Advent Conspiracy: Give More
John 1:14; Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Brian Bill
Note: The idea for this series and some content comes from a book by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder called, “Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?”
I’m thankful to our Advent readers for reminding us that it is more blessed to give than it is to receive. Have you ever received a Christmas present that you didn’t really like? Here are some suggestions of what to say if you get a gift that underwhelms you.
* Hey! Now, there’s a gift!
* Well, well, well…
* This is perfect…for wearing around the basement.
* I really don’t deserve this.
* To think…I got this the year I vowed to give all my gifts to charity.
Our topic today has to do with gift giving. As I’ve paused and pondered the centrality of giving in the Christmas story, this is what stands out to me: Because God gave the gift of His Son at Christmas we should give good gifts and we should also give God gifts. I am so moved by the great giving that takes place at Pontiac Bible Church and am delighted with how so many of you have responded to the Advent Conspiracy by worshipping fully, spending less and giving more. Let me share some things that have happened in just the past week.
* Christmas Baskets. $1,500 was given last Sunday and it looks like we will be able to provide way more than 200 baskets of food this year. Related to this, I received a call on Wednesday from someone who is unemployed and he told me that one thing he really misses is how the employees at his old company would give donations for the needy in our community. God used the message last week to challenge him to figure out a way to give this year and so he’s now helping out with the Christmas Basket project.
* Offering for the Unemployed. We will be taking a special offering on Christmas Eve for those who are unemployed. Amazingly, over $1,000 has already been given.
* Mass Mailing. After hearing the sermon last week, one business man in the community offered to send out a letter to all the households in Pontiac, inviting people to our service next Sunday at the high school and our Christmas Eve service that will be held here. Incidentally, we went through the mailing list and removed PBC people and others that we know are committed to other churches. This letter still went out to over 3,800 households! We may need to find another auditorium.
* Help for a Family. I received another call early in the week from a PBC member who told me that he can’t stop thinking about a family in need. He told me that this family comes to his mind 3-4 times a day and he wanted to know how he could help them. God will lead him to do something.
What strikes me about all these stories is that these are just the ones I know about. It gives me spiritual goose bumps to think about all that is happening in this county as we seek to reclaim Christmas from our consumer-oriented culture. I love how many of you are pushing back against overspending and overconsumption this Advent season. As we rebel against some of this craziness by spending less, it simply seems right to give more, doesn’t it?
Let me be clear. We are not saying that Christmas gift-giving in families is bad. Actually, giving gifts is a great way to celebrate the birth of Jesus because in giving we remember that God has given the gift of His Son to us. What we are saying is this. Giving gifts to each other is good but let’s make sure we are also giving God-gifts to those in need.
Let’s look at three ways to understand the greatness of God’s gift giving.
How God Gave
1. The gift of Jesus is profound. Because the nativity narrative has become so familiar to many of us it’s easy to forget how profound Christmas really is. We received a Christmas card from Keith and Jeannette Shubert, our missionaries in Singapore, that contained a simple, yet startling phrase that has helped me recapture the awe: “May your Christmas be blessed with radiance and wonder!” That’s good, isn’t it?
We were talking in staff meeting this week about how easy it is for us to throw around words without taking the time to explain what they mean. Last week Pastor Jeff did a good job helping each of us understand that Immanuel means “God with us.” In Immanuel, God is with us when we’re lonely or afraid or hurting or worried, and especially when we’re stuck in our sins.
Another weighty word that gets used at Christmas is the word Incarnation. Unlike Immanuel, this one doesn’t show up in Scripture but it does capture the meaning of Christmas. One person defines it this way: “The incarnation is the moment when Jesus, the divine Son of the heavenly Father, entered our story as a human baby.” The miracle of Christmas is the infinite becoming an infant, a baby who was fully human and still fully God.
We attended the PTHS Madrigal dinner on Wednesday night and were once again so thankful for the Christ-centered music that these gifted musicians sing. Their very first song was called, “A Great and Mighty Wonder.” Listen to the opening lines: “The Word becomes incarnate; ascending from on high. And cherubim sing anthems; to shepherds from the sky.”
Would you please turn to John 1? While the Gospels of Luke and Matthew give the details surrounding the birth of Jesus, John provides us with the back story, or explanation. John does not use a narrative but instead gives us the theology behind the nativity. There’s so much more in this chapter but let’s just look at verse 14, which is one of the most startling Scriptures in the entire Bible: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Let me see if I can explain the Incarnation clearly. Look at the first phrase: “The Word became flesh…” The “Word” is Jesus, the eternal second member of the Trinity. “Flesh” is the Latin word, “caro,” which is a lot like the Spanish word “carne.” Jesus became (“in…”) flesh (“carnate”). It literally means, “en-flesh-ment” or to put it all together: “Incarnate.”
Lehman Strauss gives a simple yet deeply profound definition of the incarnation: “…That gracious, voluntary act of the Son of God in which He assumed a human body. In Christian doctrine the Incarnation, briefly stated, is that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became a man. It is one of the greatest events to occur in the history of the universe. It is without parallel.” (www.bible.org).
