Tag Archives: Advent

God’s Gift to Us

As I approached this Advent season, I thought about the one thing that seems to be common among most Americans. That is the purchase of gifts. The day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday, has become just as popular as any day of the year. A week or so ago, I read that there were people camping out in front of some stores, ready to take advantage of the bargains offered.

This Advent season, I want to focus on gifts. A gift, by definition is something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation. For instance, if someone gifts you money, it is given without the obligation to pay it back. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, many of us have to shop for the teacher, the bus driver, the boss, the piano instructor, the uncle that has everything, etc., etc. And we are hard pressed to mention what we want, especially if we are satisfied and have need of nothing. A fellow pastor stated: “I have to put together a wish list of gift ideas for Christmas and I cannot think of anything. Feeling like I have to invent something to want.”

In 2011, a record was set on Black Friday weekend. According to cnn.com: “Earlier than ever store openings and steep discounts helped retailers notch record sales …. Total spending over the four-day weekend following Thanksgiving two years ago reached a record $52.4 billion, up 16% from $45 billion in 2010, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation released Sunday. A record 226 million consumers shopped in stores and online between Thursday and Sunday, up from 212 million the year before. Individual shoppers spent more too, the NRF said. The average holiday shopper shelled out $398.62, up from $365.34 in 2010. All this to say that shopping for Christmas gifts is a big deal.

And yet, we could lose sight of those gifts that money cannot buy. Those things that in fact, define generosity, but you don’t have to camp out in front of Best Buy or Wal-Mart to get them.

Over the next few Sundays, I would like to look at the idea of gifts, and focus on those that are more spiritual in nature. Today, I ask: What have you been given? Let’s look at God’s gift to us. Our Scripture is taken from Romans 8:32, where Paul writes: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”

The verse is nestled in a larger passage of Romans 8:31-39. Paul, having established his argument of justification by faith alone in Christ alone: that in order to be justified in the eyes of God, based on the merits of Christ. In order to take advantage of these gifts, one must repent and trust Christ. He states this explicitly in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

And with trusting Christ, there are mounds of blessings that come our way. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin, wrote: “It is a remarkable and clear evidence of inappreciable love, that the Father refused not to bestow His Son for our salvation. And so Paul draws an argument from the greater to the less, that as he had nothing dearer, or more precious, or more excellent than His Son, He will neglect nothing of what he foresees will be profitable to us.” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans, 322)

So what are those things that we’ve been given, as followers of Jesus Christ; things that money could not pay for? Consider the following:

Because of God’s generosity, we are given the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity, He has been given to us as our Comforter, Guide and Friend. He prays for us, as verse 26 says: “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words….” The gift of the Spirit is in spite of the groaning of creation and the longing of redemption of our bodies, which will occur when Jesus returns. The Holy Spirit fills in the blanks as we come to the Lord by faith.

Because of God’s generosity, we are also given the gift of predestinating grace. Romans 8:29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” The simplest way to put this is that God chooses His bride. He does not choose everyone, but gracious picks those who will come to Him by faith and gives them the faith they need to come to Him. Jesus said in John 6:44 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” This is the wonderful knowledge meant for every Christian to know that God has chosen me as His very own, even in spite of my hatred and rebellion towards Him. He softened my heart and made me receptive to His good news. And I am where I am today because of Him. He picked me and worked in my heart to redeem me from sin’s guilt and power.

He did this on the basis of His Son, Jesus, who went to the cross and died for you and me. God’s greatest gift was Jesus. Jesus was not just a gift to us, but delivered up for us. This implies that He died in our place. He was like us in being human, flesh and blood. He was unlike us in that He was God’s one and only Son. And He was offered as a sacrifice in our place. Isaiah 9:6: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us….” The Messiah was a gift to us. Not on loan, even undeserving! Jesus came as our gift.

