December 20, 2009

Livin’ Large…in lean times

Part 5: The joy of giving yourself



ILL: An elderly man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing—45 years of misery is enough.”

“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son asks.

“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”

Frantic, the son calls his sister, who goes ballistic. “No way they’re getting divorced,” she shouts. “I’ll take care of this.”

She calls Phoenix immediately and screams at her father, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing till I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing.”

The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “They’re coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own way. Now what do we do for Christmas?”

Sometimes, the best gift you can give is the gift of yourself—just being there.  In lean times, you may not be able to give lots of presents, but you can give lots of presence!  Today, we’re talking about living large in lean times—the joy of giving yourself. 

Introduction: In lean times, you may not be able to give lots of presents, but you can give lots of presence—the best gift of all!

          Last Sunday, I was gone—did anyone notice?  Brad did a great job last Sunday speaking about Living Large in Lean Times by creating community—being a community, a family that shares what we have to meet each other’s needs.  Brad reminded us that God takes full responsibility for the person who trusts Him and shares with those in need.  It was a good word; thank you Brad! 

So I was gone; where was I, you ask?  I was in Oregon with my five sisters and their spouses celebrating my mom’s 80th birthday.  (Picture)  She turned 80 last Sunday, and she said that what she wanted most for her birthday was to be with all six of her children.  She wanted presence (with a c), not presents (with a t).  So we spent several days together and had a blast.  We talked and talked, and played lots of games—my sisters cheat—and ate…and ate…and ate!  Do I look bigger? 

My mom is an amazing lady—she is the youngest 80 year-old you’ll ever meet.  (Picture) She doesn’t look 80, does she?  My mom is one of 12 kids—she’s number 8—ten girls and two boys.  Here is a picture of my eleven living aunts and uncles.  (Picture)  This was taken at a family reunion 3 years ago; there were close to 300 of us there.  I have 50 first cousins on my mom’s side!  It’s a big family, and a close family.  I grew up with my cousins, and I grew up watching my mom enjoy her big family.  The siblings still get together regularly, and when they do, they have fun—they are a hoot!  So my mom grew up valuing being together, and that’s what she wanted for her birthday.  It wasn’t about gifts; it was about being together.

The importance of being together was underlined for us on the day after my mom’s birthday.  We were talking when she got a phone call from one of her sisters telling her that their oldest sister, Mina, had just passed away just a few days before her 93rd birthday.  (Same picture again)  Mina is seated in the wheelchair.  In that moment, being there was even more important for my mom and for us.  My aunt Mina’s funeral was yesterday in our home town, Sweet Home, Oregon.  I flew back down to Oregon yesterday for the funeral—because being there is important.  It’s the best gift you can give.

So it’s Christmas, and we’re in the midst of a recession, and maybe you don’t have as much money to spend on gifts this year.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  You can experience the joy of giving yourself: the gift of being together.  When you look at the Christmas story, that was the gift that God gave to us. 


1. God’s gift to us: Himself.

          Let’s read the story.

Matthew 1:18–25 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

In this passage, the baby is given two names, each loaded with significance, each telling us that the gift God was giving the world was Himself. 

The first name is Jesus which means “God saves” or “God to the rescue”.  The angel explains the significance of this name: “he will save his people from their sins.”  Jesus is God to the rescue, God Himself come to save us from our sins. 

God created us to have a relationship with Him, but we rejected Him and chose to go our own way.

Isaiah 53:6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; 

Each of us has gone our own way.  Some of our ways are a little off; some of them are a lot off, way off.  But a little or a lot, we’re all off.  We’ve all gone astray, and we’re far from the God who loves us. Like sheep who have gone astray, we are lost and don’t know the way back home.  When a sheep gets lost, it’s not going to find its way home on its own. What does it need?  Rescue! 

ILL: In Luke 15, Jesus told the story of the shepherd with 100 sheep and one gets lost.  Then what?  The shepherd said, “Sucks to be you.  Hope you can find your way home.”  No, he left the 99 safe in the fold, and went looking for the lost one until he found it and then brought it home.  He rescued it.

That lost sheep: that’s me; that’s you.  Lost—we’ve all gone astray.  And the Good Shepherd—that’s Jesus, come to rescue us.  We were lost and needed to be found; we went astray and needed to be rescued.  We weren’t finding our way home on our own.

          When we talk about being lost in sin and unable to save ourselves and needing a savior, this bothers some people.  We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless.  If there is a problem (and some of us doubt that there is), we like to think that we can fix it ourselves.  But think of it this way: there are some situations where you can “save yourself”, but there are others where you need a savior—you need someone to come to your rescue.

