Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When Wise Men Behaved Like Children

The oldest continuously worshiping church in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built above a cave that many believe to be the birthplace of Christ. Now the beautiful thing about this church is that in order to enter through the Church of the Nativity one must pass through a very low gate.  You cannot enter without bending low; and then again when one approaches the cave itself, only those who stoop low, only those who make themselves small, like a child, may enter. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18: 3). In Matthew 2: 1-12, we learn about the wise men who behaved like children in order to find the Christ Child; and in so doing show us how to find him too…

Like curious children, these wise men said, “Why?”  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem...” following a star (Matt. 2: 1). Nothing is more childlike then curiosity, then the willingness to go on an adventure of discovery. The first question these wise men asked is not directly stated in this passage…but it is definitely implied. The first question these wise men asked was “Why?” as in “Why did that strange star appear in the east?” It is a sad day indeed when we stop learning, when we stop seeking, when we stop asking questions. May God save us from a jaded indifference that assumes we’ve already seen it all, done it all, and know it all.

Now these wise men or “magi” from Persia studied the motion of the stars, and so when they saw the star (literally, the astral phenomenon) they asked themselves, “Why?” Why has this light appeared in the sky? I asked my girls what they were most curious about when it came to the story of the wise men…and they said, “The star.” I am confident that these wise men saw an extremely bright object in the sky which clearly communicated to them that someone very special was to be born in the land of the Jewish people; and that this “star” led them to Bethlehem. But what was this "astral phenomenon" exactly?

Just over 2000 years ago there was a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn three times in a portion of the sky known as “the Fishes”. Jupiter signified the birth of a world ruler. Saturn was the star of the Jews/Palestine; and the fish constellation signified “The Last Days.” They interpreted this alignment of stars to mean that a great Ruler who was to usher in a new age was to be born in Palestine the following year. We don’t “think” that people interpreted “the star” in this way, we “know” they did… from ancient Babylonian calendar tablets that speak about this event the year before. The wise men saw something in the sky that pointed to an event of great significance… and so they followed the star and its message to Jerusalem. For an excellent survey of opinions on the star phenomenon, see The Magi & the Star by Michael J. Miller.

As I said, the first question these wise men asked was, “Why?” They were wise because they asked questions; they were wise because they knew they didn’t know it all. They were wise because they were not afraid to act like curious children. On Christmas Eve, one of our middle school boys had a simple line in a Christmas play loosely based on the story of The Little Drummer Boy.  Playing the part of the Bethlehem star, he kept repeating confidently, “I’m a star!" But the big moment came when he declared to the wise men, "I'm a star…but the real star is in there!” (pointing to the manger).  The wise men knew who the real star was…and their curiosity brought them to where he was.  May God give us the curiosity of a child. May he give us the courage to ask the most important questions of life: Why am I here? Why did God bring me into this world? What is God’s will and how can I be part of it?

Like trusting children, these wise men, asked “Where?”  “‘Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened… and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet…” (Matt. 2: 2-5).  Notice that these wise men believed so strongly that they were being led to this Child that they boldly walked into Jerusalem and asked Herod, ‘Where is he?’ In other words, they had faith that he would be there!

Last Sunday, the day after Christmas, I took a quick survey of our families during the worship service. "Who was first to get up Christmas morning?" I asked the children. "Was it you, or was it your mom or dad?"  I was wagering that mom and dad did not have to set their alarm clocks on Christmas morning; and the quick survey proved my theory.  These kids were the first out of bed...up at dawn…knocking on the door...tugging at their parents' arms...begging them to get up -- even if (like me) you went to bed at 1:00 in the morning after leading a late night Candle Light Service.  There was no mercy!  And why do children do this? Because of those presents under the tree. They knew…they believed…they trusted that what was in those beautifully wrapped presents was something wonderful, something special, something good; and that trust was confirmed.  Which is what happened when these wise men with childlike trust inquired of King Herod where the Messiah was to be born. Their faith was confirmed.... confirmed by the words of the scribes and Pharisees from God’s word, confirmed by the promise of God that the Messiah was coming: “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" (Micah 5: 2).

