Pastor Drew Williams
Have you ever been given a gift that you didn’t know what to do with? I asked this question on Facebook this week and got a couple good responses. Cynthia Galli got seven tea kettles for her wedding, even though she and John didn’t drink tea.
My friend Jeff got an ice scraper for your car windshield. But he’s lived in southern California his whole life…so what would that even be for?
A different friend of mine, Jan, talked about a lava lamp that she received in one of those present swap games. She never opened it and ended up regifting it the next year at the present swap. Apparently, whoever got it that year had the same idea and brought it back the next year, and then that became a new tradition where it gets camouflaged in different wrappings each year, but it’s still in the original box.
For me, I got myself a gift one year at a Black Friday sale. I got a couple tools, and there was a great deal on an angle grinder, and I picked it up. My friend asked what project I needed it for, and I replied, “I don’t know, but it’ll come in handy some day.”
Well, it’s been five years and it’s still unopened in the box.
What about you? Have you ever received a gift, and then left it unused? Maybe because it wasn’t really a gift you wanted, or maybe because it was a gift that you weren’t sure how you were supposed to use it.
So you toss it in the cupboard, or store it in the garage, or you display it up on a shelf somewhere, with no intention of getting it down and putting it to use.
And how awkward is it when the person who gave you the gift comes over and sees that it’s still sitting up there? Maybe they’re polite and don’t mention anything, but they KNOW that you haven’t used it even once. And that’s a bummer, because they gave you that gift for a reason, for a purpose.
Today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke is going to have something to do with that idea. In fact, when I first read it, I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. So let’s read together Luke 8:16-21.
PASSAGE Read Luke 8:16-21
Before we start to dissect this passage, I need to confess that I’ve been having a really hard time understanding it. Every single week, I will spend considerable time in study. I read the passage for the upcoming sermon, usually in many different translations, so that I can get familiar with the text. And as I get the word inside me, so to speak, I mull it over throughout the week.
I look up confusing or interesting words and phrases in my greek language software, since I never became fluent while in seminary, and I start to try to see what direction the text is taking me.
Then I read some scholarly commentaries, sifting through the deep theological musings of people much smarter than me. With just these 6 short verses for this week, I can guarantee that I spent over 10 hours in research and prep, not even counting the rest of the time that I was wrestling with this passage and talking it over with Megan.
And I’ve got to confess, I’m still pretty confused about what it means. It’s like the times that Megan is talking to me when my mind was elsewhere, and my response is, “I heard all the words you said, but I have no idea what you’re saying.”
Has that ever happened to you? Someone talks to you, and no matter how hard you try, you just fail to understand them? There is a disconnect somewhere that is shorting out your comprehension.
That’s what was happening to me with this passage. No matter how hard I tried this week, I couldn’t “figure it out.” I couldn’t distill it down to a nice cohesive package. The message was messy. I had a lot of little fragments of ideas, and I had learned many interesting tidbits of knowledge about the vocabulary that Jesus is using, and how this passage in Luke relates to other passages in Mark. But I couldn’t seem to make it work. After all, I don’t want to just get up and talk for a set amount of time and fill up the space with interesting tidbits.
I’m not here to impress you with my knowledge. I’m here to point you to Jesus, and let you be impressed by Him! By his grace and love and compassion and power.
Oh, why couldn’t Jesus just give me the answer? What was I supposed to share?
And then Megan said this to me: “What will encourage the people of Grace?”
And it started to click for me. So why don’t we walk through the passage and I’ll show you where I had originally been thinking about it in terms of MY power and my understanding, and then we’ll see what simple truth Jesus began to offer at the end.
In some Bible translations, this passage has a heading over it, which makes it seem like it’s a separate thing from what surrounds it, or at least a new idea that transitions from what came before. Well, the original manuscripts didn’t have those headings. Those were added way later on by well-meaning Christians who wanted to help break up these super long chunks of text into more bite-sized pieces.
And most of the time, these headings and separations are super helpful in understanding the context and smaller stories contained in the larger arch of the whole book.
But in this case, it’s super NOT helpful, because this passage is a continuation of Jesus’ thought in the previous section we covered last week. In fact, even though there is a change in the metaphor that Jesus is using, this is probably all part of the same conversation, the same line of reasoning that Jesus started up in verse 5.
So, to figure out what Jesus is saying at the beginning of today’s passage, we actually need to have a quick refresher on what he has just been saying leading up to it.
If we remember, Jesus was speaking to a large crowd, giving a very important teaching on faith and what he expects of people listening to his message. The point of hearing the word of God is to produce fruit, to share the good news of what Jesus has been doing in your life with those you meet so that it can be planted into their lives.
