"Gifts to Share"#90-20
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 15, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Colossians 1:29
In ancient times, it was called the Sea of Arabah. Situated in the desert, its enchanting turquoise waters are all the more striking against the barren background, the bleak wall of mountains on its shoreline. These remarkable waters of the Arabah are said to have healing powers. For millennia, kings and queens and many others have made pilgrimages there, seeking a remedy for their ailments.
Even today, hostels, hotels, five-star spas host hundreds of visitors, tourists from all over the world. They've come to see this natural wonder and to float in the renowned waters of the Arabah.
English speakers call it the Dead Sea. In Hebrew it's known as the Salt Sea. In terms of mineral content, it is the heaviest water on earth and the saltiest, about 10 times saltier than ocean water, which is why a person doesn't so much as swim it, but float, bobbing in the warm water like a cork.
From a distance, the dead sea looks like a tropical oasis. But looks can be deceiving. According to one person who was familiar with the area, but definitely not related to anyone on the local tourism board, he said, "The water there is bitter and distasteful to the mouth, painful to the eyes, oily to the touch, and a certain and speedy reminder of all abrasions of the skin."
From the surrounding hills, however, with the morning or evening sun over one's shoulder, the water takes on a deep and beautiful blue deceptively suggestive of refreshment, which it does not afford.
These turquoise blue waters of the Dead Sea have much in common with those of the Sea of Galilee, 60 miles to the north. Both bodies of water are on the borderlands of Israel. Both are mentioned in the Bible. They're both called seas, but in fact, our landlocked lakes, and together they are the first and second lowest-elevation lakes in the world, and they're both fed by the same river, the Jordan River. These two lowest-lying lakes have much in common, but there is one critical difference: in the Sea of Galilee, water flows in and out; in the Dead Sea, water only flows in. The Dead Sea has no outflow. It just takes and takes and takes. Nothing flows out of it because at roughly 1,400 feet below sea level, it is the lowest place on earth. Seven-hundred feet lower than the second-lowest lake, 60 miles north in Galilee. In the Dead Sea, water can only get out by evaporation, which makes the water that remains so heavy.
And that's why in the tepid waters of the Arabah, aside from some strains of bacteria, nothing lives. Nothing can live, which is how it got its name in English. And Arabic speakers put it a bit more bluntly. They call it the "Sea of Death."
Now, if we were to personify these two bodies of water, you'd probably agree that we would all be better to be more like the Sea of Galilee. That body doesn't just take in, it flows out of itself. And in doing so, strangely, by giving itself away, by letting go of itself, by dying to itself, it lives. It gives life, supports life. The Sea of Galilee is teaming with life, with 20 some species of fish and a host of other forms of marine life. And for thousands of years has supported generations of fishing villages. And on your best days, I'm guessing you aspire to a life like that. Nobody wants to be the Dead Sea.
You don't want to be a lifeless sinkhole. You don't want to be a drain on other people. You don't want to be a burden. You'd like to be of some service, of some inspiration, or even just to lend a hand and offer some refreshment. It seems like we were designed to be more like the Sea of Galilee with energy flowing in and out and under the surface, teeming with vibrant life.
But if you're anything like me, sometimes you find yourself in a low place. Too often I find myself about 1,400 feet below sea level, walled in, stuck in myself with nothing to give, floating aimlessly on the surface of a sea of death. It's not a good place to be. It doesn't feel good when we experience it. It feels lonely and bitter and heavy and oily, and it's not how things should be. But too often it's what we experience.
So, what is our deal? What's our problem? Why is it like this with us? And how could things be different?
Now, if you ask these questions to ten people on the street, I'm guessing you'd get ten different answers. However, I think that those answers would fall into at least two categories. Two categories, one set of answers would more or less say, try harder. They'd say, "Try harder. Don't be such a downer. Try contributing, not just consuming. Make something of yourself. Make something of your life. Use what you've been given to make the world a better place. Try a little harder," some would say. Another set of answers would tell you, "Just keep floating, dude. Life is short. We're all going to die anyway. Take everything you can get. Enjoy as much as you can, get while you can get it. And then float off into the sunset on this deceptively suggestive, but ultimately unrefreshing, sea of death."
