Love. Generosity. There are people in your life who go above and beyond what’s expected. People who impact you in an extraordinary way. I feel blessed to have more than my fair share of people like that in my life. My friend Lyn is one of those people. We worked at Disneyland together and would hang out often. She was one of the sweetest and nicest people I’ve met and her good nature really stood out one day while I was up at UCLA during my undergraduate days. There was a girl I had a serious crush on at school and things weren’t going so well. I called Lyn up and just poured out my heart to her and as she listened to my frustration and sadness, she told me everything was going to be okay and then said, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right there.” I waited in my room when there was a knock at the door about an hour or two later. I opened it up to see Lyn there, holding this Pooh Bear she bought just for me. She gave me a hug, said “I thought you could use a friend,” and just sat with me for a while before heading back home. That one act of kindness has stuck with me ever since. That was about 30 years ago now and it still feels fresh in my mind. Who does that? Not only did she make the long drive up from Anaheim to UCLA (no small feat in itself), but she made time to stop at Disneyland, get me a big Pooh Bear, brave the traffic, and find parking on a campus notorious for little to no parking. Not to mention we were both college students on a budget. Still she did all of that just for me.
In times of need, it’s good to know you have friends you can count on.
Back when I was in seminary, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a seminar in France about Methodism in Europe. We were going to stay for a week at a Christian retreat center in the small city of Sete on the French coast and would meet up with fellow pastors from all over Europe. To go would cost quite a bit of money and Cassie and I were not as well off then as we are now. It was a struggle just to send me to seminary. Even now, it would still have been a stretch to pay for it, but Cassie agreed this was too good of an opportunity to pass up so we committed to figuring out the finances along the way. As part of the curriculum, the school had us send out ten letters to friends and family to ask for their help in deferring the cost. I did it to fulfill my obligation to the class, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be a burden to family and friends or make them think I was abusing our relationship to get something out of it, so I also sent a separate note to everyone to explain all of that and let them know we weren’t expecting anything. But one of my friends did. My buddy Lance gave me $500. I was flabbergasted. Up to that point, I don’t think Cassie and I had given $500 in one lump sum to anyone or anything so to receive that gift was extraordinary. And it’s not like Lance was rich. He didn’t own a mansion. He was just making a living like everyone else so $500 was a very significant amount of money. But he said he wanted to help and knew this was important. It was. To this day, the things we saw and talked about during that week have impacted my life and my ministry. It was the first time ever I had the chance to travel abroad. It was the first time I had the chance to experience God in a different country through different eyes. It really was life changing and I have been so grateful for that opportunity.
When people show extraordinary love, it changes your life.
And you don’t have to travel across the world for it to have that kind of effect on you. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, I want you to find the book of Leviticus 25:8-10. Leviticus 25:8-10. Think back to a time when someone in your life did something like that for you. Think of a time when someone was there for you just when you needed them. Maybe they were there to comfort you when you were feeling like the world was coming to an end. Maybe they took care of you at the hospital and came to visit when you were scared or lonely. Maybe you were in need and someone reached out with a helping hand. That is humanity at its best, when we behave like the people God is hoping we will be. And when we do that, we can change the world. Lance helped me out about 15 years ago and Lyn came to my side almost 30 years ago and I still remember both like they happened yesterday. When people show extraordinary love, you can’t help but have it affect you. It influences you. It changes you. And that’s exactly the way God planned it. God WANTS us to be extraordinary givers of compassion and kindness. God WANTS us to overwhelm people with our love and generosity. Because that’s how we are going to change the world.
8 “‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years.9 Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. – Leviticus 25:8-10
Every fiftieth year was proclaimed by God to be a Year of Jubilee!
It is a time of extraordinary forgiveness, compassion and kindness. God tells the Israelites, “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” But these aren’t just words. God tells the Israelites to set his people free. If someone was in debt, their debt was to be forgiven. If someone had to sell their land, their land was given back. If someone was a servant, they were released from service. It was complete freedom and forgiveness. God wanted his people to be free to serve only God. He knows when we are bound to someone else and could not take care of our basic needs, we could not truly devote ourselves to him. So just as we observe the Sabbath once a week to free ourselves for worship and rest, God wants us as a society to be restored and renewed. Restoration is important to God and thus it should be important to us. At the end of the chapter, God proclaims, “‘Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, 55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” We are his people and we cannot be free to serve God when we are obliged to serve others. The key to free us to be God’s people is this form of radical forgiveness, compassion, and kindness.
And how vital it is to have those needs met. We’ve talked primarily about physiological needs so far – food, water, shelter, clothing – but we’ve moved beyond those into what Maslow would refer to as higher needs. The need for security, the need for love, the need for kindness and acceptance. These are important needs also, every bit as important as the physical ones. Because like our physiological needs, when they aren’t filled we are inhibited from being the people God created us to be. And that’s why God demanded we celebrate this “Year of Jubilee,” to free us from whatever might be holding us back in this life. This idea of the Year of Jubilee is found embodied in the life of Christ. Christ came to liberate us from our sins, to free us from the shackles of rulers and teachers who stressed form and function over love and acceptance. Christ came not to tear down the law, but to free us from the yoke it had become and to help us realize the law was there to help us become our best selves. It wasn’t meant to be a tool of oppression as it had become. The Pharisees would use the law as a bludgeoning tool instead of a guide to right living. And we see that same attitude in our world today. People use the law to get what they want, to hurt those who aren’t like themselves, and justify their actions with “the law.” But they are not using the law as it was intended. Instead they are abusing the law for their own desires. Look at the immigration detention centers across the country. Horrific stories of abusive conditions have been reported and the governments only response is “they shouldn’t break the law.” Does that give us the right to treat them with cruelty and abusive behavior? Does that make it okay to separate siblings and only allow them to see one another once a week? Does that mean it’s alright to give them rotting food and broken bathrooms? The kind of behavior we would not find acceptable among our own citizens we somehow find acceptable for those who are not? Many of our leaders like to proclaim we are a Christian nation. Then how can we blatantly ignore God’s call on us to care for the alien in our midst? How can we ignore God’s call on us to take care of the poor and those in need and still say we are God’s children?
The next Year of Jubilee is in 2025.