Like amazed children, these wise men said, “Wow!”  “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2: 11-12). The word that describes the attitude of these wise men when they come to Bethlehem is wonder (or “Wow!” for short). They were “overwhelmed with joy” at the sight of the star which with the aid of God’s word led them to Bethlehem… and then even more amazed when they saw the One they had come to greet…the Christ Child before whom they “knelt down to pay homage.”

Children teach adults how to say, “Wow!” When a child is born, there is an adult who is saying, “Wow!” When a toddler first begins to walk, there is an adult who is saying,  “Wow!” When a baby says her first words, someone is saying, “Wow!”  I read about several children that made me say “Wow!” recently.  In April of this year, 16 year old Alex Griffith, who was adopted as a baby from a Krasnoyarsk Russia hospital by a Maryland couple, raised over $60,000 to design and build a playground for the orphans back home. Alex has cerebral palsy. In August, 9 year old Logan Hearn saved the life of his 2 year old brother when he saw him floating face down in the family pool thanks to a CPR class he took and his willingness to correct his distraught parents who were doing it incorrectly. In March, a 12 year-old girl saved the lives of hundreds of island inhabitants off the coast of Chile, when she sounded the village alarm following the massive 8.8 earthquake warning them of the giant tsunami wave that soon followed....

Children teach us to say, “Wow!” And no Child has wowed us more than the One born in Bethlehem’s stable…. We wonder at the humility of our Lord who chose to be born not in a palace, but in poverty, in a cave most likely, where he lay in the crook of a woman's arms. The same amazement that we feel even today in his presence…was felt by the wise men also as they knelt down to worship, open their treasure chests, and then return by another road.  First, they knelt down and worshiped, they gave honor to the King of kings. Next, they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts (and the best gift of all, was the gift of their love and their loyalty). Then, warned by an angel, they returned by another road. Now that’s a phrase we can easily pass over. But it’s an important one. King Herod wanted these wise men to return to Jerusalem and inform him where the Christ Child was…not so that he could worship him, but so that he could destroy him. But they were so amazed at the Christ Child that they chose to obey the heavenly vision instead of King Herod.

As a boy, one of my favorite memories was our summer vacations at my grandparents’ farm house in Belen, New Mexico, where my dad and his sister grew up. We looked forward to seeing our grandma and grandpa, and to playing with our cousins. Now beside their house were some huge cottonwood trees that the four cousins would play beneath for hours… swinging on the tire swing, building forts and lighting a few stolen matches; going fishing with grandpa, and hunting arrowheads with grandma. We didn’t care about the heat of August or the mosquitos…. they were some of the happiest days of our childhood.  About four years ago, we had a wonderful family reunion in the Sacramento mountains of New Mexico…and after it was over we drove up to Belen; to the land on which my grandparents’ house was built. Grandma and Grandpa are in heaven now, and the house is no longer standing, but the huge cottonwood trees are still there, just as strong and beautiful as ever. So I decided to take some fallen wood from that tree and with it I fashioned a two foot cross, which hangs in my office. That cross reminds me of my childhood…and the Great Family Reunion that is coming for all who trust in the Savior. It reminds me of the little town of Belen, which is Spanish for Bethlehem. And it reminds me of Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” Christmas is past…but the same Jesus who was born in the little town of Bethlehem invites you to come to him today as the wise men did two thousand years ago…with the curiosity, the simple trust, and the wide-eyed amazement of children as we receive Gods’ greatest gift…who is Christ himself.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Christmas Price Tag

After 85 degree heat last Sunday, we’re finally getting some winter weather here in Southern California…continuous rain through Thursday… But that’s nothing compared to Paris which had the heaviest snow fall in 25 years this past week, forcing 8,000 people to spend the night in the airport and nearby company offices , and shopping malls. And don’t forget Great Britain. They’re having the heaviest snowfall in 50 years, with minus 9 degree temperatures and possible 18 foot snow drifts, closing more than 1000 schools. Winter makes us appreciate the gift of light and heat so much more, doesn’t it? It’s the shorter days and the longer nights that make the holiday lights, candles, torches, heaters, and fireplaces such a welcome part of any home…