Contrast it with the story of Abraham and Isaac. God asked Abraham to take his Son, his only Son, to the wilderness and sacrifice him as an offering. Genesis 22:2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Abraham obeyed in faith, but Isaac was spared, as God provided the ram in the thicket. The angel said in Genesis 22:12: “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said.”Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Now consider the words of John 3:16, when Jesus spoke of Himself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” We are so familiar with those words, could it be that they are easily overlooked? Consider the way that Pastor John Piper puts it in perspective: “I have heard it said, ‘God didn’t die for frogs. So he was responding to our value as humans.’ This turns grace on its head. We are worse off than frogs. They have not sinned. They have not rebelled and treated God with the contempt of being inconsequential in their lives. God did not have to die for frogs. They aren’t bad enough. We are. Our debt is so great, only a divine sacrifice could pay it.” As you prepare for the upcoming holidays, remember that God’s love is more incredible than we could ever imagine. So what do we do? How do we respond? Consider the following:

• A Holy Pause. Stop, think and say a prayer of thanksgiving; several prayers of thanksgiving. Jesus lived a full life and yet died at 33. What is the key to that fullness? His agenda was the Father’s agenda. We must stop, think and pray so as not to miss out on how God might speak to us this Christmas season.

• A Worshipful Heart. Make time to worship. Thank God this Christmas season, not just because of what He has given you, but because of who He is!

• A Willing Spirit. Sacrifice. What can you do for others with little return? What can you sacrifice in order to bless someone else? Even when they don’t deserve it! That’s the best time to give it to them! I read this statement recently and I believe it to be true. Think about it: “Blessings are the currency of God’s love. Today is more than a time to remember how many we have for we are all rich, it is a time to think about how we will give away what we have been given.”

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be looking at other aspects of gifts such as our gift to God and our gift to others. What if Jesus had not come? Would we have these things? The Holy Spirit? Predestinating grace? Jesus’ precious sacrifice for sin and all that comes with it? Our lives would be vastly different; our world would be vastly different. Let me end with this story from Missionary Monthly: Bobby had read in his Bible lesson with Daddy just before bedtime the words, “If I had not come.” When he (thought he) awoke Christmas morning there was no stocking or holly wreath. He went for a walk and found factories busy at work; he went to the orphanage and found only a vacant lot. Then he went to his church and found a “For Sale” sign with “If I had not come” written at the bottom. Again he found these words over a gate post of an empty lot, where he went to find a hospital. Disconsolate, he ran home and picked up his Bible, but all the last part of the Book had blank pages. He awoke, found that it was a dream! And with that he slipped down on his knees and said, “Oh, dear Jesus, I am so glad that You did come. Help me to tell others about You.”

“A Series of Gifts: Assurance”

The following message is taken from Luke 1:26-38, the passage which tells of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, telling her of God’s special plan for the birth of Christ.  It was preached on December 16 and 23, 2012.

 

What is assurance?  Webster’s uses such words as security, a being certain in the mind, confidence of mind or manner; easy freedom from self-doubt or uncertainty.  Today, people place their assurance in many places.  Some put their assurance in government, whoever holds office.  Some put their assurance in their education or career, their ability to make money. Others put their assurance in relationships- whether it is in a child or a spouse or a friend.  When these relationships dissolve, they feel lost and alone.  This past week, the parents of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, sent their children off to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, school fully expecting to see them at the end of the day.  Tragically, they could not be assured of this.

But do any of these destinations for our assurance please God?  At a strategic time in their history, Israel sought an unhealthy alliance with the Egyptians.  Isaiah 31:1 states: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD.”  Before then; and since then, God has been showing man that He must realize his own self abasement and that He is desperately in need of God for his life to have meaning and purpose. God has created each of us with a void that can only be filled by Him.

This could have been the thoughts of the young Virgin Mary, before she was visited by the angel Gabriel to announce her role in bearing the Christ child. This morning, let us consider this event and see that yet another gift that Jesus came to give was and is assurance.  We first learn that…

ASSURANCE COMES ONLY FROM GOD.

