Tagged ‘Christmas‘

The Two Gifts On Everyone’s List

When my family gathers together for the holidays, we are a theological kaleidoscope. Even though all of my family members are professing Christians, we are extremely theologically diverse. Among my siblings and their spouses, you will find an ordained pastor in a Bible Church who is also working on his ordination in the Evangelical Free Church. You’ll find a leader in an Independent, King-James-Version-Only Baptist church, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church who works for a Catholic Charity, and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who is in leadership in a non-denominational church. Yes, my friends, theology is one topic that is not served up at our holiday get-togethers!

Yet as diverse as we are, we really only desire two gifts from each other at our Christmas and holiday get-togethers. Grace and mercy. When these two gifts are freely given and received, we enjoy our relationship with one another. When we forget to give and receive these gifts, it can become very stressful. Yes, even in my family.

I mention this because I know that during this Christmas season many of you may struggle with holiday get-togethers. Perhaps your family is even more diverse than mine and may have the added challenge of members who do not claim to follow Christ. Hurtful words may be spoken. Destructive behaviors resurface. Old wounds are ripped opened. The Norman Rockwell version of Christmas dinner gets replaced with the one from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” It is not pretty. This is why grace and mercy are such treasured gifts.

John Piper, in his book “Future Grace,” says, “Common definitions of God’s grace and mercy go like this: grace is the goodness of God shown to people who don’t deserve it; mercy is the goodness of God shown to people who are in a miserable plight.”

Grace and mercy are intertwined. Both carry the idea of showing kindness when it is not deserved. In general, God gives us grace because we are sinners. God gives us mercy because of our miserable condition. But they are both given together. Because we are sinners, we are in a miserable condition. We need both grace and mercy from God, and he lavishly gives them to us.

But does God’s grace and mercy stop with you? Or does it flow out of you into the lives of those around you? We should never hoard grace and mercy. They are gifts that we should freely give as well. I should give grace and mercy out of the overflow of the grace and mercy God gives to me. Despite my sin and my miserable condition, God generously gives grace and mercy to me. When I am conscious of this, then I am able to show kindness to others who also are sinners and in a miserable condition. When I meet someone who seems to show little grace and mercy to others, I doubt if they understand the grace and mercy God has shown to them.

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, wrote about the role of grace and mercy in his life. This is what he wrote:

“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:12-14, ESV).

Notice how Paul is aware of his humanity. Read carefully how he describes the life he used to live. It is pretty rough. But then notice how he is aware of the grace and mercy that has been given to him. He continues:

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16, ESV).

Why was he given this grace and mercy? So that he could be an example for you and me. It is also the reason that you are given grace and mercy by God – so that your life is an example to those around you. Giving the gifts of grace and mercy is also part of fulfilling the command to love your neighbor as yourself. How quick I am to give grace to myself when I have blown it. As a result, I need to quickly give grace to others when they blow it as well.

Does my family always do this well? Of course not! I can hear peals of laughter from my family as they read this. We are as normal as any family. But while we are incredibly diverse in some areas of theology, we have a common need of God’s grace and mercy in our lives. That is what binds us together. When we blow it, we turn our focus back to God in our need of his grace and mercy, and then give to others out of the overflow of what we have received from God. And so should you.

This year when you gather with family and friends to exchange gifts, remember that everyone is looking for the two gifts that matter the most. Grace and mercy. They are the perfect gifts for you to give and for anyone to receive. Will you receive them from God today? And will you give them to others as well?

This article was originally published in the December 2016 Newsletter.

The Great Gift Exchange

The great gift exchange is upon us again. It is a season of unrealistic expectations wrapped up in credit card statements. In our hearts we believe the Hallmark version of Christmas, but every year expectations get crushed. Many lie through their teeth with an exclamation of, “I love it!” We accept a gift with thankful words, and then discard the item quicker than you can say, “Peace on earth and Goodwill stores for all men.” It is a scene that will be repeated thousands of times in the coming weeks. Somewhere in the world right now, someone is sliding a plate of awful Christmas cookies into the waste bin beneath the kitchen sink, and the bow is still attached. You know who you are.

Then there is the moment when you give someone a gift, and they smile and say, “Oh, but you shouldn’t have.” And what they really meant to say is, “Oh, but you shouldn’t have because I have nothing for you. Zip. Nada. Didn’t really think of you at all. Awkward.” You stand there, each of you holding the fake smile for as long as you can bear it while crickets chirp in the background. This is perhaps the worst feeling of all. Expectations can be so cruel.

Now lest you think I am some sort of Christmas Grinch, I have a point to this. How does it feel to be the one giving a gift but not receiving one back? Do you feel forgotten? Do you feel less valued? It would be human if you felt this way. But how does God feel when this happens to him? How does he feel when he gives us a gift, but we give him nothing back? Does he feel forgotten? Does he feel less valued? Sometimes I wonder.

God gave us the gift of his son Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins. With eager hands we accept his gift of salvation. But what does God get from us? In this celestial gift exchange, what is the gift that we give back to him? What could God possibly want from me?