The Catholic Church celebrates it every 25 years instead of 50. In fact, when needed, the Pope calls for special Jubilee years like in 2015 when Pope Francis declared the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. But why wait? Why wait for the Catholic Church or for the Jewish calendar to align with the values behind the year of Jubilee? Why not instead take steps to live our lives in such extraordinary ways that we make an impact on the world around us constantly? Especially during the Christmas season as we are reminded of the great gift God bestowed upon the world through his son, Jesus, let us remind the world that Christianity is founded on the ideas of forgiveness, mercy, and redemption and act accordingly. Do one extraordinary act this year. Just one. Ponder upon the ways you can do something to impact the life of another. It doesn’t have to be with money. Look at how my friend Lyn was there for me with her presence and her thoughtfulness and what a long-lasting impact that had on my life. You can do the same. You can offer to let someone stay in your home. You can forgive a debt someone owes you. You can forgive someone for something they did to you when you have every right to be upset. There are lots of ways to be an extraordinary person. Sometimes it’s in doing the little things without complaint and with a smile day after day. The idea that God loves a cheerful giver does not just mean with money, but with everything we do. Let’s make this year and every year a chance to show the extraordinary love of God.
What does Jesus look like to you?
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine Jesus was sitting next to you in the pews. What would he look like? Think about the color of his eyes, the color of his hair, the color of his skin. In your image, is Jesus wearing a robe or is he dressed in something more modern? Try to picture how tall he is, the size of his foot, the sandals on his feet. Take that in for a moment and then open your eyes. If each of us had a sketch artist sitting with us and brought those pictures of Jesus up to the front, there would likely be many different versions to see. That’s because each of us pictures Jesus in our own way. Sometimes those images are remarkably similar, sometimes wildly different, but all with our own unique perspective. I went to a conference on multi-cultural ministry and the pastor asked us a great question, “If we hung up a picture of Jesus in the church, what would Jesus look like?” I hadn’t thought of that before. I guess in my mind, I thought of the same white robe, brown hair, brown-eyed, bearded Jesus most of us have seen. But he noted when you asked different people from different cultural backgrounds about how they picture Jesus, they often saw Jesus as black or Asian or Hispanic and that in his church they celebrated that diversity by having lots of different images of Christ so people could find images they relate to. It reminds me of a story I heard when I took Alpha Course for the first time. A Japanese woman was explaining the difference between European culture and Japanese culture. She told the man she was talking to, “What most people don’t understand is that rice is central to the Japanese way of life. Japanese people have two stomachs – one for rice and one for regular food. Even if you filled the one with regular food all the way, a Japanese person would still be hungry if they didn’t have any rice.” She said, “If Jesus had come to the Japanese people first, I’m convinced he wouldn’t have said, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’ He would have said, ‘I am the Rice of Life.’”
It is important to understand that Jesus enters into our lives in different ways.
The way I’ve encountered Jesus won’t be the same as the way you encountered Jesus or even the same way your kids encountered Jesus. God seeks us out wherever we are in life. He reaches out to us through the people, places, and things that surround us and for everyone that’s different. One of the great rewards of being a pastor is getting the opportunity to hear how Christ has changed the lives of each person, how God has worked in and through that person’s life. I can’t tell you the number of different stories I’ve heard and yet how similar each one is. One man who came to Christ told me it was because of the time he spent with his grandmother driving around in her van. She used to pick him up from school as a child to help out his parents, and when she did, she would often be playing Christian music on the radio or talking to him about things happening at her church. Something about her, about the life she led, made him curious about who Jesus was and how he could be dead for thousands of years and still have this impact on her life. That curiosity stuck with him all of his life until he decided to give it a try and dedicate his life to Christ. Then there was the man who wandered away from God most of his life. His mother prayed for him every day, but he pretty much ignored the pull on his life. Different people would bring up God during the decades he wandered away, and it would intrigue him that Jesus kept coming back into his life. Finally, a friend convinced him to pick up a Bible and caused him to ask some real questions about life for the first time. It led him down a road where he finally decided it was time to come back and accept Jesus into his heart and just weeks before his mother died, he was baptized. He was so glad his mother had lived long enough to know he made that choice for himself. For me, I think I’ve told you, but it was because God surrounded me with people who kept funneling me towards him. They kept giving me glimpses, kept nudging me gently. My mom, my friends like Mark and Steve, my girlfriend/fiancée/wife Cassie were all people God used to reach out to me. And even though I knew God and prayed since I was a kid, it wasn’t until my 30’s that I really felt God working deep inside me and lighting a fire in me that has stayed going ever since. Another friend named Steve who was in our men’s group back in Alpharetta gave me some wise advice. He said that in his darkest moments God was always there, but that he didn’t always see him when he was going through it. But knowing that would help sustain him through the next one. He would simply look back on his life and all the times God showed up and it would give him strength.
I am convinced that more than anything this world needs God.
When you think about all of the violence, the mass shootings, the terrorists, and every sort of evil happening all over the globe and in our own backyard, I can’t help but wonder if these things would have happened if people really and truly knew God. And I don’t mean religious nuts who claim to be Christian and then commit acts of rage. I mean if we had the peace in our hearts that only God can provide. This passage goes to the heart of what people are truly craving in the world today. Despite all of the rhetoric, diatribe, and posturing, people are looking for purpose, hope, and meaning in the world – the kind that can only be given by God. We might substitute other things in place of it, but only in Jesus do we find the authentic source of what we need the most.
5 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” – John 6:35-40
When we think of hunger, we think of food.
But food isn’t the only thing we are hungry for. Sometimes we are hungry for attention. Sometimes we are hungry for knowledge. Sometimes we are hungry for affection. There was a study done by Harvard University testing the theory that parents should let their babies cry and they found that doing so has long-lasting traumatic effects on the baby’s life. It influences how they socialize and how they are able to build loving relationships in the future. Americans in particular tend to dismiss these medical findings because society has told us for so long that letting a baby cry was the right method to create independent, self-reliant children, but it ends up having the opposite effect. On the other extreme, Rene Spitz studied infants raised in hospital institutions compared to those raised by mothers who were imprisoned and the difference was shocking. More than a third of the babies in the hospital died while none in prison passed away. Another study showed that babies raised in orphanages compared to foster homes were 30% more likely to develop mental illness, had IQs nine points lower on average, and were less happy than their counterparts. Food isn’t the only thing we are hungry for.