Now, this isn’t a work that we do, but it’s simply the way to respond to hearing the word of God. God is the one who plants his word in us, God is the one who brings the growth and guides us out of trials and temptations, and God is one who gives us the gift of faith.
What we do is simply RESPOND to that gift by receiving it and applying it to our lives, hearing God’s word, and doing it.
And so Jesus continues that thought when he changes metaphors from seeds and fruit to light: “What’s a light FOR? Do you hide it under a cover?”
Maybe it’s just because of my life stage with young kids, but I imagine all the people who are listening as if they are responding like a group of kindergarteners when you ask them a question in a silly way that you know is wrong. Like, Jesus says, “Are you supposed to hide a light under a cover?”
“Oh! Well, are you supposed to hide it under a bed?”
“Of course not! The purpose of the light is to be displayed for everyone to see so that it can illuminate everything around it.”
Jesus has just been talking about how the purpose of hearing the word is to produce fruit like a seed that grows and matures to a fruitful plant. Now he’s saying that the purpose of a light is to be seen. So he’s just continuing the same thought to show that when we don’t do what we’re supposed to in response to hearing the good news of God, it’s the same as being a choked plant or a lamp that is hidden under a bed.
And then he continues with this set of statements on hidden things being disclosed. And this was the section that was making me the most confused. Some scholars say that this is Jesus declaring that everything will eventually come out.
In other words, the way we’ve heard the word of God, the authenticity of our faith will eventually be shown. And this reading would connect with the warning at the end of verse 18, where it could seem like Jesus is saying that people who are faking their faith in God, people who are faking the fact that they believe in God, but they aren’t actually following him with their life, those who “don’t have, even what they THINK they have”, even what they SEEM to have will be taken from them, it will be shown to be false or empty.
This sounds a lot like the image of the seed that sprouts on the rock, and shot up quickly. It SEEMS like a good plant, but it withers in the face of trials and testing. The faith SEEMS to be genuine, but then it turns out to be something discarded quickly when life throws a curveball.
However, there’s another line of thinking that some scholars adopt when they look at this short passage. Instead of being a warning about having your true or inauthentic faith come out eventually, they think that Jesus is declaring what true faith should look like.
After all, he’s just given us two metaphors that accomplish just that: seeds are meant to sprout and produce a crop. So is faith. Lights are meant to be seen. So is faith.
So maybe Jesus is doing the same thing here. Actually, the Message translation helps look at it in this way. It reads, “No one lights a lamp and then covers it with a washtub or shoves it under the bed. No, you set it up on a lamp stand so those who enter the room can see their way.”
Then the section in question says, “We’re not keeping secrets; we’re telling them. We’re not hiding things; we’re bringing everything out into the open.”
Read this way, Jesus is declaring that true faith is more like open vulnerability than it is like secrecy. Authentic faith that responds to the word of God isn’t something that conceals, it reveals. It makes known.
We continue, “So be careful that you don’t become misers of what you hear. Generosity begets generosity. Stinginess impoverishes.”
Merely receiving the word of God, hearing it, and then not doing anything with it is the same as hiding it. It’s the same as hoarding it. What we’re SUPPOSED to do is apply it to our life. To let it grow in our daily activities and produce a harvest. To lift it high and let it shine out of our words to illuminate for the sake of others.
And I’ll be honest, both of those readings have merit. So maybe Jesus is giving us a warning about not letting our faith be faked, because that will eventually be found out.
Or maybe he’s just giving us another example of what true faith looks like: it looks like sharing openly and generously with others.
But I had the same response to both readings.
I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do. Maybe you’ve been wondering that yourself.
“Well, is my faith fake? How would I know? If my faith is a light, do I have a bright light or a faint one? How do I ensure to display it properly?”
And so I spent a lot of time wrestling with this. And I mean a LOT of time. Multiple days.
“I want to be in the first group, those who have and are given more. I don’t want to have what I THINK I have taken from me when it turns out that I’ve been a sham this whole time.”
And if any of you are thinking something like that right now, or if you have thought something like that before, I want to declare to you that that is a lie straight from the pit of hell.
Why do I say that? Because it puts all the burden on ME. It places the responsibility for the authenticity of my faith on MY shoulders. And that makes me feel anxious. That makes me feel uncertain. That makes me feel scared that I might mess it up somehow. That I might fool myself into thinking I’m doing alright, when I really know that I turn away from God all.the.time!
I focus on trying to get ahead. I pine after the life of luxury that sounds nice. I focus on trying to control others. All the time! It’s easier when people just do what I say instead of push back. My way is better. My kids should know better. My wife should know better.
I focus on escaping hard things. I’d rather eat empty carbs and sit on the couch and mindlessly binge some show. I don’t want to have to deal with the uncomfortable responsibilities in front of me.
