Sermon: Making The Most Of God’s Gifts: Opening
Scripture: Ephesians 4: 10-13
Date: September 3, 2017
We’ve been thinking about these gifts of the Spirit that Paul talks about, and how we must choose to receive them, and then share them by becoming the gift and in doing so becoming like Christ. And this morning we’re going to ponder whether or not they are truly gifts until we open them. Let me explain.
Last week we brought the shoeboxes forward that are our Christmas gifts for the children in our partner village in Nicaragua. They were crammed full with all sorts of gifts for each child in the hopes that when they open them and receive all that is inside, they will understand that the gifts come straight from the heart of God, from our hearts when we are like Christ. A few years ago I read a missionaries account of going to a home in one of the villages of the world that had received shoe boxes as part of Operation Christmas Child. And the missionary writes that he was invited into someone’s home and that one of the first things he noticed was that displayed in a prominent place was one of the decorated shoe boxes. And as he looked closer he realized that the box had never been opened. And when he asked about it he discovered that there were many in that village who believed that the box itself, so beautifully wrapped, was the gift. They never opened them to discover all the gifts that lay within. Before these gifts of the Spirit become true gifts for us, we must open them up.
My mother received great joy in giving gifts. Christmas at our house was a great wonder to behold. My Mom loved giving gifts. Or should I say watching people open gifts. And she was very methodical in her approach to giving gifts. Every year, early in the Fall, she would make a list of all the people she wanted to give gifts to. And she would have in her mind the amount of money that she would spend on Christmas that year. And then she would divide that amount over all of those she wanted to give gifts to. Now there were three constants to her approach. The first was that the gifts needed to be distributed equally among all of us. The gifts needed to be of the same value overall, and there needed to be the same number of gifts for each person. I remember one year when the number of gifts rule was challenged because one of my nephews showed up on Christmas morning to everyone’s surprise and brought his girlfriend with him. So while we were all eating breakfast, my mother disappeared and she took several of Anna’s presents from under the tree and changed the tags to make them for the girlfriend. That Christmas has gone into the family lore as the one that the girlfriend who none of us had met before got more Christmas presents than Anna did. And because she had not expected the nephew to be there, she hadn’t gotten him very many presents, so she kept coming out of the back room with packages that magically appeared with his name on them. She said that they were things that she had gotten for our brother David (this was the first any of us knew about brother David), but since he had decided not to come out of his room to open presents she was going to give his presents to the nephew. Which leads to her second principle of gift giving and that was that you really needed to be present on Christmas Day, to receive your gifts. Oh if, you couldn’t come you weren’t entirely left out, but you certainly received a lot more if she thought you were going to be there to open them. Because for her the greatest joy came, not in giving the gifts, but rather watching as we opened them. In her mind, it didn’t truly become a gift until she saw you fight through all the tape and ribbon, and she used a lot, and actually open the present. And then the third absolute for her was that it was more important that we had lots of gifts to open, rather than things of great value to open. The more presents that she was able to give in equal proportions, the better as far as she was concerned. Which led to two things. One she often gave a lot of the same things. If she found a shirt on sale, then she would buy one for each of her three sons (absent the imaginary son, David). And she would wrap them similarly so that if one of us would open the box with the shirt in it, the other two would look at their stack of gifts, pick out which one was our shirt, and put it aside to be opened last. And the other thing that the need of having the same number of presents led to was the giving of some pretty strange things so all things would balance out. She was a great gift giver.
Karen’s sister on the other hand – not so much. She likes to wait until the last minute to shop which I can tell you from experience can lead to overspending. You are so desperate to get a nice gift, the budget often gives way to expediency. And she often doesn’t get the gifts to us in a very timely manner. In fact, there have been several times that she has brought our Christmas presents to the Beach in the summer time and given them to all of us to open. A gift is a gift no matter when it’s opened. But by that time it would probably be better for her to hold on to them for the next Christmas.
But as I thought about the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to each of us, both of these persons, and their approach to gift giving has come to mind. Because for both of them, the key to their gift giving was not in the giving but rather the opening. It’s not really a gift until it’s opened, whenever that may be. And so it is with God. The Spirits gifts, though offered to each of us without thought of merit, do not truly become gifts, until we have the faith and courage to open them.
So as we prepare our hearts for Holy Communion, I wanted us to think for a few minutes about how we open the gifts that the Spirit gives to us.
And we need to begin with Grace. At its heart, Communion is a sacrament of grace. In fact, God’s gifts aren’t wrapped in shiny paper and lots of scotch tape as my Mom used to do. God’s gifts are both wrapped in grace and they are grace. In the first chapter of his magnificent Gospel, John writes this: From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. In other words, God wrapped grace with grace and sent Him as a gift to all people. And so when Jesus broke the bread and offered the cup at the Last supper, He was opening that Grace up to all people. It is because of grace that the Holy Spirit can offer these gifts to everyone without thought of merit. But is doesn’t become Grace for us until we open it for ourselves. On the Cross, Jesus became the gift of grace for all peoples in all times. And every time we come to this altar and receive the bread and the juice, we open God’s gift of grace to us without thought of our merit. God’s gifts are indiscriminate and unlimited. And that’s why we say that anyone can come to this altar today and receive this sacrament. Who am I and what is the church, to deny anyone the opportunity to come to the Lord’s Table and receive God’s grace. So come and open His gift for yourself.
And then it is through worship that we open God’s gifts. When we express our praise and joy to God, we open the gifts that the Spirit has for us. Worship is the primary way we are attached to the body. Now we have talked about the sorry state of worship attendance in America. The general church now says that if you are in worship one Sunday a month, you are a regular attender. And that may be true from an institutional standpoint though I don’t know how to show that when we turn in the stats at the end of the year. Perhaps when we are doing an average attendance we only count the highest attended Sundays of each month. But what’s apparently good enough for the church, is not good enough for God. Think about what Paul says about the church. It is the body of Christ and each one of us are individual members of that body. To the Corinthians Paul talks about how some are arms and legs and eyes, different parts of the body but all equally important.