When he declares “I am the bread of life” he is telling us that he is as important to our health and well-being as any amount of food we consume. Just as we are hungry for food, we also have a spiritual hunger that simply cannot be fully satisfied in any other way than with Jesus in our lives. He promises that all who seek him will always be able to find him and will no longer suffer from spiritual hunger. And so many people in the world today seem to be starving for both. The World Food Programme estimates there are about 1 in 9 people who “go to bed on an empty stomach” and about 1 in 3 that are malnourished. UNICEF estimates that nearly half of all deaths of children under 5 are caused by malnutrition. Those numbers are astounding 1 in 9 people don’t have enough food and nearly half of child deaths under 5 are from undernutrition. Do any of us really think any child should die from malnutrition? Should any person die from lack of food? If we want people to come to Christ it has to start by helping provide for the world’s needs. As we talked about last week, no one can achieve their full potential when they are suffering from a lack of basic needs. I can’t help but think of that passage from Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” Ask yourself, what are you doing to help meet these basic needs? Just because you are not withholding food from babies who are dying doesn’t mean that you don’t have some part to play in their deaths. It’s not a comfortable thing to think about, but it’s something we need to place in our minds to remind us of both our blessings and our obligations.
Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?
Luke shares with us the story Jesus told to his disciples of these three people who saw this man lying by the side of the road. He had been robbed and stripped of everything. The priest walks by and does nothing. The Levite (who also does priestly work) does nothing. And it’s only the Samaritan who is often cast out by society that does something for the man. Jesus asks the expert in the law, “Who was the neighbor?” and the expert says, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus tells him, “Go and do the same.” So which one are you? Are you the priest and the Levite in the story, or are you the neighbor who does something for those in need? We have to do more than simply talk about Jesus. A man cannot hear you when the grumbling from his stomach drowns out your words. A man cannot hear you when the grumbling from his stomach drowns out your words. We must all do whatever we can to meet the needs of others so they might have the opportunity to see and hear from Jesus.
The point is YOU are the rice of life.
YOU are the rice of life. Or the cookie of life. Or the King’s Hawaiian Bread of life. Or whatever metaphor works for you. The point is that God is calling upon you to meet the needs of his people. Like he told Peter to feed his sheep, God is telling us all to feed his sheep. You might be exactly what that person needs at just the right time. God might be using you to reach someone for Christ and you never know how that might happen. We just continually have to be vigilant in doing as Christ commands and when we do, we can be the bread of life for someone else. I wouldn’t know Christ if it wasn’t for the many people in my life who made it easier for me to see him. Will you be one of those people for someone too?
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. – Luke 2:1-7
What happens when you’re suddenly homeless?
We all need a place to call home. A home provides protection from the weather, a place to rest in relative safety, and a retreat from the outside world. But a home is more than that. A home is an anchor. A home gives us a sense of security. It is a place we make our own. Think about your own home for a moment. Imagine your favorite place to sit. Think about the comfort of your bed. Picture in your mind the inside of your refrigerator and where you keep your favorite things to eat. Now imagine all of that suddenly GONE. That’s what happened to my family about six years ago. We were living in Dinuba at the time serving two smaller churches in that quaint, rural town. One Sunday after worship while I was cooking in the kitchen, the oil in the pan burst into flame! Without realizing it, I had left the burner on high for too long in a shallow pan and it suddenly caught on fire. I tried turning off the stove or just moving the pan off the burner, but the flames kept attacking me like they were alive. I couldn’t get close enough without risking getting burned. I immediately opened the doors under the sink to grab the fire extinguisher, but in just those few seconds the flames had risen high enough to catch the wooden cabinets next to the stove and they caught on fire. The flames raced toward the ceiling and I knew it was moving too fast for me to stop it. Instead, I shouted out to Emma to get out of the house. I opened the back door for the dogs and rushed to Emma’s room to make sure she was safe outside. I went back inside, got my lockbox with our passports, and a watch Cassie gave me for my birthday a few years ago and threw them on the lawn. Then I asked Emma what her favorite stuffed animals were and grabbed what I could. But as I was leaving the house that second time, I knew I couldn’t go back in. The smoke, if you could call it that since it looked black as tar, had come down to head level and already I was having trouble breathing. I could hear a loud CRACK and something exploding which later I found out was the microwave. And within the space of five minutes, we went from having a home to not having a home. That’s how quick you can go from having a home to being homeless. Five minutes.
It’s scary to think about how many people are homeless in America today.
According to reports from 2016, more than half a MILLION people are looking for a place to sleep every night. What is more sad is about 138,000 of them are children. And that is just a very woeful underestimate of the overall problem. When you include children living in other people’s homes, waiting for foster care placement, living in cars, parks, and bus stations, the number rises to about a MILLION homeless children. By far the leading cause of homelessness among women is domestic violence. About 90% of homeless women are escaping from physical and/or sexual abuse. And it’s a mistake to believe that most homeless people are suffering from mental illness. While it’s true that the proportion of mental illness among homeless people is about 3 or 4 times that of the general population, still about 75-80% of homeless people are just like me and you – normal, everyday people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Our neighborhood suffers from some of the highest concentration of homelessness in America. In the past two years, the number of homeless in Berkeley shot up 13% which is far better than the 30% increase in San Francisco and the 47% increase in Oakland. Needless to say, the situation is pretty bad. California already has nearly a quarter of all homeless people in America, by far the most of any other state. High rent, mortgage foreclosures, and lack of affordable housing are just some of the causes of this epidemic. And while we attempt to bandage up the problem, we seem to be doing little to address the root cause. It’s thanks to the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center and places like it that seek to find solutions to this crisis that we have hope for one day finding a solution. But we all need to help in some way.
But homelessness is hardly an American problem.
As bad as it is here, I cannot even imagine what it’s like in places like Syria where over 12 million people are refugees either inside or outside of the country. According to WorldVision, 6.7 million refugees fled Syria while 6.2 million are displaced inside the country, effectively homeless, but more than that they are often without food, medical care, or even drinkable water. They estimate that nearly 70% live on less than $1.90 a day, 95% lack healthcare, and 70% don’t have access to clean water. Children are being especially harmed. Not only are they subject to disease and malnutrition, but instead of going to school they are being forced to work demeaning or dangerous jobs for little pay. Some are forced into the war. Nearly 40% of school-age children don’t go to school, either because they are working, forced to serve in the war, or because their schools have been destroyed or hijacked by military groups or refugees. And yet, our of our fear, out of our lack of faith, countries all over the world are limiting the number of refugees they are willing to help out including our own. The United States used to be a world leader in refugee resettlement. We used to help more refugees than all other countries combined and did so for decades. Since 2017, our refugee resettlement rate has dropped drastically. In that entire time, nearly three years, we’ve admitted fewer refugees than we did in 2016 alone. For the first time in decades, we no longer lead the world in resettlement and will drop our numbers to an all-time low of 18,000. This is amidst a crisis that is only growing year-by-year. We’ve told the world, “There’s no room at the inn.”
Fear has gripped the world.
