I know what some of you are thinking. You are thinking it because you were raised with the same good old-fashioned conservative values that I was raised with!
“Preacher, now tell me, just how long are we going to be celebrating Christmas? It is January 5th! Christmas is long over. The time has now come to tighten up and cut back!”
“Yes, in December we are allowed to splurge a little, even overdo it. Be a little excessive, extravagant, indulgent, even a little wasteful. Because, after all, it was Christmas. It was the season for spending and bingeing. The time for gold, frankincense and myrrh!”
“We kept the heat running in the sanctuary 24-7 for an entire month to keep the tropical poinsettias alive. The lanterns burning outside beside each door have not been turned off since Thanksgiving.
“But preacher, we just cannot afford to keep this extravagance going! Do you know how much light bulbs now cost?”
“And our utilities is not the only place where we have been indulgent. Do you know how much weight we have gained since Thanksgiving? Do you know how many extra calories we have consumed? We have gorged ourselves with cookies and pies and cakes and all sorts of candy! And we don’t even want to think about how much ham we have eaten!”
“And then we spent all of that money on gifts. We bought way too many presents for way too many people. Every year we always overdo it. Even for total strangers! Because, after all, it was December. And no one wants to be a scroogy, stingy Grinch at Christmas!”
“But now it is January. It is time to tighten those purse strings. Turn off those Christmas lights. Throw away those left-over cookies. And start pinching those pennies!”
“January is the time to restrict, conserve and limit. It is the time to scrimp and to save. It is time to tighten the belts and pull in the horns and get back to our miserly ways!”
“As much as we would like to, we simply cannot afford to keep this Christmas celebration going. We will run out of money before Easter or all be dead from diabetes or heart disease!”
So, ok, I got it. I totally get it. As soon as this service is over, I promise, we are turning off the Christmas tree lights, and we will not light them again until November 30th! The poinsettias are gone so we will make sure the thermostat is set to turn the heat off in this place until choir practice on Wednesday night. And I have resolved with many of you to go on a stricter diet and adopt a stricter budget.
However, while we are all in this conservative mood to cut down, cut back, and cut out, we need to be careful that we do not forget, put aside or ignore the good news that was Christmas.
This week the Apostle Paul reminds us that we must keep part of the celebration going with these eloquent words:
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
Now there’s a word in that does not fit in our tight-fisted January vocabulary. Lavish: That’s a December word if there ever was one!
Riches that are lavished: It denotes unrestrained, excessive, even wasteful extravagance. The Apostle Paul seems to be saying, that when it comes to grace, when it comes to forgiveness, when it comes love, when it comes to giving people fresh starts and clean slates, no matter what month of the year it is, there is nothing miserly or conservative about our God.
The entire Biblical witness testifies to this truth. Cain killed his brother Able in the very first chapters of our Bible. And what does God do? Cain is exiled from the community because of his actions, but God promises to go with him to protect him.
Moses killed an Egyptian, breaking one of the big Ten Commandments. But here’s the thing: God chose that murderer to reveal those commandments to the world and to lead the Israelites out of bondage into the Promised Land.
David not only committed adultery, but killed the husband of his mistress. Yet, God chose him to be the King of Israel.
When it comes to forgiveness, when it comes to grace, when it comes to love, when it comes to giving people fresh starts and clean slates, God lavishes. God overdoes it. The riches of God’s grace are excessive, extravagant and abundant.
And those of us who have listened to Jesus should not at all be surprised.
The story of his very first miracle says it all. When the wine gave out at a wedding party, what does Jesus do? He turns water into more wine! Not just some water into a little bit of wine. He makes, according to John’s estimate, about 180 gallons of the best-tasting wine they ever had. As a preacher, I know I am probably not supposed to know about such things, but that seems like an extravagant amount of wine to me! Sounds like he just might have overdone it a bit!
Then, we’re reminded of all those stories that Jesus told. A farmer sows way too much seed. Most of it was “wasted,” falling on the wrong type of soil. But I suppose when sowing good seed in bad soil, you have to overdo it. You have to lavish the dirt with seed. And the seed that did manage to take root produced a harvest that is described as abundant!