Note Luke 1:26: “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’  “But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be.”  After the angel Gabriel approaches Mary, she was scared to death.  Fear is a real part of life.  Mary was afraid when she encountered the angel.  But notice that the angel dispels her fear by informing her that she is being picked for a very special role in the plans of God.  Verse 30: ‘And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.

This brings up the interesting roles of angels.  An angel tops some of your Christmas trees in your homes.  What place do they have in the Christmas story?  Last week, we saw how the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Christ.  “Do not fear, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people….”  Here we see the role of Gabriel, one of God’s special angels.  Let us be reminded of the role of angels.  They are given the task of announcing, providing protection, and service. As Hebrews 1:14 teaches, they are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.

Here, the angel would tell Mary that she was a special individual in the plans of God.  She is not our co-redemptrixt, as some churches teach.  Nor is she to be the recipient of our prayers.  We pray to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; not another human being.  But Mary is the mother of the Lord Jesus and a willing servant to the things of God.  She was a woman of incredible faith.  Her statement in verse 38 is a statement we should all adopt for our lives: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Just as Mary needed God’s assurance, we do too.  Through a colleague of mine, he received this quote from someone in the ministry: “When bad things like this happen, people ask, “why doesn’t God do something?”  Well, He did.  He sent Jesus.  It is our job to let them know.” Not only do we find that assurance comes from God, next, we discover that…

REAL ASSURANCE IS FOUND ONLY IN JESUS.

What will happen is listed in verse 30.  This explains who Jesus is.  First of all, “He will be great.”  Secondly, “He will be called the Son of the Most high.”  Then there are two statements that attribute the office of the Messiah to Jesus.  “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  His kingdom will have no end.”  There is tremendous Jewish significance in this statement.  I mentioned last week that in the first century, there was a sense of anticipation for Jews surrounding the coming of the Messiah.  He was seen as a rescuer, a political figure that would come and crush God’s enemies, particularly the Romans.  But Jesus is a different type of Savior.  He saves from the guilt and power of sin.

This citation is a reference from the book of Daniel, 7:13.  It says: “I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. 14 “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”  Many times, Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man.  That was because He fulfilled this reference in the book of Daniel as God’s unique Son.

Christians live with the knowledge that God is upon His throne.  He reigns perfectly.  He will right every wrong and bring justice to the earth one day.  Although I experience heinous crimes, disease, disappointment and stress in this life, God has so ordered my existence that my comfort is not the main objective, but that I may be formed to be more like Christ, so that I can live and reign with Him when He returns.  Paul wrote in Romans 7:24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God– through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

There are those things to be afraid of; but our fear should be diminished by the assurance that we have in Christ.  Listen to the following testimony by Subal Dang from India.  He writes of Bhubaneswar, a city in central India, where 1.9 million people live.  “Bhubaneswar is mostly Hindu.  Nearly 95% of the surrounding Orissa State is Hindu.  This perspective dominates the government, and it can make it difficult to be a Christian at times.  The radical Hindu groups are the most dangerous.  In 2008 there was some very significant violence directed toward Christians in my area. Some Christians were killed, churches were burned, and many lost their homes and property.

This continues in Orissa where Christians still live in a state of insecurity and danger.  Sometimes government food supplies that should be distributed among the poor are not delivered to the Christians.  In some villages Christian children are not allowed access to government schools.  The former archbishop of the Catholic Church in the Orissa region, Raphael Cheenath has said: “There is no violence, but there is no peace.  About 16,000 families have no homes and Christians are not allowed to return to 20 villages unless they convert to Hinduism.  In many villages in Kandhamal, Christians live with mistreatment and humiliation every day. They are not allowed to take water from the village well, collect firewood, or buy food from shops.  The authorities do nothing to prevent such abuse, even if we have made complaints. Their silence is disturbing.”

Christmas remains one of the most exciting times for Christians even with threats in nearby regions.  It is a time to send cards or give gifts to friends and family.  On Christmas Day, almost all families will go to church services in the morning.  Afterwards there will be a time of feasting for the entire church.  In the evening on December 25, Christians will gather at the church and dance, sing, act our plays, or perform comic routines.  We will also act out Bible stories such as Jesus’ birth.

