Third Sunday of Advent DECEMBER 16, 2018
The Generosity of HOPE
Sunday Scripture Reading: Luke 3:7–18
People sometimes introduce themselves to me as a third- or fourth-generation Nazarene. This happens because there is pride in such a heritage of faith. That pride transcends denomination, though, because I have heard the same said about deep Catholic roots, or the heritage of being Dutch Reformed, or Methodist. The faith we inherit from our families runs deep. There is beauty in it, but it is not this heritage that saves us.
It seems that the Jews during the days of John the Baptist did the same. They were proud of their Jewish heritage, but they also treated it as salvific. They boasted about being “children of Abraham” and assumed that being part of this family tree gave them a pathway straight to the heart of God.
John makes clear, in not so subtle terms, that their assumption is inaccurate. Heritage and family trees do not qualify the Jews (or anyone, for that matter) for automatic entrance into the kingdom of God. The children of Israel must live lives of repentance and not rely on their ancestry to save them if they mess up. Being “children of Abraham” isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card because, even though God promised Abraham that his descendants would be numerous, God can make descendants for Abraham out of stones if God needs to.
Heritage is not our salvation either, and something new is about to happen. Just like a fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut down, our family trees are also meaningless without fruit. Faith is not merely an identity; it is a way of living, and this way of living must bear fruit.
They then ask a question of John the Baptist that we might ask as well: “What should we do then?”
If the things we have depended on for so long are not what will bring us into the kingdom of God, what will?
The answer is a simple one: John tells them to share. It is a lesson that is taught to three- and fouryear-olds in preschools and Sunday school classes all over the world. Don’t be selfish; don’t take advantage of people; share. These are not complicated issues, but it seems that this easy lesson in generosity is not as easy to live as it is to say.
1. Economic inequality existed at the time.
a. Wealthy Romans lived comfortably, whereas those who weren’t wealthy, or weren’t citizens of the Roman Empire, struggled.
There are stories of people abandoning their infants on the sides of city roads in the hope that someone would take them in to serve as a slave (later on there are stories of the early church rescuing these children); these types of choices show that, while some lived in seeming luxury, others lived in difficult poverty. Slaves and servants were part of what it meant to build the empire at the time. Ultimately, in order to have the wealth that existed, others had to go without.
b. John the Baptist is redefining “kingdom” for them.
The kingdom of Rome said do what it takes to live a wealthy life—even if that means owning slaves, disregarding your neighbor, etc. The kingdom of God is saying, “Look out for your neighbor. If you have more than you need, share with those who are going without.”
c. It isn’t a stretch to see how difficult these thoughts of generosity can be because we also live in a world of economic disparity.
There are numerous examples of places and of people who go without while others live luxuriously.
One example is the sweatshop industry. It is uncomfortable to talk about, but it is easy to disregard the poverty and mistreatment of someone else in order to get a good price on a product that makes your life easier.
Another example is looking at places with high levels of tourism. Many of these places have become havens for luxury vacations, but the natives who live and work in these resorts often struggle to get by. The hotels and resorts raise the cost of living while depending on cheap labor, creating the need for families to move in together and live far below the poverty line.
2. Sharing might not be as easy as we thought. a. In the Roman Empire, it would have been easy to covet luxury—which might be why the examples John uses are so specific to those asking the questions.
He says to share a coat if you have two. He’s not asking anyone to go without but to give out of their excess to those in need. This principle might seem obvious to us today, but it wouldn’t have been either obvious or easy in a culture that proclaimed that excess was good and right. He tells the tax collectors not to cheat people.
1. It was no secret that tax collectors often overcharged citizens so that they could skim a bit off the top.
2. When there is a desire to get ahead, it is tempting to do whatever it takes to get more—especially if everyone else is doing it too.
He tells the soldiers to do their job.
1. Extorting people for money is easy for those in positions of power and authority, especially when there’s no accountability.
2. There is a power dynamic at play here, and it can be difficult not to give in to the pressure to use that power for profit—especially for those who might have been on the wrong side of that power dynamic for most of their lives.
For us today, it is easy to want more, to hoard, to find shortcuts to wealth, and to use power to get ahead.
We’ve all heard of people who lie on their tax forms in order to get a little more money.
While we personally might not cheat or use power to get ahead, we probably have many coats in our closets (or other items we have more of than we need), and we often think of our personal wealth as what we “deserve” for the work we’ve done.
We also live in a culture of social media envy, which has gotten even worse than keeping up with the Joneses. We often neglect the needs of our other neighbors in order to keep up with looking like we have it all together on social media.
3. Advent can expose our need for a kingdom that pushes us into the hope of generosity.
a. The people around John the Baptist need to hope in something besides material comforts.
They need to be free from the external desire to hoard, in order to love their neighbors well.
Justice is not about getting ahead but about making things right. Making things right never comes at the expense of others, though it might come at the expense of excess for ourselves.
The kingdom of God rewrites the rules and gives hope of a future where we can be united in love for God and neighbor.
b. We are reminded during Advent that we also need more than material comforts.
We often talk about the joy of giving during this season, but we often lose that joy in our need to be better. Maybe we need to rethink how Christmas is celebrated in order to share with others. Instead of having two toys, maybe one needs to be given away.
It doesn’t take long to discover that people feel overwhelmed and less happy with more stuff. The push for minimalism is a direct response to realizing that having more things can drain people of joy. On the other end, people who are generous tend to have more joy and compassion.
When we learn to live with open-handed generosity toward others, we learn to be more dependent on God. We also learn that everything we have is God’s and that living in God’s kingdom redefines what generosity looks like.
Conclusion The obsession to get ahead, to have more, to keep up with the Joneses, is not a new one. While sharing might be a lesson we learn as children, it is much more difficult to live out as we grow. The kingdom of God is one of level ground, where we love and care for one another. It isn’t enough to say we belong to a family of faith; we must be people of faith, which means living lives of generosity toward those around us, illustrating our love for God and others and demonstrating our faith that
God loves and cares for all of us. Out of our generosity, the world might see and know a generous God who left the riches of heaven so that we might be free of sin.