Fear of the other. Fear of something different. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. These are not new fears. These are fears we fight with every day and not just on an international scale, but on a personal one, too. Fear is the lynchpin of evil. It drives many of us to do irrational and harmful things to one another. It creates an atmosphere of anger and rage. It causes separation from God and division among communities of people. And it seems to be growing under the banner of nationalism. So much hatred of “the other.” It is the exact opposite of what Christ challenges us to do – to love others. One of the apostles, Luke, records Christ sharing these thoughts, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36).” We are not meant to only love the people who love us. We are not meant to only do good to those who first do good to us. And we are not supposed to expect payment for services rendered, but instead do it out of mercy and love. With the world in crisis, how can we call ourselves Christians if we don’t do something about it?
We are sometimes so sheltered from suffering we don’t realize how deep the need is.
Trevor Noah became host of The Daily Show after Jon Stewart left with Jon’s blessings, and Trevor tells the story about how they had to force him to move into Jon’s office. He said he was really happy with the little office he had been given. It was simple. There was a little brown desk with a skylight and he was good with it. But (I assume the producers) wanted him to move into Jon’s office which had exposed brick but he was not a fan of exposed brick. He said, “Exposed brick is a classic example of privilege in my world, because coming from South Africa (coming from any poor country to be honest) exposed brick displays that you do not have the ability to plaster your walls and paint them. You don’t have enough money to do that. So all we had growing up was exposed brick. And then you move to a place that says, ‘We have so much plaster and so much paint, in order for me to be different I’m going to expose the bricks in my walls.’ And everyone says, ‘That is so fantastic! I will pay more for that.’ (Listen to the full insightful and funny podcast) We are fortunate NOT to know the hardships of long-term homelessness. Even for our family, that short bit of time where we lost almost everything we had, we had enough resources to recover, and even still it’s something that haunts us to this day. It’s hard to imagine having that BE your existence, and what kind of lifelong impact that has on a young child and a family. For millions of people around the world it is the reality they are living. How can we expect the world to know the love of God when they struggle with simply existing? But it is also an opportunity for us to show the love of God to a world that is hurting. There are so many ways to help. Not only are we supporting the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center during the Advent season, but there are numerous organizations all across the Bay Area from Ruby’s Place in Castro Valley, to Back on My Feet in the City, to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project right here in town. We’ve listed some of these here and below, but there are so many more. No matter how you choose to give to this crisis – whether it is with your time, talent, gifts, service, or witness – find your own way and your own means to help. Because Mary and Joseph aren’t the only ones without a room during this Advent season.
Places to Give Your Time, Gifts, and Service
“Clothes make the man.”
You’ve probably heard that saying before. Clothes are a status symbol in our society. The shoes on your feet, the clothes on your back, the watch on your wrist all seem to MATTER. At least to some. Your clothes say something about the person you are. Wearing the “right” clothes can place you firmly with the “in” crowd, or definitely “out.” When I was in high school, the things to wear were Air Jordan shoes, Members Only jackets, and Guess jeans. But it changes with every generation. Every new group of kids has their own set of clothes that make them cool. The same is true for adults. This isn’t a youth only movement. What you wear and when you wear it goes across all generations. But fashion is fickle. It’s here one day and gone the next. Sometimes it comes back – whether we want it to or not. Bell-bottom jeans and neon sweatshirts have both made a reappearance in my lifetime. For what reason, I don’t know if anyone knows. Interestingly, what you wear not only affects how other people perceive you but even how you perceive yourself. Some researchers did an interesting experiment involving a white lab coat where participants were asked to either wear one or not wear one while doing a task. Now a white lab coat is often a symbol of authority, discipline, and knowledge worn most often by doctors and scientists, but the researchers were curious if it would affect not just the people who interacted with the white lab coat, but the people who wore them as well, and what they found out was that the people who wore the lab coat did significantly better at the task than the people who didn’t. They not only LOOKED more studious and professional, but putting on the coat actually MADE them more studious and professional. The kind of clothes we wear seemingly affects not only other people’s perceptions of us, but our own perception of ourselves.
Interestingly, God talks a lot about clothes in the Bible.
He talks about it in both a spiritual way and a material way. For God, it isn’t important what kind of clothes you wear. It doesn’t matter how good you look or how much money you spent on a pair of shoes. Those things don’t measure a person’s worth. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about this. He said, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)” James is warning us that this is not how Christians are supposed to behave. We’re not supposed to place value on someone based on their clothing or jewelry or anything they put on. We’re supposed to love everyone equally. Jesus tells his followers they shouldn’t worry about clothes at all. He tells his disciples in Matthew 6, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” Jesus isn’t an advocate for nudist colonies. He’s not saying that people should walk around without clothes. Jesus wore clothes. What he’s trying to get his followers to understand is that they shouldn’t focus their life on these things. That there are far more important things to focus your life on than what shoes someone is wearing or what designer made that dress. Jesus wanted us to stop worrying about the inconsequential things and focus on what’s really important.
But there is a type of clothing that IS important to God.
Clothing yourself in Christ. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Romans 13).” Paul writes again to the church in Corinth, “53 …the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15).’” And in his letter to the church at Colossae, he writes, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3).” In each of these instances, Paul is using a metaphor for clothing. He’s telling us that we need to “put on” the likeness of Christ. We need to act as Christ does with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We need to put aside the things that will lead us astray or take us away from our faith, but instead protect ourselves by being covered with Jesus’ teachings. Because Paul knows that as human beings we are prone to go astray. And just as clothing protects us from the weather and from the elements, clothing ourselves in Christ protects us from everything that seeks to pull us away from God.
It’s one of our basic needs and over this Advent season, that’s what we will be focusing on – basic needs that everyone has and how we can meet them. We need air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink. We need shelter to keep us safe from the elements and wild creatures that go bump in the night. Like we said earlier, we need clothes to protect us from the weather and from things we want to keep away from our bodies. And those are just our physiological needs. We also have the need to be loved, the need to feel safe from harm. Albert Maslow hypothesized that before we can become the people God created us to be, we had to fulfill those basic needs first. He called this the Hierarchy of Needs. It’s gone through a number of revisions over the years, but the basics of his hypothesis have pretty much stayed the same since he shared it back in 1954. Did you know Maslow’s hypothesis wasn’t new? God thought of it first. If you remember from our earlier reading, each of these basic needs is called out by God. He challenges us to stand up for others, to feed the hungry, to provide shelter for the poor, to clothe those without clothes, and never to turn our backs on our family. In essence to fulfill the basic needs of all human beings. But it’s not just in the Old Testament that we hear about this call, but in the New Testament as well. In this passage we hear the words of Jesus’ cousin John who has been preaching to anyone who will hear it that we need to have our sins cleansed from us and to repent before God. The earlier prophets predicted that someone would come as a herald for Christ, a guy who would pave the way for Christ’s coming. Sort of like the stand-up comedian that comes out before the main act, except in this case, John is giving a preview of exactly why Jesus has come to Earth.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
John is a passionate preacher.