One author offers this paraphrase of John 1:14: “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood...” The NIV says that Jesus “made his dwelling among us,” which literally means, “to make one’s tent.” When we would camp at campsites growing up, we would always get to know the other campers around us. In fact, it’s difficult to be private when you’re camping because everyone can see what you’re doing. To say that Jesus pitched a tent implies that He wants to be on familiar terms with us.
“Dwelling” is the same word used for “tabernacle” in the Old Testament. The tabernacle was a portable tent where the glory of God dwelt in the days before the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The tabernacle was called the tent of meeting in Exodus 33:7: “Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the ‘tent of meeting.’”
There are at least three ways that the tent of meeting corresponds to Jesus “dwelling among us.” Imagine if you will, that you were living at that time and you were well-versed in the Old Testament. As you hear these words from John, it suddenly dawns on you how profound the gift of Jesus really is.
* The tabernacle was God’s dwelling place. God lived in the midst of Israel’s camp, making His throne between the cherubim on the mercy seat. Likewise, God had his dwelling place in the body of Jesus, His Shekinah glory being displayed in His Son!
* The tabernacle was the place where God met with His people. In the same way, but in a much deeper sense, Jesus is the place where we meet God today. 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
* The tabernacle was the place where sacrifice was made. The animals were killed and their blood became atonement for sin. So it is with Jesus. His cross became the altar where Mary’s little lamb was slain, where His blood was shed, and where complete atonement was made for sin.
A young boy once came up to a missionary and said, “I love you and I want you to have this.” He pulled from a straw basket the most beautiful shell the missionary had ever seen. As she admired its beauty, she recognized it as a special shell only found on the far side of the island, a half day’s walk from the village. When she asked the boy about this, he smiled and said, “Long walk part of gift.” Crucial to everything we believe as Christians is this truth... that God loved the world so much that he made that long walk to come from where He is to where we are. When it was impossible for us to reach out to Him, He reached out to us.
Apart from the Incarnation, we would never fully know the depths to which we are loved or the lengths to which God can be trusted. Because God gave the gift of His Son at Christmas we should give good gifts and we should also give God gifts. The gift of Jesus is profound. That leads us to the second point: The gift of Jesus is priceless.
2. The gift of Jesus is priceless. Surely one of the great stories of Christmas is the account of the visit of the Wise Men from the East. This delightful tale of strange men from some faraway land who brought priceless presents to Jesus is filled with mystery and intrigue. We’re introduced to these mysterious men in Matthew 2:1-2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’”
Right away we discover something interesting. The Wise Men show up in Jerusalem after the birth of Jesus. One of the things that intrigue me about this story is the incredible wrong turn these guys took as they neared the end of their trip. Instead of following the star to Bethlehem, they stopped off in Jerusalem to ask Herod for directions (someone has suggested that this is why the wise men are so famous – they’re the only men in history known to stop and ask for directions!).
Verse 11 tells us that “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.” The phrase “bowed down and worshipped” literally means “to kiss toward and to intensely adore.” Now we come to the last detail, the one for which the Magi are most remembered in verse 11: “Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” By the way, the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas time did not originate with Santa Claus. It started with the Wise Men. Back then, bringing gifts was particularly important when approaching a superior. The gifts they bring are really priceless and represent a worthy tribute -- and there’s more to them than meets the eye.
* Gold is one of the rarest and most expensive metals – and its price has gone through the ceiling during this recession. Gold represented the wealth and power of a king.
* Frankincense was used in the temple worship. It represents the Christ’s deity--He is truly God born in a human body.
* Then there is myrrh – a kind of perfume made from the leaves of a rose. After a person died, myrrh was used to anoint the body and prepare it for burial. John 19:39 tells us that the body of Jesus was wrapped in linen along with 75 pounds of myrrh and other spices. The gift of myrrh then, pictures His suffering and death.
Did the Magi understand all this? No, probably not. But God arranged it so that their priceless presents would point us to Jesus, who is priceless. Here is some wisdom we can learn from these wise guys.
* They found their way by consulting Scripture. When they started out they followed the bright star. When they got sidetracked in Jerusalem, they went to the Word of God to find out where the Messiah was to be born. Have you lost your way recently? Are you just going in circles? Instead of trying to figure everything out on your own, or even consulting a friend, why not look to God’s Word for direction?
* They gave themselves in worship first. Before they gave what they had in their hands, they first gave their hearts to Jesus. They bowed down and worshipped and then they opened their treasures. Have you ever surrendered yourself and submitted yourself to the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ? If not, do it today!
* They gave God gifts to Jesus. As you contemplate what God wants you to give this Christmas, ask Him to help you give what you have. It may seem strange or over the top to others, but it doesn’t really matter. Give some God-gifts this Advent.
