Watch for Light 3

Third Sunday of Advent (yes, I'm a little late.)

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

It's that time of year again ... donation request letters, clothing drives and toy drives and food shelf bins, Santas ringing bells and those folks with the funny hats shaking tins.

Why do we give money or goods to charity at Christmas, anyway? That end-of-the-year tax deduction? Tradition? Because the Magi brought gifts to Jesus? The cold outside, and the fundamental sense that people should, at least, be warm? Or maybe it's because there's something about celebrating that brings out our hospitality, and we don't like the idea of other people lacking food or gifts or a tree. If we're happy, we want to imagine other people happy as well. We may not actually invite them to our table, but we'll make sure they have food on their table. And there's probably at least a little guilt in there too, or maybe just a sense of fairness--if we're going to spend so much on luxuries for ourselves and our kids, it's only right to give some away.

I suspect it's a mixture of all of these, for most of us. I daresay I've never thought of it as a way to prepare for Christmas, a way to prepare my heart, as John says in this week's lectionary reading.

John the Baptist, remember, is the one who came before Jesus, to help people get ready for the Messiah. And this is what he says about how to prepare: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise." I suspect that what he's talking about isn't just a one-time deal, but an ethical shift. A shift in what we think we need, a shift in how we see those around us.

It's easy for me--and a lot of people I know--to get caught up in all the ethics around giving. And it's likewise easy to feel a bit cynical about the solicitation requests ... it all mingles together into a loud voice of marketers and advertisers wanting my money, telling me that I'll be happier and more at peace if I just give them my money.

John, however, is nothing if not direct, and he simply says that if we have two coats, we should give one away. He doesn't promise that it will change someone's life or even that it will make a difference. And there's something about the simplicity of this that is compelling, convicting and hard.

So what does giving have to do with preparing? Everytime we give something away, no mattter how small, we are relinquishing control, letting go of some measure of security, and stepping a bit more into a place of trust and dependence on God. Giving opens our eyes to vulnerability, and this is where God lives, after all. Jesus came and still comes in vulnerability. He comes to the hungry, to the poor, to the needy, and to that place of need inside each of us.

The baking and decorating and merry-making that we do can be wonderful, especially for children. Joy opens us to vulnerability too. But these preparations can so easily become distractions and lists and pressures and end up numbing us to God's presence more than anything. Matt's and my most consistent observation about watching for light? It's easiest to do when you get enough sleep ...

So even if giving money away is already part of your tradition at this time of year, I invite you to think of it not as just one more to-do, but as preparation, as a way to prepare your heart to see God, to watch for light.

And the pictures throughout this post? They are my friend Krissie's, from her several trips to India. She sells these prints as a way to raise money to support various projects in India, from wells to an orphanage. If you still have shopping to do, may I commend to you her website, with lovely prints from India and elsewhere, ready to be framed and hung? She'll be going again in January, and would certainly appreciate the support.

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