The father of the prodigal son didn’t just welcome his returning son. That in itself is extravagant. But the father lavished the son. The father said to his servants, “Quickly bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on my son; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate!
It wasn’t that the Good Samaritan stopped and helped the wounded man in the ditch. It was the way he stopped and helped. It was the way he lavished the man pouring expensive oil on his wounds. Then he put the wounded man in his car. He took the man to the hospital and told the doctors, “Forget about filing insurance! Here’s all my credit cards, my checkbook, everything. I’ll be back in a week, and if that’s not enough money to treat the man’s wounds, I’ll give you even more!”
Come on now! Isn’t that overdoing it?
There’s something built right into the nature of God, it would seem, that tends toward extravagance and abundance and excessiveness.
As people who have been called to inherit this nature, as the Body of Christ in this world, how do we live? I know how we live in December. But how do we live January through November? Are we protective with our love? Are we miserly with our forgiveness? Do we scrimp on grace? Are we tight-fisted with the good news? Do our good, old-fashioned conservative values sometimes cause us to put Christmas back in the attic and turn off the lights too quickly?
I have to ask that questions because, unfortunately, this is a real problem with many churches these days. If somebody wants to be judged or belittled; feel unforgiven, unaccepted, unloved and unworthy; if someone wants someone to look down on their noses at them, one of the best places they can go is to church. And that, I believe, is one of the main reasons, some churches will be forced to close their doors for good in the next few years.
People come to church seeking the Jesus that they have heard about, the God that they have experienced while gazing at the vastness of the stars in the night sky, but they enter the doors to find something that is quite the opposite.
Each Sunday morning of the year, maybe especially this Sunday morning, this first Sunday of a new year, we open the doors to our sanctuary and welcome people who are in desperate need. They are wanting, hungry. They are people who are yearning to start over, begin anew, get a fresh start, a clean slate.
How do I know? Because I am one of them.
Death, divorce, disease, and grief—in a thousand different ways, this world has beaten them up. They have grown weary and some even hopeless from battling cancer and other illnesses, having nightmares about terrorism, bank robberies and home invasions. They have made countless mistakes in life. Some have betrayed the people they love the most. They have disappointed co-workers, friends and family. They are riddled with guilt. They are sometimes tempted to believe God, like others, has it in for them. At times they feel judged and feel condemned by the universe.
And as the body of Christ in this world, we are called to give them the one thing that they need, the one thing that every human being living in this broken world needs: a need to be lavished. We are called to lavish them with the love and grace and forgiveness that we inherited at Christmas.
Jesus was teaching on a hillside and looks out at the large crowd that showed up looking for some hope. Thousands of them came from all over. They were hungry and weary, broken and sinful. Darkness and desperation was setting in.
The miserly disciples said: “Send them back to town, for there’s really nothing we can do for them here. We barely have enough to take care of our own needs.
But Jesus takes all they have, blesses it, breaks it, and feeds 5,000 people, the population of Farmville!
But the story doesn’t end there. They took up what was left over, and 12 baskets were filled. Once again, in typical fashion, Jesus overdid it. Jesus splurged. He went on a bender. He binged. Jesus indulged and overindulged. Jesus lavished.
When Jesus is present, people in need are always lavished. There is always abundant love, extravagant forgiveness, and overflowing grace.
As a church we might say cannot afford to keep the December celebration going. But the reality is: we cannot afford to stop the celebration. Because if we ever stop lavishing one another with the riches of God’s love and grace and forgiveness, if we ever get scroogy and stingy with the good news of Christmas, then we stop being the church.
Let us pray.
O God, may we continue to be the church you are calling us to be, one that lavishes all people with your grace, just as we ourselves have been lavished. In the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION
Go now and keep the celebration going. Because the truth, we cannot afford to stop it. Continue your December bender. Go on, continue to overdo it. Splurge. Indulge and overindulge. Lavish all people with overflowing grace of Jesus Christ, the abundant love of God and extravagant communion of the Holy Spirit, as it has been and continues to be lavished upon each of us!