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"When it is better to receive than to give"

Isaiah 61:10-11

Rev. Alan Taylor

Advent 3, series B
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Dec 11, 2011 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…"a partridge in a pear tree."  On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me…"two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree."  On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. 

Don't worry I'm not going to go through the whole song.  Legend has it that the song, as secular as it sounds, was actually written for Christian instruction at a time when citizens in England were not allowed to practice the Catholic faith.  In this case Catholic means Roman Catholic.  Englishmen weren't always Anglicans, you know.  Early on, the various Kings of England brought with them their preferred religion.  Over time they vacillated between Roman Catholic, Anglican and even Lutheran, for a short period.  The stanzas of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" were code, if you will, for the various gifts that God has given to His people.  Our "true love" is God, who gives us the various gifts.  The "partridge in a pear tree" is His Son Jesus Christ, whom He gave as a sacrifice for us.  The "two turtle doves" are the Old and New Testaments.  The "three French hens" are the virtues of faith, hope and love.  And so forth…

The song, as well as being instructive of the giving nature of God, also emphasizes the general practice of giving at Christmas, a tradition that we are all quite very familiar with.  At Christmas, we give gifts to our family, our friends, even our business associates and sometimes even to complete strangers.  Christmas, after-all, is the season of giving.

For Christians, the practice of giving is symbolic of the Wise Men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem to honor Jesus at His birth.  The practice of giving gifts to loved ones at Christmas didn't begin until the modern era.  Various countries and peoples began to make gift-giving a regular part of the holy day (or "holiday") over a period of time.  By the time the Americas were settled, giving gifts at Christmas was practiced by many of the settlers.  The early Dutch settlers to America introduced St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, to the new world.  The early French and English settlers, in contrast, were more likely to give gifts at New Year's or at Epiphany.

Ultimately, a common Christmas culture developed in which gifts were given at Christmastime.  In the nineteenth century, the idea of gift giving took on new dimensions, as the works of Charles Dickens and others helped to shape our concepts of Santa Claus and other aspects of the holiday.

All of this is simply to say that the practice of giving gifts at Christmas is a deep rooted tradition in our culture.  I wouldn't be so scrooge-like as to suggest that we should stop giving gifts for fear that we'll lose Christ and the true meaning of Christmas in the process.  I would say, however, that, as we give to others at Christmas, it is incumbent upon us, as Christians, to remember that Christmas is not primarily about what we give to others or to God, but, about what God gives to us. 

The title of the message this morning is "when it is better to receive than to give."  The phrase, of course, is a reversal of the Biblical principle that "it is better to give than to receive."  I would maintain, however, that the phrase, as I've styled it, is also quite Biblical. 

When is it better to receive than to give?  Well, speaking from our flesh, or, from our sinful nature, we'd say that it is better to receive than to give when the gift we receive is bigger and better than the one we give.  The automobile manufacturer Lexus would have us believe it's better to "receive than give" when our spouse goes out and buys us a new Lexus as a surprise gift.  Wouldn't you rather be given a Lexus than give one!?  I mean, who wouldn't want a bright, shiny new Lexus for Christmas?!!  A red one!! 

Still, despite the allure and the insatiable desires of our flesh, there is a time when it is better to receive than to give.  I would draw your attention this morning to the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 61.  Isaiah is one of those prophets who had a tuff message to bring to God's people.  In his day, God's people were turning away from Him.  They were following after other gods and making alliances with pagan kings.  They were trusting in themselves more than they were trusting in God.  Isaiah told them that their rebellion wouldn't be allowed to go on for much longer.  God would send a marauding army from the north down to Jerusalem to chasten her and to direct her attention back to Him.  In 586B.C. the Babylonians, what is modern day Iraq, swooped down from the north and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and they drove the Jews out of the Holy Land.  In that case, they received from God what they needed, chastening, a firm hand of discipline.

As Isaiah warned the people of what was to come, he also told them that God wouldn't forsake them, that He would finally redeem them, that He would forgive their rebellious ways and that He would, by His own grace and mercy, make them acceptable in His sight. 

We pick up in Isaiah 61, where the prophet begins to tell the children of Israel what God had planned for them after they'd been driven out of Jerusalem.  I would like to direct your attention to the latter part of the reading for this morning, especially verses 10 & 11 of Isaiah 61.  Isaiah says…

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;

my soul shall exult in my God,

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;

he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,

and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,

so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise

to sprout up before all the nations.

Now, nothing is really ever insignificant in Scripture, but, there is something particularly significant about these verses.  Notice the verbs.  Who is doing the action in the verbs?  Listen again…

he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;

he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

GOD will cause righteousness and praise

to sprout up before all the nations.

When God speaks to us in this way, when He comes to give us a garment of salvation, a robe of righteousness, it is most certainly better for us to receive than to give.  In fact, when God speaks pure words of grace and mercy to us, there is really nothing we can give.  God's grace is complete.  It is absolute.  It is perfect.  It lacks nothing and consequently nothing can be added to it. 

For sure, when we deal with our fellow man, even with our brothers and sisters in Christ, God calls us to give, thus, "it is better to give than to receive."  Your neighbor, my friends, needs you.  Love them, as you love yourself.

But, when you turn to God, there really isn't anything you can give.  Rather, He comes to serve you, as Jesus said, "I did not come to be served but to serve and give My life as a ransom for many."  Within these hallowed walls God has come once again to serve you, to cloth you with the "garments of salvation" and to give you "the robe of His (Son's) righteousness." 

I wrote an article in our church newsletter this month about the "goofiness" of worship in some Lutheran circles.  In Sweden, for instance, parishioners are offered a Hip Hop Mass, a Jazz Mass, and a new offering, the Techo Mass.  What is obscured in such "silliness" is the God who gives, the God who comes to us with such simple, and yet, incredibly profound gracious words.  "Take and eat, take and drink " "I forgive you."  "I have bought you with a price, you are mine."  Indeed, there are times "when it is better to receive than to give."  That "robe of righteousness," my friends, that you have received from Christ looks good on you!  In Jesus' name.  Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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