It’s weird when you think about it. It’s great and all. But still it is a bit weird. Why do we do all this gift giving at Christmas? Think about it. At no other holiday do we do this. We give presents at birthdays, but only to one person. At Christmas, you give presents to everybody. Heck, we give so many gifts that it keeps the economy humming. That’s why store owners call Black Friday, Black Friday. It’s when stores go from deficits to profit, from being in the red to moving into the black.
Still, in the midst of the gift giving, you can lose the joy. It can become a chore rather than a blessing, just another holiday task to complete. So how do you get in touch with the joy? More crucially, how do you get the joy so powerfully, that gift giving actually renews and fulfills you not only at Christmas but every day. You can complain about the commercialism of the season, but giving gifts at Christmas actually points you to life as God intended. It brings you closer to the abundant life God created you to have.
And moving closer to that abundant life means realizing this; at the heart of Christmas lies a gift. The more you grasp that gift, the more it frees you in a way you deeply need to be free. The more it frees you to experience the joy of giving not only at Christmas, but to find that joy every day of your life. And in these words, God shows you the way. So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
God intends gift giving to free you, to bring joy into your life. Yet even at Christmas, it can be hard to find the joy. Gift giving can even become a burden, trying to get something for everyone on the list. And when it does, it only points to how far we have wandered from what God intended gift-giving to be. But in the words we just heard, God points the way back. God reminds you that gift-giving has to become a matter of the heart before it ever becomes a matter of the hands. And when it does, then it frees you. It frees you to grasp more than even the gift of abundant life God joyfully yearns to give.
Do you notice something unusual that Paul does in this letter? Paul is writing to this pretty wealthy church in Corinth to give to a special offering for Christians who are facing famine. Yet, he does so in a strange way. It begins right where we started off. Paul says, “I do not say this as a command…” And then near the end of what we read, he does it again, even more explicitly. He tells them. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Ok, you might ask. What’s the big deal about that? He is just giving some encouragement to give. But think about it. Would he ever have said, “Be faithful to your spouse, but I’m not commanding this mind you. No, you do whatever you’ve made up your mind to do. I don’t want you feel any compulsion about it.” I don’t think so. So why does he do it here?
Paul does it because gift giving has a lack of clarity that staying faithful to your spouse or say lying just doesn’t. You pretty much know when you’re committing adultery or lying. But when it comes to giving, how do you know that you’re doing it right, that you are faithfully giving what God commands?
Now you might respond. “Kennedy, isn’t there this command in the Old Testament about tithing, giving ten percent?” Doesn’t that give you the guideline?” But if it does, then why doesn’t Paul bring it up? Why doesn’t Paul just order them to tithe?
He doesn’t because Jesus kind of ripped that guideline up. In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders tithed everything. They even tithed their vegetables. Yet Jesus doesn’t commend them for it. He attacks them instead. He tells them.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. Why is Jesus so upset?
Last week, we had a little party for our son’s 3rd birthday. And he got some nice gifts. He got this cool drill set. He got this awesome play doh garbage truck. Now do you think when we put those gifts out there, we said. “Ok, Patrick, it’s your birthday. And we are obligated to give you these gifts to show we’re good parents and grandparents. So please unwrap them, and look happy. And then, we have the standard cake that we’re supposed to get you. So after the presents, please blow out the candles and make us look good.” Now Patrick might be only three, but I’m pretty sure if we did it that way, he’d be thinking. I don’t think this is the way that it’s supposed to be.
Now it didn’t happen that way. We loved seeing his joy at these new gifts. We loved showing him what a blessing the day of his birth was to us. We loved seeing his excitement at the candles and the cake.
And that’s the way giving is supposed to be. When you think about it, it wouldn’t have mattered how many gifts we had given him, if we are only doing it to impress others or because we were keeping some sort of parent rule. We wouldn’t really have even been giving the gifts to him. We would have been giving them to ourselves, to make us look good. It wouldn’t have been about him at all.
And that’s why Jesus got so angry at the tithing of the religious leaders. Sure their hands were giving the required amounts away. But they weren’t doing it out of love for God really. They were doing it to keep the rules, to show off how right they were with God. They weren’t even giving it to God really. They were giving it to themselves, to make themselves feel good.
In Jesus’ criticism, in Paul’s words, God is telling you something crucial. When you give, it has to begin in your heart. Now from there, it has to go to your hands, and tithing can give you some guidance there. But it can’t start there. It has to start in your heart. For God, giving starts with motivation, long before it moves to money.