And when someone pushes back on my control, or when someone disrupts my comfort… oh I’m not a nice guy. I snap at them. I push back. I jump three levels and now we’re amped up and raising our voices and saying things that we’re immediately regretting.
And the result is just that: regret. Shame. Fear.
That’s what happens when I place the burden on ME. That’s what happens when I make my life, my happiness, my purpose in life, my faith…about something I can try to ACCOMPLISH on my own.
It’s too heavy of a burden. I end up acting selfishly. I end up failing. I end up hurting others, or myself.
When we make our faith about OUR works, it doesn’t work. And that’s how I know that impulse is a lie from the Deceiver, because it leads to failure and shame, and that rarely drives us back to God. Shame usually causes us to scramble around, trying to prove our worth in some other way.
That’s not the gospel. That’s not grace. Grace is supposed to be a gift.
And then I saw it. It was right there, staring at me the whole time. The simple truth that I had missed in my attempts at turning this into something I accomplish. Jesus even SAYS it, “Whoever has will be GIVEN more.” Faith.
Want more faith? Ask for it! It’s a gift! And if we look back over this whole passage, that’s a thread that runs throughout it:
The seed is the word of God. It’s spread out indiscriminately, no matter what type of soil, it’s GIVEN freely to land and take root and sprout.
And the light? That’s the FIRST gift recorded in Scripture. All the way back at the beginning, God said, “Let there be light!” Jesus doesn’t say that we CREATE the light. He says the light is there, and we either choose to hide it or display it. The fact that it illuminates the whole room is a gift that we simply RECEIVE.
And then I realized what day this is. Today, we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, which is known as the birthday of the church. It’s the day that the followers of Jesus first received the GIFT of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
See, when Jesus was about to ascend to heaven after rising from the dead, he told his disciples to go into Jerusalem and WAIT until he sent the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit showed up, it appeared as a flame above heads of each of the 120 people gathered. Jesus lit the birthday cake for the creation of the church and then blew them out of that room to spread out around the town square to declare the good news of Jesus to everyone who would listen.
The presence of the Holy Spirit was a gift that sent them out. The word of God is a gift that produces a harvest of good news to be spread out. The faith from God is a gift that is a light that shines out so that everyone can see, that is meant to be shared freely and generously.
And Jesus makes the most bold statement at the end of our passage today. He actually says that those who receive the word of God, those who hear it AND PUT IT INTO PRACTICE are actually now considered his family.
Gifts from God are DESIGNED to be used. They’re designed to be shared. They’re even designed to be regifted, spreading out from us to those around us.
And do you know how EASY it is to regift something? It’s a gift to begin with, so we didn’t have to do anything to earn it. We didn’t have to expend any energy shopping for it. All we do is SHARE IT!
We get to! When we receive the good news of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, it grows in us, transforming us, multiplying into a harvest of good news to share. We GET to plant it in others.
When we receive the bright light of mercy, it illuminates everything we shine it on, bringing things out of the darkness, out of hiding, out of shame. We GET to let it shine, like a beacon of hope on a dark night, calling other weary travellers towards the warmth and safety.
When we hear God’s word of loving compassion, when we receive his word of new life in the kingdom of God, when we accept it and put it into practice, start living as if Jesus is our king now, we get PROMOTED from a servant of the king to being royalty, family members and co-heirs who GET to partner with God in the stewarding of creation.
Faith is a GIFT that we GET to share.
And when we receive the gift, when we accept the grace offered to us, when we HEAR the word of God and put it into practice, our faith GROWS. It MULTIPLIES.
Who has will be given more.
So let’s reflect today, church. Have you accepted the gift of faith? Or are you still trying to earn it on your own? Are you still trying to forge ahead to provide for yourself and mitigate your risk?
Well, God is inviting you to receive the gift of faith. He’s offering it to you.
Maybe you have accepted the gift, but you’re not putting it into practice. You come every week to receive the word of God, and you accept it gladly. You gratefully receive the gift of grace and forgiveness, and then you go home and put it on the shelf, or tuck it in the cupboard. And you go through your week doing your best to just make it through.
Well, God is inviting you to put his word into practice. He’s inviting you to let his mercy extend beyond your heart to the people around you who are in need of mercy. He’s inviting you to let his commands to love your neighbor actually be practiced on your actual neighbor. He’s inviting you to put your belief in him as your provider by not fretting so much when things seem to go awry, but instead to turn to him and say, “I need you God. Help me to see where you are providing for me, because it’s a mess over here.”
Our God offers us this gift of faith every day. There’s nothing we do to earn it; we just receive it. And it’s a gift that is meant to be shared. Isn’t that good news?