A True Gift


Isa. 2:1-111 Thess. 2:13-20Luke 20:19-26

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

This hits a little close to home, doesn’t it?  We live in the midst of a consumerist society obsessed with shopping and material things.  The assault on Christmas began even before Halloween, and is now in fully throttle, with Christ completely ripped out of Christmas for so many.

Today the scribes and Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus.  But like a brilliant lawyer, Jesus responds in a way not to trap himself.  The question “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” has no good answer!  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay!” then he is guilty of sedition.  If he says, “Yes, pay taxes!” then he is guilty of breaking God’s law, for it involves graven images and a sense of Rome being put above religion.

Instead, Jesus attacks their question with an assertion that the money is evil (Give to Caesar that which has his picture on it!) and also that God owns everything anyway (Give to God what is God’s).

Is not everything God’s?  Of course!  But the deeper question – is that how we live our lives?  Do we go about our daily business understanding that everything is the Lord’s?  Have we come to a settled place about how we spend our money?

My beef is not with us buying gifts.  It is the underlying materialism.  It is the hording.  It is the obsession with money.  We have actually bought into the lie that if we gather enough, we can somehow escape our dependence on one another and God.  The Protestant Work Ethic has melded with our sin and greed, and we have fallen into truly believing that somehow we can escape dependence, or suffering, or however you want to view this.  Well I have news for you: There is no escape from our mortality.

Here’s my other beef:

Here we are in the midst of America’s celebration of Christmas, which by all accounts has become Consumerism Christmas.  Jesus has been traded in for Santa.  Somehow our Christmas spirit is often judged on how many presents we buy, how many parties we have, how many cards we mail out, and how many decorations we put up.  The problem with those standards is that they all center around consumerism.

It would probably be better if our churches moved the celebration of Christmas to July to avoid the vicious assault on our faith.

We are called to a renewal of Christ’s incarnation.  That means a renewal of understanding that God is close to us, and that all we do and say is wrapped up in the marvelous gift of God With Us.  To have God in our midst means to put all our energy in that which was important to him.  As someone who came and reached out to the poor and afflicted, it would seem that if Christmas is going to be about gifts, it will center around alms to the poor, not gifts to other family members.

Ironically it is in giving all back to God, we finally claim something of true value.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  This is our call – to turn from the bizarre incongruencies of our lives, and turn to the truth of God’s radical gospel of love and light.  There is hope and joy wrapped up in that little gift – enough for the whole world.  Lord, let it be!


The Mystery Ahead


Isa. 1:10-201 Thess. 1:1-10Luke 20:1-8

Happy New Year.

Yes you heard me right.  Advent has arrived, and with it a new year…a new liturgical year.  The Daily Office is a two-year cycle, and we have begun again with Year 1.

But more than that – it is a new year for the church – and messages of new beginnings fill our day, along with Advent hope.

We begin readings with Isaiah, who today is giving the people an ear full about worship.  He argues that God rejects their ritualized worship if it is not accompanied by genuine inner change – a change in one’s moral compass.

Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians in traditional fashion, thanking God for their present activity and the way that the “gospel came to you not in world only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

In Luke the scene is set right after Jesus has purged the temple.  Folks are trying to entrap Jesus and the reading is a dramatic conflict where Jesus’ Temple authority is questioned.  Jesus is evasive.  They ask him point blank where he derives his authority, or from whom.  He fires back with a question, instead of an answer: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Since they don’t come up with an adequate answer, he decides not to answer their question.

Ever wondered why the Bible is so complex, deep, and arguably contradictory?  My thought is that if it was simple and vanilla, people would have stopped reading it a long time ago.  It is because of its richness that it reflects the human condition, which is also complex.  Life has no easy answers.

Jesus illuminates this today, as do Isaiah and Paul.  Following Christ is not easy.  Being faithful is not easy.

If it were, everyone would do it.  It would be second nature, and there would be no reason to provide the Bible in the first place.

The Bible is more than a guidebook for right living. It is a Codebook.  Like a mystery novel it has twists and turns, and only if you read the whole thing do you have the possibility of discovering some of its secrets.  One can spend a lifetime in the Bible and not crack all the code.  Those who quote individual verses out of context are so often beginning Christians who have not yet come to understand the breadth and depth of following Christ.

Some of my non-Christian friends wonder what exactly it means to follow Christ.  Or why?  Or how?  In my youth, I would try to answer them to the best of my ability.  Now, I say to them, “You wouldn’t understand.  It’s a secret.  And only those in the secret society can get it.”  It turns out, this is some of the best evangelism I have done recently.  Everyone wants to be part of a secret society.  Everyone wants to figure out the mystery.

It is only when I get elusive and refuse to answer that anyone has ever wanted to hear this minister mouth off about God.  Go figure.

Perhaps we should be making it harder to become Christian, not easier.

This would certainly be more like the First Century Church.  It was really hard to become a Christian back then.  It was an underground secret society.

These days it is so easy to say, “I accept Jesus into my heart.”  And I find a church full of folks who have no inkling what that means, nor the desire to figure it out.

As we prepare for Advent and Christmas, and the mystery and depth of readings ahead, let us also commit to the deep, rich, complexity of the story, and yet the simplicity of it as well.  And if anyone has any questions, I promise to be evasive and answer it with another question!

May joy fill your day.  And may the mystery of God enfold you.