Every year at Christmastime, news stations run video segments of crazy shoppers pushing and shoving each other to get their hands on the best gifts for the best prices. Some people have even been killed when trampled beneath the greedy masses. The season has grown so ugly, that more and more churches are choosing to contend with the rampant consumerism via sermon series that elevate the story of Christ's birth with an eye toward selfless, sacrificial living. John Ortberg put together such a series for his church in California, and just below is a message that reminds us in this Christmas season that it is more blessed to give than to receive. To listen to Ortberg's sermon as you follow along, click here.
When I was growing up, my family always seemed to have a goal of being able to say at the end of Christmas, "This was the best Christmas we've ever had." Did any of you grow up in a family where you felt pressured to say something like that?
We didn't have clear criteria for what would make a Christmas the best Christmas ever. I suppose when I was young, it was mostly about presents: did I get what I wanted to get. Then, when I was a little older, it was about certain traditions or rituals, things that would happen every year that would make it feel like Christmas.
Every year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, my mom would make Santa Claus cookies, these wonderful cookies with red and white frosting. She would hide them, and my father would find them and eat all of them. That felt like Christmas to all of us. It was more about moments, about nostalgia or what sometimes gets called the Christmas spirit.
When we had grown up, one year my brother found a house in the mountains of Southern California in Big Bear, and we all stayed there together. It was a little place; we didn't have much money. Nancy and I had two little babies, and we were all in one room. My sister, Barbara, and her husband had three small children. They were all five in another room. My mom and dad were in another little room. My brother was on a couch in the middle of the house.
From a material standpoint, it was crowded, it was messy, it was cheap. It was a cramped little place, but we were together. Do you know what it was? It was a nightmare. The kids couldn't sleep. They cried all night. Nobody got any sleep. My parents had a big fight. I'm not making this up. My brother, who had arranged the whole thing, got so fed up he got in his car, abandoned the house, and went back to his apartment, because he couldn't stand it anymore. That was not our best Christmas ever.
Christmas can be a complex season to navigate. There is shopping to get done. All the busyness, the running around. There are office parties, and after office parties are family gatherings, and after family gatherings are therapist appointments … Then you add our current economic uncertainty, and I wonder: What would it take for this year to be the best Christmas ever? How would we know? What is the standard?
God is a giver, not a taker.
I want to take us to Scripture and the story of Christmas. I want us to see what was behind Christmas in the Bible, because here is the secret to what made the first Christmas great and what can make it great again. No matter what happens, circumstantially or emotionally, what could make it the best? One word.
These are the first words that tell of the love that would launch Christmas: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
Here is why that verse is so central. What made that first Christmas great to God is what God got to do: "God so loved the world that he gave …" Giving is what love does. Giving is how love expresses itself. Giving is the heart of love; and therefore, giving is the heart of God. Giving is what God is into. One thing people do not understand about God is that God is not a taker; God is a giver. This is the Good News from the Bible.
In the ancient world, there were myths, stories about the gods, who created human beings to be slaves, because the gods were takers. Then came this story about this people of Israel in the Book of Genesis of a God who is so generous that he creates with beauty and says, "Now take it. Now enjoy it." "God so loved the world …"
God has been giving from the beginning. This is from the Book of James: "Don't be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters"—because people are deceived about the nature of God. He is not a taker. "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." The key word in this passage is the word every. Don't be deceived. Not just good and perfect gifts, but every gift. When you start to think about this, it will change the way you think about and feel toward our God—all the time, whatever the gift is, not just in church.
Last Sunday, right after this service, Nancy and I drove to Half Moon Bay, to a place called Mavericks. Mavericks is one of the ultimate surfing places in the world. It's about 500 yards, almost half a mile, off the shore of Half Moon Bay. Normally it is quite placid, but every once in a while, in the right conditions, a swell comes and this big surf will kick up. Last weekend, the swell came. We went out there, and surfers had gathered from all over, from Hawaii, from South Africa. They knew the swell was coming.
I stood up on the bluff with a pair of binoculars and watched them. There were walls of water 40 feet high. There was brilliant sunshine, blue skies. These guys were surfing down these giant water mountains. One of the guys said it was maybe the best day in Mavericks' history.
One guy got thrown off his board and was pinned under water by a wave, and then pinned under by another wave that came after that. It drove him so deep under water, he broke an eardrum. He got back up and wouldn't go away. He would not leave. He stayed out there to keep watching everybody surf. He said, "We are the luckiest organisms in the history of the universe to get this."
Now where did those waves come from? They aren't just the product of a mechanical universe. They are not random. You have to picture God like a kid in heaven: Did you like that wave? Here's another one. Here's another one. Here's a bigger one. God owns the waves. He owns the sun. He owns the sky. We don't have to own stuff to enjoy it. That is our God. Don't be deceived. God is a giver, not a taker.
God gives lavishly and continually.
