Here is a sermon that I preach at my church during Lent. You can listen to the audio here.
There are few who will dispute that J. R. R. Tolkien was a genius story-teller. One of the reasons his famous fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, has had such an enduring influence is his unwavering attention to detail. He didn’t just create a story, he created a whole world in which a story could take place. All of the fantastical creatures found within the pages of his books—whether Orc, wizard, or elf— have different histories, different customs, and speak different languages. One of the most intriguing of these creatures is the unassuming hobbit, four of whom become main characters in the books.
Hobbits are small human-like creatures who generally enjoy gardening, eating, drinking ale, and pipe-smoking. They usually prefer to stay at home in the quiet familiar hills of the Shire.
Much like humans, they celebrate birthdays. But, because they enjoy receiving presents so much, a custom evolved among them that on your birthday you do not receive presents, but rather give presents to the guests at your party. That way, hardly a week can pass during the year that you do not receive a present from a friend. The first book in the series begins with one of these birthday parties hosted by Bilbo Baggins. Later in the book, we are told the tale of Smeagol, a hobbit who long ago refused to give on his birthday, and instead stole the ring of power and murdered his friend. This radical inversion of the proper order of giving and receiving corrupts Smeagol, eventually exiling him from the community and turning him into the grey cave-dwelling Gollum. Gollum ends up completely possessed by the birthday present that he has stolen.
And when the order of giving and receiving is broken, evil gains a foothold in the world.
One of the most foundational things to say about God—perhaps the most foundational— is that God gives. The pages of Scripture are bursting with records and recollections of God’s continual giving to his creation and to the people he has called to himself. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we are told a vivid story of God giving many good gifts to the crown of his creation—humanity. He gives them a lush garden full of every kind of food that they could ever need or want. He sets them as stewards and caretakers of that place. As with all gifts, there is a proper way to receive it and an improper way to receive it. And, as we remember, it does not take long for the gratitude of newly-created humanity to fade into presumption. Soon, the order of giving and receiving is broken. Adam and Eve move their hands from open to clenched—from receiving to taking.
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they cried out to God to give a good gift. They were hungry and thirsty so they turned to the giver of good gifts and asked for help. And God responded by giving them manna that they only had to pick up to receive. He gave it not just once, but continually. Every morning brought with it new manna from the Lord. The proper way to receive it was simply to take what you needed and eat it with thankful hearts.
And yet, we all know the story. In the face of God’s continual daily provision, the Israelites first try to hoard the manna. They try to steal what was freely given. They try to take advantage of God’s free love. They turn a gift into a commodity to be hoarded and guarded. By doing so, they break the very nature of the gift as gift. As a result, they corrupt God’s it—they spoil the manna.
Eventually they learn that a gift cannot be hoarded, but can only be received. And, once again, God’s mercies arrive every morning to sustain the community. Manna for the people of God. But, once again, it does not take long until the gift is rejected. After days, weeks even years of God’s provision, the people of God grow to hate the bread from heaven. They complain to Moses,
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
They detest it. They are so sick and tired of the manna of God that they very thought of it makes them viscerally ill. When they think about manna, they gag. They hate it so much, that it’s like having no food at all.
And so, once again, the divine order of giving and receiving is broken. The people of God refuse to live gratefully as receivers in God’s creation and it’s God’s very creation in the form of snakes rises up against them.
Reading this story several thousands years removed can make us feel proud and self-important. If God only gave us manna from heaven every morning, we wouldn’t do what our ancestors did. We wouldn’t hoard it. We wouldn’t grow detest it. We would gratefully receive it. We would praise God for it.
And yet, every morning, to us is given the creation of God anew.
The psalmist (104) praises God, testifying that everything that has breath is sustained only by the Spirit of God. Every morning, God’s Spirit goes forth from him giving life to us and to his good creation. These are his gifts to us.
Do we receive them properly? Do we view the good things that God has given us in creation as gifts to be gratefully received or as commodities to be hoarded?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry.”
But perhaps our problem is not that we hoard creation, but that we are ungrateful for it. Perhaps we grow to detest it. Perhaps the world of screen and monitor is more appealing to us and then thought of God’s abundant creation. Perhaps we are not so different from the children of Israel. Perhaps we commit the same sins that they did, exchanging the gift of God for a lie.
The Israelites receive another gift. They are repeatedly given God’s saving help.
When they were enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites cried out to God for this gift—for salvation. And God gave it to them—freeing them from the yoke of oppression with his own divine hand. He then gifts them with festivals and laws to remind them of this salvation. By his own hand, he orders their community in the way of his gifting economy. Through the regulations guarding the way the Israelites were to worship he instills in them the need for a proper response to his gifting—gratitude.
