Maybe Not the Gifts You Were Expecting

“He gave gifts to his people.” The heart and soul of this passage today is about God through Christ giving gifts to his people. This he was able to do because he descended to earth to be among us. Maybe I’m the only one, but doesn’t this kind of sound like Christmas? I mean, if you take Jesus and Santa, do you get…? (picture of Jesus as Santa Claus)

And when you think about it, there is a godly part about Santa Claus anyway, knowing who’s naughty and nice and giving gifts to the boys and girls who have been nice! (picture of Jesus as Santa with child on his lap)

Now, I’m joking about this, but for a great number of people, the value and purpose of being religious is to receive benefits – gifts, as it were – from God. After all, we live in a consumer society and want things that will help us be happy and successful. So, then, how can God give me what I need to be at my best? I want God to make me feel inspired, to be successful in my business, to be happy and avoid pain. There is a huge marketplace for religion that can give you these things. From the “power of positive thinking” school of religion to the uplifting, adrenaline rush of entertainment worship when the rock band cranks up …(picture of entertainment worship)

…to the “prosperity gospel” of many a megachurch that promises that if you are a good Christian, God will reward you with wealth…(picture of guy with money talking to God)

…to the “how to” sermons and workshops that offer you a formula for success in various arenas.

Yes, Jesus is a kind of Santa for us in a capitalist culture.

And please hear me on this: Jesus does give us gifts, although not necessarily more money or success or feeling happy all the time. Rather, gifts that a God of love would give, like forgiveness, belonging, healing. The difference is these gifts are all have to do with what a restored relationship with God brings, not gifts that feed our private agendas for the good life. The gifts that Christ gives always turn us outward to continue relationship repairing and the healing of brokenness.

The gifts Christ gives in Ephesians 4 take us beyond self-interest altogether, a long ways from Santa Claus territory. These gifts are not for your sake or benefit, but for the much larger purpose of loving your neighbor, restoring community and creating hope.(picture of woman helping homeless woman)

So the gifts that Christ gives to us are capacities, qualities that make each one of us uniquely able to embody God’s love, healing and hope in the world. These gifts are given so that we can answer our calling to participate in what God is up to in this world. So it isn’t so much using God to add something to our life, it’s God’ adding us to the life of God that is loose in the world through Jesus Christ!

This is about being a member of something, but it’s the difference between being a member of Costco and being a member of a movement, like, for instance, Mothers against Drunk Driving. With Costco, membership has its privileges because membership is all about what you get out of it. With MADD, membership is not about your privileges because it’s not about you. It’s about a purpose; it’s a movement to build a better tomorrow with fewer drunk driving accidents. And in this movement you don’t ask, “What am I getting out of this?” You ask, “What can I do to make a difference? What role do I play?”

As members of the body of Christ, we are members not of a private club that gives us stuff; we are members of a movement – the movement of God at work in the world through Jesus Christ. And we, our very flesh and blood, are a part of that movement of God. Our text today refers to this movement as “building up the body of Christ,” God at work remaking the world.

By the way, this is a sneak peek at our long range plan. God has given each of us gifts that allow us to play the role we are called to play. And these gifts are not to be underestimated! These gifts are from heaven and were brought down to us.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting our homebound folks this summer and I’ve seen incredible gifts in them,  gifts from heaven. Last week, I chatted with Millie Brujhell, who is 91. I learned that 30 years ago she lost her husband and 10 years ago, she lost her only son. In the past few months her spine has sort of fallen apart resulting in terrible pain and mobility issues. But as she describes all this, she looks at me, and with a twinkle in her eye and big smile on her face, she says, “Oh, but I still love life!” And she means it; there is not a touch of sarcasm in her voice. She says, “I know how much I’m blessed.” You see, she still has her game shows from the sixties that she watches, her grandsons and friends that visit her (like Marion Harris), her devotional books that she reads. And then she says to me, “I love my church, and I feel like I already knew you because I carefully read your sermons every week. Plus, I know you’re a Norwegian, just like me. ” Big smile!

Millie knows what Jesus taught us all when he was tempted in the wilderness, namely, that her life does not consist of bread alone, or good fortune or perfect health, but her life consists of every Word that proceeds from her Father in heaven.

So what is Millie’s gift and how does it build up the body of Christ? Walking away that day, I looked at my own life and felt more blessed by God and thankful than ever. I also felt blessed to know Millie. Our text from Ephesians says that some have the gift of evangelism, and Millie does have that.

Who here has a story to tell? We will work on telling our stories this fall.

And some have the gift of teaching. When I listen to our children’s message givers each week, I am amazed that we not only have one or two of you who are good at this. So, you see, it’s not only Beth today. It’s 6 or 7 others as well. You get to hear them every week. And then when you listen to my sermon and go, “What??!!” You can remember their message and say, “Oh, that’s right. Karen made it clear already.” I promise you that most congregations far bigger than we are do not have this many people who deliver like this group can.

And then there’s someone like Mary Catherine who has the gift of building bridges with new people, with different people than we’re used to. For instance, she has built a bridge with CTUL, an advocacy group for fair wages and labor practices for immigrant people. And Mary is building a bridge with our friends at CASA, planning the first Annual International Potluck with them for Aug. 13. God has called Mary to help Mt Carmel learn how to be in community with CASA.

There is a most interesting quote in our Ephesians lesson for today: Jesus “made captivity itself is a captive.” The end result of such a move is to make us free. Jesus came down to make us free, to equip us to be a part of his movement in the world. We are free from the things that make us captive. Often in our world, we are captive to a mindset that always asks, like a consumer, “What can I get out of this?” Freedom in Christ means asking instead, “How can I be a part of something bigger than me, something life-giving, something where I can make a difference?” There is no greater gift to us than to be equipped by God to be a part of God’s movement of love and hope in the world.

It was a central teaching of Martin Luther that because of God’s unconditional love for us, because of God’s generous giving of unmerited gifts to us each and every day, we no longer have to worry about ourselves. God will take care of us. We are then free to love our neighbor, to be a part of a movement. Amen.


Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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