* If God can use a star to reach these astrologers, then he can use anything to reach you. God is infinitely creative in the ways He breaks through to people who seem to be so far from Him. He can use a star, a book, a conversation, a television show, a song, or even a chance comment. He certainly uses hard times to get our attention. If God can reach the Wise Men, he can reach anybody.
* They were willing to take action. These guys made a long journey that forever changed their lives. They put commitment to their conviction. They put feet to their faith. They didn’t just sit there staring out into the heavens. Are you a seeker or a sitter? Some of you know exactly what you need to do, but you’re just sitting around, passively waiting for something to happen to you.
Because God gave the gift of His Son at Christmas we should give good gifts and we should also give God gifts. The gift of Jesus was profound and priceless and finally, it was personal.
3. The gift of Jesus is personal. Turn to Luke 2:10-12 where we read what the angel of the Lord said to the shepherds. As I read it, count the number of times the word “you” is used: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” How many “you’s” did you hear? That’s right – four.
This good news of great joy is “for all the people.” God’s mega message was never intended to just be for one group of people in one part of the world. God’s good news of great joy is for all the people. It is “joy to the world.” That’s why we support all the missionaries we do as a church, and why we’re constantly looking for creative ways to connect people in this county to Christ.
When the angel made his announcement to the shepherds he personalized the proclamation: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” It’s time to trust Christ today because He has been born to you. When the shepherds heard this, verse 16 says that they “hurried off…and found the baby.” The proclamation from the angels went into their ears, down into their heart where they personalized it, and then out to their feet as they responded in faith.
Friends, the Savior can never save you until you cry out, “Christ came for me and then died as my sin substitute. I accept Immanuel and the incarnate one into my life and I surrender to His Lordship.” Martin Luther once said, “Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would be daily sung in my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own.”
My pastor friend Craig Wininger points out four ways that God came to the shepherds.
* God came to them where they were.
* God came to them as they were.
* God moved them from where they were.
* God changed them from what they were.
Scott and Aldine Blunier are our newest missionaries. They minister in Brazil. I love the opening paragraph of their most recent prayer letter: “The world has never been the same since Jesus of Nazareth started a spiritual revolution over 2,000 years ago that is still rocking this planet. God and His power came to earth in the form of a man, so we could know Him personally and understand His purposes for our lives.”
This quote from Tim Keller is spot on: “Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you.” As we wrap of this message let’s think through how we can wrap some God-gifts to others this year: Because God gave the gift of His Son at Christmas we should give good gifts and we should also give God gifts.
Ways to Give More
1. Give gifts this year that are profound, priceless and personal. This is going to look different for each of us. Focus on giving a relational gift, which is a God-gift. I received a note on Facebook last Sunday from Lynette Duncan. Here’s what she said: “I’ve been thinking about what we’re trying to do with the Advent Conspiracy and although I haven’t cut back a whole lot on my shopping, I was trying to think about ways to spend more Quality Time with the girls and teach them the meaning of Christmas. So I decided to make some crafts with Adeline with the small army of baby food jars I’ve collected. We’ve been making snowmen with them over the past few days and yesterday when we were done, I started to walk away from her, but she ran after me saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!’ and then threw herself around my leg. I had to stop and praise God that she didn’t care about the trip to ToysRUs that we made the other day, she cares that we sat down together to make some baby-food-jar-snowmen. I’m glad you’re leading us through the Advent Conspiracy! Thanks so much!”
2. Give the gift of inviting three people to our service at PTHS next Sunday. I’ve given out invitations to two guys so far and I’m planning to invite three more guys this week.
3. Plan to give to the unemployed on Christmas Eve.
4. Participate in the Christmas basket ministry.
I just finished a very moving book called, “The Blood of Lambs” by Kamal Saleem (Howard Books, 2009). He describes his life as a terrorist and how he hated Israel and America. He also couldn’t stand Christians, that is, until God brought some Christian men into his life after he had a serious car accident. He saw how the Christian God answered prayer and so he cried out in desperation: “Allah, I want to hear that you love me. If you are real, speak to me.” He writes: “I poured all my hope and faith into my prayer. But there was only silence. Stillness…A deep sadness engulfed me. My whole life had been a vain masquerade…Empty and void.” In despair he thought about using one of his many weapons to kill himself but then decided to call on the true God with these words: “If you are real, I want to know you!”
As often happens when Muslims come to Christ, Kamal had a vision and heard these words, “I am the Alpha and the Omega. I have known you since before the foundation of the world.” Kamal answered, “My Lord, I will live and die for you!” And then he heard something that forever changed him: “Do not die for me. I died for you that you may live.” He writes: “At that moment I knew I met the Christian God. I knew I had met my Creator. There was no turning back” (pages 280-281).
The gift of the Savior is far from underwhelming. Let’s allow ourselves to be overwhelmed as we look for ways to participate in the Advent Conspiracy by giving God-gifts that are profound, priceless and personal…because that’s how God has given to us. And as we give, let’s declare, “There’s no turning back.”