He’s not afraid to tell it like it is and he’s warning the people of Israel that they shouldn’t assume God’s favor. That just because they are the children of Abraham doesn’t mean they do not need to ask for forgiveness the same as anyone else. I like how John tells the crowd, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” He’s telling them not to be smug in their heritage. Being a child of Abraham is nothing to a being who can create life from the rocks around them. He’s warning them that they have become too complacent in their faith and when someone asks him what they should do, his first answer is this: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even before Jesus would come and basically say the same thing, John told the people of Israel that they needed to provide for one another. They needed to attend to the basic needs of their brothers and sisters. And the first reference he makes is to clothing.
We tend to take clothing for granted.
We don’t worry about HAVING clothing, but about what KIND of clothing we have. But we are so privileged. The New York Times estimated that between 40% and 80% of people in the world live on subsistence income, barely making 50 to 60 cents per day. 40-80%! And even though there are tons of programs to help with other needs, clothing tends to get overlooked. Anshu Gupta, a freelance reporter in India, looked around and saw how in need of clothing so many people in his country were. He said to a reporter for the Times, “In earthquakes, the shake kills people; in a tsunami, the water kills people; but in winter, the cold does not kill people. It’s the lack of proper clothing,” says Gupta. “Why don’t we consider lack of clothing a disaster?” Even in America, many people lack enough clothing just to protect themselves. As part of our ordination process in North Georgia, we took a tour of different Methodist facilities all over the area, but the one that stuck out to me the most was our trip to the United Methodist Children’s Home. Two of my friends have now served as director of this great place that does so much to children in need. They house kids from broken homes or kids in need of protection or kids who have no place to go from all over, but the story I’ll never forget is the one we were told when we visited. The director at the time told us that most of the kids who arrive on their doorstep come with nothing more than a virtually empty backpack that the home often provides. Not only do they lack toys and games and other things we normally associate with kids, but sometimes they don’t even have a change of clothes. Sometimes they don’t have a jacket or a sweater or anything to protect them. Sometimes they don’t have clean underwear. They literally come with the clothes on their backs with no home, no family, no friends. It’s hard to imagine that in a country like ours, we have kids in need like that. That we have ANYONE in need like that. If we are truly Christian, we can’t stand by and do nothing. We must heed God’s call and do more. We must put on the clothing of Christ and reach out to clothe the world. When we help one another take care of our basic needs, we can all grow closer to Christ together. In the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’ll never forget the time I got to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in person.
He was with the White Oak Dance Project, which was a modern dance company he founded. The year was about 1995 and they were doing a series of four dances, only one of which Baryshnikov himself was in. He was already 47 or 48 years old at the time, and I wondered what I would see. Most of the dancers on the stage were much younger than him, about 20 to 25. Would he still be able to keep up with the other dancers, or would he be a sort of pale version of his former self? I guess I was about to find out. The first three acts were admittedly kind of dull. Maybe if you were a modern dance enthusiast you would have appreciated the performance, but I thought it was pretty boring. Had it not been for the fact that I had a crush on the girl who I took to the performance, I probably would have fallen asleep. But then I would have missed Baryshnikov. When he took the stage, he completely captured the attention of everyone in the room. He danced circles around the kids who were nearly half his age. It was as if they were props in a dance routine made just for him. I’d never seen anyone move like that before or since. If there was anyone who epitomized grace, it would have been him.
Funny thing about that word “grace” though.
It’s used in so many different ways. When I share with you the grace that Baryshnikov showed that night, you all know exactly what I mean. But if we were talking about Mark McGwire’s fall from grace over his steroid use, you’d know what that meant too even though they are completely different definitions. We say grace over a meal. The credit card company offers us a grace period to pay our bills. A person shows grace by admitting to their faults. So what does this word really mean? And what does it mean to talk about the grace of God? For anyone who’s been in church for any length of time, you know we talk constantly about God’s grace, but this is another one of those church words that gets thrown out there without any real explanation of what it means. We don’t do a good job of letting people know what grace IS. Many of us assume that everyone knows what we’re talking about, but with so many different interpretations of grace, what do we really mean? Our passage from John will help us shed a little light on the subject. If you would please rise for the reading of the Gospel according to John 1:9-18. Hear now the Word of God.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. – John 1:9-18
The first part of the passage, sets up the last.
By that I mean that when John is describing to us the person of Jesus in those first few verses (9-13), he is setting us up to more fully understand what grace is. Let’s look at the beginning of that passage again. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. Here John is describing Jesus as the bringer of hope and life – the “true light that gives light to everyone.” You’d think that was pretty good, but John then writes, “the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own (the Jewish people), but his own did not receive him.” Despite the fact that Jesus was the one long prophesied about, few people recognized him when he came among them. He was the Word made flesh, meaning Jesus was truly God incarnate, God on Earth, and yet we failed to see him. But even though we failed to see him, John tells us, “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” We have all received grace in place of grace already given. God had already given humanity the gift of life. God had given humanity relief in the desert when Moses led his people to freedom. God had blessed the people again and again and even though we had done nothing to deserve it, God then gave us his son Jesus Christ. And that is the meaning of grace. Grace is the unmerited favor of God for a group of people who didn’t deserve it. Grace is the unmerited favor of God for a group of people who didn’t deserve it. Despite the fact that we wander away constantly; that we turn to worshipping other idols like power, money, beauty, and fame; despite the fact that we fail to give thanks to God for the life we have, God still sent Jesus to redeem us. God forgives us our sin. God still offers us salvation. That is the meaning of grace.
But let’s not mistake grace for mercy.
Grace and mercy are two totally different things. We often pair the two words together, mostly because they go hand-in-hand, but they have very different meanings. As one writer put it, “Mercy withholds a punishment we deserve; grace gives a blessing we don’t deserve.” Mercy withholds a punishment we deserve; grace gives a blessing we don’t deserve. That’s what makes the grace of God so amazing. It’s more than simply God not punishing us for what we’ve done, but then God takes it to a whole other level! God offers us salvation! By that we mean that God offers us an opportunity to not only wipe our slate clean of our sins, but to ask us to join him in Heaven when we pass from this Earth. He asks us to reenter into paradise even though we don’t deserve it. THAT is the God we follow. Everything else pales in comparison. I like what Andy Stanley said here about grace. Andy Stanley is the lead pastor of North Point Community Church out in Georgia and he’s a very prolific author, and in his book on grace he says, “To say that someone deserves grace is a contradiction in terms. You can no more deserve grace than you can plan you own surprise party…the minute you think you deserve it, the it you think you deserve is no longer grace. It is something you have earned. But grace can’t be earned.” That’s the whole point. That grace can’t be earned.