  • How many have had a flat tire?  You can save yourself—well, some of you.  That’s something most of us can fix and get going again.  But how many of you have been stuck axel-deep in mud?  You’re not going to save yourself; you need a tow truck to rescue you.
  • How many of you have gotten lost…in the mall?  You can save yourself, ask someone, find a mall map.  Anybody ever got lost on a mountain in the winter?  Every year, climbers have to be rescued, and without rescue, they’d die.
  • How many of you have ever had to swim for shore from a canoe or boat that tipped over?  Most of us can do that—we can save ourselves if it’s not too far.  But if you were Walter Wyatt and had crashed your plane in the ocean miles from shore, and were floating for ten hours in a leaky life vest, and then saw sharks surrounding you—you need a savior.  Wyatt was seen by a plane, who radioed a ship that rescued Wyatt, and when they pulled him up onto the deck of the ship, he kissed the deck!

There are some situations where you can save yourself, and others where you need a rescuer. 

The Bible says we’ve all gone astray, each of us has gone his own way, and we’re lost.  But this isn’t the kind of lost where you can save yourself, where you can find your own way home.  You need a savior.  You need a rescuer.  And God knew that and came to the rescue in Jesus. 

          Christmas celebrates the advent, the coming of God, into our world to rescue us.  Jesus is God to the rescue.  God’s gift to us was Himself coming to be our savior.

The second name given to the baby is Immanuel, and Matthew tells us that means “God with us,” or the order in Greek is “with us God.”  Jesus is the “with us God.”  God became one of us and came to earth as a baby.  It’s the miracle of the incarnation, and it’s the greatest miracle of all.  People struggle to believe the virgin birth of Jesus, or the resurrection of Jesus.  I understand that; these are spectacular claims.  Virgins don’t normally give birth; dead people aren’t normally raised back to life.  But both of these miracles pale next to the supreme miracle of the incarnation.  That God would become a human being, one of us, and be the “with us God” is the greatest miracle of all; it is the miracle that makes all others possible and believable.  It’s the central miracle of the Christian faith.

ILL: Consider these beautiful words from Augustine, the great 5th century pastor and bishop.

He so loved us that, for our sake, He was made man in time, although through him all times were made.

He was made man, who made man.

He was created of a mother whom he created.

He was carried by hands that he formed.

He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute.  Augustine, Sermon 188, 2

This is the miracle of the incarnation.  The all-powerful God became powerless for love.  Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. 

John 1:14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

He dwelt among us.  He became one of us, and lived among us.  And because He lived among us, we saw His glory.  We saw God…in the flesh…living among us; we saw what God is like.

ILL: When Clark Cothern was five years old, he thought college presidents were powerful, frightening beings. His mother was the Dean of Women at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, so he would play in the offices.  He writes:

I would watch as students walked slowly down the hall toward the president’s office and stop. They would rub their sweaty palms on their pants or skirts, take a deep breath, straighten their shoulders, and knock. The door would creak open. That’s when I would catch a glimpse of the president’s shiny, black wingtip shoes. A steady, strong hand would reach through and shake the trembling hand of the student. The student would then disappear inside the mysterious chamber known as “The President’s Office.”

I figured that walking into that room must be pretty much like going before the throne of judgment. It was a terrifying thought. 

One day, I was playing with my toy car in the hall outside his office when the door opened. There they were those shiny, black wingtip shoes. The next thing I knew, President Robert Sutherland, the biggest man on campus, dressed in his pinstriped, three-piece suit, knelt down. He placed the knee of his crisply creased trousers on the hallway floor. “May I have a turn?” he asked.

After we played cars together, President Sutherland asked if I would do him the favor of calling him “Dr. Bob.” That’s the day my opinion about college presidents changed.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  That’s the day our opinion of God changed.  We have seen His glory—the glory of the all-powerful God becoming powerless for love; the glory of the Creator stooping to become one of us. 

          This is God’s gift to us: Himself.  And it’s the gift that keeps on giving, for Jesus was not only “God with us” then, but He is promises to stay with us.  Shortly before His death, Jesus told His followers:

John 14:16–18 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

I will not leave you alone, as orphans; I will come to you, and be with you forever.  The gift of Himself—He will be with us forever.  Jesus’ last words to His followers were:

Matthew 28:20 And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

I am with you always.  God gave the gift of Himself.

          That is God’s gift to us; let’s consider our gifts to others.


2. Your gift to others: yourself.

          I want to suggest that you consider giving yourself away this Christmas.  Maybe instead of more presents, you give more presence.  Give the gift of being there.  Immanuelize! 

