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Gifted, Part 1

Merry Christmas, everyone. Please go with me in the Bible to the book of Exodus, early on in the Old Testament, chapter 31. Exodus, chapter 31, and if you want to use one of our Bibles this morning, you can raise your hand, and someone will bring one to you.

In our Church calendar, today is still within the season of Christmastide, but of course in our everyday calendars today is New Year’s Eve. I’m sure many of you have plans to celebrate tonight. In our house we’ll probably light the advent wreath and eat in candlelight, then step outside to join in whatever neighborhood nonsense is going. Part of what I love about living in this city is that you usually don’t have to try very hard or go very far to be a part of a party or parade. There will be no midnight toasting at our house, though. My wife, who knows me so well, got me cocktail napkins for Christmas this year which read, “Welcome to my home. I’m so glad you’re here, and please leave by 9pm.” So if your idea of ringing in the new year involves a modest dinner together, reading books to children, and chatting about another hour or so before we fall asleep, you’re welcome to join us.

The month of January in our culture is named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces, one looking back, and one forward. Culturally today is meant to be a day of reflection on the year as well as looking forward into the new year, which is part of why I love the church calendar. Today, as most days, the church calendar speaks a different word, one which I think is helpful. Reflection I never discourage. We need more of it in our culture. So often we pair one celebration to the next, one bottle to the next, one work day to the next, like chain smoking cigarettes, we never stop to think about our histories, and it leaves us a little bit breathless.

So reflection in this time of year is good and worthwhile, celebration, too. Christmastide reminds us, though, to celebrate and keep our eyes, not on what we’ve done this year, or what other people have done to us, but on what the Lord has done in and through our lives this year. The ways he’s led us, and if we make plans for the new year, Christmastide urges us toward, not resolutions about what we will do in our own power, but to hope and pray about what God will do. Not hoping in a new year and what it may bring, but hoping in the new world we can be certain God is bringing already and not yet.

So because it’s still Christmas, I want to talk about gifts. In fact, I want to talk about gifts for the next several weeks, the ones we give to each other and the good gifts God gives. This sermon is the first in a series I’m simply calling “gifted.” AJ’s favorite gift this year at Christmas was a lego Jeep that he was able to build, but then it has a remote and he can drive it around like an RC car. Whoever thought of that is a genius. That’s eight-year-old gold. I gave my wife the complete series of Parks and Recreation on dvd, partially because I’m tired of dealing with all of the streaming services, chasing it around the internet, and partially because I know her heart’s desire is to watch that show on repeat for the rest of her life, precisely because she’s already seen it a hundred times. If you’ve never lived with someone with severe ADD, you won’t understand this, but trust me, it was the right gift.

Gifts are one of the major ways we can show each other we love each other. I doubt there is a couple in this room that doesn’t give gifts to each other. Gifting is just something love does. You can talk all day long about Hallmark holidays and capitalistic appropriation, and we should. Most of the best gifts aren’t things—most of the best things in life aren’t things, and we need to remember that. We should also never stop giving to each other.

It’s part of what love does, and that’s really what I’m driving at with this sermon series. This is a series on what would typically be called spiritual gifts, but more than that it’s a series on how to love each other. In our ministry residency throughout this year, we’ve been studying the book of first Peter, in depth, which is really what’s inspired this sermon series. One part Peter, one part Adam Shipp, and one part a bowl of soup inspired this series. Peter, in his letter, writes, “Above all else, keep loving one another earnestly,” and then he starts detailing what he means when he says we ought to love one another. He begins with the gospel, talking about how Christ’s love has covered our multitude of sins and atoned for us by his death for our sake. Peter implies, because of the love of Christ and his forgiveness, we’re able to forgive each other’s sins and love each other, even when the sins between us are a multitude, a gulf. Then, immediately, he starts talking about gifts.

If you’ve been in church for a while, you’ll probably have two categories in your mind, one of gifts like a lego rc car, and one category labeled spiritual gifts with a wall in your mind between the two. One of my goals in this sermon series is to begin to take down that wall for a couple of reasons, the main one being that I don’t think the biblical authors had those categories as separated as we do, but also because in separating rc cars from things like speaking in tongues we’ve lost something of what the holy Spirit wants us to understand about spiritual gifts. Namely, we’ve lost an understanding that this is what love does, giving each other these gifts. Lego rc cars and speaking in tongues alike. Giving each other gifts is a big part of what it means to love one another.