God's generosity isn't just lavish, not just creative; it is continual. It is ceaseless. It is unstoppable. This is from the Book of Lamentations, "Your mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness." Every morning, God is saying: Did you like that sunrise yesterday? Here's another one. Here is food for your body. Here is air for your lungs. Here is beauty for your eyes. Here is music for your ears. Here is strength for your needs. Here are friends for your heart. Here is a purpose for your day. Here are thoughts for your mind.
All the time, God is giving, giving, giving. That is what he does all day long. And what made the first Christmas the best is that God finally got to give his best gift of all. It is like he had been giving and giving and giving from the beginning of creation, but he had this one gift he had been saving up all these years. It is like when he gave Jesus, God out-gave himself. It is like he set a new record for compassion and generosity. It is like he was so excited about this gift, he couldn't keep quiet about it.
When I was a kid growing up, the most excited I ever saw my dad about giving a gift was when he got my mom a pitcher, kind of a big vase. It was about as big as me in those days. She really wanted it, and my dad had saved and saved and saved. He was so excited about it, he told us kids, but he said, "It's a secret." We got excited because he was so excited, and my mom knew something was up, so she finally asked, "What am I getting?" And I said to her, "I can't tell you, because it's a secret, but it's a pitcher."
When Jesus began his ministry many people had the wrong idea about the Messiah. They thought the Messiah was going to be God being a taker—take power, take control, take vengeance on his enemies. So Jesus could not let them know he was the Messiah too soon, until he could re-educate them about who the Messiah was. That is why sometimes in the gospels you'll see Jesus heal somebody and then say, "Now don't go tell anybody what I did." He wanted to do a little remedial education first. He had to keep what is sometimes called in scholarship the Messianic secret.
But when Jesus was born, it was like the Father was so excited, like he had been anticipating this moment year after year, century after century, and millennium after millennium. It was like he couldn't contain himself. So he sent a whole sky full of angels: Hey Earth, I can't tell you what you're getting, because it is a secret, but it is a Savior. Because God is a giver, not a taker.
And what made the first Christmas so great was he got to give the best gift of all. He got to give the gift of a Savior to people who needed it the most—sinners. Do you know who those people are? That is the person sitting next to you right now, and the person sitting next to that person.
It is more blessed to give than to receive.
So here is what I was thinking will make this the best Christmas ever. Not how pretty the church looks on Christmas Eve, not how great the music is, not the stuff we get, not the food we eat, not the moments we create, not the feelings we experience. What if we were to get so filled up with the love of God that we were to become conduits of God's blessing to other people around us, people who are under-resourced, who are hurting, who don't have much hope? What if we were to get so filled up with the love of God that we were to see and then pray for and then help and listen to and stop and be with and give to people who have a need? What if we were to express record levels of compassion in actual, concrete, tangible, real, personal, sometimes costly ways? What if we were to so love the world around us that we were to give to it the best we have ever given to the people who need it the most? Well then, it would be the best Christmas ever.
So that is what we are going to do in this Advent season as we gather together in these weeks. We are going to find another way to do Christmas. We are going to pursue an alternative to the see more, want more, buy more, have more, shop more, wrap more, break more, get disappointed more, rushed, frenzied, stressed insanity that our world calls the Christmas season. We will reflect on this great God who so loved the world that he gave his Son for you and me. Then we will think about how we can make this a Christmas of compassion.
Here is the main point I want to make. If we make this a Christmas of compassion, it will not just be good for people on the receiving end; it will also be good for you and me. This is one of the most profound teachings of Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." The key word here is blessed. Jesus doesn't just say it is better to give. He doesn't just say you're supposed to give. He doesn't just say God wants you to give. He doesn't just say it is morally superior to give. He says, "It is more blessed …" To be blessed means to be enriched, to be enhanced, to be given more life. Jesus is saying it is a better way to live to be a giver than to be a taker. You will be more enhanced. You'll be more enriched.
I was reading this week about a study of young people. Students in a high school who are below grade reading level got assigned randomly to one of two groups. One of the groups helped tutor younger children, and the other group didn't do anything. No volunteering, no serving. The students who were in the serving group ended up being 12 times more likely to graduate from high school than the students in the non-serving control group.
Again, they weren't being helped; they were helping. High school students involved in volunteering are less likely to drop out, less likely to be involved in substance abuse, less likely candidates for teenage pregnancy, more likely to graduate, more likely to vote, more likely to have a higher level of esteem, and more likely to go on to college.
We have a group of folks in our church who spent a big chunk of Thanksgiving weekend—when most people were eating turkey and watching TV—helping to renovate a teacher-training center in Ravenswood school district, an under-resourced school district. It was a joint effort of our church and a Girl Scout troop from Menlo Atherton High School and Ravenswood Education District. This whole project was led by Melissa Hall, who herself is a high school student. She recruited volunteers, acquired funding, and told these big, high-functioning adults what to do.