2 Corinthians 8:5 And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.

Paul wrote this about the Macedonian Christians who had given so generously in an offering to help the poor in Jerusalem.  In spite of their own poverty and hardship, they had been incredibly generous.  They remind me of you—you are the most generous church I know—not only in giving money, but giving yourself!  Paul says that they gave themselves—“first to the Lord and then to us, in keeping with God’s will”, or “just as the Lord wanted them to do.”  God wants us to give ourselves first to Him, and then to others.  Just as God gave Himself to us, He wants us to give ourselves to others.

          Your best gift to others is yourself.  So what does that look like?  Let’s get real practical.

ILL: One couple, close friends of ours, suggested that this year instead of buying gifts for each other, we give the gift of time together.  Our lives are all very busy and we’ve had a hard time this past year finding time to just hang out.  So their suggestion was that we give each other an evening together—enjoy dinner together and then linger and enjoy each other’s company.  The gift of being together.

Here’s another idea:

ILL: Scott Kircher shared this in a talk called “Spend less, give more.”

What if a friend gave you a coffee mug for Christmas?  Would you remember that?  Probably not.

But what if that coffee mug came with a stipulation that it was only to be used on the first Saturday of each month?  Now it may be memorable, but only because it is weird.

But what if that coffee mug came with the stipulation that it was only to be used on the first Saturday of each month when you and your friend got together to have coffee and talk.

Then it might be one of the best gifts you received, not because of the mug, but because of the time spent together.

There’s a great idea!  Let’s take some time and come up with some other ideas for giving ourselves away this Christmas.  Let’s get in groups of 4-5 and come up with “gifts of presence,” and then I’m going to ask for your best ideas.  (Play some Christmas music here.)

Okay, what are your ideas?

  • A baseball mitt with coupons to play catch whenever you want.
  • An easy bake over with certificates to bake with mom.

I’ll finish with this story from Mark Roper.

ILL: All I needed was a little peace and quiet—just an hour or so. Just a quiet spot, a cup of coffee and time to think. The fuss and flutter of the holidays had upset my schedule, and most of my tasks remained undone. The Christmas cards were unsent; the gifts were unwrapped—most of them unpurchased—and holiday preparations at church were percolating.

Only careful, disciplined planning, I reasoned, would enable me to survive the season.

So I chose a little café that served European pastry and a variety of coffees. Its atmosphere was quiet, with soft classical Christmas music in the background. Patrons sat at bistro tables, reading novels or working on crossword puzzles. Here, I thought, I can spread out my calendar, make my “to do” lists, sip my coffee, and schedule the milliseconds between now and December 25.

I only had an hour. But I no sooner entered the café than I heard a familiar voice. An old friend, Dan Cronk, having little to do that morning, had decided to enjoy a pot of tea and a basket of breads. There he stood, tray in hand, looking delighted to see me and obviously hoping I’d invite him to sit down.

I didn’t want him to join me, because Dan was a talker, able to rattle away for hours; but there he stood.

“Well, hello Dan!” I said with a broad smile. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Didn’t have much goin’ on this morning, and I thought a pot of tea would cheer me up. Meeting someone?”

“Well, uh, no…actually, I’m not…uh…want to join me?”

“Sure!” And down he sat.

For the next hour I sat there, head nodding and stomach knotting, listening to him pour forth. My planning calendar rested unopened on the table, and my blood pressure slowly increased. I silently cursed the impulse that had chosen that particular café on that particular day at that particular hour.

The hour finally passed, and I cleared my throat. “Well, Dan, it’s been wonderful seeing you again. I have to go now, but I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.”

Dan looked deeply into my eyes, and I noticed for the first time that his were tender, vulnerable. He smiled and reached his hand across the little table and laid it atop mine.

“I’m so glad we ran into each other today,” he said quietly. “Thanks for taking time for an old man. I was feeling pretty blue this morning, and I guess I just needed a friend. You know, sitting here with you has felt like—well, it’s been like pulling up to a blazing fire on a cold night. I feel so…so warm now. Thanks for letting me join you.”

That incident took place years ago, and Dan is now in heaven. But I’ve thought of his words many times since. They were so simple, yet the more I mull over them the more profound they seem. I’m always tempted to allow the holiday to deteriorate into nothing more than jingling bells and jangled nerves. Dan reminded me that Christmas isn’t decorations, deadlines, and dashing through the snow. It’s a time for giving ourselves—especially, our time—to someone else. And we do it in honor of the Baby who did the same for us, the one called “‘Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

Time for friends and fellowship in Jesus’ name: it’s like pulling up to a blazing fire on a cold and lonely night.  Give the gift of yourself.