The Present Of Presence

Sermon Text – 12.22.2019
[Ecclesiastes 6:1-9 and Luke 2:16-19]
          A long time ago, the American industrialist, Henry Ford was once asked to donate money for the construction of a new medical facility. The billionaire pledged to donate $5,000, but there was a miscommunication. The next day in the newspaper, the headline read, “Henry Ford contributes $50,000 to the local hospital.” When Ford saw the headline he was furious and immediately called to complain to the fund-raiser that he had been misunderstood – that he had only pledged 5,000 and not 50,000. The fund-raiser replied, “Okay, we’ll print a retraction in the paper tomorrow that reads “Henry Ford reduces his donation by $45,000.” Realizing the poor publicity that would result – Ford agreed to the $50,000 contribution, but he had one condition. Above the entrance to the hospital Ford requested the biblical inscription: “I came among you and you took me in.”

          Today is the fourth and final sermon in our series called “Advent Wisdom.” Over the past few weeks, we have used the season of Advent to re-read an Old Testament book in a new light, to see what we can learn. We’ve talked about the naughty/nice list and wondered at the amazing gift of forgiveness. We talked about waiting for the perfect moment and the issue of timing, and even just last week we looked at the issue of real and true fulfillment. Today to close we’re going to be talking about giving.


          And so we return to the story of our friend Solomon. If you’ve followed this series closely for the past few weeks – you might become familiar with Solomon’s style. He’s the man who had everything, but it just wasn’t enough. For all the blessings he lived with – he sure finds a lot to complain about. He’s very grumpy, very whiny, pessimistic. He gets to the end of his life, with no hope for a better tomorrow, and he comes to the conclusion that maybe all of this was pointless. Meaningless. Vanity. So what we find is that we get to take the story of Jesus, the savior – the baby in the manger, and we get to take that story and shine it like a light into the darkness of Ecclesiastes. What we find is that, in light of what we know about Jesus, we find that the wisest man in all of history was wrong about a lot of things.


First, Solomon wonders about the struggles of life – is it all worth it? He starts in verse 1 [read 1-2]. Solomon asks the question – what’s the point of having all this good stuff, if you can’t use it!?! And then he gives us the world’s most depressing hypothetical. [read 3-6]. Let’s suppose a man has a hundred children and lives for a thousand years. But if he has to deal with struggle all that time, then it would be better if he was never born. Solomon says he would have had more peace if he had never existed. Not existing is more peaceful. Having no good means having no bad. Solomon asks the question – Is the good worth the bad? And without hope, without the story of Jesus, he’s not so sure. Maybe it would have been better if we never existed. So we shine a light on the situation. And we realize that this whole thing is God’s plan. This life, the good and the bad, is part of God’s design. Our God has the awesome power to redeem the evil in our world, and give us hope for a better tomorrow and so we can answer Solomon – Is it worth it? Yes! Yes, it is absolutely worth it! God designed the world so that we experience both good and bad, and invites us to choose. Think about the pain of childbirth. God didn’t come into the world floating down on a cloud. He came as a baby, with pain and screaming and blood – and no pain meds. Can we give Mary some major props for birthing Jesus au natural? The screams of labor turn into the screams of new life in the world. The cry of a baby is the perfect answer to the question is the pain worth it? God decided that a life with both pain and peace is better than no life at all.


Solomon continues, [read 7-8]. Yet his appetite is not satisfied. Solomon looks around at the people surrounding him and he realizes they never seem satisfied. This is part of what we talked about last week – about fulfillment. I hear this sort of thing a lot. There are people who say things like, “Well, I can’t give to the poor, or donate to the church because I don’t have enough.” But ask yourself an honest question this morning – when will you have enough to start giving to others? Did you know that several studies have shown that the more money people make, the less percentage they give of what they make? The most generous people by percentage are often the poorest in society. The more we make, the more money has a grip on our heart, the less we give. There’s this drive in the heart of humanity. In good situations we call it ambition, in bad situations we call it greed. The question we need to ask is – enough for what? There never seems to be enough. Enough for what? Enough for your needs? Or for your wants? Solomon had more than enough for his needs, but when it comes to feeding your wants – This scripture shows us that the desires of our hearts are a bottomless pit. Insatiable. Solomon finishes up with a final piece [read v9]. “Wandering of the appetite” is sort of another way to say “day dreaming” – so he’s saying, “better to focus on what is real in front of you.” Chasing the wandering of the appetite, the desires of our daydreams – it’s a lot like trying to chase the wind. Pointless. In the end what we see from the story of Solomon – from this life lived obsessed with the world, is a pretty bleak and depressing conclusion. Focusing on getting and having in our lives leads us to wonder if it’s even worth living, it leads us to believe that we never have enough and dreaming is a pointless exercise. It’s a pretty miserable picture, actually.


So now we get to shine the light of Jesus on the picture, and to do that we move over to our second scripture lesson for today. The shepherds in the fields. You see, the shepherds in this time period were the blue collar workers. They were not the intellectuals, the wealthy and influential politicians or lawyers or doctors. They were hard-working men scrapping together a living with the work of their hands. They were not impressive by the world’s standards – and yet, these are first people that God told about the baby. [read v16-18]. See, the world is full of categories – better and worse, wealthy and cheap, high class and low class, kings and pawns. And a lot of people spend a lot of time, years of their life focused on these separations, these lines we draw between humans. The story of Solomon shows us what happens when we take that to the extreme. But God takes great pleasure in turning our silly categories on their head. The things we hold important, like how much money is in your bank account – God doesn’t really care about that. The things God does care about – we often hold secondary. Think about it, how do we value a person in our culture? Money in the bank, reputation around town, how many kids or grandkids – these are our measurements, our standards. But how does God measure a life? By how much we share the love of God with the world. By how much we love the least of these. How much we forgive those around us. How much we spread the Good news. Not by how much you have, but how much you give away what you have. The world likes it when you have more of certain things. God likes it when you have less. Again and again throughout the entire bible – God chooses the LEAST of these. This is who we want to be. The story of the shepherds is designed to shift our perspective. The greatest news the world has ever heard – the king has arrived – started with one of the lowest levels of society.


