Tony Campolo likes to tell the story about traveling from Pennsylvania to Honolulu, Hawaii, for a speaking engagement. One of the problems with traveling across the continental US, and then across the Pacific to Hawaii, is getting used to the time difference, you get tired earlier, and you wake up early for a few days till you get used to it. The bottom line is that for a while, 3 a.m. feels like 9:00 a.m., so you’re wide awake when most of the city is still sound asleep. Tony said he not only wakes up early, but he also wakes up hungry! So here he is, walking around the streets of Honolulu at three o’clock in the morning, looking for a place to eat. He finally finds a little joint down a side street that brought new meaning to the phrase “Greasy Spoon.” But it was the only place open, so he took a seat at the counter and waited to be served. Finally, a big guy comes out from the back and says, “Whaddaya want?” Tony says he’d like a coffee and a donut. So Tony sits alone, munching on a donut, in the middle of the night, in this all-nite-diner, down a side street in downtown Honolulu. Then, right at 3:30, suddenly, the door to the diner swings open, and in walk, eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.
Tony got pretty uncomfortable as the place was tiny, so they all took up seats and the counter all around him. He finished his breakfast and got ready to make his escape when he overheard one of the women sitting next to him say to another girl, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be thirty-nine.”
Her friend responded in a kind of nasty tone, “So, what do you want from me? A medal? You want me to make a cake and sing happy birthday, and throw a big party? Sheesh!”
“Come on,” said the woman sitting next to him, “I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I don’t want anything from you; I was just telling you, that’s all. I don’t need anyone to throw me a birthday party; I’ve never had one my whole life. Why should I start now?”
When Tony heard that, he made a quiet decision. He waited till all the women had left, and then he called to the guy behind the counter and said, “Do those ladies come in here every night?” “Yeah.” The man said.
“The one sitting next to me, does she come in here every night?”
“Yeah.” He said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanna know?”
“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say about you and I doing something about that? What do you think about us throwing a party for her, right here, tomorrow night?” Campolo said.
Well, Harry was all over the idea; his wife came out from the back just as excited as Harry. She said, “You know, Agnes is one of those people who are nice and kind, and nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her.”
So Tony made plans to be back the next morning at 2:30 a.m. armed with decorations, and Harry and his wife planned to make a great big birthday cake.
The next morning Tony comes into the diner with all kinds of crepe-paper decorations and a big sign that says, “Happy Birthday Agnes!” In a few minutes, the old Greasy Spoon was looking good! Somehow word had gotten around because, by about 3:15, every prostitute in Honolulu was crowded into the diner. It was wall to wall prostitutes, plus Tony, Harry, and Harry’s wife.
Then, at 3:30 on the dot, in walks Agnes and her friend. Everyone was ready, and they all screamed, “Happy Birthday!”
Agnes was completely taken by surprise and overwhelmed. Her mouth fell open; her legs buckled, and her friend grabbed her arm to steady her, and helped Agnes to a stool at the counter. Then everyone sang Happy Birthday to Agnes. Just as they got to the end, singing, “Happy Birthday, dear Agnes, Happy Birthday to you!”
Agnes’s eyes were moist from tears as the doors to the kitchen swung open, and out walked Harry with this gigantic Birthday cake, complete with candles burning on top. At the sight of this, Agnes just lost it, and she started crying openly.
Harry grumbled, “C’mon Agnes, blow out the candles; we all want some cake.” But she couldn’t do it. Finally, Harry had to blow out the candles, and then he said, “Okay Agnes, here’s a knife, cut the cake, c’mon, we all want a bite of this cake.”
And Agnes looked down at the cake, and all the frosting lace and flowers, and her name as big as could be, “Happy Birthday Agnes” there is bright pink frosting, and she slowly said, “Look Harry, uh, would it be alright if I… I mean, would it be okay if I, you know, could I not cut it for a while, could I, well, could I keep it for a few minutes?
Harry shrugged his shoulders and said, “Hey, it’s your cake, wait as long as you want, take the whole thing home if you want.”
And Agnes’s eyes brightened even more, and she said, “Can I? I live down the block. I could take it home and be right back, honest.”
