Scripture Text: Titus 3:4-7
You better watch out, you better not cry / Better not pout, I’m telling you why . . . A great transfer of wealth . . . is coming . . . to town. Across the United States, an enormous movement of money will occur in the next few decades. More cash than Santa Claus could ever carry. Trillions of dollars will move from the oldest generation of Americans to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He’s making a list, and checking it twice / Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. You better be nice if you want a part of this inheritance. A gift of money is always appreciated, but our Scripture lesson for this Christmas speaks of another kind of wealth. In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul says that God sent Jesus Christ to be our Savior, “so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (v. 7). Yes, heirs. No Christmas cash, but heirs of an incarnational inheritance. We’re going to get an inheritance of eternal life. Talk about a great wealth transfer, from heaven to earth!
The problem is, many of us are not prepared to handle an inheritance, whether it be earthly or heavenly. Recent studies have found that many heirs quickly dispense with the wealth they have received. They blow through the windfall faster than a kid in a candy store. According to Market Watch (September 3, 2015), a third of the people who received an inheritance had negative savings within two years. “The vast majority of people blew through it quickly,” said Jay Zagorsky, an economist and research scientist at The Ohio State University.
Here’s an experiment for you: Place a small bowl of M&M’s (or your fattening/sugary vice of choice) right within reach. Leave it there all day and then count how many are left at the end of the day.
Think that was a test of self-control? Now try putting a large bowl in the same place. I would venture to guess you’ll end the day with as few left at the bottom of the larger bowl as when you started out with less in a smaller bowl.
Indeed, it’s hard to stop when it seems like you’re hardly making a dent. That’s because we tend to adjust our consumption based on what’s available to us – and I’m not just talking about candy. Many people treat money the very same way.
According to a 2010 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Pittsburgh, the more money you win in the lottery, the more likely you are to end up bankrupt.
So, sadly, the story of many heirs is not a “rags to riches” story; but, rather, it’s a “rags to riches . . . to rags” story. If we’re going to buck this trend, we need to learn how to handle the inheritance of God, one that was delivered to us on the first Christmas morning. Jesus came to bring us salvation, a gift that God offers us “not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy” (v. 5).
Unlike the gifts of Santa Claus, salvation isn’t based on whether you’ve been naughty or nice. Instead, it comes from the “goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” (v. 4). Salvation is generated by the mercy of God, and is available to anyone who trusts in God’s Son, Jesus.
Across the United States, many people are struggling with debt and don’t see any way to rise out of it. They are anxious for an inheritance that will lift their finances from the negative to the positive. In a similar manner, many of us feel mired in sinful and self-destructive behaviors and don’t know how to escape them. Our sins feel similar to a crushing financial burden, which is why many versions of The Lord’s Prayer include the line, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
We don’t want to blow through the blessing, but we need help. Whether our struggles are financial or spiritual, we are looking for an inheritance to lift us out of trouble.
God’s salvation is the help we need, designed to save us from our sins. God forgives us our debts, and wipes our slate clean from the burden of sin. God saves us from the endless struggles of this life, promising us an endless life in heaven. And God does this according to his mercy, not because of any works of righteousness that we have done. All we have to do is to trust in God’s Son, Jesus, the one God sent to bring us forgiveness and new life. What an inheritance we have received. A gift named Jesus, more valuable than any transfer of cash.
One of the ways that we can better handle our inheritances from God is to remember we are Christmas children! We are children of God! The Christmas birth makes this possible! Whenever we face challenges in life, we can remember that we are Christmas kids! We’re much more likely to waste our spiritual inheritance if we forget that we are baptized children of God, eternally connected to our brother, Jesus Christ. Remembering that we are forgiven, reborn and renewed can help us to hold on to the precious gift of salvation that God has given us.
We are heirs of God as well, challenged to handle our inheritances in a responsible way. We don’t want to blow them like so many recipients of financial windfalls today. Jesus should not be treated like so many other Christmas gifts, treasured when first opened, but then soon thrown into a closet and forgotten. Instead, we can see the value of Jesus all through the year, as we trust him to continue to give us forgiveness, rebirth, renewal and eternal life.
But what difference does a spiritual focus really make? According to recent research, it makes a huge difference. The Atlantic magazine (May 6, 2016) reports that researchers followed a group of HIV-positive men and women over the course of 17 years and found that “people who engaged in spiritual practices and thinking had a greater rate of survival than people who did not – two to four times greater, in fact.”
And what did they mean by spiritual practices and thinking? Practices such as praying, meditating and attending religious services; thinking, such as being grateful to God, or believing that God would forgive them for wrongdoing. In other words, the kinds of practices and thinking that go along with believing that you are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
What is Christmas spirituality? It’s remembering that God became human. It’s understanding that the Son of God became one of us. It is believing that we are not children of darkness but children of light. It’s rejoicing in the gifts with which God blesses us every day. It’s living in an aura of gratitude for the grace that has “appeared to all.”
The research suggests that “the way people think about the meaning of their lives and their relationship with God can have a positive effect on their health, even when they’re living with a chronic, progressive disease.” That’s a good reason to reevaluate at Christmas how we’re spending the money, how we’re living our lives and how we’re handling the inheritance.
So, what do we do now with our Christmas windfall? Well, we can also preserve our inheritances by investing them. In the verses that follow today’s passage, Paul recommends that people who are heirs of God should “avoid stupid controversies” and “be careful to devote themselves to good works” (vv. 8, 9). What are some “stupid controversies” which we should avoid? Think about it! What stupid things are we arguing about right now which, in light of the Incarnation, are pretty silly?
In addition, Paul says people who are heirs of God should “be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (v. 8). He doesn’t say that we should devote ourselves to theological debates or arguments over the hot topic of the day. As important as such topics are, they are not excellent and profitable to everyone. Our energy should go into activities that are the most beneficial to the greatest number of people.
Such good works are listed by Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. [If] your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. [Do] not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:13, 20-21).
These good works are excellent and profitable to everyone. And since we preserve an inheritance by investing it and making it profitable, Paul’s advice brings us back to where we started, to thoughts of a great transfer of wealth. The message of Christmas isn’t that we should simply receive the gift of Jesus, but we should share it with people around us.
After all, in the end, the best way to handle an inheritance is to share it with others.