     The message and meaning of Christmas is that God is with us. The gift we receive is Emmanuel, which translates as “God with us.” The present of the presence of God is what Christmas is all about. But when God comes into our lives – everything changes. One of the things I have enjoyed the most about this series is the realization that Jesus solves all of Solomon’s woes. He whines and complains and he’s never satisfied – very grumpy. But of course he is – the savior hadn’t come yet. He had accomplished everything the world had to offer, he stood on top of the world and shrugged his shoulders, for he found the top of the world to be lacking. But with the presence of God in your life, it doesn’t matter where you stand – because you’re in the presence of God. Think of it this way – life is like a storm in the ocean. It doesn’t matter what the waves are made of, we all have waves crashing down on us. And sometimes it feels like we’re kicking and fighting and just trying keep our heads above the water. The presence of God is a solid rock under our feet. In the midst of the waves rising up all around us, the gift of God’s presence in your life is a firm foundation for you to cling to. It’s not going to make the waves go away, it’s not going satisfy all our urges, all our “wants,” it’s not going to suddenly fix all your problems. Instead God gives us a foothold to face the future unafraid. So that we can take the first step in making tomorrow a better day. The presence of God shifts our priorities, changes our perspective, sheds new light into the stormy darkness where we have been treading water. That’s the first thing I want to point out – the presence of God, the gift of Christmas, changes our perspective.
     The second thing I want to point out is how that perspective changes. Think about King Solomon and his big list of complaints. [read v2]. For Solomon, the whole point of having something is to use it. And if you can’t use it, then what’s the point? And I think that for most of the world, this makes a lot of sense. So much of our culture is obsessed with taking, with getting, with having. More and more and more. If you have more – you’re winning. But if you have less – you’re losing. If you get more presents or better presents – you’re winning. But if they get more – then you are losing. And you’ll never be satisfied with what’s in front of you. I’ve pointed this out before, but it drives me crazy – you ever see when a famous person dies and they say, “At the time of his death He was worth 3 million dollars.” Or you might see those lists of the rich and famous – 15 wealthiest actresses in Hollywood, and they say, “so-and-so is worth $100 million.” Do you see how twisted that is? To take a dollar amount and attach it a human being? They are not worth $100 million dollars. They have $100 million dollars, they are worth the exact same as every other human being. The story of the shepherds shines a new light on the story of Solomon. And we realize that for God – the whole point of having something is to give it away.


    Now this comes out in two applications. Number one – enjoy what you have. Solomon got that part right – enjoy what you have. There are two ways we do this – two secrets to contentment. The first secret to contentment is gratitude. Giving thanks. It’s amazing how much your perspective shifts, how much more you line up with God’s perspective when you take a moment to say thank you every single day. If you’re ever feeling crushed, or alone, or insufficient, or needy – like you don’t have enough to make it through – take a second and say thank you for what you DO have. Second – stop comparing. The only reason we start to compare is to see if we are better or worse than someone else – but God’s presence in our lives shows us how to leave comparisons behind. Don’t focus on the silly categories of the world, the lines we draw in the sand. Don’t measure by comparison, think about how God measures a life – not by what you have but by what you give away. Give thanks and stop comparing and you will find the path to contentment.
      The second application for today is about the point of having. Remember, for Solomon the whole of having is to have, is to use it. But for God the whole point of having is to give it away. So the second part of our application is to give away what you have. Now, I’m not saying that you need to empty your house and give away all your furniture – but give away what you are, the gift you have to give to the world. The gift God gave to the world was simply his presence – so if we follow that example, we should give the gift of our presence to others. Take a moment, what have you been given in your life – and how can you take that gift and share it with those around you? There’s an old story published by Wycliffe Bible Translators about woman named Sadie Sieker. She served for many years as a house-parent for missionaries’ children in the Philippines. Now Sadie loved her books. She would gladly loan some of them out to other people, but her favorites she would treasure and keep safe in a footlocker under her bed. One night, when all was quite around the house – Sadie heard a faint rustling sound. After searching all around her room, she discovered that the noise was coming from her footlocker. When she opened it, she found nothing but an enormous pile of dust. All the books that she had kept to herself had been lost to termites. All the books she had loaned out – came back to her. What we give away, we keep. What we hoard, we lose. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The only gift we give is a portion of thyself.” First, enjoy what you have – find the secret of contentment. Second, remember that what you have been given is designed to be given a way. The gift of our presence, out there in the world.


      King Solomon was one of the wealthiest, wisest and most successful kings in all of history – but without the baby in the manger he kept coming up short. Smashing his head into a wall trying to fill a divine desire with lesser things. But the story of the shepherds shifts our perspective, the presence of God changes everything – gives us a new standard and new goal for our gifts. And so I’ll leave you with this – May you take everything you have and everything you are and find a way to give it back into the world. May you shift your perspective and throw away creation’s categories. May you move beyond having and become a giver – spreading the present of presence each and every day. Amen. 

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