The Greatest Gift

Of all the customs surrounding Christmas, it occurs to me the most singular, the most distinctive, is the custom of giving one another gifts. You realize how unique that is. There are other special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, Father’s Days, Mother’s Days, and so on, in which somebody is given gifts. You bring your gifts to somebody, but the real question is … How many holidays do we have in which all of us give gifts to all of us? The answer is only one, and it’s right that we do it at Christmas because it highlights, it makes real, the central event, in some ways, the central truth of Christmas.

 

Jesus Christ came at Christmas, but he didn’t just come. He was given. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given …’ Jesus didn’t just come. He was a gift. That’s the central event of Christmas, and all the gift giving, in a sense, makes that real. Jesus was given. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son …’ Jesus did not just come. He was a gift.

 

There’s one place in which Paul is so overwhelmed by the thought of it that he breaks into praise, and he says, ‘Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,’ an unspeakable gift, an inexpressible gift. It’s beyond description. It’s beyond comprehension. Whenever Paul thinks about it, even for a while, his imagination and his heart explode.

– Tim Keller (from the sermon “His Name Shall Be Called” — December 23, 1990)

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Christmas Love

C. S. Lewis put it like this,

‘Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.’

There is no way to have a real relationship without becoming vulnerable to hurt. And Christmas tells us that God became breakable and fragile. God became someone we could hurt. Why? To get us back. And if you believe this and take it into your life, you’re blessed. As you take in the truth of what he did for you—how loved and affirmed you are—you’ll be able to let down your defenses in your own relationships with other people. You won’t always need to guard your honor. You’ll be able to let down the barriers down. You’ll be able to move into intimate relationships with other people.

What is in the package of Christmas? His vulnerability for intimacy with us, which gives us the vulnerability to be intimate with the people around us. If you believe in Christmas—that God became a human being—you have an ability to face suffering, a resource for suffering that others don’t have.

~~ Tim Keller

Christmas Suffering

We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t just end suffering. But we know that whatever the reason, it isn’t one of indifference or remoteness. God so hates suffering and evil that he was willing to come into it and become enmeshed in it.

Dorothy Sayers wrote, ‘For whatever reason, God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – he [God] has the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with this creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile.’

The gift of Christmas gives you a resource – a comfort and consolation – for dealing with suffering, because in it we see God’s willingness to enter this world of suffering with us and for us.

~ Tim Keller

The Greatest Salvation Imaginable

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…” ~ Jeremiah 31:31

God is just and holy and separated from sinners like us. This is our main problem at Christmas and every other season. How shall we get right with a just and holy God?

Nevertheless, God is merciful and has promised in Jeremiah 31 (five hundred years before Christ) that someday he would do something new. He would replace shadows with the Reality of the Messiah. And he would powerfully move into our lives and write His will on our hearts so that we are not constrained from outside but are willing from inside to love Him and trust him and follow Him.

That would be the greatest salvation imaginable–if God should offer us the greatest Reality in the universe to enjoy and then move in us to see to it that we could enjoy it with the greatest freedom and joy possible. That would be a Christmas gift worth singing about.That is, in fact, what he promised. But there was a huge obstacle. Our sin. Our separation from God because of our unrighteousness.

How shall a holy and just God treat us sinners with so much kindness as to give us the greatest Reality in the universe (his Son) to enjoy with the greatest joy possible?

The answer is that God put our sins on His Son, and judged them there, so that He could put them out of His mind, and deal with us mercifully and remain just and holy at the same time. Hebrews 9:28 says, “Christ was offered once to beat the sins of many.”

Christ bore our sins in His own body when He died. He took our judgment. He canceled our guilt. And that means the sins are gone. They do not remain in God’s mind as a basis for condemnation. In that sense, he “forgets” them. They are consumed in the death of Christ.

Which means that God is now free, in His justice, to lavish us with the new covenant. He gives us Christ, the greatest Reality in the universe, for our enjoyment. And He writes His own will–His own heart–on our hearts so that we can love Christ and trust Christ and follow Christ from the inside out, with freedom and joy.

Excerpted from John Piper’s Advent Devotional “Good News of Great Joy”

Bethlehem’s Supernatural Star

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Over and over the Bible baffles our curiosity about just how certain things happened. How did this “star” get the magi from the east to Jerusalem?

It does not say that it led them or went before them. It only says they saw a star in the east (verse 2), and came to Jerusalem. And how did that star go before them in the little five-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as verse 9 says it did? And how did a star stand “over the place where the Child was”?

