VIP – The Poor. The Hungry. The Naked.

Sermon Text – 12.23.2018
[Luke 2:1-7 and Matthew 25:31-40]
          In 1952 baseball legend Ralph Kiner went into the general manager’s office and demanded a raise. He’d played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for years now and had often fought with his manager Branch Rickey about salary. But that season he had hit 37 home runs, and he felt entitled to make more money, because he was so good. Rickey refused, but Ralph pointed out, “I led the league in homers. I hit more home runs than anyone else in Major League Baseball for the sixth season in a row. I deserve a raise.” The manager paused, and calmly asked him, “Where did we finish this season?” Ralph Kiner shrugged, “last.” “Well,” the manager replied, “we can do that without you.” Sometimes in life, it’s not about how great you are all by yourself – how impressive or incredible or praiseworthy you are. Sometimes the question is how is your team doing?
          Today is part three of our series called ACCESS. Each week we take a look a different piece of the Nativity story, and we pair that with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25, to see a deeper level in the message of Christmas. We have seen that God welcomes the unprepared, that God welcomes the misunderstood. But on a deeper level we see that when God loves the broken, he is offering that love to the pieces of us that are broken. There is a resonance between their mistakes and the mistakes that we make. God is reaching into every aspect of our life – even the parts we are embarrassed about.


          And so we return to the Christmas story, this time in Luke, where the first couple of verses give us the backdrop for the story. [read v.1-3]. Basically, there’s a census going on so the fat cats in Rome can determine how much in taxes to expect. It keeps going, [read v.6-7]. They have no-one to stay with. They have no rooms in the inn. They have nothing, so they end up in a barn. She gives birth, wraps him in bands of cloth and lays him in a manger. But let’s talk about that for a second. Let’s talk about what a manger is. You’ve probably heard, a manger is what they put the food in for the animals. But we have used that word so often that it almost has become synonymous with cradle, right? Take a second, imagine a picture in your mind of what a manger looks like? It probably looks like this, [put picture on the screen]. Little wooden box, piled high with golden hay, that’s super clean, and shockingly is the exact perfect length for a baby to fit in. That’s not a manger, that is a cradle. This is a manger. [show second picture]. The phrase, “laid him in the manger” is supposed to be shocking and humiliating and gross. You don’t put babies in the food trough, but we’ve lost that shock factor because we don’t use that word anywhere else in life. Laying him in a manger is barely a step up from laying him on the ground. It probably wasn’t cute or perfect, it was probably humiliating, they had nothing better to offer. I wonder if Mary took a second to weep tears of shame, because she had nothing better to offer the Son of God. I wonder if Joseph had to look away because he was embarrassed that as the man of the household he couldn’t provide anything better for this new baby. That’s a little different than the Hallmark greeting cards – isn’t it? I don’t know how you could paint a more humble picture if you tried. It’s like the whole situation, the local businesses, government, lack of health care – everything is working against them to keep them in this horrible situation.
          So we return to our scripture Matthew. I mentioned last week that we are reading this passage every week in December because I believe Matthew 25 is the doorway to a deeper understanding of what is going on at Christmas. Now, keep that picture of Mary and Joseph and the nasty food trough in your mind, and listen to this picture, [read v.31-32]. Jesus comes in all his glory, with his army of angels and sits on the throne of glory. I don’t even know what a “throne of glory” is – but I bet it’s awesome. This is a VERY different picture than the Nativity. We don’t talk about this that much in church, but this is called the second coming of Christ, some people call it judgment day. Jesus came into the world as a baby, humble in the manger, almost humiliatingly humble. But before he left, when he was all grown up, he promised that one day he would return. And it was going to a little different the second time around. The last book of the bible Revelation describes Jesus coming in glory and power to rid the world of all evil and set up heaven on earth. I don’t know what it will look like literally, but it says the devil and all his kind will be tossed into the lake of fire, and there will be no more death, no more evil, no more pain, no more crying – for Jesus the king will reign forever. It’s kind of a terrifying, yet beautiful picture. Someday Jesus is coming back, and he will set things right. So what we have when we put these two stories together is a king who deserves all glory, a king who has all the power, a God who is in complete control – who chooses to let go of all that power and glory and step into this embarrassing, gross, messy story we call Christmas. It’s very strange. I mean, why would he do that?
          Matthew 25 continues, [read. V.34-40]. The Poor. The Hungry. The Naked. Jesus, the all powerful Son of God, paints a picture of himself as a naked, starving, homeless person and says, “I am equal to the least of these.” He keeps putting his face into these situations and these pictures that are supposed to be humiliating and embarrassing and horrible. Do you see a trend? All powerful judge from on high à baby in the manger. Well respected teacher and rabbi, brilliant scholar and healer of people with lots of followers à sick, naked, starving, homeless person who is in prison. It’s almost like he is using his status to point to others, to lift others up. In these words we find a call to action. The church has always been good at providing love and emotional support, prayers, and comfort – but Jesus takes the physical needs of the lowest in society and holds them up and says – what are you doing about these things?


