Today is the first Sunday in Advent. I love Advent because it always draws me back to my deepest spiritual longings. It reaffirms in me the hope that we are not alone in a cold universe; it dares me to trust that through Jesus, God is not distant or disinterested, but is our Emmanuel—“God-with-us.”
Advent is also the season of giving, inviting us to share with others as freely as God did in sending His Son. So for Advent 2010 we want to revisit this key theme. Each of our four weekly Advent reflections will draw from II Corinthians 8-9, the most extensive passage in the entire Bible on giving. Here are a couple of key points of background which will help orient us to today’s reading:
- Paul’s goal in II Corinthians 8-9 was to persuade the Christians in Corinth to contribute to his fundraising effort for the church in Jerusalem, which had been reduced to desperate poverty by a harsh famine.
- Paul’s collection faced the disadvantage of deep cultural, racial, and language divisions between the believers in Jersualem and Corinth. Moreover, the givers and recipients were separated my more than three weeks’ travel time, and there was little chance of them ever meeting in person.
- This means that when Paul wrote about “giving,” he was not talking about being generous with friends, family, congregations, or local communities, but about sharing money with distant Christians who were in great poverty.
So how did Paul begin his most extensive teaching on giving? With grace! He mentioned χαρις (grace) three times in his opening paragraph:
1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
What did Paul mean by this Greek word χαρις (grace)? I think the best translation in English would be something like “God’s free gift of life-giving power.” Each appearance of χαρις teaches us something about grace-fueled giving:
- In verses 1-5 the financially strapped followers of Jesus in Macedonia were so excited about sharing with the poor in Jerusalem that they donated generously without even being asked. χαρις made giving not a duty or obligation, but a joy. They wanted it. χαρις gave them a power in their souls that made them deeply desire to live generously in ways that were totally outside their rational self-interest.
- Then in the next two verses Paul urged the Corinthians to cultivate the χαρις that they had already received. We can clearly see that χαρις is a spiritual power that can grow or expand—it can be brought to fullness or be done more excellently.
I would imagine that most of us have a little bit of both the Macedonians and the Corinthians in us. Like the Macedonians, we can identify places in our hearts that deeply long to share with the poor–to really make a difference, even in the lives of people we’ve never met. If so, you can bet you’ve recieved the χαρις of giving. Nevertheless, like the Corinthians, we often need some encouragement from others to actually pull the trigger and give as generously as our hearts call us to. This is especially true as we consider giving to people whose suffering happens in places far from the all-consuming vortex of our daily lives.
That’s why so I’m encouraged to see that many people of faith are making intentional, creative, effective charitable giving a bigger part of their Christmas traditions. If you’d like some excellent ideas check out the Advent Conspiracy or our friends at Highrock Church. And of course, we’d love it if you signed up for our Just Giving Challenge. For us, it’s a fun, motivating, and even joyful way of growing in grace together this Advent. We’ll even donate $100 for the first 100 people who join us!
However you choose to celebrate Advent this year, may it truly be a season of χαρις and peace.