Dear saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We all have our gifts. I’m not talking about Christmas presents today, but the gifts that God gives. He gives us our talents, our skills, and our abilities. It is on account of these things that we say a person is gifted. Perhaps they play the piano well, or maybe they can draw nice pictures. It could be that learning and schoolwork come easy to them, or that they have a keen eye for a good bargain. These are all things where we might say that the person has a gift, a special talent or ability above the norm that they didn’t work for any harder than anyone else, but seemed to just fall into their lap, a gift from God.
We can be truly thankful for these gifts, because they give us the opportunity to help other people, or to be helped by them. When we want to sing together, we are blessed to have someone play the piano or organ to lead us and keep us all together. When we want to show the glory of God and the beauty of His creation, we are blessed to have artists who can produce pictures and statues and linens that cause us to contemplate His goodness. When we have to be organized as a family or a church in a world where we want to help others, then we need gifts of leadership and service and knowledge of laws and finances, and wisdom to deal shrewdly but with compassionate hearts.
These gifts also remind us of the great gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, just like Christmas presents are to remind us of God giving us His Son to be our Saviour. Music, and art, and knowledge, and compassion, and service ought to remind us of Jesus. In the Old Testament Lesson, Isaiah prophesies about the Servant of the LORD who would not only bring His people back to Him, but would also “be a light for the nations,” that His salvation would reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6). Jesus is the Servant of the LORD for all nations.
Despite being the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). That was the whole purpose of His coming into the world. So this Suffering Servant declared in the Old Testament reading, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother He named my name” (Isaiah 49:1). We have all been gifted by God from before we were born in order to be of service to one another so that we might point to the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as we serve one another with whatever talents and abilities we have been given.
The LORD said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). King David, feeling like the responsibilities of being king were beyond his abilities, wrote in a psalm, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:13-16).
God set David upon the throne of Israel, not so that Israel would serve David, but so that David would serve Israel. God prepared David for this before he was even born. He did the same with Jeremiah, and of course, with His own Son, Jesus, in the womb of the virgin Mary. He did the same with John the Baptist, of whom the angel Gabriel told Zechariah, “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:15-16). And just so, even from his mother’s womb, John the Baptist leaped for joy when Mary, pregnant with the Christ Child, came to visit his mother Elizabeth (Luke 1:44).
So, in our Gospel reading for today, John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to his disciples and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), a meek lamb to be sacrificed on behalf of others, and not just for the people of Israel, but for the sin of the world. John pointed his disciples to Jesus and away they went. That is how God would have us use our gifts, to point out the gift of His Son and the salvation that He brings for all people.
But that is not always how we use our gifts. Is it? We are not all that eager to send our disciples to follow Jesus. We would rather have them stay and admire us for our gifts, and give their undivided attention to us and not to Him. We would use the gifts we have been given for our own glory, to point to ourselves and say, “Behold, the peacock of God, who takes away whatever you have to offer.”
It is pride that lies behind such sin. We would take credit for the gifts that God has given. It is also fear. We are afraid that our gifts and talents will be useless if they don’t bring us some kind of a return here and now; if they don’t gain us respect and prestige, power over others, and exalt us above the other person.
This was at the heart of the great problems that the apostle Paul had to address in the Christian congregation at Corinth. They were tremendously gifted, and that was the source of all kinds of evil. Paul could thank God for the gifts that He had given to them, saying, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in Him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Corinthians 1:4-7).
But throughout the rest of the letter, sixteen chapters, Paul patiently yet very directly corrects their abuse of these gifts—using them to create divisions in the congregation over which pastor they liked better; excusing gross sexual sins among the gifted members of the congregation; neglecting the poor even in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; using the Divine Service as an opportunity to show off how gifted they were. These are the sins into which we have all too easily fallen. The very gifts that ought to point us to Jesus, we have used to indulge our own sinful pride, and instead of increasing our faith in the Giver of every good and perfect gift, we have given ourselves over to fear, afraid that we might come out the loser in our service to others.
But that is the heart of our Christian Gospel. Jesus gave Himself entirely in service to others. He is the Suffering Servant that the LORD prophesied through Isaiah. He is the Lamb of God to whom John the Baptist pointed. Paul declared to the Corinthian Christians, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).
Jesus came “not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” He came to serve us who have given ourselves over to sin. He came to give His life for us who have been unwilling to give ourselves for others without some kind of kickback or self-serving purpose. Jesus came to be the Lamb of God, sacrificed upon the cross, to take away the sins of the world. That includes your sins. Every one of them, no matter how self-serving they have been.
This is the purpose of the Son of God coming into the world. This is the reason we celebrated Christmas. The gift of a Saviour was given to us, the gift of a sacrifice more than fitting to erase all of our selfish pride and arrogance, to forgive all of our faithlessness and fear.
This is the purpose of God bestowing His gifts upon you. That you might be honoured by Him in your service to others, to point them to Christ; that in your sacrificial giving, in your selfless service, they might catch a glimpse of their Saviour and learn how He gave Himself completely for them.
John the Baptist, gifted preacher of repentance that he was, always pointed others to Jesus, the one coming after him who is mightier, the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. When some of his disciples came and complained that Jesus was also baptizing, John said to them, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). And later, even from prison, when it looked like John the Baptist would not be getting out, he again sent his disciples to Jesus so that they might learn that He is the Christ (Matthew 11:2-6), the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
God, out of His grace, has enriched you in every way, and it is He who will sustain you in Christ Jesus to the end, that you may appear before the judgment seat of God guiltless, free from sin, holy and blameless in Christ Jesus, not because you excelled in using your gifts, but because Jesus died and rose again so that you are forgiven for the misuse of these gifts. Above all it is not in your excellence that you point people to the Lamb of God, but it is in the humble confession of your sin and weakness that you point them to the one who takes away the sin of the world, who takes away your sin.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.