The answer is: We do not know. There are numerous efforts to explain it in terms of conjunctions of planets or comets or supernovas or miraculous lights. We just don’t know. And I want to exhort you not to become preoccupied with developing theories that are only tentative in the end and have very little spiritual significance.

I risk a generalization to warn you: People who are exercised and preoccupied with such things as how the star worked and how the Red Sea split and how the manna fell and how Jonah survived the fish and how the moon turns to blood are generally people who have what I call a mentality for the marginal. You do not see in them a deep cherishing of the great central things of the gospel–the holiness of God, the ugliness of sin, the helplessness of man, the death of Christ, justification by faith alone, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the glory of Christ’s return and the final judgment. They always seem to be taking you down a sidetrack with a new article or book. There is little centered rejoicing.

But what is plain concerning this matter of the star is that it is doing something that it cannot do on its own: it is guiding magi to the Son of God to worship Him.

There is only one Person in biblical thinking that can be behind that intentionality in the stars–God Himself.

So the lesson is plain: God is guiding foreigners to Christ to worship Him. And He is doing it by exerting global–probably even universal–influence and power to get it done.

Luke shows God influencing the entire Roman Empire so that the census comes at the exact time to get a virgin to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy with her delivery. Matthew shows God influencing the stars in the sky to get foreign magi to Bethlehem so that they can worship Him.

This is God’s design. He did it then. He is still doing it now. His aim is that the nations–all the nations (Matthew 24:14)–worship His Son.

This is God’s will for everybody in your office at work, and in your neighborhood and in your home. As John 4:23 says, “Such the Father seeks to worship Him.”

At the beginning of Matthew we still have a “come-see” pattern. But at the end the pattern is “go-tell.” The magi came and saw. We are to go and tell.

What is not different is that the purpose of God is the ingathering of the nations to worship His Son. The magnifying of Christ in the white-hot worship of all nations is the reason the world exists.

This excerpt is taken from John Piper’s Advent Devotional available here: http://ow.ly/fWMBf

Prepare the Way

“He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17)

What John the Baptist did for Israel, Advent can do for us. Don’t let Christmas find you unprepared. I mean spiritually unprepared. Its joy and impact will be so much greater if you are ready!

That you might be prepared…

First, meditate on the fact that we need a Savior. Christmas is an indictment before it becomes a delight. It will not have its intended effect until we feel desperately the need for a Savior. Let these short Advent meditations help awaken in you a bittersweet sense of need for the Savior.

Second, engage in sober self-examination. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24) Let every heart prepare him room… by cleaning house.

Third, build God-centered anticipation and expectancy and excitement into your home–especially for the children. If you are excited about Christ, they will be too. If you can only make Christmas exciting with material things, how will the children get a thirst for God? Bend the efforts of your imagination to make the wonder of the King’s arrival visible for the children.

Fourth, be much in the Scriptures, and memorize the great passages! “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord!” (Jeremiah 23:29) Gather ’round that fire this Advent season. It is warm. It is sparkling with colors of grace. It is healing for a thousand hurts. It is light for dark nights.

This passage is excerpted from John Piper’s Advent Devotional available for free here: http://ow.ly/fLqnw

Waiting and Watching (Advent Week 5)

[For Dec 25 – Dec 31]

This is Week 5 of the Advent Guide (provided in PDF from The Village Church in Texas). Advent is about much more than the Christmas season. Advent reveals the season of expectation and the platform of worship that we ought to be focusing on as we not only celebrate the coming of Christ, but eagerly await His second coming. For more details (or to dive into the concept of Advent) go here: http://ow.ly/8a5Ah .

For many of us, Christmas Day is one of the most important days of the year, which is obvious given the amount of preparation that often goes into it. Schedules, plans and budgets are adjusted months in advance. Family members travel in from far away. Decorations are perfectly placed. Menus are planned. Gifts are purchased, wrapped and hidden. There is intentionality, joy and anticipation – all because this day is significant, valuable and also because we believe it is a reality.

Christmas isn’t a pretend day; it’s real. We wouldn’t go through all the trouble of trimming trees and fighting crowds if we didn’t believe Christmas was, in fact, an actual day. We trust it to come on the same date every year, and out of love and expectation, we make every necessary preparation so that when December 25 becomes our reality, we’ll be ready.

We spend months preparing to celebrate and remember Christ’s first coming. How much more should we seek to be ready for the day of His second coming? That day, too, is a reality, an absolute certainty. Unlike Christmas Day, which we know to expect every 25th of December, only the Father knows the day and hour His Son will return, but He is coming. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Beloved One, will return to the earth. It has been promised.