Think about it. What can you give God that he does not already have? He doesn’t need a gift card or cash. He created the world and everything in it. If he wanted something, he could just create it with a word. Poof! Done. So what can we give God that he can’t create by himself? He has everything, right? Well, almost.

What we give back to him is relationship, and that is all he really wants.

Think back with me to the Garden of Eden. God has just created the universe, the world, and every living thing in it. But when he created man, it was unique in all of his creation. Why? Because we were the only creation with whom he wanted to have a relationship. In the Genesis account, we learn that God would come down to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the garden. Why would he do that? Because he loved them and loved the relationship with them.

Then sin entered the world and the relationship between God and his creation was forever altered. From this point forward, God was at work trying to restore the relationship. Man, not so much. But God wanted the relationship so deeply that he finally sent his own son to die on our behalf. Why would he do that? Because he loves us and wants a relationship with his creation. Through the years we changed the story to make it all about us and the forgiveness of our sins. But the reality is that this story, this gift, is all about God and his desire to restore relationship with his creation.

When we accept God’s great gift of forgiveness, we should be overwhelmed by his great love and kindness to us. But it shouldn’t stop there. We should give back to him the gift that would bless him the most – our lives in a loving relationship with him.

I should come to God and say, “Because you’ve loved me so much that you gave me this amazing gift of forgiveness, I want to give you a special gift as well. I give you my love, my life, my time, my everything. I want to know you. I want to spend time with you. I want you to know that I love you with all my heart, all my soul, and all my mind.”

When we do this, I imagine God opens wide his arms in embrace, as he smiles and says, “I love it!” And with God, it’s true. It is the great gift exchange. It is a merry Christmas indeed.

That you and I are unique in all of God’s creation should humble us. That God should desire this relationship so deeply that he would give the life of his son should astound us. That we would cast aside this gift after receiving it and never give him the gift of relationship back should appall us. After all, the gift from God is the opportunity for relationship. It is merely wrapped in salvation. Let us not be guilty of discarding the gift and playing with the box instead. Let us give back to God the gift that will bless him the most – our hearts and lives in relationship with him.

It’s the great gift exchange. My friend, what are you planning to give?

This article was originally published in the December 2015 Newsletter.

Celebrating Christ

Merry Christmas! I hope you are enjoying this Christmas season. But if you are like me, this can be the most chaotic time of the year.

Here’s where I struggle. In the midst of the Christmas season, when I am supposed to be celebrating the birth of Christ, I find my attention pulled away to anything but Christ. My schedule feels crushing during this time of year, and it can easily draw my focus away from my relationship with God. Even as I sit here trying to write this devotional, the notifications keep coming in on my cell phone letting me know another email has arrived, a calendar appointment is coming up, or another text needs attention. The funny thing is that I had turned off the ringer so I could work undisturbed, but the flashing light on the phone still let me know that something needed attention. I finally had to turn the phone over so I would not be distracted. Oh the joy!

So here is my plan during the Christmas season. Whenever possible, I make time to pull away from everything and spend some quality time with the one I love most – God. I turn off the Christmas music. I turn off my cell phone. I set aside the shopping list. I put off responding to email. Then I settle into my favorite chair with a cup of coffee and talk with God. Finding the time to do this is one of the most difficult things I do during this time of year, but it is also one of the most important things on my list. I need that time with him because of the needs that are present in my life. In my mind, I see him sitting there with me as I enjoy a cup of coffee. He looks over at me and says, “I know about everything that is going on right now, but I’m here, and I love you.” And I look back at him and say, “I love you too.” In that moment, nothing else matters.

When I do this, I celebrate who Christ is. Notice I did not say I celebrate his birth. Instead of celebrating his birth, I celebrate the God who is with me. I celebrate Christ, not Christmas. Christmas is a one-day event, but I need to celebrate Christ with me all the time.

When the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the birth of Christ, he said this:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, ESV).

Consider the names that Isaiah used. Jesus is my wonderful counselor when I don’t know how to handle a situation. He is my mighty God when I feel weak and unable to cope. He is my everlasting father when I need guidance, encouragement, or support. He is my Prince of Peace when the chaos of my schedule presses in. This is the Jesus who was born in a manger, the Jesus we celebrate at Christmas.

Not only is Jesus all of these things, he is also with me all of the time. In the New Testament, when Matthew is writing the account of the birth of Christ, he quotes Isaiah and says this:

“ ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Mathew 1:23, ESV).

I smile when I read the way Matthew quotes Isaiah because he doesn’t just give the quote. He explains it as well. It is like he is whispering, “In case you didn’t know what the word Immanuel means, it means ‘God with us.’” It is as if he is saying, “This is important! Don’t miss this!”

God is with us. I need that kind of God. I need a God who is with me, not just above me. I tend to imagine God far above me somewhere in the heavens, sitting on a beautiful throne of pure gold. But in reality, he is sitting beside me as I write this note. He is also beside you as you read it. He is with us. He is God with us, Immanuel.