And yet, despite these safeguards, the gift of God’s saving help eventually stops being received in gratitude and begins to be hated. Even while the cloud of God’s direction rests above the Tabernacle as a testimony, the Israelites cry out “Why did you bring us out into this desert to die?! We wish that we had stayed in Egypt!” In their ingratitude they break the order of God’s gifting economy. So God’s creation, snakes, rise up against them.
And so, the people cry out to God for another gift. “Save us from the punishment that you have wrought upon us!” And, our eternally patient and always-giving God listens to them. He again grants his people saving help through the strange means of a bronze snake. All they had to do was look upon it to be healed. The people of God repent from their ingratitude and accept this gracious gift.
And, yet, the Israelites, like us, seem not to be able to rest content in receiving a gift from God. They, like us, feel the pull to possess it, to grasp it—to steal what has been freely given. We shouldn’t be surprised then when read in 2 Kings that by the time Hezekiah ascends to the throne, the very bronze snake through which God gave salvation to the people has become itself an object of worship—an idol.
We, like the Israelites, have been given a way of salvation from God. We have been called out of darkness into his wonderful light. We have been taken from isolation and alienation into friendship and community. We were once counted among the enemies of God and now we are counted among of the people of God. We have been given new life as members of the very body of Christ. God has given us this gift out of his own graciousness and not because of any merit or condition on our part.
And yet, as we are wandering the the wilderness that is the world, we make the same mistake that the Israelites made. We refuse to receive with grateful hearts what God has given. We can look at the people to whom we have been added and seek to possess them, to grasp and steal what has been freely given to us—the church.
We have been blessed by being placed inside of the people of God. And yet, over time, if we are not careful, we can look to our sisters and brothers and see miserable food that we have grown to detest.
God has saved us from ourselves to his community and we refuse that gift when we view the church—the worshipping people that we are a part of—as something other than a gracious gift to be received and enjoyed. The brothers and sisters on our left and right here in this place have been given to us, are we are to receive them as though they were Christ himself. As the famous morning prayer of St. Patrick says, “Christ on my right, Christ on my left, (…) Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”
Or in the words of Bonhoeffer, “We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.”
Let us resolve to repent from our ungrateful and selfish spirits and embrace the gift of God in the others around us.
Our God is a giving God. James tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from him. There is no greater giver than him. Today we have heard John testify to the greatest gift of God: his only begotten Son, given to the world out of the abundance of his love. Martin Luther, when preaching on this verse exhorts his congregation to
“consider the gift itself. It must, without doubt, be something excellent and inexpressibly great, that such a rich Giver gives us, with such sincere and generous love. What does he give? Not great kingdoms, not one or more worlds full of silver and gold, not heaven and earth with all they contain, not the entire creation, <pause> but his Son, who is as great as he himself. That is an eternal, incomprehensible gift, even as the Giver and his love are incomprehensibly great. He is the fountain and source of all grace, goodness and kindness; yes, the very essence of the eternal blessings and treasures of God. That is love, not with words, but in deed, in the highest degree, proven with the most precious goodness and wonderful work of which God himself is capable.”
God has given himself to us through Christ. Some receive this gift. Others hoard it and distort it—harnessing Christ to promote their own theological, political, or personal agendas. Like the Israelites, they end up worshipping an idol that needs to be smashed.
Others receive the gift of Christ but grow weary and ungrateful. Through the long wilderness journey that is our lives, the self-giving way of Jesus exhausts us. We grow tired. We grow ungrateful. And if we allow this ingratitude to take root, we will end up detesting the very bread of life—Christ himself.
We gather here for worship because we believe that God is a giving God. We gather here because we need to receive—and to learn to receive. We have stolen, hoarded, and detested what was always a free gift. But we come here, gathering around this table, to ask God to give again. And, as theologian David Bentley Hart reminds us, “In God, nothing is lost, and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give— again.”
Jesus promises us that God is always ready to give us good gifts (Matthew 7) “Is
there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
That is why we are here. To ask. and to receive.
We are here because when we ask for Christ to be present in us, among us and in the Bread and wine we offer, we believe that we are not given a stone or a snake, but Christ himself.
The bread that we will break—it is communion with the body of Christ. The cup we take—it is communion with the blood of Christ.
It is in this gathering, through word, fellowship, and communion, that we receive our manna, our salvation—Christ himself.
These are the gifts of God for the people of God let us resolve to receive them well.