I said the inspiration for the series was one part Peter, one part Adam, and one part a bowl of soup. If you don’t know Adam, he’s one of our ministers here. He has a way of taking profound truths and stating them very simply. A few weeks back, Meg, his wife and our liturgist, was sick and I brought them soup for dinner. I was on my way somewhere else, so I could only really hand him the soup and run, but I wished her well and told him I loved them, and in one of those profound moments which come so naturally to him, he held up the soup and said, “This is love,” and he’s right.

In our society we’ve forgotten a lot of what it means to love each other. We’ve almost forgotten friendship entirely, especially among men, and as a result so many of us have become crushingly lonely. Our ideas of love, too have become entangled with sexual intimacy so thoroughly that people have a hard time telling the two things apart. The Christian ideas, then, of celibacy and singleness as gifts sound absurd in our culture, like a denial of everything which makes life worthwhile. The age we live in, generally, is an age of divorce and division, in families, churches, denominations and the national scene alike, to where people are acting like if we don’t agree with each other we have no means of loving each other, as though love is some fragile thing that can be broken by disagreement, and it must be defended at all cost or all will all be lost.

I don’t think love is fragile at all. In fact, I think love is strong enough to overthrow empires and cities in its time, strong enough to overthrow death itself. Love is able to sanctify us, keep us unstained from the world, able to heal people who have been through the worst things, in this life and in the next. Love is able to restore people who have had everything taken from them. In a world filled with things worth dying for, love is something worth living for, but again, we’ve largely forgotten what it means.

“God is love,” John famously writes, and love is a gift. It starts with God pouring out love to us, his love which covers a multitude of sins, and then we are able to take it up and give it to each other, sometimes one bowl of soup and one minute at a time. In this series, we’re starting in Exodus because I want us to begin by grasping the ultimate purpose of the gifts God gives to each of us, then we can go from there.

Read with me, Exodus, chapter 31, and we’re going to read vs. 1-11. [Exodus 31:1-11] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

I wanted to read this passage to start our series on giftedness for a number of reasons. One, as I’ve already said, because it points us toward the ultimate purpose of the gifts God gives to each of us, but there are several other lessons to learn here, too.

First, I want you to see the Holy Spirit living and working through the people of God in the Old Testament, and I want this passage to inform your theology of the Spirit, if you have one. It’s popular to talk about the Old Testament as a time where God the Father worked, primarily, then comes the age of Christ working on the earth, and then comes the age of the Holy Spirit. That’s not a teaching the scriptural witness supports, though, meaning that’s not a biblical teaching. Some people also make a distinction between the age of the Holy Spirit under the apostles and then after that comes the age of the church where the work of the Spirit has ceased in the world. Again, that’s a false teaching.

Look at v.3 again: “I have filled him [Bezalel, the craftsman] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship.” The Holy Spirit has always been living and active in our world, and continues to live and move today. And God, the Spirit, does not change in all the ways we change. His work then was pointed in Exodus at the same ends as it is in the New Testament era, just as it is in today’s world. The holy Spirit has always, is always, will always fill and empower the people of God to glorify God and to love each other.

In the passage we read, the Spirit fills these craftsmen with these wonderful abilities to fashion all of the tents and implements used in the tabernacle to bring the people of God together to worship and glorify God in that time and place. Ultimately, what they were doing in constructing the tabernacle, they were creating a means by which God was able to come and dwell with his people. In Exodus 25, where this section about constructing the tabernacle begins, the Lord tells Moses his intent in all of this, his purpose, he says, “Let them make me a sanctuary [why?], that I may dwell in their midst.” Again, in chapter 29, he says, “I will dwell among [my people] and be their God.”

Now listen, because this is important, and it has everything to do with Christmas: Immanuel, God with us. Our conversations about spiritual gifts are often so wrapped up and focused on what we are able to do in the Spirit—do we ever stop and think about what the Spirit is trying to do in us? God wants to dwell with us.