Christmas is also a time for more intense spiritual discipline in for Christian in my part of the world.  Some people like to fast during this time.  They may fast for 2-3 days around Christmas.  Others will devote themselves to special prayer times.  Some will pray for the gospel message to reach the world or for peace.  Others pray for the gospel ministry in India, especially since other religious groups are more open to the Christian message.

Fear and joy were a part of the very first Christmas.  The angel told (Mary) not to fear because she had found favor with God.  This Christmas, I hope that you, too, will seek favor with God.  If you are feeling fear, being in the center of God’s will is the best place to be.[2]

This morning, we have found that assurance is comes from God and found only in Jesus.  This means that assurance is possible, regardless of our contexts or the experiences we face.  God has created us in such a way that real assurance can only be found in knowing Him.  Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century church father, said: “…because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”[3]

 

A Series of Gifts: Good News!

The following message is based on Luke 2:8-21, when the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus.  It was delievered on December 9, 2012

An announcement is news made public.  Announcements are as useful to today as they were 2,000 years ago.  They come in varied mediums, whether they come across the ticker at the bottom of the television screen, over an intercom, or on the front page of the newspaper.  An announcement is meant to inform or prepare us. Some announcements are good; others are disappointing, still others are devastating.  In Brenda Warner’s book, One Call Away, the author writes of different times in her life when a phone call brought her to the brink.  For instance, a healthy baby tragically injured in the bathtub; a sudden end to a career she loved; betrayal and divorce; poverty; public humiliation; a deadly natural disaster that destroyed her foundation and shook her to her core. In response, she chose to rely on the Lord Jesus Christ and realized that He had a plan through it all.  Announcements can be life-changing.

Luke 2:10 contains most likely the greatest announcement of all time. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”  The scene takes place on the day of or shortly after Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  Some shepherds were in the field outside of the city, watching their flocks.  It is interesting that God chose shepherds to announce the birth of his Son. Shepherds were among the working class of the first century.  They were dirty and smelled of their jobs.  They were not necessarily a prestigious class.  Hard work and poverty can be depressing.  These were people that could’ve probably used some good news.

This announcement comes to them and at first, they are filled with fear.  Another translation states that they were “terrified.”  This was due to the awesome presence of the angelic majesty.  But the angel tells them “do not be afraid.”  For they are about to be given good news of great joy that shall be for all the people.  Shepherds were a good example of that inclusiveness that makes Christmas and Easter and Christianity so special.  The gospel is for every man, woman, boy and girl, regardless of background, skin color, vocation or caste.

The reason that they would not give way to fear is that this announcement was a source of good news that produced great joy.  Our world is desperate for good news.  If we pick up our local newspapers or turn on the radio, or watch the television, we find despair abounds.  Natural disasters, disease, and violence are common.  Love seems to be a premium in our world today. But the angels said this would be good news for all people.  Jesus would come as the world’s only Savior.

In the first century, there was a sense of anticipation for Jews surrounding the coming of the Messiah.  He was seen as a rescuer, a political figure that would come and crush God’s enemies, particularly the Romans.  But Jesus is a different type of Savior.  He saves from the guilt and power of sin.  Remember what the angel said to Joseph as we studied last week from Matthew 1:20: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

In order to appreciate the good news, you must first understand the bad news.  Each one of us has disobeyed God from birth.  Since the fall of humankind, not one of us was taught how to lie, how to be selfish, or how to steal.  We do that naturally.  R.C. Sproul says: “We are not sinful because we sin; we sin because we are sinful.”  Since the God of the universe is perfect in character, all sin greatly offends Him.  But God, looking upon our plight, sent us one who would deliver us from such a dilemma.  This is why Jesus is called the Savior.