And she carefully picked up the cake like it was made of crystal or something, and walked slowly out the door, and everyone just stood there in stunned silence.
Not knowing what else to do, Tony broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?” Even as he did, he thought, “In my wildest dreams, who would have imagined a professor from Pennsylvania leading an impromptu prayer meeting with a diner full of prostitutes in downtown Honolulu in the middle of the night – but it just seemed like the right thing to do.” So he prayed for Agnes, for her salvation, and that God would be good to her.
When he finished, Harry leaned over the counter and said, with a trace of hostility in his voice, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
And Tony said that it was just one of those moments when the right words come to you at the right time, and he said, “I belong to a church that throws parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry paused a moment and grinned and said, “No, you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there were, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”
(Anthony Campolo, “The Kingdom of God is a Party” © 1990, Word Books)
Hey, I’d join a church like that too, because that’s the kind of church Jesus came to create. I don’t know where we’ve gotten the idea for this other one, but the church Jesus designed was composed of people whose list of priorities started with God and others, and way down the list, if it made it to the list at all, are their comforts, desires, and securities.
They are a people who live simply, who give generously, and who love deeply.
They would be a people much like their God who loved so deeply that He gave a gift too wonderful for words, His very own Son, a part of Himself.
And Jesus didn’t come for people who think they already have it all together. He came for people whose lives are falling apart. He didn’t come for the strong; He came for the weak—He came to seek and save those who are lost.
And I was in that group. I was one of those people who had it all together, had the world by the tail, and needed nothing or no one. But when I got a glimpse of His love, when I heard a little bit of His story, and heard about His sacrifice for me, and heard about His concern for me, and heard about His plan for me – I realized that He had done something for me that I could never do for myself. I would never be good enough to deserve the love He was showing me. I would never be able to do what it took to dig out of the bottomless hole that sin buries a man in. And I reached out to Him in faith, and He took me in, and He cleaned me up, and He set me free. I received a gift, THE GIFT, that is too wonderful for words.
The question is, what do I do now? Now that I have been born again and received forgiveness from sin, and the freedom from guilt that comes through Christ? What do I do now?
Do I keep it a secret? Do I find a bunch of people who have found the same thing I have and spend the rest of my life getting together with them regularly to rejoice in what we’ve got? That’s what most people do.
My challenge to you is to make today the day you change. Change perspective, and change your attitude as to why we are here and why God has given you this “Gift too wonderful for words.” The challenge is to begin to live differently. To begin to live more conscious of God and more conscious of the needs of the people you meet. Live in a more responsive way to the needs around you, even if it’s in an all-night diner at 3:30 in the morning.
In short, my challenge to us all today is to begin to live more generously. To more freely give the love that you have received from God.
Thank God for his Son–a gift too wonderful for words! (2 Corinthians 9:15 NLT).
If you look at this verse in context, you find that it is in an extended passage talking about a financial offering. Paul is writing about an offering that the Corinthians were gathering to send to a group in need. And so most of both chapters 8 and 9 are about this offering. And Paul’s instruction to them comes down to this – be generous!
Remember this–a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each make up your own mind as to how much you should give. Don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. For God loves the person who gives cheerfully. And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say,
“Godly people give generously to the poor.
Their good deeds will never be forgotten.”
For God is the one who gives seed to the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will give you many opportunities to do good, and he will produce a great harvest of generosity in you.
Yes, you will be enriched so that you can give even more generously. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will break out in thanksgiving to God. So two good things will happen–the needs of the Christians in Jerusalem will be met, and they will joyfully express their thanksgiving to God. You will be glorifying God through your generous gifts. For your generosity to them will prove that you are obedient to the Good News of Christ. And they will pray for you with deep affection because of the wonderful grace of God shown through you. (2 Corinthians 9:6-14 NLT).
And then, to identify God as the initiator of this idea of incredible generosity, Paul adds;
Thank God for his Son–a gift too wonderful for words!
Now we could never top that kind of generosity—Mankind was doomed to hell and eternal separation from God before God sent His only Son to conquer sin, death, and the grave and redeemed humanity to fellowship with his Creator. He died that we might live. Now that’s generosity.
