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Luke 3.7-18

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TITLE:   Kind Deeds -- Double Blessings

SERMON IN A SENTENCE:     Christ calls us to share with people in need.

SCRIPTURE:    Luke 3:7-18

 

SERMON:    

Our Gospel lesson is an odd story.  John the Baptist is preaching in the desert wilderness, and people go to him for baptism -- go to him in droves.  Most preachers would be thrilled!  However, instead of welcoming the crowd, John berates them -- calls them a brood of vipers -- shouts, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance -- warns that they are in danger of hell fire.

You would think that such a preacher would soon find himself without a congregation.  But people keep coming, because they sense something special in this fire-and-brimstone preacher -- this prophet.  They sense that John tells the truth -- and they feel a deep-rooted need to hear the truth.

Their problem, John tells them, is that they have been resting on their laurels.  They think that, because they are Jews -- children of Abraham -- they can count on God to take care of them.  But they feel no urgency to be the kind of people that God wants them to be -- to do the kinds of things that God wants them to do. 

So John warns them that they are headed straight for hell.  He doesn't actually use the word, "hell," but his metaphor is clear.  They are trees, he says -- unproductive trees -- trees that bear no fruit -- suitable only for chopping down and throwing onto a fire.  The ax is ready, he warns.  The situation is urgent.  They need to remedy their situation, and they need to do so NOW!

They ask him what to do, and he tells them.  "Bear fruits worthy of repentance," he answers.  And then he explains:

"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none;

and whoever has food must do likewise."

When I was preparing this sermon, I asked myself what this passage means for us.  It seems to say that our salvation depends on our good deeds -- but our Christian faith says that Christ's work on the cross saves us -- not our works.  I believe that!  I believe that Christ's work on the cross saves us!

 

-- But the scriptures also emphasize loving our neighbor -- and demonstrating our love by generous acts of service.

-- The prophets emphasize helping the poor -- the widow -- the orphan. 

-- When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what to do so that he might inherit eternal life, Jesus said, "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Luke 18:22).

-- Jesus also said, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16).  In other words, our good works are a natural outgrowth of our faith -- and they visibly demonstrate our faith.

-- And in our Gospel lesson today, John the Baptist said, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."  John made it sound as if their eternal destiny hung on doing these small but generous acts.  Perhaps our eternal destiny hangs on our small but generous acts too.

For me, the bottom line is threefold: 

-- First, our good works cannot save us.  We are saved by Christ's good work.

-- But, second, valid faith produces good works.

-- So, third, if we have faith in Christ, we ought to get busy and do something for someone who needs help. 

John says that, if we have two coats, we should give one of them to a person who has none.

He says that, if we have food, we should share with someone who has none. 

When I first read that, I thought that John told us to share our food if we have more than enough.  Then I read it again, and it says simply that we should share our food.  Period!  Whether we have enough or not!

That reminded me of a Mother Teresa story -- one that I presume is true.  Mother Teresa learned of a family with eight children who had no food, so she took them some rice.  The children's mother divided the rice into two packages, and walked out the door carrying one of them.  When she returned, Mother Teresa asked where she had been.  She answered simply, "My neighbors are hungry also!"

We all know people like that -- compassionate people -- generous people -- people who give beyond what they can afford.  And I am sure many of us have been blessed by some of them along the way.  None were wealthy, and most were people of modest means.  They couldn't give us a new car or pay our way through college.  But maybe they invited us to Sunday dinner when we would otherwise have been hungry.  Or they sent an encouraging note when we would have otherwise been discouraged.  Or they showed us some other small kindness that fit our need exactly.  What a blessing such people are -- the salt of the earth, Jesus calls them.

Jesus calls us to be like them -- compassionate -- generous -- kind.  He calls us to love our neighbor -- not just with our feelings, but also with our actions.

You might ask how we can do that.  I would have to answer, "Just look around, find a need, and fill it!"

A couple of months ago, the Washington Post ran an article on 74-year-old Andrew Barr.  Barr is an old man who knows how to make money.  He doesn't spend much on himself, but he raises money for particular people or causes -- to buy an ambulance for a rescue squad -- for sleeping bags and warm clothing for homeless people -- to help a medical technician go back to school.  It was a wonderful story -- and a true one, too. 

Not many of us have that kind of moneymaking skill.  If I started buying ambulances for rescue squads, soon my own children would be hungry.

But you don't have to have money to make a difference.  Not long ago, twenty people were invited to the White House to receive the President's Community Volunteer Award.  The president presented their awards. 

-- One of them, Dr. Katz, is 90 years old.  He has been teaching music to children since the Great Depression -- 60 years of volunteer service.

-- One of them, Chandler Vatavuk, is a student at the University of North Carolina.  Chandler began volunteering on his tenth birthday.  Inspired by his grandmother and a school counselor, he wanted to do something for at-risk kids.  He has been working with such kids now for ten years -- day-by-day, week-by-week. 

-- One of them, Dana Rosenstein, is an American who decided to go to college in Cape Town, South Africa.  There she discovered a great need among young blacks -- the first generation of their race to enjoy freedom in South Africa.  She helped to establish a guidance center, modeled after an American high school guidance center.  The center helps young blacks to discover and to pursue opportunities that they would otherwise have missed.

-- One is 16-year-old Stefan Kazacos.  Stefan's father works for the U.S. State Department, and Stefan has lived in a number of countries.  While in Ethiopia, he discovered an orphanage that needed help.  The children's clothes were tattered.  Their playground was useless -- rusted, broken swings. Stefan wrote to friends and asked them to send clothing and toys.  Then he started raising money for new playground equipment.  He publicized the project through the embassy and at the Marine barracks.  He held bake sales.  He raised enough money to buy some new equipment and to refurbish some old equipment.  As a result, the children have a new, serviceable playground.  Keep in mind that Stefan is 16 years old.

Each of those people is exceptional in some way -- but most are exceptional primarily in that they saw a need and filled it.  Let's do the same.

John says, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

As I was preparing this sermon, I ran across a story about the Italian composer, Rossini.  The king of France had given Rossini a watch, and Rossini treasured this royal gift.  Several years later, though, a friend told Rossini that the watch held a treasure that Rossini had not yet discovered.  Rossini couldn't imagine it, but he handed the watch to his friend.  The friend then touched a hidden spring, and a secret compartment opened, revealing a tiny but beautiful portrait of Rossini himself.

When I read that story, I wondered if we might not experience something akin to that when we get to heaven.  I can just imagine Christ reminding us of some kind deed that we did while on earth -- the gift of a warm jacket -- a meal shared with a hungry person -- a visit to a lonely person -- an encouraging word to someone who was feeling down -- little things long forgotten.  And then Christ will touch a hidden spring and reveal to us all the blessings that flowed from those kind acts.  And then we will be doubly blessed. 

John says, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

 

Let's do that!

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