“Christmas is not your birthday.”
That’s the tagline of Mike Slaughter’s Christmas series that saw Ginghamsburg UMC revolutionize their mission to the poor. Slaughter stood before the congregation and said, “I want you to have a slim Christmas this year . . . and whatever you spend on your family, bring an equal amount for hunger relief in the Sudan. Because Christmas is not your birthday; it’s Jesus’ birthday.”
The result was that the congregation raised gave three-hundred thousand dollars toward The Sudan Project in Darfur in Year One; by 2011, they had reached five million dollars. That’s gone toward sustainable agriculture, sanitation, and water as well as education for children.
Can you imagine spending half of your Christmas expenditures on people you didn’t even know?
In Mark 10:17-27, Jesus presents an equally … uncomfortable… proposal to the man we’ll call Josephus. No, that’s too proper – Joseph? How about just Joe.
Joe shows up while Jesus is out teaching and healing. We know he tracked Jesus down because it says that Joe ran up to Jesus and fell at his knees. Jesus already has a crowd, and this man broke through to the place where he could be directly at the feet of the teacher. Joe is showing Jesus respect – and deference, but we’ll see that it’s for a point.
Joe asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Let’s break it down: again, Joe is holding Jesus up as a person of privilege and power, of knowledge and assessment. But let’s be clear here, Joe is holding Jesus up on a pedestal because he wants Jesus to tell Joe what he wants to hear.
That’s right, Joe is kissing up to Jesus – buttering him up, assuming he’ll get the answer he wants so he can feel better about himself.
Man, isn’t that human nature? We have a tendency to surround ourselves with people who tell us what we want to hear, what makes us feel good, what justifies our behavior. Joe wants Jesus to be that guy.
Think about the number of people who flock to televangelists and others who preach the prosperity gospel. That is (per Wikipedia) “is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations (possibly to Christian ministries) will increase one’s material wealth”. You do what you’re supposed to, this ‘name it and claim it’ theology says, and you will be blessed with great riches.
That’s the kind of thought that Joe expects when he approaches Jesus – and that too many Christians have fallen into believing about life, and Christmas, specifically.
But Jesus provides the great rebuttal.
God alone is good, Jesus says to Joe. [Sidebar: now, we can recognize that Jesus is God but Joe doesn’t know that. Joe thinks he’s doing the right things, and making Jesus like him. And Jesus instantly creates some space, pushing aside the superficial grandstanding by Joe.]
In a matter of seconds, Jesus restructures the conversation. He challenges what Joe thinks he’s done. He goes through the quick list of ‘thou shall nots’ and looks up at Joe.
Joe, still not getting how this is all going to play out, says, “well, of course, I’ve done those things.”
But here it says something a bit – strange. Jesus looks at Joe and, it says that he loved him. Was it pity? Compassionate? Forgiveness?
Jesus looks at him in love and says – this is out of love, mind you: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
And our friend, Joe, went away sad, because he was very rich.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very rich. I’m sure I’m not. But the statistics says that I’m richer than most of the world. But I don’t feel rich…
It’s easy, isn’t it? To see the exact issue that is listed in Scripture as being ‘not ours.’ If Jesus showed up and said, ‘don’t lust,’ then we could say we didn’t abnormally want anything we shouldn’t.
If Jesus said, ‘don’t take more than we should,’ then we would argue that we didn’t steal.
If Jesus showed up and said, “I didn’t say God wanted you to be rich,” we’d say, ‘well, good, because we’re not.’
But Jesus makes things pretty clear with his follow-up to the disciples, after Joe walks away. He tells his disciples – who are amazed that Jesus would say this – “it’s hard to enter the kingdom of God! It’s hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
So, then, this Christmas – if we want to enter the kingdom of God and it’s hard for a rich person to do that, is the outcome we’re looking for … poverty?
Opposite the response of our rich young ruler, Joe, is that of the real Saint Nicholas. That is Nikolaos of Myra, who I truly, deeply, madly love at Christmas. This is the rich man who was orphaned early, and raised by his uncle the local bishop. This man, eschewing the comfortable life afforded by his wealth, spent his life fighting off heresies of the church – rescuing young women from brothels, carrying for the unfortunate, and yes, leaving gifts in the shoes and homes of unsuspecting neighbors.
Ole Saint Nick proved that the challenge to the rich young ruler has many potential responses. It might be easier to run away and retain that safety and security, but what is the cost? Losing the kingdom of God?
Now, before you walk out of here, and write off your 401k, savings, and 2016 income, let me take from the drop down instructions of an inflight safety manual that says we should place the oxygen mask on ourselves first: we are obligated to take care of ourselves as to not be a burden to others – so that we can help others.
But there’s a difference between poverty and enough, between abundant extravagance and satisfaction.
Rather than seeking security, let’s seek salvation. Rather than exploring exceeding wealth, let’s explore our daily bread.
Jesus was well aware that Joe, our rich young ruler, had put his power, hope, and trust in his stuff rather than his relationships. He’d become reliant on what he could do for himself rather than on the good gifts graced to him by God. His checklist, his to do-list, himself – rather than relying on God.
This Christmas, God doesn’t want you to be wealthy – he wants you to be rich in relationships, in grace, and in faith.
This Christmas, God is calling you to peace and blessings, love and hope.
This Christmas, God is calling you to everlasting joy.
Christmas is not your birthday – thank God! No, it’s the breaking in of love, joy, and hope to remind us that riches, health, and power fades, but the glory of God lasts forever.