaven is near.
Prepare the way for the Lord.
(2) Make the Paths Straight
Because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
Yet sometimes I think the way we connect with Jesus is more like a roundabout.
You know what I’m talking about?
Those big circular things that you enter without having to stop and then you have a second to determine if you should take the exit or continue. Otherwise, you have to keep going around the circle until you have the chance for the exit again.
Sometimes we do roundabouts to Jesus.
I’ll get around to morning devotion, after I do a couple of laps on Facebook.
I’ll get around to saying my prayer after I beat the next level on Candy Crush! (There’s special bonus points right now.)
I’ll get around to worship again, just after I buy all the gifts, wrap all the gifts, label all the gifts, and pass out the gifts and – ooops I forgot someone. Sorry Jesus.
Make straight the paths. (v.3)
Get Jesus on your schedule.
Don’t remove Jesus from your schedule.
Set a time in the morning that you will spend with Jesus each day.
Don’t think this is too hard.
There is time in your schedule for Jesus.
It’s the only thing on your To-Do List with eternal important.
Make a straight path to him.
(3) Celebrate baptism
This was a big part of John’s ministry. He called people to repentance and then he would wash them with water. Physically and tangibly speaking to the people’s hearts and saying, “Your sin has been washed away. Now, go live apart from it.”
Have you been baptized?
Take a moment.
Marvel in it.
Your sin has been washed away.
Whatever the sin is
Whatever has been convicting your heart.
Whatever you feeling kinda icky.
In your baptism, Jesus washes it away.
You are clean.
You are pure.
And if you haven’t been baptized?
In baptism, you are washed.
Not just with some lukewarm church water.
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19)
You are washed in the name of God the Father who floods the world with his love.
You are washed in the name of Jesus Christ whose blood covers all your sin.
You are washed in the name of the Holy Spirit who washes away unbelief.
Repent and be baptized.
The kingdom of God is near.