There are few people on earth who have not felt cold and dreary, or who have not experienced days when it seemed like it would be "always winter and never Christmas" (to borrow a phrase from The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe); days that seemed frozen in darkness. But I’m here to proclaim to you the good news that the blazing Light of Christmas has come. For as the shepherds gathered around a warm fire, “keeping watch over their flock by night,” an angel of the Lord stood before them “and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, 'Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy for all the people!'” news that the light of the world has come, news that the long winter was over and that the gift of Christmas, the Light of the World, has arrived: "for to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). In the Greek text, three simple words follow one after another in this verse: For you (humin)…today (sameron)…a Savior (soter)!  I'd like to focus on each of these in turn, because they remind us that Christmas has both a gift tag and a price tag.

The gift of Christmas is given for you.  I remember how exciting it was to awake on Christmas morning to a tree surrounded by gifts…and see on the gift tag the miraculous words, “To Steve.”  I love the personal nature of the angels words: “There is born for you (humin can be trans. either “to you” or “for you” )…a Savior.”

The angels do not make their announcement in some vague, impersonal way. This was no automated email confirmation; no computerized mass mailing telling me that I’ve won some bogus prize…if I subscribe to three magazines. No, this was a personal invite to the most important event in history: “There is born for you…a Savior” and it was said to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep. Remember that shepherds were regarded by many as no better than robbers. Yet, these ordinary shepherds, who made their living not in golden palaces but out in the fields, were the first to be told about the birth of the King of kings. The promise of Christmas is for you too, the angels seemed to say.

Sometimes we say to ourselves, “No, it can’t be for me…. We assume that God’s gift is for holy people, not messy people …people who have failed and faltered …people with doubts and dusty dark closets. Surely the good stuff is reserved for messless people, not messy people like me.” Now listen carefully to the angel's words: "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people" (Luke 2: 10). The angel did not say that the gift of Christmas was good news for some people or for the right people or for a select people, but for all people…and that means that God’s gift is for you….” 

The gift of Christmas is given for you…and it is given, today As Jack Hayford used to say, "Not yesterday which would mean you’ve already missed it. Not tomorrow, which means you still have to wait for it. The promise is for today."  I’m thinking of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken's classic fable who awakens from his visitation by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; now a reformed man and desperate to right the wrongs he has done to Bob Cratchit and so many others. Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head….

“What’s to-day?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day?” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it!”

Friends, the promise of Christmas is for today…and you haven’t missed it!  When the angels’ announce Jesus’ birth, the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing (literally, "this word" / rhema) that has taken place" (Luke 2: 15). God’s word is an event that comes alive today in Christ…as when Jesus said after reading the prophet Isaiah, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The assurance of God’s love and healing power is meant to be ours today: For “Jesus said to [Zaccheus], ‘Today salvation has come to this house’….” (Luke 19:9) and the Bible says, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  Do you recall Jesus’ words to the thief who was crucified beside him? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Today…today…today!

But notice how the shepherds respond to the angels’ announcement. They say to one another, “Let us go now  to Bethlehem and see….” (15). That says to me that if the promise of Christmas is for today… I must respond asap, without delay. Human beings spend a lot of time dreaming about and worrying about the future or regretting and longing for the past. In the meantime, we forget to live in the grace of this present moment with God (like the shepherds) and experience all that he has for us today. God means for you to receive and to share with others today… the truths of his Word… the gift of His healing … the gift of salvation & eternal life. To paraphrase Ebenezer, “You haven’t missed it!" It’s not too late to receive his gracious gift of love… and it’s not too late to share his love, his compassion, his forgiveness and grace with others. The gift of Christmas is for you, and it’s for today, but there is one more thing we need to know about the gift of Christmas...

The price tag of Christmas was paid by the Savior When we are younger most of our wishes are material in nature; but as we grow older hopefully we begin to understand the deeper meaning of Christmas. Years ago, Amy Grant recorded a song about her Grown-Up Christmas List
So here’s my lifelong wish,
my grown-up Christmas list,
not for myself, but for a world in need:
No more lives torn apart,
that wars would never start,
and time would heal all hearts.
And everyone would have a friend,
and right would always win,
and love would never end.
This is my grown-up Christmas list.
 God wants us to live in such a way that this Christmas wish is possible; and that’s why he did what was necessary to bring it about. That's why he sent his Son: “to seek out and to save what was lost” (Luke 19: 10); to save this world from sin, fear, cruelty, and death.  As children we don’t realize that most wishes have a price tag. Sometimes when gifts are exchanged between families there is a debate about the price they are willing to pay for one another's wishes. (Last year you bought Uncle Albert a nice new raincoat… this year you’re thinking a pair of reindeer boxer shorts.) As families grow and finances get tighter, the limit may get smaller and smaller.