If you are thinking, how much should I give? How much will get me God’s approval, the approval of others? How much will help me feel good, ease any guilt? If you are doing that, you are missing quite literally the heart of the matter. You aren’t even giving to God. You’re actually giving to yourself, to help you feel better.
That’s why Paul doesn’t give an amount here. Paul knows that if the heart of the Corinthians gets connected, really connected to the joy of giving, then the amount will take care of itself. In fact, the passion they feel will lead them to give more than they ever thought possible. Paul even gives an example to them of that, right before what we just read, in the incredible giving of the church in Macedonia.
It’s only when your heart is passionately, joyfully generous like that, that you are living out what God intends your giving to be. But let’s be honest. How many of you can say that’s really the case when it comes to your giving? How many of us actually have hearts like that?
So how does that happen? So how do you get your heart that connected to the joy?
It begins with realizing that everything you already have is a gift. In the beginning of this passage, Paul gives this quote from the Old Testament. He writes, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” Where does that come from? It comes from a description of how God gave the manna to the Israelites when they were traveling through the desert. And Paul is pointing to that description for an important reason.
The money you have is a lot like manna. If you know the story, God provides this food called manna so the Israelites didn’t starve in the dessert. And to get it, you had to get up each morning, and pick it up off the ground. And as it happened, with everybody working together, everybody, young and old got enough. But if you did try to hoard it, by the time you woke up it had rotted and gone bad.
And when it comes to what you have, sure you worked for it. Like the Israelites, you had to go and gather it up. But still ultimately it came as a gift. After all, you didn’t create your brain or your body, you were given that. Heck, even the air you breathe comes as a gift. You did nothing to earn it. As the old saying goes, if you see a frog on a fencepost, you know he didn’t get there by himself. And all of us are frogs on fence posts. We didn’t get there by ourselves.
And not only is what you have a gift, it’s a gift that if you hold on to it, will rot away your life, just like that manna rotted away in the tent.
But beyond seeing all you have is a gift, connecting to the joy happens when you catch sight of the harvest. Paul talks about when you sow sparingly, you reap sparingly, and when you sow bountifully, you reap bountifully. Now what does Paul mean?
Some folks think he means that you give your money so God can give you more money. But think about it. If that was your motivation, you wouldn’t be giving to God. You’d be just giving to yourself. More than that, you’d be missing the best part of sowing seed, the fruit. Sowing seed doesn’t just produce more seed, it produces something far better; wonderful, juicy, flavorful fruit.
And when you give your money to what matters to God, that’s the harvest you reap. When we gather in this place to sing songs or hang greenery for Christmas, we’re not just simply doing religious tasks. We’re showing an alternative way to live, a better, more fruitful way to live. And our world desperately needs that. Because so many folks are going off the rails. People are spending more but living less. They have pain inside that erupts into rage and disappointment at everything. You see it in the honks on the road, in the fights on social media; in a world that has become simply more rude and less gracious. But within the church, even with all our frailties and flaws, something beautiful happens. People come together and find through God’s grace here, the ability to love each other, even with in their flaws and faults. Here, people find meaning; find hope, find the love of a God that can change them like no other. There’s nothing on planet earth like the church when the church is working right. And when you give to God in this place, you get to be part of that. You get to see that fruit, to taste it, to revel in it. And oh when you see that, really see that, the joy it brings.
That’s what Paul means here by a harvest of righteousness. Righteousness means right relationships with God, with others, even with yourself. And that’s the fruit that comes. You see people find peace with God, with their families, with even themselves. You bring closer to reality the world, the future God dreams to be. And it is beautiful when that happens. And God uses your gifts to make it happen.
But beyond seeing the harvest, you need to see the gift that launched it, the gift we celebrate at Christmas. In the end, God didn’t just give us our lives, and sunrises and sunsets, and the air we breathe. No, God gave us God’s very self. In the past, God had shown himself, in burning bushes, in whirlwinds, and even in silence. But when God was born in a stinking stable to a poor peasant woman, God was doing way more than showing himself. God was giving himself in the most intimate and vulnerable way possible. In Jesus God would keep giving himself to us, even to the point of his death, to facing suffering that we cannot even imagine. Why did God do it? He didn’t do it out of obligation. He didn’t do it to impress you or the angels. He did it because he so loved you that he could do no less. And the more you know that, what God out of his infinite love has joyfully given you, the more you will find the freedom to joyfully give, to give to others, to give to God, to sow the seeds that reap a harvest of healing in our world.