Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, a season of preparation for Christmas. It seems increasingly important to me that we mark this season, not as part of the chaos of preparing for Christmas, but as a way of stepping back from that and putting it into perspective, otherwise Christmas risks becoming a chore or an anticlimax.
Last week I shared some resources which I hoped may inspire us in the coming weeks. One of those was Advent Conspiracy, which is about remembering that Christmas is a joyous celebration of the fact that God stepped into this world to start putting things right. I'll let their video tell you a little more.
Those four tenents - worship fully, spend less, give more, love all - may provide a really helpful focus for us and so I offer you the image below as a prompt, but the Advent Conspiracy website also talks about celebrating Christmas more generously and more humbly and more beautifully, and it is those three words will be our focus for the next three weeks.
We started on Sunday by thinking about celebrating Christmas more generously. I don’t think I need to tell you that being generous is a good thing, but I do want to dig a little into the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and then take the idea of generosity in a couple of different directions.
The passage is perhaps best known for the phrase “God loves a cheerful giver”. It is an important reminder that our attitude is as important as our action, which was of course a message that came through in much of Jesus’ teaching. If we give and then turn away in a sulk because we begrudge our gifts, we close ourselves off to the good they do and the connections they make. We must not only practice a habit of generosity, but also nurture a spirit of generosity.
And there are a couple of other phrases in there which I find interesting. Verse six says “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously”, while verse thirteen says “because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God”. These sound like reasons to be generous, but I’m not sure that’s how we should read Paul’s words.
We don’t give as a cynical ploy to receive more in return, or as a kind of missional trick. We give because we are made in the image of a generous God. I’m no sociologist or anthropologist, but I don’t believe in Dawkins’ selfish gene. I believe we live authentically when we give, and I believe we know that. My toddler already gets as excited about buying presents for others as he does about receiving presents for himself, and while sharing his toys may not always be at the top of his agenda, there is a joy in him when he splits his precious grapes with his mummy and daddy. There’s an instinct for generosity there that doesn’t need to be taught, only nurtured.
And so reaping and praising are not reasons to give but they are consequences of our giving and so encouragements to keep on giving. As we give, we often do seem to receive, perhaps because our generosity opens up new connections, or perhaps because it makes us more aware of what we already have. And our generosity is a powerful witness, because while I may not believe in a selfish gene, I do recognise that we live in a selfish society, which has warped or stunted our generosity by telling us we need to consume.
So let us give because we are in the image of a generous God. And let us rejoice in the fact that our giving opens us up to relationship and thankfulness, and may open others up to the possibility of meeting with God, from whom all generosity flows.
Next I want to think a little about what generosity looks like. We often think in terms of giving gifts, especially at this time of year, but we can also be generous with our time and our skills. A phrase that has been significant to me over the past few years is 'the ministry of presence', which is about simply being with people. I have seen the importance of this in volunteer work I have done with refugees and street sleepers, and it is at the heart of much we will be exploring as a church. That only seems right, because it is also at the heart of the incarnation, the truth that God came to live with us, which for me is the most astonishing fact of our faith.
Our recent series on social justice has also been about living generously, about making space for others in the way we live, about living in the world with arms and hearts open. My intention was never that the series would simply check off a list of topics that we can now say we’ve covered, but my hope is rather that it has planted some seeds which we will nurture into a more generous may of being in our community, and we will come back to other issues of social justice throughout next year.
And of course we are also called to be generous with God, for he is the greatest gift we have. Talking about faith can feel awkward as it has deeply personal elements, and we know it isnot shared by everybody, but we don’t have to be reciting evangelical tracts. We can just speak honestly about what our faith means to us, and at this time of year we can talk about how we’re celebrating Christmas and why it is so special.
So let us be generous with all we have to be generous with. Our time, our talents, our love, our faith. Let us make generosity a way of life.
I do want to acknowledge however that generosity is not always easy. It is hard to give when we have nothing to give out of, whether that is no money or no time or no energy. I don’t think it is the case that we ever have nothing, because that underestimates and devalues the gift that we are in and of ourselves, but I do think that sometimes we don’t have enough for our generosity to be healthy. We can give so much that we run ourselves into the ground.
Sometimes we need to let others be generous with us, even if that means making ourselves vulnerable enough to ask for what we need. ne of the most important things about a healthy church community is that it is a place where people can be vulnerable and they can ask for what they need, and so we need to be continually asking how we support one another and how we can do that better.
Sometimes we need to be generous with ourselves, giving ourselves more time or more rest or more patience. This links back to ideas about self-care, which I talked a little about when I talked about mental health. While I was still in Leeds, somebody shared with my church her own hard-earned learning about self-care. She spoke about the importance of doing more of what keeps us well and less of what makes us unwell, and she thought about this in terms of loving ourselves with heart and soul and body and mind, loving ourselves as we are also called to love God. That means finding things that gladden our hearts and ease our souls and care for our bodies and excite our minds. Perhaps you might take a moment to think about what those things might be for you.
And I believe we can fall back on faith, allowing ourselves to be held and cared for by God, throwing ourselves on his generosity. We ended our service by singing Blessed Be Your Name later, which speaks about praising God in the sun and in plenty, but also in darkness and in the desert. It is so easy to say, but there is something powerful about making a conscious choice to remember and call on the goodness of God in all times and seasons, whether we are in a place where we can live generously or in a place where we need to to receive generosity. It is what has held me over the eighteen years of my experience of mental ill health.
So let us be generous with others, but let us also be generous with ourselves, and allow others to be generous with us. Healthy generosity means we are all taken care of.
I said we would be thinking about celebrating Christmas more generously, but I am aware that I haven’t said very much about Christmas specifically. That has been intentional as the point isn’t to be generous for the next three weeks and then forget about it until next year, but rather this is about taking this period of Advent as a chance to reflect and start practicing a generosity that will continue all the year round. I will leave it to you to decide what that might look like for you this Christmas season.