He is with you when you feel overwhelmed. He is with you when you are disappointed. He is with you when you are wounded. He is with you when you are in financial trouble. He is with you when the wayward child leaves. He is with you when you are the wayward child. He is with you in the doctor’s office when the diagnosis is read. He is with you when the loved one dies. He is with you when your marriage is in trouble. He is with you when you feel too busy to take time for him. He is with you. He is always with you.

Friend, will you make time in your schedule to celebrate Christ? Will you celebrate who he is, not just his birth? Maybe coffee isn’t your thing, but find a way to come apart from everything that pulls you away, and spend some time with him. Consider it a gift that you give to yourself, or perhaps a gift you give to God.

Jesus, the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the Prince of Peace, and God in the flesh, he is with us.

That, my friends, is worth celebrating.

This article was originally published in the December 2014 Newsletter.

The only gift that satisfies

Last night I was thinking about all that God has done for me this past year. I was reflecting on his kindness to me. He has blessed my life so abundantly, and I am humbled when I consider his goodness to me. To be honest, I am a bit uncomfortable with how he has blessed my life. I live in a home far nicer than I need. I drive a car far better than I need. I have more clothes than I need. He has blessed me far beyond my needs. I consider my brothers and sisters around the world who love God as much as or more than I do and yet suffer such loss for the cause of Christ, and it makes me feel uneasy when I realize how well I live. When I look at my life and how God has blessed me, sometimes it seems unfair.

But as I was talking with God and considering all of this, I was reminded of a simple truth. Only Jesus satisfies me. Of all of the material blessings I have been given, none of them satisfies me. Only God does that for me. I love him. He satisfies my soul like nothing else. I believe I have come to the place in my life where I can honestly say that he is all I want. Not only is he all I need, he is also all I want. A nice house is great, but it doesn’t satisfy the soul. A nice car is great, but at the end of the day it still doesn’t satisfy. Nicer furniture doesn’t satisfy. Nicer clothes don’t satisfy. Nicer shoes don’t satisfy. A bigger TV with higher resolution doesn’t satisfy. A better cell phone or tablet doesn’t satisfy. Fill in the blank. Nothing outside my relationship with God will ever satisfy.

Think about this for a moment. Can you remember the Christmas gifts you received last year? How about the year before that? How quickly our attention moves on. What seemed so important last year is now gathering dust in a closet. The challenge is to remember this when we consider the Christmas season before us. We are bombarded with messages in the media that seek to stir up discontent. The underlying message is that you will be happier if you just had __________. Sadly, many well-meaning Christians fall into this trap.

Last year I went to one of the large retailers for the day after Thanksgiving sales. I was shocked. An armed police officer stood in the center of the main aisle to help keep order. The place was packed. I could hardly navigate the perimeter of the store. It left me with a sick feeling in my gut. If Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, why did everyone seem so consumed with greed, pushing, shoving, running to get the must have item of the year? I love a bargain as well as the next guy, but this was out of control.

The message of the Bible is that only God satisfies. The message from our enemy is that everything but God satisfies. Which message are you living by?

This Christmas, remember that the only gift that satisfies is the gift God gave us two thousand years ago. There in a manger, in the town of Bethlehem, a baby was born. But that tiny baby was the very Son of God, born in the flesh, given to you and me for the forgiveness of our sins.

Consider these verses:

“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11, NASB).

I love the way this passage is written in this version when it says “there has been born for you a Savior.” He was born for you. He was given for you. It was all for you, this amazing gift from God. Imagine that! This baby was given to you so that you could have a relationship with God. God gave you the gift of the forgiveness of your sins wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV, emphasis added).

It is the gift of God! And this, my friends, is the only gift that satisfies.

Maybe you are reading this and you know the feeling of being unsatisfied. You know that something is missing from your life. You also know in your heart of hearts that more stuff is not going to fill that void in your life, but you don’t know where to turn. If that is you, today God reaches out to you with the gift of all gifts. It is as if God stands before you holding a baby in his arms. As you stand before him, he extends his arms to you, giving this baby to you. Will you receive him? Will you accept this gift for you? In this baby is everything you could ever want or need. This baby is Jesus, the very son of God, given to you for the forgiveness of your sins so that you can have a relationship with God. This relationship satisfies the deepest longing of your life more than anything this world could possibly give. Will you receive this gift today?

It is also possible that as you are reading this today, you have already accepted this gift at some point in your life. But for some reason you’ve set aside your relationship with God and are striving to fill that void in your life with more stuff. You’ve forgotten the gift you’ve been given. You’ve set it on a shelf in the far reaches of a closet out of sight and out of mind. How sad to be given a gift so valuable and to set it aside. Now you find yourself empty, unsatisfied, and wondering where you went wrong. If that is you, turn back to your gift today.

My friend, where are you at in your relationship with God? Is he enough? Are you satisfied with him alone? Or have you fallen victim to the lie that something else can make you happy? God gave us an incredible gift in his son. This Christmas, find your satisfaction in Christ alone.

He truly is the only gift that satisfies.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 Newsletter.