Wheaton College, outside of Chicago, is home to The Billy Graham Center. It houses an auditorium, classrooms, and a museum containing priceless artifacts. A fire burned part of the room in 2004 sending thick black smoke visible four miles away.
When the alarm sounded some immediately evacuated while others remained inside until firefighters appeared to escort them out. Joylin was one of the fearful ones uncertain about what to do. She recounts, "One of the women said, 'Why don't we stay back and pray?' The rest of us were like, 'I think we need to get out.'"
There are some times when it is obvious what needs to be done. There are situations in which the answer is absolutely, 100%, clear-cut. Yet, have we not known those who refused to leave an abusive spouse? Have we not known those knowingly ran headlong down a self-destructive path toward death? Why do such people just leave, stop, quit, or wake-up?
In this year's Singing Christmas Tree we are singing new lyrics to "Ode to Joy". I has something to do with copyrights, but as hard as it is to learn such things the words are significant.
Joyful, joyful, rings the anthem; Christmas is the birth of Grace. Christ has come to pay the ransom for the sin of Adam's race, unto us our God has spoken, through the ancient prophet's pen. To a world that's lost and broken, Christ is born in Bethlehem.
John records Jesus' discussion with a member of the Jewish leadership. Their entire existence revolved around serving God in an attempt to foster good will between the Almighty Creator of the Universe and themselves. Daily offerings were made for their sins while seasonal offerings given for thanksgiving, childbirth and the like. Yet in this dark night Jesus tells Nicodemus God's love is so great that he sent his son and that faith, belief, reliance on the one God sent [past tense] is the key to eternal life. Yet Jesus doesn't make "belief" = "praying a simple prayer". Jesus contrasts those, "who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed" with those who, "comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." Believing in Jesus is a constant stepping away from the darkness that conceals and hides and God's light that allows others to see God's hand at work through us.
We don't earn this grace God has given. The very best in our lives is described by Isaiah as "filthy rags" or a "polluted garment" God's word tells us we've missed the mark, consistently. And yet the glorious generosity of God is reported in Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." NAS
God's grace is poured out on us when we don't deserve it but we believe we can simply receive it and not do anything with it then we're mistaken. God's graciousness and our reception and our acceptance have the very force of moving us into the light. That is, letting God's work become visible through us.
The Grinch, like Nicodemus, is locked in a dark place. He stands on Mount Crumpit looks down at Whoville and hates it. He hates the noise. He despises their feasts. He carps about their joy and he complains about the singing. He's not a misunderstood victim like in the live action movie. He is, like us, a sinner. He's just a nasty guy whose shoes are too tight and his heart is too small. He has no idea, at all, of the spiritual danger he is in, as he remains ensconced on his mountain of isolation and despair.
When we do what God does we move more-and-more into the light. And among that is a growing genuine care and concern for sisters and brothers in Christ; a desire to love those who hate us and stepping out in trust that God's will is being accomplished as we do what he commands. In 1 John we're told we are to love each other. And this love is set over against the murder of Able by Cain. As we enter the light we will discover how important it is for us to "lay our lives" down for others. There's a couple of interesting phrases in this passage. Verse 13 says, " Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you." but don't read the "if" as a maybe. It is used in the sense of "since the world hates you". Our world really doesn't love those who help or love others. It is so wrapped up in remaining in the dark. Our culture may celebrate some heroic or selfless action but in truth it is not unusual to find someone going after the dirt on such people.
So here's the hard part of living in the light. Verses 16-19
"16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence"
Our love is practical, truthful and lets us rest in God's presence. If our bowels, the deepest part of our innermost person isn't bothered by the pain and need of others then God's love isn't in us. Over and over again God's word links our very salvation with living generously toward others. James is great for this. James 2:15-16says, "15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" Just before he's arrested and executed Jesus tells his disciples and us, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13. The Old Testament affirms this as well. In Deuteronomy 15:7 we read, "If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother."
How can we become more generous? First we recognize it doesn't come from within us but it flows out of being thankful for the generosity God has shown us in Jesus. A street person, strung out on drugs, dirty, unemployed doesn't deserve our help or a handout. But did we deserve the love of God born to us in Bethlehem, tortured and nailed to a Roman cross? No we don't deserve it, which is why we call it GRACE! God's call to us, who seek to follow Christ is to pass along the grace we've received to others in practical, life changing ways.
One of our actions steps for this advent is to Cultivate a Generous Spirit. It starts by asking God to make it happen and give us the opportunity to step out in faith and show pity for another. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of opportunities during the next few weeks to do this. One of them is in your bulletin as we seek to fulfill the needs of families around our city.
I hope you're starting to pray about where you're going to find yourself during this season. Let us pray.