The Real Work of Christmas: Feeding the Hungry, Freeing the Captive


The Real Work of Christmas: Feeding the Hungry, Freeing the Captive
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
January 24, 2016
Joel 2:18–22

Then the Lord became jealous for his land,
  and had pity on his people. 
In response to his people the Lord said:
I am sending you
  grain, wine, and oil,
  and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
  a mockery among the nations. 

I will remove the northern army far from you,
  and drive it into a parched and desolate land,
its front into the eastern sea,
  and its rear into the western sea;
its stench and foul smell will rise up.
  Surely he has done great things! 

Do not fear, O soil;
  be glad and rejoice,
  for the Lord has done great things! 
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
  for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
  the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 

Today, we are on our second in a sermon series planned by James Kjorlaug, who is a student at Duke Divinity School. Now last Sunday you may have heard that James became a father! Henry, his first child, was born on the Tuesday just before he was to be induced. And also last Sunday you heard that I applauded James for coming up with a series that challenged all the Christ Church preachers—a series aimed toward all of us having a missional lifestyle, based on Joel and a wonderful poem by the late Howard Thurman. Here’s the poem:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.

One aim that the preaching pastors have is that this poem becomes as beloved as a favorite Christmas carol. More, we also hope it is a poem you seek to “flesh out” in your life.

And James chose the prophet Joel as our Biblical background. Joel was written about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Its context is that an incredibly destructive plague of locusts had devoured everything in Israel. This was followed by a drought so severe that the priests couldn’t make the proper offering in the temple to keep Israel’s covenant with God. God was angered with the people for not following God’s ways and was going to end it all for Israel by sending the “Lord’s Army” from the north to complete the destruction of the drought and locusts. And then, last week, we heard a word of grace: If the people gathered in contrition, in a solemn assembly that nothing could keep them from, and if the priests cried and prayed to God, God would spare his people and restore the covenant.

And that brings us to today’s passage. The people have turned to God, the priests have offered their prayers, and God does two things as evidence of his grace: He delivers the people from the destruction from the north and restores the bounty of the crops and land. Indeed, God set the nation held free and fed the hungry, which is our “work of Christmas” missions focus today. Let’s think about this together.

First, nearly all of us are captive to something, aren’t we?

In India, where baby elephants are trained, control is established while the elephant is very small. A chain is placed around the baby elephant’s leg and attached to a three-foot iron stake, which is driven into the ground. Therefore for several days the baby elephant pulls and tugs and strains against the stake and the chain, but he is too small to dislodge it. Soon he is convinced, by this experience, that the three-foot stake and chain have the power to bind him. He no longer attempts to pull free. Ten years later, when the elephant is fully grown—weighing thousands of pounds, capable of uprooting trees, pushing or pulling a loaded railway car—he can still be held by a three-foot stake! Yet, if that stake were as big around and planted as deep as a telephone pole, he could easily uproot it!

How do the stake and chain hold the elephant? It’s pretty simple: The past has invaded the elephant’s present. And that’s the root of many of the ways we humans are held captive, isn’t it? Some were raised in less than loving homes and are held captive by that. Others have made dire mistakes and can’t move beyond them. Some have had massive failure in their business or family life and are afraid of what tomorrow brings. So, what is the stake in your life?

Is it unresolved anger? Is it anxiety? Is it financial difficulty? Is it low self-confidence? Is it depression? Is it fear?

Think about it for a moment: what is your stake?

What is it that is holding you down and stopping you from becoming the person God wants you to be?[1] Our passage teaches that God sets God’s people free! The Israelites had been held captive by locusts, famine, drought, and impending destruction by the northern army. God set them free and will do the same for us—through our turning to God prayer, trust, and obedience; through wise counseling and loving Christian support.

But more than just our individual liberation, our missional heritage as United Methodists is one of caring for those who are locked in prisons made of concrete and steel. Wesley, even in his university days at Oxford, visited people in prison on a weekly basis. He took the words of Jesus, “I was in prison and you visited me” very seriously. More, he spent much time on his day’s equivalent of death row. But he didn’t stop with visitation and proclaiming the gospel. Wesley worked to reform prisons so they would actually reform people’s lives. The greatest person working for prison reform in Wesley’s day was John Howard. Howard said his greatest inspiration for his work was from a sermon of John Wesley. It is fitting that the statues to both men stand side by side at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. What this means is, caring for the prisoner is our heritage; this is who we are. Wesley went so far as publicly calling for better care for the most despised prisoners of his day, his days’ Guantanamo prisoners—captive French soldiers from the Seven Years’ War. He did this because he believed it was the right thing to do, despite being a very unpopular thing to do. Wesley’s fear was that the Methodists just become another dead sectarian group that look like fine white tombs on the outside but contain only bones, not heart, on the inside. Perhaps we can learn something of our spiritual DNA from his willingness to take unpopular stands.[2]

Here’s a practical way for you to make a missions difference: pray for, support financially and consider being trained by Disciple Bible Outreach Ministries. This United Methodist ministry, started in NC, is now in five states and has a simple premise—that teaching Disciple Bible Study in prisons is life changing. There are 30,000 folks incarcerated in NC and more than 90 percent of them will live in our communities again. What a wonderful way to equip folks: prayer, fellowship, and Bible study. On April 9, at Jamestown UMC they are certifying folks to teach Disciple, and then in the fall, certifying folks to teach in correctional institutions. Many of you have been on Pilgrimage or the Walk to Emmaus; both have joined together to offer an experience to prisoners called Kairos Prison Ministry. All of us can support the Disciple Bible Study ministry when the conference takes a special offering for them in the summer.  

Our real work of Christmas poem calls for us to feed the hungry. Our passage from Joel shows the divine origin of this! God restored the land from the drought, famine and locusts devastation. Indeed, God sent grain, wine, and oil, caused the rains to return and green the wilderness and fill the fruit and fig trees.

A couple of months ago, Alice and I facilitated a group study on Christian practices. In it, one of the video presenters, a young minister named Shane Claiborne, made a statement that has stuck with me: “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Shane, I’ve since found out, attributes this quote to Gandhi.[3] What he means is that our loving Creator has designed the world for there to be enough in it for everyone to have their needs met, but greed has interfered with God’s design. I believe the answer to greed can be found in Wesley’s way of living. You’ve heard it plenty of times: earn all you can through honest work; save all you can through living as simply as possible; then, give all you can for the work of the Kingdom. And many do this at Christ Church. We have numerous, multiple ministries to feed the hungry. Food drives for GUM, Helping Hands for Hunger, and backpack ministries among many. Visit our Christ Church webpage and look under the tab that says serve. On the last Sunday of this month we’ll have a missions fair in the Gathering Space and hope to have an entire area dedicated to hunger ministries. Make plans now to stop by this area and find out how you can help.

God set the beleaguered people of Israel free; God provided food for the hungry nation. God does the same for us, setting us free and providing for our needs. And in our missions life at Christ Church, we too can be about the real work of Christmas, feeding the hungry and setting people free.

Sharing Starters:

  • Share with your group some of your observations about ways people are held captive.
  • Share with your group about a time when you believe God set you free from some form of captivity.
  • Share with your group if you’ve had any experience in ministry in a jail or prison.
  • Share with your group about your favorite ministry that “feeds the hungry.”

[1] Bauer, Louis P.