Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2018 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21
God has blessed Leah and me in the past few months with the opportunity to participate in the Financial Peace University class here at St. Mark’s. The nine-week course is part lesson and part support group as singles and couples gather to examine and change their financial practices. We only have two classes left, and I can’t begin to explain how much the class has changed my outlook on money and on my family’s future.
But I must confess to a fairly large dose of hubris going into the course. I knew the developer of the class, financial guru Dave Ramsey, purported to use “biblical principles” to guide his thinking about money. I assumed such principles would consist of half-baked theology used to prove his points, or else his principles would rise out of the muck of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which is anathema to true Christianity. Boy, was I wrong.
Every week, I’ve been astounded by Dave’s deep engagement with scripture. I knew I would learn a lot about money from Dave, but my hubris would not allow me to think he could teach me – a seminary-trained priest, a “professional” Christian – anything about God. Wrong again. Today, I’d like to share with you something Dave Ramsey taught me about my favorite chapter of the Bible. John Chapter 3 and I have been on a long journey together, and still there are things to learn. Remember what I said last week: the Bible doesn’t change, but we do, so each time we read, we can discover new depth in our sacred texts and in our relationships with God. For me, this is clearest when studying John 3 because I’ve preached on this chapter about a dozen times over the years. Even my website’s name comes from it. But there’s still more to learn.
Using my favorite chapter, John 3, Dave Ramsey taught me why it feels so good to give. Dave had his epiphany early one morning when his five-year-old son crawled into his lap while he was reading John 3. “I love you, Daddy,” he said, and that’s when it hit Dave. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” begins the most famous verse of the Bible. God so loved the world that he gave.”
God is a giver. And we are made in the image and likeness of God, which means we are made to be givers, too. It’s so simple. I have spent years talking about Jesus being the gift of God without ever focusing on God being the giver. But that’s who God is. Why did God create in the beginning? Because God is a giver, the giver of life. Why did God allow Adam and Eve to take the fruit? Because God is a giver, the giver of freedom (even to make bad choices). Why did God send God’s beloved Son into the world? Because God is a giver, the giver of mercy and justice and grace and love.
If God is a giver, then we live into our identity as God’s image-bearers by giving. And I’m not talking here about giving out of obligation or subordination or in order to induce others to “return the favor.” No, the negative side of giving has everything to do with power dynamics in relationships. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the pure act of giving out of the joy of your heart and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Such giving might manifest in tithing to God’s mission at church; or in serving those in need; or in going out of your way to help someone you barely know who’s having a tough time. Or such giving might manifest in random acts of kindness. We have a dear friend who does what she calls a “drive-by breading,” in which she shows up at our house with a fresh-baked loaf of bread…just because.
This dear friend is a giver, and she shines with the light of God’s image. Why does it feel good to give? Because when we give, we resonate with the presence of God within us, and we connect with the presence of God within those who receive, whether or not we ever meet.
Dave Ramsey says, “[If you start giving], crazy things will start happening in your life. You’ll be more energized, more creative, more passionate, and more excited about life. Something inside of you will be unlocked and you may have no idea what’s happening to you.” He continues, “I can tell you what’s happening: you were made to be a giver, and when you start living up to that potential, you start becoming more and more of what you were made to be.” He ends with, “This stuff is life changing!”
It sure is. It’s impossible to be a follower of Jesus Christ and not have your life change. We use a $20 word for this in the church: “Sanctification.” This is the process of becoming holy, which is to say, the journey towards embracing the image and likeness of God in our lives.
Every single Sunday, I have the opportunity to practice giving, and it has changed my life. Quick quiz: What phrase do you think I say more than any other? It’s not “I love you,” though I do say that a lot. Over 150 times a week, I say, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” You put out your hands, and I give you the precious gift of the sacrament. But really I’m just the conduit of the giving; again, God is the true giver. And in that blessed moment, I get to be God’s hands. I get to live out my identity as an image-bearer of God.
And so do you. Whenever you give out of compassion or generosity or love, whenever you give, you are living out your identities as image-bearers of God. This week, I invite you to reflect on your giving in all aspects of your life. When is your giving motivated by obligation or power? How does that giving feel different from the pure act of giving out of the joy of your heart?
Not everyone is in position to be a giver of money, but all people can give something of themselves. Even the small child who whispers “I love you” early in the morning. Even the recovering alcohoic who can shares her story at a meeting. Even the man dying in the darkened corner room of the hospital, whose final breaths give his family members a reason to come together.
Dave Ramsey says, “I believe that God puts us through the mechanical act of giving – even when we don’t fully understand the reasons why – because the act of giving changes us. It crushes our hearts and reforms us into something that looks and acts a little bit more like Christ.”
That’s sanctification, my friends. Each of us has the image and likeness of God within us. God is a giver. And when we become givers, that image shines.
To find a Financial Peace University Class near you, click here. (I’m not affiliated in any way with Ramsey Solutions. I just think their stuff is great and necessary in a society drowning in debt.)