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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
December 9, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
So, what makes for a perfect Christmas present? Opinions vary, of course: it could be something lavish; it could be something personal; it could be something right off of the wishlist; it could be something carefully made. Even around our home Christmas tree there are I think differences of opinion. My wife Sarah’s family runs Christmas with military-grade precision. Sometime around or just after Thanksgiving in her family there is a solicitation of Christmas gift requests, made easier by the fact that we all know that every giving unit in the family has a fairly predictable budget, so afterwards there are a series of predictably curated emails in which each person’s requests are claimed by other members of the family behind their back so that no gift is given twice, and then on Christmas morning you know with some degree of predictability that some percentage of the items on your list will predictably appear under the tree and the only suspense is not knowing who will have given what. In Sarah’s family the perfect Christmas present is the thing you asked for which predictably shows up, right on time.
My family works a bit differently. Over time, we’ve moderated a bit — there are a lot more emails with gift requests now than there used to be. But I think for us the perfect Christmas present is still something much more creatively sought. There’s no list. There’s no email management. Instead there’s surprise; there has to be something of a surprise, a book you’ve never heard of, an ingredient you’ve never seen before, something crafted at the far ends of the earth, because the perfect Christmas present has to say something meaningful. It has to say something personal. I remember books that my mother put under the tree when I was in college, when I was at my most distant — because they were books that saw me for who I was, because they were books that called me into being, because some $12 purchase at Barnes & Noble grows to symbolize an entire relationship for one moment on one December morning and that’s heavy work so we very carefully consider the implications. In my family, we choose our gifts very carefully. So that we can get them just right. Whether you really want them or not.
Whichever way you go, the whole enterprise is a tremendous amount of work. Whenever I field the requests from Sarah’s family for gift ideas, I freeze up a little bit inside — I mean, what do I want? What would be a good gift for me at this moment in my life? What is this moment in my life? It’s a demand with high existential stakes. But no more so of course than trying to find that perfect gift list unseen. And so I suppose the real question is why on earth do we put this ritual on ourselves in the first place? What is it about this story of God born in the manger that sends us scurrying through Sharper Image gift catalogs in order to put something under the tree? Of course the magi brought gifts — we’ll get to that story in a few weeks, the story of the kings from the east who found their way to Bethlehem with gold and frankincense and myrrh, but in some ways, those gifts are more analogous to offerings made in the temple than they are to anything like our current-day practice. There’s no Biblical story of the magi exchanging Starbucks gift cards or Mary and Joseph going in on some new family luggage. There’s nothing anywhere in the nativity story as we know it and as we will tell it over the next couple of weeks to suggest that because the light has come into the world and because the darkness has not overcome it ,that therefore we should all go to Best Buy.
But there is one Biblical figure who interprets Jesus coming into the world as a justification for the giving and receiving of gifts, and it is of course the wild-haired centerpiece of our reading today, everybody’s favorite wilderness prophet, John the Baptist. Luke spends his first two chapters accounting for the birth and early childhood of Jesus, and then here in chapter three, we jump a generation into the future. The whole reason Luke goes through this recitation of the governors and politicians and mid-level bureaucrats reigning over Judea is precisely so that his readers can understand that we’ve skipped ahead in time just a bit. And now Jesus is nearly ready for ministry. And so John is here to set the scene, going directly to the words of Isaiah used to predict the coming of the Messiah. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. One who is more powerful than I is coming.” And the crowd asks, “What then should we do?” And John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” Jesus is coming. Time to exchange presents.
So what, in John the Baptist’s opinion, makes for the perfect Christmas present? Well, at first glance, you give something that somebody needs. The wilderness gets cold at night and everybody needs a coat and so you give according to what they need. Which I think we understand completely through the lens of charity but becomes a lot harder as a model for putting gifts under the tree, because if you’re anything like me then giving somebody something they need is the least satisfying kind of giving. If I ask mom what dad wants for Christmas and she says that he really could use some new socks I am now in a double-bind because first of all the sort of things that we need make for boring presents — I don’t really want to be associated with giving socks, unless they’re really exceptionally interesting socks, which then are probably not the sort of socks that anybody actually needs in the first place. And then second of all I have now had an obligation placed upon me which strips out any of the creativity or originality that could be a part of imagining my father’s gift. My hands are now tied. Now it’s just socks which is going to be the symbol of our relationship for that moment in time and it just feels empty. Even, and especially even if he does needs socks.
Moreover if we really just wanted to give according to need we probably should abandon this entire enterprise and just give cash, no frills attached. Economist Joel Waldfogel has tested this hypothesis. He surveyed all manner of gift recipients asking them hypothetically if they would exchange the gift they received and for what amount of cash they would make the exchange and what he found was that most of them time those of us receiving gifts would rather have had cash in exchange, actually most of the time we’d be glad to have less cash than it cost to buy the extraneous gift in the first place. Which means that, strictly speaking, gift-buying is a highly irrational process. We waste money getting the wrong thing — Waldfogel estimates something like $85 billion dollars’ worth of needless spending. And if we would just satisfy ourselves with giving according to need, we could do all the gift cards and all the envelopes of cash and all the checks in the world and if you really need a singing fish mounted on the wall then you can go and buy one for yourself, but nobody is going to presume to do it for you. There’s something very clean about this. And also, something a bit joyless.
