Preaching generosity in January
December 6, 2019 by Greg Allen-Pickett
With Christmas Eve services in the rear-view mirror and all the planning and joy that went into Advent a distant memory, now we face the winter doldrums. There isn’t anything particularly exciting in our liturgical calendar during the stretch from January through February until we get to Transfiguration Sunday and Lent.
While the church calendar doesn’t present us with much inspiration during this stretch, the secular calendar certainly does. Every year people reflect on the New Year and make promises about what they will or will not do in the coming year. The lane I swim in at the local YMCA fills up during the month of January with “resolutionaries,” but I can always count on having the lane back to myself by March as people break their promises.
This provides us an opportunity to reflect on promises during the month of January, and contrast our human promises (which are so often broken) with God’s divine promises for us. Reflecting on God’s promises will also point us towards gratitude and generosity. How could we not be grateful and respond generously when we read and reflect on all the promises that God has made and kept for God’s people?
Most churches will celebrate Epiphany and the arrival of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). This final brush with the Christmas story provides a great opportunity for you to reflect on the generosity of the visitors from the East. They had no idea what they were going to encounter, saying to Herod simply: “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage,” yet they came bearing precious gifts.
Even in the mysterious unknown of what they would encounter, they decided that generosity should be their response, and it is the right one. While there is no explicit promise of anything to these Magi, the promise of something special is fulfilled when they arrive. “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Overwhelmed with joy! That is the story of the Christian life. God has made and kept promises to us, and we are overwhelmed with joy, and called to respond with gratitude and generosity.
Many churches will celebrate “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. In Matthew 3:13-17, we read, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Wow! What an incredible story to reflect on as we think about God’s promises for us found in the baptismal waters. God’s promise of steadfast presence to us is manifest in the spirit of God descending like a dove. That promise should elicit a response of generosity and gratitude from all of us, knowing that God is with us. God is with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, and God is with us through our community, which we are reminded of when we read about Jesus’ baptism and recall our own baptisms and the promises made there.
We encounter these words in the Old Testament lectionary passage, Isaiah 49:1, “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.”
What a stunning promise God has made. We have been called by God even before we were born. God has promised God’s steadfast presence with us! How do we respond to this promise?
Isaiah tells us what God wants us to do in response to this promise in 49:6, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” We are called to spread the word of salvation to the end of the earth. We do that through living lives of generosity and gratitude. We generously share the Good News of God to the world, by shining light into darkness and sharing God’s love “to the end of the earth.”
What a great promise God makes us, and what a beautiful way that Isaiah instructs us how to respond to that promise, by being a light to the world!
The Old Testament lectionary passage once again provides us some powerful and moving promises from God. We read in Isaiah 9:1-4, “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish… The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.”
God promises an end to sadness, and a great light shining into the darkness of the world. As the dark and cold winter days continue to press down on us in January, this is a particularly meaningful promise from God. God promises us hope, even in the midst of darkness! Whether that light in the darkness is literal or metaphorical, this passage reminds us that God does not want us to live in gloom and anguish, but instead to live in God’s great light. The hopefulness of these words should engender a spirit of joy, of gratitude, and of generosity.
When we contrast human promises to God’s promises, there is just no comparison. If we can hear and believe the promises that God makes to us through God’s word in these lectionary passages in the month of January, we can respond. We can be the people who have walked in darkness who now see a great light, and in turn, we can help shine that light into other dark corners of the world through lives of gratitude and generosity.
Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett is Pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. He is a native of Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was an active member of Federated Community Church. Greg is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and he also holds an Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Greg has worked in small, medium, and large churches and also worked at the PC(USA) denominational offices in Louisville as the general manager of Presbyterian World Mission.