It's a gift. No, really.

Fifth Sunday in Lent

In the name of God, giver of every good gift.  Amen.

A consistent point of both humor and frustration in our house is around giving gifts.  Michael and I have fundamentally different ways of looking at the practice.  Every year, he insists that socks and t-shirts are the perfect Christmas gifts.  I say that they are archetypically bad gifts.  Just look at every Christmas movie ever made: kids gathered around the tree; inevitably one of them will open a gift from an out-of-touch aunt, and what is it?  Socks.

Another point of disagreement is that Michael likes to “drop hints” about what kinds of gifts he’d like.  And I use the term “hints” generously…  He does everything just short of compiling links about where I can buy what he wants online.  But I think one of the biggest parts of the gift is the surprise.  When he tells me what he wants – especially if I’ve already planned to get it – it just spoils the surprise.  To my mind, that takes it off the table as a possible gift.

And I’m sure Michael would tell you, I’m not without my own quirks.  For one – I will NOT suggest gift ideas for him.  My position is that if I’m asking for it, it’s not a gift; it’s a shopping list.  But perhaps the thing that drives him craziest of all, is that it hardly ever even occurs to me to wait for Christmas to see if I might be getting something I want.  If I want it, I tend to just get it.  And I understand – that’s frustrating for him on a couple of levels.  For one thing, there have been more times than I’d care to admit when I open up a package that I’ve ordered from Amazon, only to hear Michael grumbling because now he has to return a present.  But the other side of that is, if I didn’t get it for myself, there’s a decent chance I didn’t want it.  So his task is pretty hard: to find something I want, but don’t know I want.

While we are compatible in innumerable ways, this just isn’t one of them.  We have fundamentally different approaches to giving and receiving gifts.

I was thinking of this in the context of the reading from Jeremiah that we shared this morning.  God is talking about the broken covenant with the Hebrew people, but even so, God maintains hope for the covenant’s renewal.  God says, “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

I think we tend to think of “the law” as a kind of oppressive instrument that stifles us – as something that is meant to shape us into something we’re not; something that stops us of from being our most authentic selves.  But throughout the Bible, and particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures, again and again God refers to the law as a “gift”.  Not like, “you better get on board or you’re gonna regret it.”  More like, “Here’s a map to help you find your way.”

As much as it’s no fun to get a gift that you don’t understand or don’t like, it’s probably even worse to give a gift that isn’t appreciated.  Especially a gift that’s really meant to come from the heart.

Like a lot of you, I’ve heard it said that the God of the Hebrew Bible is an angry God and the God of the Christian Scriptures is a softer, more loving God.  But as I read the stories of the Hebrew people, more and more I’ve become convinced that more than anything it’s a story of God’s cycle of becoming heartbroken by the people God loves, but God still finding a way to renew that love again and again.  At first glance, pieces of the story might read like a horror film, but looking closely, we start to see a story of love that too often languishes, unrequited.

God keeps giving these gifts, but the people keep struggling to understand and appreciate them.

In the Psalm today, we ask God to cleanse us from our sin.  But what is sin in this context?  What is sin if laws aren’t oppressive instruments meant to hold us in line, but gifts from a loving God who longs to show us the way to deeper, more meaningful relationships?

As we approach these days of suffering that are right around the corner, what would it mean for us to see them as gifts from God?  How could we try to see them through the perspective of a God who gives us gifts that we don’t always easily understand, instead of seeing them through our human experience of pain and loss?

Like those Greeks who approached Jesus, we also come to this place, week after week, wishing to see Jesus.  We pray that God’s presence will be known and that it will inspire our lives when we leave here.  But remember: God’s gifts don’t always look the way we’d imagined them.  Sometimes we don’t understand God’s gifts at all.  Sometimes, they look like something other than gifts.

So, if we come here hoping to see Jesus, we should be prepared to be surprised.  We should be prepared to receive a gift we may not even realize we need.  Maybe a gift that, at first, we really don’t want.

Because that’s the promise of Christ.  Not to be a genie in a bottle who will fulfill our every wish on demand, but to be the bearer of God’s unexpected gifts.  To be a companion on this journey that we probably won’t understand, and may not appreciate.

Jesus knows what the coming days hold.  But those who “wish to see Jesus” don’t know what they’re wishing for.  Jesus says, “What?  Should I pray to avoid all that’s coming?  No!  That wouldn’t do anything.  It wouldn’t fulfill my purpose for being here.  I only exist to glorify God’s name in the world, so my only prayer should be to glorify God’s name.”  And God responds, “Yep.  You got it.”

Of course, in the same way that we don’t always really get the point when confronted with God’s gifts, we also don’t always understand when God is talking right into our faces.  God isn’t saying what we expect, and almost never in the ways we expect it.  In this story, words were quoted, but the people gathered around heard something different.  Some thought it was thunder.  Some – getting a little closer, at least – thought it might have been angels; messengers of God.

That’s why listening for God’s will in our lives takes work.  That’s why understanding and embracing God’s gifts in our lives takes time and discernment.

I don’t know how God will speak to you.  The only thing I know is that God will speak to you.  I don’t know what your gifts from God are or will be.  I only know that you have been given gifts and there are more on the way.

Our purpose in this community is to worship God, and to discern God’s interactions with us in this life.  Those are the two things we are all supposed to be doing.  Everything else branches out from that.  And like branches, they need to be upheld by the work and the love of the rest of the community.  If not, we’ll break apart and die.

Michael and I don’t get each other’s ways of giving and receiving gifts.  But we make it work.  With love and supported by our vows, we make it work.

The same can be true for our relationships with God.  We won’t understand everything.  We’re coming at this existence from such different perspectives.  But, if we are upheld by love and the covenants we share, we will make it work.  Amen.