The reason so many people are opposed to the church is that we often don’t extend that grace ourselves.
We do a great job receiving grace, but not as good of a job extending it. We do a great job of receiving grace, but not as good of a job extending it. We tend toward becoming a “graceless religion.” To use Andy’s words, “Instead of defining itself in terms of what it stands for, the church often takes the less imaginative and easier path of defining itself in terms of what it is against.” We like to tell people what we are against. Throughout the church’s history we have made bold statements about what we are against, only to later realize how much we were wrong. We’ve stood against interracial marriage. For that matter we stood against racial equality. We’ve stood against women in leadership positions in the church. Again, we’ve stood against gender equality. But instead of focusing on the things we are against, why don’t we focus instead on the things we believe in. Instead of condemning people for being different than we are, why don’t we embrace them for the things we hold in common, like being human beings. Christianity didn’t become the world’s largest religion because of what we stood against, but because of what we stood for. Christianity didn’t become the world’s largest religion because of what we stood against, but because of what we stood for. We stood for caring for the sick, so we built hospitals. We stood for helping people get ahead in life, so we built schools and universities. We stood for people deserving affordable houses so we started Habitat for Humanity. We stood for helping the poor and the needy so we built shelters and places like Open Gate. We helped others, not because they paid us to. Not because they did something for us. But because there was a need and we filled it. THAT is what it means for us to extend the grace of God – helping others not because they deserve it, but because we want to show them the grace that God has given to us by offering grace ourselves. We can talk about grace in so many ways – in the arts like with Mikhail Baryshnikov, in finance where it’s really mercy more than grace – but this is the greatest grace there is.
He’s another pastor and writer and I was at a conference where he gave this tremendous story about grace. It was about his daughter. His daughter had done poorly on a test. She had gotten a “C” and I love the way he described it. He said, “It’s like getting an Asian ‘F.’ Asian kids aren’t supposed to get “C’s.” So his daughter’s friends were asking her, “So what’s he going to do to you?” “What’s he going to do to you?” as if he was going to take her out behind the woodshed or something. So when he picked her up from school that afternoon, she got in the car and told him about the grade. And instead of getting mad, or getting upset, or giving her a punishment, he said, “Okay. Let’s go get some ice cream.” Instead of punishing her or lecturing her as she felt she deserved, he not only forgave her, but then added on top of that the ice cream! The next day at school when she told her friends about what had happened, the other kids all said, “I wish I had your dad.” This week, I want to challenge you to show the grace of God to someone in your life. Someone who maybe deserves your wrath, your anger, or your justice, like the guy who cuts you off on the highway or the knucklehead who gets your coffee order wrong or maybe one of your kids or your spouse who makes a mistake that maybe they should have known better. Instead of giving them “justice,” not only show them mercy but extend to them God’s grace. Go above and beyond what’s needed or expected to do something out of kindness and love and thereby passing the grace of God forward. Sometimes we are like Francis Chan and we are put in situations where we can show justice, mercy, or grace, and it’s up to us to choose. Any of those things would be technically right, but only one is going to make people say, “I wish I had your dad.” Some times we need to share about the grace of God with others so that they CAN say that and realize that the Dad we have in Heaven is a pretty awesome dad indeed.
 Andy Stanley, The Grace of God, p. xiii-xiv.
 Ibid, p.xiv.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. – Matthew 6:19-24
Did you know that 66% of Americans support stricter gun control laws, from both sides of the aisle? I was surprised to find out 67% support an assault weapons ban, 83% support a mandatory waiting period, and a whopping 97% of Americans support universal background checks. I guess that last 3% are officers of the National Rifle Association. What’s more surprising is that despite the overwhelming numbers the Senate won’t even bring up the subject. At all. In the face of both overwhelming factual evidence on the efficacy of gun control laws, the number of studies that prove gun control to be effective, AND the overwhelming support of the American people, enough Senators in the United States Congress are able to stem the tide against even talking about the subject. This in the wake of yet another high school shooting. Just this year alone we have had 370 mass shootings, 441 deaths, and 1,466 injuries. That’s just this year. So when is enough, enough?
What does it take for people to simply do the right thing?
When will our lust for money, power, and fame be overcome by doing the decent, right, and honorable thing? In a world of “alternative facts” it isn’t enough to have the Truth to convince people to do the right thing. Scientists have warned about the effects of global warming since 1988 when record temperatures, drought, and wildfires spread across the United States. Yet we have not taken the threat of climate change serious enough to prevent global catastrophe. Tobacco companies knew for decades that cigarettes were causing people to die, but they continued to peddle them to little kids with cute mascots and idealized pictures of people living “the good life.” And now we have companies like San Francisco based JUUL trying to get kids addicted in a new way! They have aggressively marketed to children who have never smoked before and appealed to them through slick and misleading advertising. Children as young as 13 are suffering from lung injury related to vaping. Of the over 2,000 reported cases of injury, 14% of patients are under 18 and 79% are under 35. Most of the 42 deaths have been older people ranging in age from 17 to 75. Ironically, a friend of mine who is a pastor knows one of the Vice Presidents at JUUL and both have children who are in the same class. My pastor friend’s daughter did a report on the health effects of vaping and the Vice President came up to my friend and said he was very concerned and would like to know what JUUL could do to help. I don’t know. Maybe stop selling these products to kids? Maybe stop selling these products with fruity flavors? Maybe stop selling things that are harmful and addictive? Seriously, what does it take to do the right thing?
But these are massive problems.