          The good news this morning is that God humbles himself. You see the trend right? This is what God reveals in the story of Christmas, you don’t get a lot of humility in the power of God found in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, starting with Jesus, starting with the baby in the manger we get humility out of power. God humbled himself to take care of us. And I was thinking about God’s power and how easily he is willing to give it up and throw it away, if it helps someone. Sometimes it seems like God is almost reckless and careless with his power and glory, he just gives it up and puts himself in compromising, embarrassing, humiliating situations over and over in order to help the people in need. This shows me two things. First, God has a passion and an incredible amount of love for the weak. For those who are hungry and thirsty and naked and lost – God is willing to go to great lengths to reach them. Willing to give up so much, just for a chance to love them.  God pursues those at the bottom, those who are the farthest away from Him – that’s who he goes after. God welcomes the poor, the hungry, the naked. God reaches down into their broken situation, and hands them a VIP ticket. Not, I’m glad you’re out of the pit so now I can love you. No, God says, I will follow you into the worst moments of your life, into your worst memories and the darkest places you have ever been. I will go where you are naked, and hungry and thirsty and broken – to offer you my love. You are a very important person. Have you ever been at the bottom in your life? Have you ever felt helpless, maybe you are actually wearing clothing – but you feel naked or exposed? Have you ever had to ask for help, and it was humiliating? Have you ever been unsatisfied, thirsty or hungry for something more in life? Something better? Hear these words from God’s lips – you are a Very Important person. God came for you.   
The second thing I learned, when watching God give up his power for others. The second thing I realized is that in every area of life – the weak cling to strength, but the strong give it up freely. Let me explain – people who are weak, pretend to be strong, they cling tight-fisted to whatever strength, whatever power, whatever advantage they have over others. But those who are truly strong, and comfortable in their power, have an open hand – they give it up freely to help others. People of real strength are those who would give up their advantage freely, if it would help someone else. The measure of strength, the measure of real power is a willingness to give it up. It is only those who cling to power above all else who are truly powerless.  
          The response is pretty simple – be like God. If God can give up the power and glory of heaven, and humble himself to help humanity – we can do the same. We should have an open hand with the power and advantage and strength that we have. God humbled himself to take care of us, and so we should humble ourselves and take care of others. But it goes even further than that. There are ripples to every action, no matter how small. Jesus tells us, What you do for others is what you do for me. What we do for other people, is what we do for God. Helping others is a way to say thank you to God, to give back to God, to worship God. The consequences of our actions are so much more than just helping one person. When we help other people, it’s as if we were helping God himself.  


