Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
Our sermon text for this morning is the Old Testament lesson, from Isaiah, chapter 61.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to go through the whole song. You know it pretty well, and get the idea, I’m sure.
Legend has it—and some historical research bears it out—that that this song, as secular as it might sound, was actually written for Christian instruction at a time when citizens in England were not allowed to openly practice the Catholic faith—that is, the Roman Catholic faith.
Englishmen weren’t always Anglicans, you know. Early on in the Christian era, the various kings and queens of England adopted their own preferred religion, sometimes on the basis of which one would gain them political advantage as much as it was based on the steerings of their hearts. Over time they vacillated between the Roman Catholic and the Anglican confessions, and at times there were even some strong Lutheran influences. Eventually the Church of England finally overcame the Church of Rome as the approved royal religion, and there was pressure and even widespread and sometimes severe persecution leveled against those who wished to remain in the pope’s church.
The stanzas of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” were code, if you will, for the various gifts that God has given to His people. Our “true love” is God, who gives us the various gifts. The “partridge in a pear tree” is His Son Jesus Christ, whom He gave as a sacrifice for us, on the tree of the cross. The “two turtle doves” are the Old and New Testaments. The “three French hens” are the virtues of faith, hope and love. And so on and so forth.
The song, as well as being instructive of the giving nature of God, also emphasizes the general practice of giving gifts to those we care about at Christmas. This is a tradition with which we in America in the 21st century are all quite familiar—even those who haven’t got a clue about the Word becoming flesh in a virgin; the Savior of the world being born in a Podunk town; the Son of the Most High being delivered in a barn.
Yes, at Christmas, it seems that almost everybody gives gifts to family, friends, sometimes even business associates.
Occasionally—if we’re moved to genuine generosity toward those who can’t reciprocate—Americans might even give to complete strangers. Christmas, after all, is the season of giving.
For Christians, we hope our attitude toward giving and receiving gifts is set apart a little from the ordinary. Confessing as we do, we realize that God is not only the Creator, but also the ultimate Giver of all things, visible and invisible, and especially of the most important gifts, those of the forgiveness of sins, salvation from death and the devil, and eternal life.
Still, the practice of giving physical gifts at Christmastime is symbolic of the Wise Men bringing their tributes of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem to honor Jesus, the newborn King, at His birth. The practice of giving gifts to loved ones at Christmas, though, didn’t begin until the medieval era. Various countries and peoples began to make gift-giving a regular part of the holy day celebrations over a period of time.
By the time the Americas were settled by Europeans, giving gifts at Christmas was practiced by many of the settlers. The early Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam and elsewhere introduced St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, to the New World. The early French and English settlers of North America, in contrast, were more likely to give gifts at New Year’s or at Epiphany.
Ultimately, however, a common Christmas culture developed in this nation and eventually in much of Europe in which gifts were given at Christmastime. In the nineteenth century, the idea of gift giving took on new dimensions, as the works of Englishman Charles Dickens and others helped to shape our modern concepts of Santa Claus and other aspects of the holiday.
All of this is simply to say that the practice of giving gifts at Christmas is a deep rooted tradition in our culture. I wouldn’t be so Scrooge-like as to suggest that we should stop giving gifts for fear that we’ll lose Christ and the true meaning of Christmas in the process. As long as God allows, His Word and His name will be confessed by faithful believers, and the true message will be proclaimed, if only be a remnant of humanity. I would say, however, that, as we give to others at Christmas, it is incumbent upon us as Christians to remember and remind others that Christmas is not primarily about what we give to others or even to God. Rather, it’s about what God gives to us.
The title of this message this morning is “Sometimes Better to Receive Than to Give.” The phrase, of course, is a reversal of the well-remembered Biblical principle and guidance that “it is better to give than to receive.” I would maintain, however, that the phrase, especially in the spiritual sense, is also quite Biblical.
When is it better to receive than to give? Even speaking from our flesh—from our sinful nature—we’d likely say that it is better to receive than to give when the gift we receive is bigger and better and more valuable than the one we give. If their commercials are to be believed, for example, the automobile manufacturer Lexus would seek to convince us that it’s better to “receive than give” when our spouse goes out and buys us a new Lexus as a surprise gift. Wouldn’t you rather be given a Lexus than to have to give one!? I mean, who wouldn’t want a bright, shiny new Lexus for Christmas? Maybe a red one!
Still, despite the allure and the insatiable desires of our flesh, there is also a spiritual time when it is better to receive than to give. I would draw your attention this morning to the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 61. Isaiah is one of those many prophets who had a tough message to bring to God’s people.
In Isaiah’s day, God’s people were turning away from Him. They were following after other gods and making alliances with pagan kings. They were trusting in themselves more than they were trusting in God.
Isaiah told them that their rebellion wouldn’t be allowed to go on for much longer. God would send a marauding army from the north down to Jerusalem to chasten her and to direct her attention back to Him. In 586 B.C., this prophecy was fulfilled. The Babylonians, those who occupied what is modern-day Iraq, swooped down upon Judah from the north. They destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and drove most of the Jews out of the Holy Land. In that case, the people received from God what they needed, chastening, a firm hand of discipline.
As Isaiah warned the people of what was to come, he also told them that God wouldn’t forsake them, that He would finally redeem them, that He would forgive their rebellious ways and that He would, by His own grace and mercy, make them acceptable in His sight.
We pick up in Isaiah 61 where the prophet begins to tell the children of Israel what God had planned for them after they’d been driven out of Jerusalem. I would like to direct your attention to the latter part of the reading for this morning, especially verses ten and eleven of Isaiah 61. Isaiah says…
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
Now, nothing is really ever insignificant in Scripture, but, there is something particularly significant about these verses. Notice the verbs. Who is doing the action in the verbs? Listen again…
He has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
He has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
When God speaks to us in this way, when He comes to give us a garment of salvation, a robe of righteousness, it is most certainly better for us to receive than to give.
In fact, when God speaks pure words of grace and mercy to us, there is really nothing we can give. God’s grace is complete. It is absolute. It is perfect. It lacks nothing and consequently nothing can be added to it.
Our reaction to God’s actions in giving these blessed, marvelous gifts ought to be the same as Isaiah said: To delight greatly in the Lord, and for our souls to rejoice in our God. He is the one who takes the significant action, to generate the truly important results, and we merely accept, enjoy, revel in, and give thanks for them.
Certainly, when we engage with our fellow man, even with our brothers and sisters in Christ, God calls us to give, thus, “it is better to give than to receive.” Your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your fellow students and workers, and even strangers—they need you, dear Christian, you who have been moved and shaped anew by God. These neighbors, near and far, need you. Love them, as you love yourself.
But, when you turn to God, there really isn’t anything you can give. Rather, He comes to serve you, as Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Within these hallowed walls God has come once again to serve you, to cloth you with the “garments of salvation” and to give you “the robe of His Son’s righteousness.”
There is a lot of “goofiness” of worship in the world today, even in some Lutheran circles. In Sweden, for instance, parishioners are offered a Hip Hop Mass, a Jazz Mass, and even a Techo Mass. What can be obscured in such silliness and in self-directed disunity from the rest of Christ’s Church is the God who gives His gifts; the God who comes to us with such simple, and yet, incredibly profound and gracious words: “Take and eat, take and drink.” “I forgive you.” “I have bought you with a price, you are mine.”
Indeed, then, there are times when it is better to receive than to give. That “robe of righteousness” that you have received from Christ looks good on you! In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.