This message is becoming more dear to those who believe it and more repulsive to those who hate it.  Consider the words of the late new atheist Christopher Hitchens: “. . . I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

Do you need good news today?  Consider this!  God did something for you many years ago that you could never do for yourself.  He sent His one and only Son Jesus to this earth to save you from sin’s guilt and power.  When you could never erase the guilt of your disobedience, Christ did it for you when He died on the cross.  For those who would turn from their sin and put their trust in Him, Jesus not only forgives us, but grants us eternal life, regardless of your race, your gender or your assets.  Maybe you have no church affiliation, or at least you have not taken God or church very seriously. You may have even said: “That’s not for me; only for religious people.”Could it be because you’ve not looked at Christmas as good news?

Consider where Jesus was born.  Bethlehem is a humble place, a bedroom community of Jerusalem.  We are told of its modesty in Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Today, Bethlehem is small and relatively dirty.  There’s not much is taking place there.  But God often uses the small and insignificant to prove His incredible power.

The fact that Jesus was born in a manger would be a sign for the shepherds.  Why this sign?  Because not many babies are born in a manger.  A manger was a feed trough.  It was not a place to lay a child.  But because the accommodations were not afforded Joseph and Mary, they were born where cattle are kept.  This sign would be another indication of the humility of Christ coming to our world and identifying with us.

Consider Christmas in other parts of the world.  Hear this from Alta Mene, a young man from Albania.  He stated: “While there were many Communist countries surrounding us during the time of the Cold War, were unique.  We were the only one to declare publicly our country to be atheist.  We did so in 1971 under our leader Enver Hoxha.  He told us that Islam had been the religion of the Turkish occupier.  Orthodoxy was the religion of the Greeks, and Catholicism was the religion of the Italian invaders and Austrian imperialism.  It was better just to be Albanian, which he meant to be without any religion.

He did many other things in our country.  Besides declaring our nation to be atheist, he closed our borders.  As a result of his policies, my country became very isolated from other nations.  Nobody could enter or leave.

My father saw the effects of Enver Hoxha’s reign on the Christian community.  He witnessed many attacks on the church.  For example, as a ten year old, he witnessed the destruction of a Catholic Church in the city of Lac.  The local Communist party leader led a group of 200-300 people armed with sledgehammers to demolish the large Church there.  The leader whipped people into a frenzy, invoking nationalistic feelings leading to the destruction of the building.  My father heard stories from this time that some in the crowd were scared.  Others felt that the icons within the church were even shedding tears.  It was a sad memory for him.

My father served as a captain in the Albanian army.  His responsibility was to protect the borders of Albania.  His specific job was to listen for broadcasts indicating an American invasion.

While on duty listening to radio communications, my father came to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Instead of paying attention to possible American messages about an invasion of Albania, he decided to listen to a radio broadcast from Trans World Radio.  This organization transmits the Christian message by radio into countries where it might otherwise not be heard.  The broadcast to which he was listening came from Monaco, a small country near Italy.

His decision to listen to this broadcast instead of doing his military duty could have put our family in great danger.  If my father had been caught listening to the TWR message, he could have been thrown into prison or he could have lost his life.  He was not caught, however, and after listening to several broadcasts, he eventually put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  This changed our entire family’s life and also the Christian community.

During the reign of Enver Hoxha, we could not celebrate Christmas publicly.  The government wanted all celebrations to be on the New Year.  For example, we did not have Christmas trees.  Instead, they were called New Year’s trees.

People were encouraged to gather with their families at New Year and have a family meal.  The government even doubled the meat ration for that week.  Christians, however, still celebrated Christmas.  We did so secretly with a family meal.

Now that Communist times are over, Christmas is a time of great celebration in the church in Albania.  On December 24, our entire church gathers for feasting, music, and dancing.  The following morning we have a worship service.  In the afternoon on Christmas Day, there is a time to spend with family.

God called the shepherds years ago.  They brought their sheep and lambs to Jesus and it reminds me of how the small and humble person can come and know Jesus.  When God acts and calls His people they will come, no matter what man may say.  For years our country refused God, but His call is stronger still!” [1]


[1] Drake Williams, Joy of the World, 45-48.