          But here’s the problem, when it comes to helping people in a broken world – it can be sort of complicated. Sometimes someone just honestly needs help – they’re down on their luck, had some unexpected expenses, they just need a little boost. But sometimes, sometimes people manipulate the system. Sometimes people systematically work the social safety nets to avoid taking care of themselves.  Now, maybe you’re better people then I am – but I’m cynical. I’m kind of a pull yourself up by a bootstrap kind of guy. I’m always worried about lazy people and liars who manipulate the system so they don’t have to work as hard as the rest of us. I’ve met enough people and I’ve been a part of the system long enough to have seen some things, and I’m always worried that if I help someone, they won’t help themselves, I’m enabling them to stay lazy or something like that. And I was grappling with this last week – on the one hand Jesus is really clear about how we need to help people and take care of the least of these, but on the other hand, I wonder if I’m really helping or if I’m just enabling. And I was looking at the text, and thinking about a God who humbles himself, and I realized… When someone is down on their luck – poor, hungry, thirsty, naked – we have to help them. But when someone is systematically manipulating the system – you have to help them more. I realized this past week, if someone is cheating the system or whatever – they need more help, not less.          
          Think about it this way, if someone is hungry because they don’t have food – that’s easy, give them food. But if someone is hungry because they don’t know how to get food, how to provide for themselves. They need more help, not less. We need to give them food, AND teach them how to provide for themselves. If you’re worried, or holding back because you think someone might be manipulating the system – they need more help from you, not less. We have to go beyond throwing money at them, and teach them – give them the tools they need. They need someone to invest in their lives and help them at a deeper level. Let me see if I can explain it like this. Imagine you lose your job. If you’re retired, back when you were working – imagine you lost your job. What do you do when you lose a job? Do you sit in the middle of your living room and wait for blankets and canned food to show up out of nowhere? No, of course not! Most of you have the skills to put together a resume, to start making contacts and putting together interviews to get a new job – so why, when we think about helping the poor, the naked, the hungry, why do we mostly help people with canned food and blankets? When what we really should be giving them is the tools that we have – to teach them the things we would do if we were in need. If you think someone is twisting the system, what they need is more help, not less. Chances are they don’t have the skills or knowledge that you do. They manipulate the system because that’s all they know, that’s what they were taught. They need someone to invest in them, get a little closer to them – to show them a better way.

          Here’s the coolest part of the sermon, that… that thing I just said –  is the story of Christmas. If someone needs help, help them. If someone is systematically manipulating the system – help them more. Stay with me on this, way back, Old Testament, God gave his people a list of rules. Throughout their history, they would need help, so God would show up and help them in little ways – you know, take them to promised land, part the red sea, knock down the walls of Jericho. But over time, they turned their connection to God into a system. Where they thought they could manipulate God by following these rules, and doing these sacrifices. So God looked down on humanity and said, “They’ve taken my love, and twisted it, they’ve taken the help that I’ve tried to give them and now they’re trying to manipulate it to get what they want.” And he could have walked away from us in that moment, but instead God said they need even more help – I have to go down there, get invested in their lives on a deeper level to show them a better way to live. In our lives, when we are broken, poor, hungry, naked, exposed for the manipulative people we are – God gets closer to us. God gets more invested in our lives, to show us a better way. In the same way, when we see broken, poor, hungry, naked people around us – we need to help them more, get more invested, to show them a better way.


Ralph Kiner was a great baseball player, he’s in the hall of fame. But sometimes it’s not about how good you are. Sometimes the question is how’s your team doing? We live in a broken world, with some really serious needs. It’s a mess out there. The church can be something different, a place that is different than the horror story out there. We could stand for life and light in a world that stands for death and darkness. God humbled himself to care for us, and so I’ll leave you with this. In the moments of your life when you hit rock bottom, when you are poor, and hungry, and naked – know that God is coming to lift you up. Know that your creator will leave behind all the glory of heaven, to get closer to you, to invest in your life, to offer you his love. Please accept his love. And when He has lifted you up, ask yourself – who can you invest in the way God has invested in you? Amen.     

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