You know how full of love and kindness our Lord Jesus Christ was. Though he was very rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
And it is precisely the way we are to live. Not just to do generous things once in a while, but to be generous people, to be people that “produce a great harvest of generosity”! Notice verse 10 from chapter 9 again.
For God is the one who gives seed to the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will give you many opportunities to do good, and he will produce a great harvest of generosity in you. (2 Corinthians 9:10).
In chapter 8, Paul is setting up this idea of generous giving by saying:
2 Corinthians 8
So we have urged Titus, who encouraged your giving in the first place, to return to you and encourage you to complete your share in this ministry of giving. Since you excel in so many ways—you have so much faith, such gifted speakers, such knowledge, such enthusiasm, and such love for us—now I want you to excel also in this gracious ministry of giving. I am not saying you must do it, even though the other churches are eager to do it. This is one way to prove your love is real. (2 Corinthians 8:6-8).
Did you notice that Paul calls them to add to their ministries the “ministry of giving?” He calls them to excel in giving! “excel also in this gracious ministry of giving… This is one way to prove your love is real.”
Remember Harry? “There are no churches like that. If there was a church like that, I’d join it!” Generosity, giving, sharing the wonderful gift of love, acceptance, and forgiveness that you have found in Christ is a way to demonstrate the reality of your faith—it proves your love is real. Someone has rightly said that people don’t care how much you know till they know how much you care.
The world is an increasingly difficult place. Things are going on today that weren’t even considered a generation ago. And people are hurting. They are starving for acceptance; they are desperate for God’s grace—only, for the most part, they don’t realize it. Our tendency as humans is to adapt and survive. That’s what people do. They adapt to the world’s harshness and cocoon themselves and survive – and live without meaningful relationships and without the peace with God.
And here you are with the answer, and God is calling you to give some of what He’s given you freely. That’s what Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 10:
Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received! (Matthew 10:7-8).
Now look at 1 Peter 4, beginning with verse 7:
The end of the world is coming soon.
(Would you say that out loud, so it sticks in your consciousness real good?)
The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers. Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins. Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay.
God has given gifts to each of you from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Manage them well so that God’s generosity can flow through you. (1 Peter 4:7-10).
Boy! Underline that, highlight it, write it in your margin, do whatever you have to do to remember this. It’s God’s generosity—He’s calling you to be a conduit, to be a distributor, a pipe through which His generosity can flow! Now verse 11:
Are you called to be a speaker? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Are you called to help others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then God will be given glory in everything through Jesus Christ. All glory and power belong to him forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11).
There are many Agnes’s out there, hurting people living in dark and hopeless times. They need what you have. Will you be generous? Will you look beyond yourself this Christmas? Will you serve the hurting people who are outside the walls of the church building? This is the way I want to go into Christmas, and this is the way I want to enter 2021. This is the way I want to live my life and lead my family – in being a vessel through which the generosity of God can flow.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was no stranger to dark times.
- The nation was in the thick of the Civil War.
- He had lost his wife Fanny when she burned to death in a house fire.
- His own body was burned and scarred from attempting to save her.
- His son Charles had died from injuries incurred in battle.
- The death and destruction that raged outside had penetrated his own walls.
- Darkness threatened to snuff him out.
It would have been so easy to lose hope. But it was out of these circumstances that he would come to write one of the most powerful Christmas hymns of all time, a message of hope and truth that has rung through a century like church bells through a valley.
“I heard the bells on Christmas day—Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet the words repeat, Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
I thought how as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll’d along th’ unbroken song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
And in despair I bow’d my head: There is no peace on earth, I said,
For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men. That’s not just a sweet sentiment; that’s the truth. For Jesus Christ is still the Gift Too Wonderful for Words, and Jesus Christ is still looking and touching and changing and healing all those who come to Him in faith.
Incidentally, if you were to look in Roget’s Thesaurus under the phrase “Goodwill”, as in, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” You know what one of the synonyms for goodwill is? Generosity. Peace on earth, generosity toward men.