And I don’t think this Christmas vision quite fully gets the implication of John’s instructions, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” It’s not just about satisfying the needs of someone going cold. It’s about giving up something valuable. According to John, a good gift isn’t just about giving something that somebody needs. It’s about stripping away one of the layers from the person doing the giving. Later on in Luke’s Gospel there’s a fascinating parallel to this moment, as Jesus sends out his disciples out to do ministry in the small villages around Galilee and he instructs them not to take more than one coat with them on the road. The logic being that one coat is enough to stay warm during the day but not enough to sleep comfortably outside. Which means that when John the Baptist talks to the folks with two coats, he’s not telling people to give up something extraneous. This isn’t like, hey, somebody gave me a Vitamix Blender but I already have a Vitamix Blender so someone in my life is getting a fabulously regifted Vitamix Blender! According to John, a good gift isn’t just needed. It’s something that costs us something.
And of course in some ways this is the part of Christmas that we excel at. The National Retail Federation has released its annual predictions for holiday spending and in 2018, American adults are predicted to spend about $885 each on giving, for a total of about $720 billion dollars. That number is down slightly from 2017, which would make this year only the third year this century in which spending has not risen year-to-year; nonetheless, it cannot be said that we are not putting our money where our tree is. Nor are we simply just spending the money we can afford to spend; last year at this time, CNBC reported on survey results that noted something like 20% of Americans at that time had not yet paid off the credit card bills they had accrued from the previous year’s worth of holiday spending. Every year I see some commercial where one family member surprises the other with a new car gift-wrapped in the driveway and I wonder, I mean, either this family is so well-off that a new car doesn’t make a dent in the savings or more likely somebody in that relationship is assuming some substantial debt without consulting the other, which doesn’t feel entirely healthy. So, we are living into this. I mean, if the mark of true Christmas giving is that we empty ourselves, or at least empty our wallets, or at least empty our bank accounts to find that perfect gift to satisfy this Christ child , we are doing a great job.
But of course the point of giving the second coat isn’t just to make you cold or broke or in debt. The point of giving the second coat is that it opens up avenues of grace. When Jesus sends his disciples out with one coat, what he’s insisting on is that they will now not have the capacity to fend for themselves on the road; with only one coat, they’ll have to rely on the hospitality of the strangers they meet. They will be pushed into the villages where God is sending them; they will be pushed into the world where God is waiting for them; they will have to present themselves as vulnerable and human and they will have to rely on the strange and mysterious workings of God’s grace. So, too, for all us of listening to John’s sermon, because if I have two coats and you have none and then we share, something happens, and it’s not just that you get a little bit warmer and I get a little bit colder but it’s more like all of a sudden we’re one and the same, you and me, and maybe for a moment we can see one another as children of God, each of us shivering just a little bit in the dark.
That’s the gift we need. It’s a gift that sees us as we are. It’s what grace looks like. It’s when we get to be who we are, together. After all, this really is the very first Christmas gift; not the offerings brought by the magi, not even the coats exchanged by John’s listeners. First and foremost the gift given to us which is this child born shivering and crying into the cold and wrapped in swaddling clothes. It is not perhaps the gift that anybody imagined, not a God who would come in such fragile form, not a God who would come so vulnerable and powerless and so unremarkable, into the icy capriciousness of the world. And yet this is the gift. That God was born among us, that God was born into the cold like us, that God was born fragile and powerless and vulnerable, that God chose this, that God had two coats, and saw us shivering and crying in the night, and so came into the world to wrap us in swaddling clothes. So that God could say we are in this night together, you and me. We are in this dark together. We are in this cold together. The gift is, you don’t have to be anywhere else. The gift is, you don’t have to find your way anywhere else. The gift of Christmas is this. You don’t have to make it anything other than what it is. God will be born for you, no matter what.
So maybe this is the best gift we can offer one another. The gift of grace. The gift of knowing that no Christmas will go just like it’s supposed to go. The gift of knowing that none of us have got everything under the tree all figured out. The gift of knowing that there is no perfect gift, except the gift of letting this season go just a little imperfectly, letting this whole season get by with a whole heaping amount of God’s grace, no wrapping paper required, nothing dotted with a bow, nothing strewn with lights, nothing glistened with artificial snow, just you and me and all of us, shivering a bit in the dark and huddling around that beauteous heavenly light. So I wonder if we could give each other a little grace. I wonder if we could hold onto one another a little lightly. I wonder if we could have one extra minute of patience. I wonder if we could find one extra ounce of forgiveness. I wonder if we could muster up one extra inch of forbearance. I wonder whether we could give each other this perfect gift, which is of course to unwrap ourselves a little bit, to open ourselves a little bit, to take off our coats, and gather up to the manger, for God’s sake, for our sake, for the sake of the light coming into the world and wrapped in swaddling clothes, with more than enough to share.
Thanks be to God.