Sermon Series: Gifts

October 12th, 2011
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2 Week Series

Week 1: Where Do Gifts Come From?

Deuteronomy 26:1-19

One Christmas, shortly after my mother-in-law had passed away, a new dish appeared on our dining room table. Our children were old enough at that time to know that it had not been among those dishes we used at special occasions. This dish, featuring a Christmas tree and ornaments, was an obvious choice for Christmas celebrations.

“Where did that come from?” was the unanimous question that sprang from their lips as the dish was placed on the table. What followed was a story of how their grandmother had acquired the dish and how it had been something she treasured and had been passed on to us and would be passed on to them. In a strange and mysterious way, an informal litany began to take shape over the years in which the story was repeated each Christmas. Each year the story of grandma’s dish was one of the rituals in which we celebrated her love for us and the pleasure we shared in being together at Christmas.

In the season of Advent we prepare to celebrate the supreme gift of God’s love that is ours in the birth of Jesus. At the heart of our thanksgiving and joy in receiving such a gift, at the heart of preparing to receive it anew, is the importance of remembering the source of such a gift. This ritual of remembering is important not only for a celebration of Christmas but also empowers us to experience the giftedness that sustains daily life. The rituals of remembering have power because over and over again we have the opportunity to recall the first question that springs to mind from a surprised and grateful heart. Where did this come from?

The question keeps us connected to the source of life’s gifts. Within the litany of remembrance we recall the identity of the giver. The passage in Deuteronomy prescribes a litany of remembrance that comes at the time of harvest. It serves as an act of worship in which the participant has the opportunity to look back into history and to recognize the hand of God acting in history. In that sense it is Israel’s confession of faith.

“We are the descendants of a wandering Aramean,” the worshiper states. “We belong to a people who were mistreated by the Egyptians and suffered. God heard our cries and saw we were being oppressed. God brought us to this place of milk and honey.”

God’s actions in the past are directly related to the event of handing over the first fruits of the harvest to the priest. In that moment God’s intentions toward the worshiper become clear. God’s intent is to love, provide, and lead. God’s power is directed toward the daily events in the life of God’s children. The natural world with its capacity to provide, and the worshiper’s own hands and energy become the sign of God’s loving provision. Acts of worship remind the people that they have experienced God’s presence in God being the source of life and life’s sustenance.

The season of Advent is a part of that worship tradition. The practice of reading the prophecies helps us recall God’s identity and ours as God’s people. We hear our story. We are like sheep that have gone astray. Our lives are like the city of Zion, laid to waste by our selfishness and our indifference to others. God is acting in Jesus to lead us out of our slavery. We are invited to sing a new song.

Our worship provides the process in which we can connect with our experiences of God’s history-making involvement in our lives. Paul tells the early church that we were once at odds with God and one another. Now we belong to God and one another through the reconciliation made real in Christ. Our worship is the declaration of our faith in who God has been and will be. We have clarity about our belonging to God. We have clarity about our belonging to one another. The God who led a people out of Egypt is still leading people out from the land of fear and death. We are those people.

There was one other lesson concerning grandmother’s dish. In the discussion about where the dish came from, there was also discussion about how and when it would be used. Since it was clearly very beautiful, the children anticipated that it would go into a china cabinet and not be used. We did discuss the fact that the dish needed to be carefully used and at the appropriate times. We also discussed their grandmother’s enjoyment of her family and friends and her desire that we all could enjoy using the dish.

The ritual in Deuteronomy continues as the worshiper is instructed in the purpose of the litany of remembrance just concluded. The gift is a tenth of the harvest and is used in sharing with others. The sharing is an act of obedience based on the experience of love recalled in the story of God’s actions in behalf of God’s people. The sharing is the expression of harmony with God and with neighbor. The act of praise is followed by acts of mercy and compassion. Once again the basic elements of life are seen in a new way. The gifts of God are fully realized in both the harvest of the earth, the work of a person’s hands and the obedience of the heart. They all are extensions of God’s power and love in daily life.