But if we are an arm, what good are we to the body if we are just ¼ attached. Now I hear people say all of the time “what difference does it make if I miss a Sunday or two? Who am I hurting? Well the answer to that is two fold. First, you are hurting the body.
The body can never be whole and complete in worship, if you or I are missing.
But secondly, you are hurting yourself.
You are missing so many opportunities to receive and open God’s gifts. You see, God doesn’t save all His gifts to just be passed out on special days. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts every day. Thousands of years ago the writer of the Book of Lamentations said this:
The steadfast love of the Lᴏʀᴅ never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22–23)
If his mercy and grace is new every day as the writer says, then we miss so much of his new mercies when we fail to worship him. After last weeks message about becoming the gifts of the Spirit in order to be like Christ, Stan Durbin sent me these words from pastor Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Church fame:
In the Bible, the word “joy” and the word “gift” actually come from the same Greek word. It’s the word for “grace.” When you use your spiritual gifts, it brings joy to God, and it brings joy to you. God goes, “You’re doing what I created you to do.” And you go, “This feels good!” The greatest feeling in the world comes from using your gifts for God’s purpose because it works, and you know it, and you enjoy it.
There’s no feeling in the world like doing something for God’s glory, knowing that you’re doing what he made you to do. It is the greatest thrill in the world! If you haven’t ever felt that, discover and develop the spiritual gifts that are in you so you can enjoy your life and bring glory to God.
Worship is all about celebrating and acknowledging the presence of God. Worship is not for our convenience, it is for God’s glory. And it’s when we come into His presence that we find the power and courage to open and share the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And it brings God great joy when we open our gifts in His presence.
Instead of struggling to attract and retain people for worship in the church, we should be demanding even more opportunities to worship and open God’s gifts for us.
We miss so much of what the Holy Spirit wants to give us when we spend most of our time present with worldly endeavors, rather than coming into His presence whenever and wherever we can and worshipping Him. To make the most of God’s gifts, we must come into his presence and open ourselves to all that he wants to give us. Jesus poured His life completely into each one of us. This bread and juice represents His body and blood. “Given for you.” Because He loves us and the way He loves us is new everyday. Come into His presence today and everyday and let Him pour Himself into you. Many years ago now, Wilbur Reese wrote this about settling for so much less than the full gifts that the Holy Spirit has for each of us:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
We make the most of God’s gifts, we open ourselves to all that He has in store for us when we come into His presence and worship Him every day, in every way. Any thing less than that is like settling for just a small portion of God.
And finally I would say that we open up the gifts of the Spirit through our service in God’s Kingdom.
In his book on Ephesians, Tom Holliday writes: In Ephesians Paul talks about three tools that you cannot do without as God’s servant: grace, power, and humility. (As I said earlier) Your first tool for serving is grace. God gives you these gifts that allow you to serve. Then you serve in God’s power. Servants are empowered by the Spirits gifts. When we unwrap the gifts through our service, we are empowered to do great things for the Kingdom of God.. Serving is not based on how much energy we have; it is energized by God. Finally, we unwrap the gifts in humility. Paul makes it clear that no gift is greater than another, and so no act of service is greater than another. We are all equal parts of the same body. In fact, as we unwrap our gifts we discover our areas of service that we are gifted for. Paul says that servants are enabled by humility. Paul writes to the Ephesians: I am less than the least of all God’s people. We don’t unwrap the gifts of the Spirit so that we can boast in our blessings but rather so we can serve in Humility. Holliday goes on to say: It’s like a stained glass window. In his wisdom God decided to shine his light through the Church so that the world can see his love. The Church of Jesus is a window of God’s grace to a dark world.
When we open the gifts of the Spirit we allow God to shine through us into our darkened world.
When the Communists took over Russia in the early 1900’s one of the first things they did was outlaw any religious expression. Most churches were closed. Many were destroyed. But in the heart of St. Petersburg there was one little Catholic Church that survived the initial takeover. They took their services underground and met in secret at various times during the week. But eventually they were found out and soldiers broke in on one of their services and the ranking officer walked up to the altar and held a gun to the priests head and announced that if they were caught worshipping again they would all be shot, starting with their priest. And to emphasize the point, he pulled the trigger, but he had removed the bullet from the chamber so all there was was a loud click that echoed through the sanctuary. And then they emptied out the sanctuary and the people hurried to their homes, leaving the priest alone in the church. And as he contemplated what had just happened, he knew that they would need to stop worshipping together in that beautiful church for a time and he wondered what would happen to a priest without a parish and the parish without a priest. And as he knelt at the altar, the light of the troop truck leaving the block lit up one of the twelve stained glass windows that surrounded him there. Each window depicted one of the Apostles exercising one of the Spiritual gifts they were known for. The outside light had lit up the image of the Apostle Peter holding on to a Rock. And the priest recalled the words that Jesus had spoken to Peter – Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The priest found in the message of the window just what he needed at that moment and he realized that his task would be to open the gifts of those windows to everyone living in darkness – with no hope. So every night he came to the church at sunset and he lit candles on the inside of each window so that the images could be seen from the outside. By opening up those gifts, he managed to give hope and assurance and shed a little bit of light into the darkened world. When we open the Gifts of the Spirit we are bringing hope and love and grace into a troubled world just as Jesus did when He broke the bread and offered us the cup of Grace.
And so the invitation today is to come – open up the gifts of the Spirit today – and let the light and love and grace of God shine through you.