This morning I'd like to take a few minutes with you to look at how you can know if you really understand Christmas.
The fact that you're here in church a couple of days before Christmas probably means that you understand the facts about Christmas. Most of us know a lot of the Christmas story found in the Bible: that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and she had a son before she ever had intimate relations with a man; that angels appeared to various people to tell them about the significance of this birth; that eastern astrologers came to pay homage to this baby born in a feeding trough. But just because you know the facts of Christmas doesn't mean that you really understand Christmas.
If you don't consider yourself to be someone who understands or buys into this, then that's okay. But it's not fair to give you this test, even though I'd love for you to listen because what I'm about to describe is what you should expect of people who follow Jesus Christ. So I invite you to listen and to think about it and consider if what I'm going to say makes sense if you believe what Christians say about the Christmas story. You can even hold us accountable.
I want to talk very briefly about a simple test that we can all give ourselves to see if we understand Christmas. It's found in the passage that we just read in 2 Corinthians 8. Let me give you the test, and then explain where I got it from.
Here's the simple test: You know you understand Christmas if it motivates you to give generously to the poor.
Let me say that again: You know you understand Christmas if it motivates you to give generously to the poor. If you understand Christmas, you will be generous with the poor. If you aren't generous with the poor, it shows that you don't understand Christmas at all.
That's a pretty audacious statement to make. Let me give you a bit of background. The church that Paul writes to, the church in Corinth, was a relatively wealthy church in a world in which a lot of people didn't have very much. When Paul wrote this letter, there was really no such thing as a middle class. Just over 1 out of every 10 people lived well. 70% of the population in the Mediterranean at that time was at or below the subsistence level – most of them below. When Paul wrote this letter, "dirt poor" was not just a saying. Most of the people in that day were literally dirt poor. One writer who lived around this time described it this way: "Toiling and moiling from morning till night, doubled over their tasks, they merely eke out a bare existence."
When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, there was a special need among the Christians in Jerusalem. We don't know why. It could have been a result of persecution or bad harvests. All we know is that things were in bad shape, and the church in Jerusalem needed help.
So Paul faced the same situation that we face today. We are, in a lot of ways, like the Corinthians. We may not feel like it, but we are the "have's". For whatever reason, we live in a country where there is lots of opportunity, and we have a lot compared to the rest of the world.
Paul was trying to raise money to help, just like we're trying to do for the water project. Others are in need. In Paul's day, the need was for money to help with food. Today, the need we're focusing on the need for water for the 1.1 billion people who don't have any clean water. If you took the number of people who are in this building right now and multiplied it by 200, that is the number of people who are going to die today from water born diseases.
How do you raise money among the relatively rich to help those who have next to nothing? It's interesting what Paul doesn't do.
He doesn't once mention money. In this entire passage he doesn't use any of the Greek words for money. It's unbelievable. Money isn't the issue.
He doesn't whip up human sympathy for a project. Nothing wrong with talking about the suffering of people as a way to highlight a need, but he doesn't do that.
He doesn't make people feel guilty that they have money that others need.
And lastly, he doesn't encourage them to give so that they'll gain social prestige or get anything out of giving.
Here's what he does. He reminds them of God's grace. He says that if they really understand God's grace, then generosity is the necessary outcome. Christian giving is more than a display of compassion. It's more than a readiness to help those in distress, as good as that is. Christian giving is always a response to God's grace, demonstrated in the Christmas story. If we understand, really understand, the Christmas story, we'll respond with generosity to those in need. If we aren't generous to those in need, it shows that we don't understand Christmas at all.
Just a few highlights from this passage. In the first 7 verses, Paul describes a group of churches that did get it. They were the churches of Macedonia, that included Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. You know what's interesting about these churches? Verse 2 says that they were experiencing a severe trial and extreme poverty. These churches weren't generous because they had a lot. They were generous and gave beyond their abilities and beyond expectation, and actually pleaded with Paul for the privilege of giving, because of "overflowing joy". They didn't just give money; verse 5 says that they gave "themselves first of all to the Lord," and this resulted in generosity.
What causes a group of poor people to plead for the privilege of giving beyond what is reasonable or expected to help other people? There's only one expectation: they understood God's grace.
Then in verses 8 to 15 Paul turns to the relatively rich Corinthians and says, "Isn't it about time that you completed your collection to help the poor in Jerusalem?" But he doesn't appeal, as I said, to sympathy, or to guilt, or to prestige. He doesn't even mention money. What he does mention is Christmas, because he knows that if you really understand Christmas, then radical generosity is the necessary outcome.
Read verses 8-9:
I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
What will make us generous? Verse 9 tells us: really getting Christmas. When we really understand that the Lord Jesus Christ gave up the riches and glory and honor that was his in heaven, gave all of that up, and came to earth and lived poorly, humbly, and died shamefully for our sakes; when we grasp that the pre-existing Lord of glory became poor by choosing to accept our earthly life; when we really understand Christmas, how could we not follow his example and be generous? If Christ gave up that much for us, how could we not give up mere money to help others in need?
J. B. Phillips tells the story of a young angel being shown the splendors and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. The little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored.
He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
"I want you to watch that one particularly," said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
"Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel. "What's special about that one?"
"That," replied his senior solemnly, "is the Visited Planet."
"Visited?" said the little one. "you don't mean visited by