They seem overwhelming to each of us. What can we do as the people of God? We can stand up for what’s right. We can help one another. We can lift one another up. We can be there for each other and make the tough choices to make the world a better place. Mario Teyacheya was the Draco Malfoy of my elementary school days. He was the local bully and he liked to pick on other kids in our class. He always hung out with these two thugs, kind of like Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter books. Mario was a punk kid with a skinny frame and long wavy hair, and he liked to punch people. He’s the kid in class who knew the principle on a first name basis. He’d challenge other boys to meet him after school and if you didn’t show up, he’d tell people you were a chicken or a wimp. As you can imagine, his prowess at beating people up grew, even though I don’t know of anyone he actually fought. Well, I avoided Mario as much as possible, but finally, Mario cornered me and challenged me to a fight. I was pretty worried, but I didn’t want to be labeled a chicken, so I showed up wondering how bad it was going to be. Sure enough, Mario shows up with his two goons, picking at his teeth as he approached. Word had got around about our fight and a couple of kids showed up to watch. No one offered to help, they just wanted to watch the carnage. So there I stood as Mario walked up, getting ready to punch me when suddenly, my friend Greg Pillioglas came out from the door next to me and yelled at Mario, “Back off or you’ll have to fight me, too!” The three of them just looked up at Greg, turned around, and ran off. See, Greg was about a foot taller than me, and in 3rd grade, a foot is a big deal. He was stronger than anyone in the class, and everyone knew it, and he was my friend. Greg and I didn’t hang out or anything, but I always helped him do his math. Math was always one of my strong subjects so I would help him out. He was always grateful and once told me, “If you ever need anything, you just let me know and I’ll help you out.” I thought that was a nice thing to say, but on that day, I knew Greg meant it. He asked me if I was alright, and I told him “Yeah, just mad was all.” And he said to me, “If anyone gives you trouble again, you tell me and I’ll come beat them up for you.” No one ever bothered me again. Greg was a hero, and not because he was tough, because really he wasn’t. Greg was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. But he was a hero because he stood up for me when I needed it. He could easily have done what every other kid including my friends did and stayed away, but he didn’t. He got involved. He did what he thought was right even though that meant putting himself at risk. And that’s what Christ calls on us to do every day – to make the tough choices and do what’s right. We tend to think of standing up for what’s right on these grand scales of global consequences, but the most effective changes, the ones that change the world, are often the ones that start in the hearts and minds of people like you and me simply doing the right thing instead of what’s easy or convenient.
Daniel was like that.
As we heard in his story (above), Daniel could easily have given in to the king’s demands. After all, they weren’t unreasonable and Daniel was hand-picked as being among the best of Israel’s people. He was on the fast track to a career as a civil servant. He was even being fed food from the King’s table! But Daniel didn’t want to violate the commitment he had made to God. His faith was that important to him so he refused to eat what the others were eating and his friends followed suit. The official in charge of taking care of them told Daniel, “Hey, I get it, but I don’t want to die just because you won’t eat the King’s food. Can’t you give me a break?” So Daniel made a deal with him. “Give me ten days to show you what living a life like my God has asked me to live can do and if we aren’t at least as healthy as everyone else, you can turn us in.” It would have been so easy to follow along with what everyone else was doing. It would have been so easy to just eat the King’s food and drink the King’s wine. But instead, Daniel stood up for what he believed in. Not with disrespect but with bravery and boldness, willing to accept the consequences. And God was there for him.
Standing up for what’s right isn’t easy.
It’s often very difficult. It’s always tempting to take the easy way out. Or the expedient way. Or the way that profits us in the short term. But doing the right thing can change the world. Not doing the right thing can also change the world, sometimes in tragic ways. I’m reminded of Martin Niemoller’s famous poem. Martin was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II. At first he supported the Nazis as did many Germans, until the Third Reich decided to take control of the churches. He spoke out frequently against the Nazi regime, often landing him in prison and eventually in a concentration camp. He was liberated in 1945, and is most well known for a poem he wrote in response to a student who asked “How could it happen?” Indeed, you would think that it would be impossible for an entire country to stand by and watch this horror occur, but we all know it did. “How could it happen?” Niemoller responded by writing his famous poem:
“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
When we see the problems in the world today, the problems that we could and should be able to solve, it’s hard to imagine why we haven’t done more. It’s hard to imagine why people would ignore climate change. It’s hard to imagine why people don’t do something about the proliferation of guns in America. It’s hard to imagine why people would willingly let people die just to make a profit. But it happens. And we can do something. Your voice might only be one voice, but together we can be a mighty force that cannot be ignored. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t be afraid to step out on that ledge, because when you commit to doing what is right, God is with you in a powerful way. God loves you. And God will use you in mighty ways if you but follow where he leads. So when the time comes, stand up for what’s right and put your faith and trust in God.
What is it worth?
I’ve loved comics since I was about six or seven years old. My dad used to bring home issues of the Incredible Hulk from time-to-time. He would come home after work, lean around the doorframe of my room and just say, “Here, buddy,” and hand me a new one. I loved those old books. Part of it was because of the bond between me and my dad, but part of it was because the stories were fascinating. I didn’t have many, just whatever my dad brought home, but it was the beginning of a life-long love of comics. I didn’t take particularly good care of them. To me, they were books to be loved and read over and over. But I went from being an occasional reader to a true comic book fan with one particular issue – Uncanny X-Men #147, “Rogue Storm”. I was fascinated by the X-Men and wanted to read more, so slowly I began collecting older issues which led me to more issues and more interesting stories, and pretty soon, I was visiting my local comic book store with my dad every week. That’s where I learned there were actually two types of comic book people – those like me who actually read the books and those who plopped them in plastic bags for the sole purpose of collecting them for future profit. To this second group of people, comic books were an investment in the future. These guys would come into the store and just walk down the new comic book aisle, picking up one of every issue, two if it was a first issue, and immediately place them into plastic bags and put them into a storage box. And there they would sit. In a bag, in a box, on a shelf. Neatly labeled, but for no real purpose. Never read or opened, but sitting there useless. I know these collectors thought one day they might be worth a lot of money, but when the bottom dropped out of the comic book market, they were left with boxes upon boxes of useless comics. And they never even got to enjoy them. In that way, our faith is like a comic book. We can either enjoy it as it was intended, or we can put it on a shelf, condemned to never live out it’s true purpose. The love of God is meant to be cherished. Our faith is meant to be explored. Our hope in Christ is meant to be shared. It isn’t supposed to be hidden away.
We often feel unprepared, unworthy, and ill equipped to do the work God has called us to do.
But that’s because of our own lack of faith instead of an actual inability to do what God wants us to do. You have all the tools you need to share your faith and the love of God, because the work of God is more about attitude instead of aptitude. The work of God is more about attitude than aptitude. Jesus talks about that in the parable we are about to share. This story we are about to hear from Jesus is known as the Parable of the Sower and it’s one you’ve likely heard before if you’ve been in church for any length of time. You could read it from two different perspectives – as the seed or as the sower. As the seed, Jesus is calling on us to be responsive to his Word; to be the ones planted in good soil that produce a crop, but as the sower we have a different perspective. As we read the passage, I want you to picture yourself in the story as the sower that Jesus talks about, and picture in your mind that this is a task God empowers us to do.