In the fullness of time, He will split the sky and descend to destroy all wickedness, receive the worship that is rightfully His, and usher in a new age – one free of sin, suffering, disappointment and fear. On that day, the children of God will walk in full-hearted belief and unrestrained delight as we see our Beloved face to face. We will be free from the sin and the brokenness of this world. And that will be wonderful, but the real treasure is Jesus. His return marks the beginning of unbroken, unending fellowship with Him. It is a day we should believe in, think about, look to and prepare for with joy, anticipation, hope and holy fear.

The day of Jesus’ return is certain and coming, but (so far) it is not today. At this time, we find ourselves much like the Israelites long ago – a people in waiting – which begs the question: how then shall we wait, and what does it mean to be ready for that day? How should we, as the people of God, live as we look toward and long for the coming of Jesus? Peter asks and answers this very question in his second letter.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 2 PETER 3:8-14 (ESV)

The two books of Peter have much to say about Jesus’ return and what life in the meantime looks like for those who believe. In both of his writings, Peter orients the perspective and hope of believers toward the promised coming of Christ. He wants them (and us) to look forward, seeing right now in light of what has been and what is to come. Notice in verses 8 and 14 how Peter addresses the believers to whom he is writing. He calls them “beloved.”

Peter writes to a group of believers facing great hardship. They are weary and eagerly longing for Jesus to come back. Peter’s heart is full of love and compassion for his readers, and he encourages them to endure according to their identity as dearly loved children of God. He speaks to them as those set free from sin – heirs of an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. Now live as agents of peace and ministers of reconciliation in this world until Jesus returns.

In love, he reminds the believers that, though the days seem long and weary in the waiting, God is not being slow in keeping His promise. He assures them of the absolute reality of the appointed, though unknown, day when the heavens will be blown apart, and Jesus will return. He tells them exactly what kinds of lives they are to live in light of this promised and coming day – lives of holiness, godliness and hopeful expectation. He tells them to be diligent as they wait, not passive and lazy. He exhorts them to flee from sin, to walk in obedience and righteousness, and to continue trusting God’s faithfulness. By doing so, they will not only be found faithful and ready in the waiting but also, somehow, hasten the day of Jesus’ return.

We are to live in the same way, but what do these lives of active waiting and diligence look like exactly? Looking at the words of Jesus will help us understand. It’s important to see that Peter’s words and exhortations mirror those of Jesus. In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus tells His disciples a series of parables about what the days and times preceding His return will be marked by. Peter was a disciple of Jesus and heard Jesus speak about these things. They were no doubt in his mind as he wrote the words of 2 Peter, and they show us what lives of holiness, godliness and hopeful expectation look like as we wait and prepare for Jesus’ return:

  • We will live as if we believe Jesus is, in fact, returning. In the same way that we have made thoughtful, intentional preparations for Christmas because we knew and believed it was an actual day that was actually coming, we are to live lives of thoughtful, intentional preparation for the actual day that Jesus will actually return. (Matthew 24:42-44)
  • We will be faithful and wise stewards of everything that has been entrusted to us by God, understanding that all of it—whether possession, ability, talent or gifting – actually belongs to Him and exists for His glory. (Matthew 24:45-51; 25:14-30)
  • We will have hearts that have been tended and prepared for His coming by being full of faith, love, worship and overwhelming delight in Jesus. We will fight and flee from sin and do all that is needed to be found faithful to our first love. (Matthew 25:1-13)
  • We will love and care for those who are poor, weak, cast out and in need. True disciples of Jesus cannot and will not ignore the plight of the least of these. We will serve, love, give, go and pray for those in need of food, drink, clothing, friendship and comfort. (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • We will love the nations and proclaim the gospel both far and near. As the church family, we are the vessel appointed by God to herald the gospel in all the world through both word and action. (Matthew 24:14)
Peter’s exhortations are just as much for us today as they were for the believers long ago. We, too, are living in the days of God’s patient mercy. Christ will not return until the gospel of the kingdom is preached in all the world and the full number of those appointed for salvation has been brought into the family of believers. We need to be reminded, as those who are dearly loved by God, that really believing in and looking toward Jesus’ return changes the way we live. It reorients our hope and perspective. It creates a sense of urgency, sobriety and giddy anticipation – just like a child who cannot wait for Christmas morning. Let us, as the people of God, be found ready in the waiting.
As this Christmas season comes to a close, take some time to reflect upon how the reality of Jesus’ return affects the way you live. May your heart be full and your eyes bright as you hope in all things in Christ and look to His coming. Take heart, beloved. It won’t be long.