Those are two kinds of answers that you would get to these big questions about life. Try harder or just keep floating. And each of them has a measure of truth. The try harder answer speaks to a deep sense that we all have that we were made for something more than just a dead sea existence. We aren't supposed to be lifeless, bottomless, sinkholes. And we all yearn for a vibrant inner life, for energy flowing in and out, blessed to be a blessing. And yet just to keep floating also sounds compelling because people have been trying hard for ages and nothing seems really to be working. Our efforts to make the world a better place, seem to be receding. Receding like my hairline was 15 years ago, receding like the waters of the Dead Sea.
Did you know that the waters of the Dead Sea are receding at an alarming rate? It's dropped over 100 feet in 50 years. Good grief, even the Dead Sea is dying. And for many, it's a sign of worse things to come for that region and for the world. And even if this global catastrophe isn't as close as some people think it is, it's still the case that even the best of us, those who try the hardest, still struggle under the surface with a spiritual baldness—barren of real and lasting life. Try harder. Just keep floating. Two answers to our deepest questions that speak some truth to our situation, but mostly just rub salt in the wound.
There's a third way to respond to our questions. It comes from the ancient Hebrew prophecy pertaining to those waters in the Arabah wilderness. Two thousand six hundred years ago, a Jewish priest named Ezekiel was taken away from his home in Jerusalem into exile. As a priest, it was Ezekiel's job to serve in the temple in Jerusalem. For the Jewish people, the people of Israel, the temple was the place where their God, the Creator of heaven and earth, came to dwell with His people, came to do something remarkable for His people. The temple was a picture of a restored Garden of Eden. Eden, the book of Genesis tells us was a microcosm, the place where God dwells with humanity, where heaven meets earth, where the Creator pours His blessings into His people so that blessing would flow out to others.
But long ago, Genesis tells us, that bond of trust between God and humanity was lost. And now humanity tries to take God's blessings and use them for ourselves, for our own advantage, for our own interest. We still want the inflow of God's energy but not the outflow of trust and love of God.
And amazingly, even stuck in ourselves, we humans are still a natural wonder. Like the Dead Sea, you are a natural wonder, and so is every person you meet because God keeps pouring in. He doesn't just cut us off. With every breath, take in every skill, acquired every gift given, God keeps pouring fresh life and energy and blessings into us. And so human beings continue to do great things. We still attract visitors to marvel at our wonders. We still bless and refresh our neighbors. But under the surface, without the outflow of faith in God, we are at best, deceptively suggestive of refreshment we cannot afford.
But the temple, the temple in Israel was a sign of the promise that God would not let this situation stand forever. He would come to dwell with us. First in Israel and from there flowing out into all the earth. But in Ezekiel's day, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. And Ezekiel and his people had been marched across the Arabah wilderness into exile. And then it happened 25 years after going into exile, God gave Ezekiel a vision. Ezekiel saw a figure of a new temple: God Himself dwelling among his people. Ezekiel saw water flowing from the side of the temple. From the temple's side, it was going out east of Jerusalem toward the Arabah and the trickling water became a river. And the Lord God told Ezekiel, "Son of man, this water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah and it enters the Salt Sea. And when the water flows into that sea, those waters will be healed. And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live. And there will be many fish because this water goes there. So the waters of the dead sea will be healed" (Ezekiel 47:8-9).
Now, all four of the ancient New Testament biographies of Jesus of Nazareth report the remarkable events that ensued with Jesus' death on the cross. And one of those biographers, John in his Gospel, reports a small detail with remarkable significance. When the soldiers came to the cross to make sure Jesus was dead, one of them took his spear and pierced Jesus' side, bringing on a flow of blood and water—water flowing from His side.