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” 9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” – Mark 4:1-9
You are the sower.
YOU are the sower. The seeds that God is referring to are the bits of knowledge and wisdom that we have gained from listening, reading, and studying God’s Word. They are part of the fruit that he produces in us. Now it’s our turn to use those seeds to grow new fruit, which will produce even more of a harvest for God. But without us spreading his seeds, for certain no new fruit can be grown and the harvest ends with us. Without us spreading his seeds, no new fruit can be grown and the harvest ends with us. We are important to God’s plan. But you might be timid about it. You might worry about wasting your time, energy, and effort if you can’t produce results. You don’t want people to think you’re foolish. You might be embarrassed to share your faith. All of these things play into our minds as we think about becoming the kind of farmers God wants us to be. But in this parable, Jesus is encouraging us to plant everywhere. We cannot become better harvesters if we don’t ever attempt to do what needs to be done. We can’t tell what will work and what won’t unless we try. We learn best by DOING. The point Jesus is making here is about our faithfulness to the planting process. When we do what we are supposed to, not every seed we plant in someone’s heart will take root. Not every effort we make will bear fruit. But when it does, it is worth it.
But the process IS important.
The act of planting seeds in people’s hearts is vital to growing our collective faith. People who aren’t Christian aren’t walking around saying to themselves, “Oh, I wish I were Christian.” “If I were Christian, my whole life would be better! If only someone would show me how to BE a Christian!” No. Most people are not simply one step away from accepting Christ. Most people don’t know that they need Jesus and are just looking for someone to show them the way. For the most part, they’re walking around thinking life is pretty good – or not. Some are happy, some are sad, but they don’t KNOW that there’s another kind of life waiting for them. They don’t know that there is a whole different kind of existence when you have Christ in your life. They don’t know how GOOD it can be! It’s like Indian food. There’s nothing like a good bowl of dal or a good pot of chicken tikka masala and there are times I CRAVE, absolutely CRAVE masala dosa. I’ve searched all over the Central Valley and haven’t found one restaurant that has it. Cassie and I will make a point of going to Little India when we visit my parents just to eat it. But before I TRIED Indian food, I never knew what I was missing. I could take it or leave it, and honestly I preferred to leave it. I never had it, never saw it, never smelled it, and frankly never wanted it. I was happy enough in my life without it and I wasn’t all that interested in trying something new, but when Cassie asked me to I loved it! I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try it, and I always encourage people to eat it. If you like Chinese food or just kind of spicy food, you’ll love the flavors of Indian food. But had Cassie not come along and invited me to try it, I would have lived life perfectly happy, not knowing what I was missing. Christianity is like that. It’s this awesome, incredible, wonderful part of life that makes life more meaningful and more worth living, but unless you know you need it, you can just go on without it.
That’s why it’s so important for us to share our faith instead if hiding it away on a shelf.
Because we have the power to change lives. Through God’s grace and God’s love, we have the power to change lives. And it doesn’t take any more knowledge or power than what God has already given you. Think about the ways in which God has changed your life. Think about the difference God has made in the way you live. Think about how you approach life differently because God is a part of it. Those are the seeds you have to share. Biblical knowledge is great and you should be encouraged to involve yourself in growing deeper in your faith, but if you’re waiting to have “enough” Biblical knowledge to answer every question or counter every argument, you’ll never get there. Learning about God is a lifelong project. You won’t graduate in this life. But you have enough to share your faith, whether you believe it or not. You have enough. The seeds God has put in your pouch are enough. Now who are you going to share them with?
I know that fear is a big part of not sharing your faith.
Fear of failure, fear of being inadequate, fear of your own lack of knowledge – but fear should never stop you from planting seeds. In fact, it should do just the opposite. It should inspire you and encourage you and motivate you to go out there anyway. Fear of the number of lives you fail to change because you chose NOT to share your faith. Fear of what God will say when you die and he asks you what you did with your faith. Fear of knowing you had the power to change people’s lives and didn’t do it. I was visiting with a woman at one of the churches I served, and I’ll never forget the story she told me. She said that although she went to church every week and it was important to her, she didn’t want to force her faith on her children. She wanted them to choose for themselves what path they would follow. So after they reached a certain age, she didn’t encourage them to come to church. She let them choose. Naturally, they chose to stay home. They chose to go out with friends. They chose a life away from God. And they often floundered in life, struggling with fear, worry, anxiety, and insecurity. Later in life, her daughter started to come to church again. In it, she found many of the answers that had eluded her for so long. One day, she asked her mother why it was she never shared about her faith. When her mother told her she wanted her to find out for herself, the daughter said, “I wish you had told me all of this years ago. You should have told me why you believed. If it was that important to you and to me, you should have told me why you believed. It would have saved me from years of pain and frustration.” Her story really touched my heart. While I do believe ultimately we have to choose whether or not to follow God, how can we choose when we don’t even know what the choices are? Is our lack of faith that profound that we can’t even share it with those closest to us? Fear shouldn’t hold you back. Fear should make you stronger and bolder in your faith.
Be bold in your faith.
You may not have all the answers, but no one does. Not me, not you, not any one except God. So if you’re waiting to be “ready” you’ll never get there. Like riding a bike, like learning to walk, like planting seeds, like anything in life we gain knowledge in the doing. Some of our seeds may land on infertile ground, but we learn from it. Some of our seeds may start to bloom and then wither under the weeds, but we learn from it. Some of our seeds might get taken away, but we learn from it and in each instance we learn how to be better at sharing our faith. We learn what works for us and what doesn’t. If fear is holding you back, it’s because you don’t fear the consequences enough to do something about it. And if you feel like you’ve tried and failed, just remember, the one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them. The one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them. Don’t be frustrated in your attempts. Don’t worry that you don’t see fruit right away. There are plants that take years to harvest. The fig trees that Jesus always seems to be talking about take anywhere from three to five years to produce any figs. A traditional apple tree can take anywhere from six to seven years to give any fruit. And olive trees can give fruit as early as three and sometimes as late as 12 years. You might be the one to plant the seed, but it might take a team of people to finally harvest it. So do not be discouraged by a lack of results, but instead be faithful to the planting process. It’s the planting of the seeds that honors God. If we don’t share our faith, it’s like putting a comic book into a bag without ever reading it. An unread comic is a wasted comic. An unsowed seed is a wasted seed. And a life without Christ is a mere shadow of what it could be.