Our worship and our grace-filled obedience in Advent link us to our faith family in every time and place. Our gifts of heart and hands and labors are the fruits of knowing where these gifts came from.

Week 2: Gift Cycle

Deuteronomy 26:1-19

It is not uncommon for the book of Deuteronomy to be seen as strictly a book of law. The instructions for worship in Deuteronomy that have been our focus for these two weeks could be read in such a way that the hearer feels the burden of being careful to do the right thing at the right time. After all, there are sections of the book that are filled with curses as well as blessings.

The second instruction for the required litanies of faith begins in verse 12. It reads as a rather stiff declaration of what the worshiper needs to be able to say after making the offer of gifts for the work of the temple and for the needy. The worshiper states that the portion required has been given without any of it being eaten while mourning. It is presented while the worshiper is ritually clean. All the commands and ordinances have been kept. “Now God, look down on me and bless me as you swore to my ancestors that you would bless.”

We find the words commands and ordinances to be heavy words. How can Deuteronomy be read in the season of Advent in which we place so much hope in the grace born into the world in Jesus?

Perhaps our reaction is not so much a reflection on our spiritual ancestors as it is a reflection that we have made a false assumption about the connection between law and grace. We assume the words law and grace cannot be in harmony with each other. The truth is exactly the opposite.

The opening litany of remembrance centers on God’s gracious acts of liberation and provision. Through the natural world and the skills and work of human beings, God provides. In the time of slavery, God leads people into freedom. These are acts of God’s self giving to God’s children. The response of obedience is not then an act of obtaining God’s goodness but a response to that goodness. The law gives direction for the desire of the worshiper to rightly use the gifts God has so freely bestowed. The worshiper articulates the bond of covenant with God in which daily life becomes the place where God’s promises are fulfilled. Daily life provides the opportunity for gratitude to be lived out in covenant faithfulness.

As a text for Advent this one joins prophecies concerning the Messiah as an historical witness to God’s saving and sustaining power. The life of discipleship is the response for all those who seek to live with faith in the constancy of God’s grace—not in a linear way, but in a cycle of God’s action. God graciously takes initiative on behalf of humankind, the gifts returned to God through worship and compassion for others are returned to God’s children as a part of God’s gracious intentions.

One Christmas, our son, at the midpoint of his Peace Corps service, returned for the holidays. He had served on the island of Maewo, a part of the nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. He had been there fourteen months and had lived with a family on the island as he taught school. We were, of course, so grateful for their acceptance of him, their shepherding him through the waters of being far from family and in a different culture.

A few days before he arrived, we received boxes shipped with the bold writing stating we were not to open them until Christmas. We were not surprised, thinking they were souvenirs he had picked up in his travels.

On Christmas morning, he passed around the boxes and told us these were gifts from his family in Vanuatu. Amazement began to dawn as we realized these were not souvenirs he had bought but were handmade items created for us by his adopted family. There were simple dresses for my wife and daughter, carved wood for my son and me, and woven ceremonial mats handpainted with our names. Tears welled up in our eyes at the beauty and the love behind the gesture. It was that family extending their family to include us. Our first thought was what can we share? It was not thinking about reciprocating, you bought me something now I have to buy something for you. We felt connected to their family. They had shared a gift from their own culture, their own talents, and identity as a family. We wanted to do the same. We made a tape of our family singing songs and hymns that were important to us, songs we had sung in worship together. The tape we made was taken to Maewo and shared as a part of their worship.

Teresa of Avila said, “Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle the soul.” The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of law and grace found in Deuteronomy and continues to be fulfilled in us as we offer our gifts of love. Our faithfulness to our covenant with God is the means through which God kindles and rekindles our souls and the soul of the world.

This sermon series was adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2008, © 2007 Abingdon Press

The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2012 is available now from Ministry Matters.

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