'Tis better to give
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2023
“Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity.”
CHRISTMAS is over, but the ‘season of giving’ isn’t a time when you may give gifts, then you may not. The whole concept of gift giving has been co-opted by commercials, Santa, Rudolph, and the Grinch, not to mention Google, Best Buy, Apple, Sony and Amazon. The barrage starts at the end of summer, conditioning us children to lust for the newest toy. I’m afraid we’ve all complained of this when Christmas is just a season of demands and negotiated settlements, breaking the bank for months afterward, starting with a day called Black Friday. Scrooge may have had a point.
Gifts, real gifts, are very different from this. True gifts are not about greed, appeasement, or keeping up with others. Gifts are about love. And real giving is part of growing up.
As a kid I looked forward to Christmas to get something that would perhaps make me very happy—for a while. Toys break, or just lose their interest for us. A pair of slippers doesn’t even qualify—for a child—as a gift, but a necessity, like soap. Often the child has forgotten every gift by New Years and is negotiating for something else. Sometimes the parents get tired of them first. One of my bright gifts when I was really young was a boxed set of colorful bells, each color a different note. I have the vaguest notion those bells didn’t stay in the house for long, somehow…
Christians speak of gifts associated with our faith, sometimes with similar cravings for something that makes me feel special, as though Santa knew who was good this year, so he gave me the gift of prophecy. Then I started showing off my gift, making all the others envious, eyeing their own gifts with embarrassment that they weren’t given such great gifts after all.
Now, before you conclude I have a jaundiced view of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, let me clarify. This is the point of gifts. God is dynamic. He multi-tasks in all that He does. When He pours out His Spirit on all flesh, He is looking to cause a great chain reaction. Every vessel that holds the flame of God’s Spirit should not only be personally blessed by that light, but be a light for others. We aren’t the end of the line, the completed result of God’s generosity. Not ever. When, in our Epistle today, St. Paul admonishes the Romans to use their spiritual gifts, the end of every gift is the benefit of another. After his list of gifts and tools of ministry, Paul proves them by their rendering kindness, cheerfulness, selfless love, honor, hard work, service, joy, hope, patience and prayer: giving it all away.
I knew I’d become an adult at age 26 when our toddler son was going to receive gifts at Christmas—and the greatest thing about Christmas for me was waiting to see his joy of discovery opening each present we gave to him. I had no thought for myself. It was all about giving away, and the joy that it brought to another. Then I knew I’d made the shift. I was an adult, at last.
St. Peter writes, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God… that in all things God may be glorified.” 1 Peter 4:10-11 Do you see Christians using ‘gifts’ to receive all glory themselves? See my gift? St. Paul once quoted Jesus say, It is more blessed to give than to receive. Acts 20:35 It’s true. It is more blessed to give. It does make you happier, more deeply satisfied, with a truer sense of purpose and meaning in life to be of benefit to another human soul than to be the recipient of all the attention and the stuff.
Salvation is one dimension of a vast new creation coming to you. Your salvation was begun long ago, on a cross overlooking the temple mount, by a man who was not trying to impress anyone with His spiritual giftings. He was suffering. And in His suffering, He gave a great gift: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
Salvation begins when you come to the end of yourself and find yourself empty, still needing something essential that is nowhere in you. The offer is made and you resign being the master of your own fate, and you accept the forgiveness and redemption of your soul. You receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the waters are poured over you. A sign of the cross is inscribed on your forehead and you are called a soldier in a cosmic army. The world, the flesh and the devil you name as your enemies.
The indwelling Spirit is first given for you, to enlighten you, make you able to understand Christ, clear the cobwebs away and let you finally hear the words of Scripture with new clarity. Things you heard all your life finally make sense. Your gratitude makes you weep.
But that’s not the end of your journey, only the beginning. You are then a little child, new born in Christ. When your milk is digested, you move up to solid food. You grow in grace and strength and you are commissioned. It may be at the hands of your bishop, the oil of anointing, flat on your face before the altar, or in the dead of night. The Holy Spirit who made your spirit alive is given to you again, this time with power to do the miraculous. We are not only to be harvested as wheat for God’s barn, saved souls to bring Him glory, though that is certainly true. We are also to be harvesters, planters of seeds, healers, exhorters, servants of God for the sake of others.
Peter said the promises are given to you so that you might be partakers of the divine nature. 2 Peter 1:2-4 St. Paul says, after the lists of the various gifts, that we should know the greatest of these gifts is love, without which, all other gifts are noise and dust, even deadly. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are to be given away or they are not gifts at all. The list of gifts found in 1st Corinthians 12 ends with the statement that, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” v. 7 The Spirit is dynamic. He gives gifts that must be given away, or they are not gifts at all, and may not even be of God.
Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God, teaches that the gifts of the Spirit might be enumerated, listed and experienced as one thing or another, but the missing instruction too often is that the gift IS the Holy Spirit. You don’t possess gifts, like you’ve received something you can perform at your will, in and of yourself. No. The Spirit is given, and the Spirit can do everything God can do. That power resides in you now. What can’t God do? Nothing is impossible for Him, and that potential lives in you, this morning, right now.
What does God wish to do through you? I’ll tell you one thing He doesn’t. He doesn’t want you to show off. He doesn’t need you to carry your gift around like you got it under the tree. By a humble grace, you make yourself available for everyone and anyone God points out to you, and prayerfully see what may be done, encouragement to be spoken, insight that might bring light, a loving act to prove God loves them, and once in a while, a miracle so that we may stand back and say, “Look at Jesus!”
Gifts of the Holy Spirit may operate through anyone. The famous donkey of Balaam is a case in point. God uses the tools that are at hand. He surprises us with the packaging occasionally.
John the Baptist was surprising in his animal skins, natural diet, and wilderness habitat. He was also surprising with his message, but he knew his gift. It was not to be Messiah, but to herald that great One’s coming, and then to retire. He waited for the sign he was told to watch for, that the Holy Spirit would descend and stay on the Messiah at His rising from Jordan’s waters. So it was, and Jesus came out of Jordan with the voice of His Father commending Him from above. This moment is an icon of the Epiphany: the Father’s voice out of heaven, the Son rising from the river, and the Holy Spirit like a dove made of light coming down—the Trinity displayed for us in a flash. It is also like the dual blessing of Baptism and Confirmation—the waters marking a change of outer life, the Spirit engaging the inner man.
Then the Spirit had business with Jesus. He drove Him out of human company for the forty days’ fast and testing. Even for the perfect Son of God, a time of training and growth was given. Everything He did thereafter was not for Himself, but for us. He had fully grown up in the stature of the Savior of the world. The Holy Spirit in Him manifested God’s nature to every person, exactly what they needed, perfectly in keeping with the will of the Father.
For the blind, it was sight. For the deaf, it was hearing. For the spiritually oppressed, freedom. For lepers, new skin. For the hungry, bread. For the guilty, forgiveness. For the proud, it was offensive. For the powerful, it was a threat. But the Spirit in Jesus was the giver of every gift, and He means for that power to reside in you and me as well.
He said, “Verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” John 14:12-14
Have we the faith required to walk in such a gift?
Gifts for the gifts’ sake are nothing. The gift that keeps on giving is worked through a mature and willing Christian, and the power to change our entire world is resident in this church this morning, if we are willing to be used by Him, if we ourselves become the gift.