It is better to give than to receive. That is true also for people at the other end of the age spectrum. A study of folks in their 80s or so showed that those volunteering with school children had a higher level of life satisfaction, a higher level of mental health, less illness, less loneliness, less depression, and a lower mortality rate than those who did not serve. If you serve, if you give your time and your heart, you will live longer.
What Jesus says is true: it is more blessed, it is better, it is more life-giving to give than to receive. So this Christmas, what if we set a record for compassion in Jesus' name?
On December 20, we are partnering with 13 other churches in East Palo Alto to serve a dinner for about 500 folks who will be in need this season. Food banks are in serious trouble. Donations this year are down 50 percent. The need for those services is way up. There was one down in San Jose that was going to give food to people on Thanksgiving Day. People had to register on November 1 to get it. A line started to form three hours before registration opened up. It snaked around the block, and hundreds of people waited hours.
We have bags for groceries and lists of stuff that is needed. Everybody has to grocery shop. When you go, get one of those bags, get a list, and get some extra stuff. Bring it back to the church, and we will make sure it gets where it needs to go. We need 130 people to volunteer that weekend and say: I'll give some time. I'll help prepare food. I'll go over there. I'll help host this event. I'll watch kids.
Some of you are thinking, Shopping may be my spiritual gift. How do I use that? Man, you are going to be glad you came to church. Right across the breezeway is Heavenly Treasures. These are products created by people in the developing world, like a woman whose husband died of AIDS in Africa. She has little children like anybody in the U.S. has and loves. She has no way to feed them. They are starving. She is given a small loan to begin a little business and create these products. When you go over there and buy one, you're putting food in the mouth of a child. You are changing the life of a family and helping to build a system that is creating dignity and work for people. That is called sanctified shopping.
Go on an adventure of compassion this season. How do we help children who are in need all around the world? How do we help hurting, suffering people? This could be the best Christmas ever. Go on that adventure with your small group, your friend, your spouse, your family, all by yourself. Pray: Jesus, I know God so loved the world that he gave. What can I give? What do you want me to do? Where would you lead me?
Apart from what you get, apart from the emotions you might experience, apart from the songs you might hear or sights you might see, it will be the best Christmas ever. It is more blessed to give.
I'll give you a picture of where the taker road leads to. It has been around forever, but it tells the story so vividly, I thought I would close with it. It is a story about how you catch a monkey. The idea is that you get a jar with a narrow opening and attach a rope to it or hook it up to something and then put something inside that the monkey wants, like a banana or an orange or an iPhone. Then the monkey will come along and grab what is inside, but because he makes a fist to grab, he can't get his fist out of the jar. And the monkey will be trapped, just stuck there, hour after hour.
You would think someone would come along and say, "Monkey, that banana is doing you no good. It isn't even making you happy. You can't benefit from it at all. If you keep clutching it, it means nothing but slavery and death. If you let it go, then you'll have freedom, joy, life, community with other monkeys." But the monkey can't let it go.
That's the story. Apparently in real life, no monkey has ever actually been caught this way. Monkeys aren't that stupid. Monkeys aren't that greedy. But do you know what species it does work with? Just take a drive around here. We have a lot of monkey jars.
A guy comes up to Jesus, an able person, a rich young ruler, he is called. He says, "Good teacher, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life? How do I know the blessed life, the good life? I've been following all the rules. I've been leading a good, respectable, religious life." Jesus says, "You need to do one more thing. Take your hand out of the monkey jar. Take all that stuff your heart is wrapped around that you're clutching onto, and sell it. Give it to people who need it. Then come and follow me. Let God be your God instead of the monkey jar, and then your life will really start."
That man walks away from Jesus very sad, because he would not take his hand out of the monkey jar. He would be okay following Jesus as long as he could bring the monkey jar with him.
Another guy comes to Jesus one time, and this guy is desperate. This guy is not particularly respectable. He is a tax collector. But he has a lot of stuff. He has his hand in the monkey jar. Jesus gives him the same message. His name is Zacchaeus, and a miracle happens. Because when a hand comes out of the monkey jar, it is always a miracle.
Zacchaeus's mind gets changed, and he starts to think about where the monkey jar has been getting him. His heart gets changed, and he says, "All right Jesus, I'm taking my hand out. All the people I have been exploiting and using, I'm going to give them four times what I've taken from them, and I'm going to give away half of everything I own."
Walk around the block, drive around the neighborhoods. There are a lot of monkey jars around here. A lot of houses. A lot of portfolios. A lot of crazy lifestyles. A lot of monkey jars.
Those two guys get to the end of their lives. Which one do you think had regrets?
How do you make this the best Christmas ever? Get your hand out of the monkey jar. All right, God. Give me a heart like yours. I want to do what you did, to so love the world that I give the best I have. That is the blessed life. That is the best Christmas ever.
To see an outline of Ortberg's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________