The first mention of the Holy Spirit in the Bible is in the creation story, the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters, and as God is creating the heavens, the waters, and the earth, then filling each with life, at the end of the creation story he creates humankind and he fills us with his—the word is ruach, it means his breath, or his—Spirit. And Adam and Eve dwell in the garden with God the father filled with his Spirit which fills them with life just as surely as God filled the lands and the seas with this incredible, abounding life. Then here, in Exodus, after sin and fall which separate us from God, we see the Holy Spirit filling these craftsmen all for the same purpose: to restore the relationship between us and our God. He still wants to walk with us, he still wants to fill us with abounding life, he still wants to dwell with us. Through the ages of the people of God, this has been his long work in the same direction.

That word dwell is an important one. Once you learn to see it, you’ll see it all through scripture. It doesn’t mean just to live together, we would probably say something like it means doing life together. In Christianity we believe in God’s omnipresence, but this is something else, something mysterious, except we experience it. Anyone who’s ever had a roommate relationship or a marriage go awry will know the difference between living with someone and dwelling with them, of really doing life together with them. God wants to dwell with us, and the Spirit is doing that work in us. Sanctifying us, empowering us to have God come dwell with us and to bring us to love, to dwell with each other to the Glory of his name.

One of the more helpful things I learned in my time in seminary was something called the doctrine of the economic work, economic in this case in its original sense, not having to do with money, but referring to multiple persons working toward the same ends. The main use of the word in today’s world is the home economics courses offered in some high schools and colleges, as in a family doing different tasks but all toward the same purpose. Annie and I usually use the phrase “team Brian.” She may be taking AJ to gymnastics and watching the baby while I go and cook dinner, different tasks, but all towards the end of raising our family well, sitting down at the table together and sharing a meal each day. We’re a team, and when you’re a team, you often have different roles but your purpose is singular.

The Trinity, God the Father, Son, and Spirit, is the same way. The persons of our God have different roles but the purposes of God are singular. In this passage, what I want you to see is the Holy Spirit’s role in what God the Son, Jesus Christ, accomplished in full in his incarnation on that first Christmas, and in his atoning death which forms the foundation of our forgiveness and love of each other. The Spirit and the Father are also playing a role in God dwelling with us. The spirit sanctifies us and empowers us to be a people among whom God is able to dwell in peace. This is a work the Spirit is doing in us today, too.

Not all of us are craftsmen. Not all of us will speak in tongues, but we all have a role to play in God dwelling with us. In the church today we don’t have a tent of meeting, and we may use the word sanctuary, but in truth there is nothing special about the buildings in which we gather. God dwells in and among his people, his church. We are the stones built up into his temple, we, all of us, are the priests who bring any and every person who will come into the presence of the God of creation, all for his glory, for his name’s sake.

My hope in this series that each of us who are a part of this congregation, this local church which is part of the whole, will consider our own gifts and abilities, be they rc cars, bowls of soup, or speaking in tongues, not so that we can be proud of what we have or can do, but so that we will see and participate in what the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst and in our community. I want us to learn better what it means to love each other, and what it means to love a God who’s desire is to dwell in our midst and in doing so, to fill us with his abounding life.

My brother is a lawyer, and from time to time he’ll do legal things for me—a will, or notarizing something, or writing a strongly worded letter. I always joke with him when I thank him for his legals services that whenever he needs spiritual services, I’m here. The joke is: spiritual services are often not ones we realize we need. We often fail to ask for the things we need and want most desperately, because we don’t know who to ask or what to ask for.

Love is something we need, and we need it from our God and our community as much as we need love from romantic partners. We all know this, but often we don’t know who to ask or what to do when we try to give love. In Peter, in James, in Paul’s writing, all of their passages about loving each other—lofty passages like 1 Corinthians 13 “love is patient and kind, it does not envy or boast” each and every time loving each other is seriously discussed it’s in the context of spiritual gifts.

We need to know how we’re gifted, and we need to learn how to give good gifts to the people around us. And ultimately, we need to find our place in the story of God’s love come down at Christmas. Immanuel, God dwelling with us. If we find these things, even in the midst of a world of loss, we’ll have what we need to fill our lives abundantly and to dwell with one another in harmony. “How wonderful and pleasant” that would be.

Church, my invitation to you this morning is into a full life lived in the community of the church, into love poured out—from Christ, first, covering the multitude of our sins—but also from each other in forgiveness. Community which sanctifies and in which God is able to richly dwell with us. Come.

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