Now earlier, John had reported how Jesus had foretold the moment of His death. "When the Jews in Jerusalem questioned Jesus about His authority and demanded of Him a sign, Jesus said, 'Destroy this temple. And in three days, I will raise it up.' The Jews there said to Him, 'It has taken 46 years to build this temple and You will raise it up in three days?' Now, they were referring to the wood and stone temple built by human hands. But the temple Jesus was speaking of was His body.
And after Jesus rose from the dead, His disciples remembered how He had said this, and they believed the Scriptures and the word Jesus had spoken" (John 2).
They believed, and I believe Jesus is the new temple, the fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy, the Source of healing water. And I'm speaking to you today because I'm a follower of the risen Jesus Christ. He baptized me in that water with His Word, and He sent me to speak to you today because He's coming again one day to bring the full flood of the physical and spiritual healing God had promised. And He's got a better response for you to your deepest questions. It's not try harder. It's not just keep floating, but be baptized. Be healed because that water, that life that flows from Jesus' side, will heal you.
He will restore you because you were created to be part of His body, a gift with gifts to share, blessed to be a blessing, God's life flowing in, faith and love flowing out. That's why you were created. You were not made to float in a lifeless pool of your personal desire. And you don't have the power to make yourself into what you know you ought to be. But you can be healed. You can be healed because Jesus died just outside the geographically lowest place on earth and spiritually He descended into the deepest, most lifeless sinkhole for you. And He rose from the dead to restore that outlet of faith in God and love for your neighbor that you need to truly live. You are a gift with gifts to share. You have His energy flowing through you. You can say with Paul, one of Jesus' earliest followers, you can say as he said in Colossians 1:29, "I Labor, struggling with all His energy, which He so powerfully works within me."
I visited a man who was dying in a nursing home. His name was John. He was a member at my church. I knew John for four years. And in that time, I learned that he was a wonderfully gifted man with many gifts to share. He had artistic gifts. He was skilled at drawing. We have a framed pencil drawing of his hanging in a prominent place in our home. It's so good that you'd think it was an old photograph. John was an artist and a musician, mostly self-taught. He learned to play the piano and the pipe organ, served part-time as the organist and choir director for our church for 60 years. John was skilled at home repair, and he taught English as a second language to new immigrants. And when his wife suffered from dementia for the last ten years of her life, John proved to be a skilled in-home caregiver. And all this on top of a successful professional career.
Shortly before he died, John told me how at the pinnacle of his professional life, he had been the top regional salesman for his company. So, I'm sitting there next to his bedside on the third floor of the nursing home, and he tells me, "Pastor, I brought in so much business for them. They had to hire new people. They couldn't keep up. Yeah, I was good. Now, here I am in this little room."
John was a gifted man, but he wasn't enough on his own. In that little room, there was no trying harder. And left to himself all he could do was float like you and I do, drifting somewhere between life and death, but by faith in Jesus and hope in the resurrection, John still has gifts to share because God still has more to give.
Until the day he died, I saw the life of Jesus flowing through John, pouring into other people, uplifting nurses with a kind word or cracking them up with a corny joke or blessing the people who came to visit him. Because there in that little room, God's life was still flowing through John and is now in the Name of Jesus flowing to you. And not even a sea of death can stop it. Amen.
Reflections for January 15, 2023
Title: Gifts to Share
Mark Eischer: Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today I'm visiting again with Don Everts, the author of the book, Discover Your Gifts. Welcome back Don.
Don Everts: Great to be with you, Mike.
Mike Zeigler: Don, in the book you said that this new research from Barna on giftedness suggests that we as Christians might have a too narrow focus on spiritual gifts. How have you experienced this in working in the church?
Don Everts: Yeah, I mean the research is unambiguous. When we research with pastors and church leaders, when you're talking about giftedness and the gifts God has given people, what do you talk about? Most of the time, Mike, they're talking about spiritual gifts. Very rarely are they talking about what you could call creational gifts or common gifts. Gifts that God implants into every human He makes, whether they're Christian or not. And that has consequences.
I remember working with this one college student named Chris, this was when I was back in Boulder, Colorado, doing campus ministry. And when he was about to graduate, he came to me and said, "I want to go on staff with you. I want to do campus ministry." And Mike, we had a series of four or five really awkward conversations because he was like this incredibly gifted, loyal, sacrificial, servant-hearted guy, a gifted engineer. He was majoring in engineering. He had this great engineering mind, this great rational mind. And he was undervaluing that and saying, "I don't want to do anything with engineering because the only thing that matters is doing ministry and campus ministry because that's what you talk about all the time."
And what was so sobering for me, Mike, was how many conversations it took with him for me to unwind what I had unconsciously taught him. Namely, there's all sorts of gifts that God gives people, not just spiritual gifts. And He gives those to us so that we will use them for the common good and to bless society around us and advance the Kingdom. And it took a while for him to see that about himself.
Mike Zeigler: On that distinction between spiritual gifts and creational or common gifts, someone pointed out to me that they're, you know, we've got the Great Commission in the New Testament. Someone pointed out that there is a first commission, a Genesis 1 commission of "Take care of the creation." And so we have all humans equipped with first-commission gifts to take care of their neighbors and the creation. And then those who receive the Holy Spirit by faith in Jesus also have a plus-up of spiritual gifts to accomplish that Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations. And God cares deeply about both sets of gifts, and we shouldn't put them in a hierarchy of one over the other.
Don Everts: I love that language. I love thinking about it in that way that we have a first commission and to pursue the common good, to love our neighbors, to lead our households, to ply our trade. All those things matter to God. And that's why it's important for us to not ignore all these other gifts God has given us because He gave them to us for a reason: so that we would use them. And so it's important that we—that's why we titled the book Discover Your Gifts because we feel like that's something that we need help doing is discovering all of our gifts.
Mike Zeigler: So tell us more about that title. This is clearly addressing those unnoticed gifts. So it's not discover your spiritual gifts in the context of this book. It's discovering those creational first-commission gifts.
Don Everts: We need to help people recapture these things. And so the research actually led to us developing what we call the "EveryGift Inventory." And so this is a list of a dozen different of creational gift types. And we created kind of research-based inventory so people can go in—they can do this for free actually—and just answer a series of questions about their experiences, about what other people notice about them, about what they've noticed about themselves. And then it kind of indicates you may have giftings in these different areas.
And that EveryGift Inventory, I mean the funny thing, Mike, is I helped develop it, right? Because I was on the team that was working with the research and developing these things, and towards the end, one of our colleagues, Ashley said, "Don, will you go into the computer? Will you go take it? Kind of to test just the technical side of things." And I did, and the results, when I sat looking at the results, it kind of floored me. Because I was kind of re-reminded of giftings that I had, that I actually wasn't using. And I remember times in my past when I had used them more and they had kind of gone dormant.
So that convinced me how powerful a tool this is because I helped create the tool and yet just trying it out for size helped me discover or rediscover gifts that I have. And it led to changes in my life because I realized, "Yeah, God's given me these gifts, and I need to be faithful with them."
Mike Zeigler: I had the same experience when I took the survey. There was, I think you mentioned in the book that you scored higher in communication and things like that. And same for me, but there's this other technical gifts. I was trained as an engineer in college, so I have these technical gifts that I don't think about as much. So that inventory helped me realize, rediscover them.
And so if you're listening and you want to take this inventory that Don mentioned, it's just everygift.org. It's a free survey. It takes about 20 minutes or so, you get a printout of all your gifts, and go check it out, and also Don's book, Discover Your Gifts. See what God has given you for pursuing the common good in your station in life.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Take My Life, O Lord, Renew" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"The Only Son from Heaven" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.