But there was no limit to what God was willing to pay for his Christmas wish – his wish and desire that all might know him, turn from evil, and walk in his ways. There was no limit to what he was willing to do…Even if it meant descending from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into our humanity. Even if it meant sharing his life and light with the very ones who would later reject and desert him. Even if it meant accepting the anguish of the cross before the joy of Easter. Even if it meant the slow millennia long transformation of this world through his flawed but Spirit-filled people. All of this, God was willing to do to pay for his Christmas wish. The gift of Christmas is for you, it’s for today…and it’s Jesus our Savior who paid the price for it.

We’ve been having some stormy weather this week…and it reminds me of a story by veteran ABC Radio commentator Paul Harvey who once told a story he called, The Christmas Storm.  Listen to Harvey's original radio broadcast by clicking on this link.  The transcript of Paul Harvey's story is below:
This is about a modern man, one of us, he was not a scrooge, he was a kind, decent, mostly good man, generous to his family, upright in his dealings with others. But he did not believe in all that incarnation stuff that the Churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense to him and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just could not swallow the Jesus story about God coming to earth as man. I’m truly sorry to distress you, he told his wife, but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve. He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he would much rather stay home, but that he would wait up for them. He stayed, they went. Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier, then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper.

Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another…and another. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. Well, when he went to the front door, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm and in a desperate search for shelter they had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze. He remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter -- if he could direct the birds to it. He quickly put on his coat and galoshes, trampled through the deepening snow to the barn, opened the door wide, and turned on a light. But the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in -- and he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow…making a trail to the yellow lighted wide open doorway of the stable, but to his dismay the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them, he tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms -- instead they scattered in every direction except into the warm lighted barn.

Then he realized they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature, if only I could think of some way to let them know they can trust me. That I’m not trying to hurt them, but to help them. How? Any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.

If only I could be a bird myself he thought. If only I could be a bird and mingle with them and speak their language, and tell them not to be afraid, and show them the way to the safe, warm barn. But I'd have to be one of them, so they could see and hear & understand.  At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sound of the wind. He stood there listening to the bells. Adeste Fideles. Listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
The gift of Christmas is for you.  The gift of Christmas is for you today; and the gift of Christmas is the Savior born in Bethlehem’s manger....

King Jesus, you are the Christ of Christmas! Help me to know today that just like these shepherds, I too have been personally invited to enter Bethlehem’s stall, and to celebrate your coming. I know now that the greatest Christmas Gift of all was not wrapped in colorful paper with fancy ribbons or bows, but in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. I thank you that you are that Gift, the Infinite One who became an Infant, the Teacher who shows me how to live, the Redeemer who bore my sin on the cross, the King who is risen from the dead. As I turn from the things I know are wrong and place my faith in you, I confess you to be my Lord and my Savior, and thank you for making me a member of your Forever Family. Please cleanse me and heal me, fill me with your Holy Spirit, and set me on the path of Eternal Life that I may celebrate the Gift of Christmas today…and every day of my life.  Amen!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

God's Toy Story

The other day, I saw the Nutcracker ballet with my family. It’s the story of a girl who receives the gift of a toy soldier, a soldier that magically comes to life and takes her on a great adventure. As I watched the performance… I started thinking (with a little prompting from a chapter in Lewis' Mere Christianity entitled, "The Obstinate Toy Soldier") about how many children’s stories have this same theme. Can you name a few? Corderoy, Raggedy Anne & Andy, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio; and the popular film…Toy Story where toys only pretend to be lifeless when their owners are not around.

In that movie, all the toys know they are just toys…except for one: Buzz Lightyear. He’s the one who thinks he’s really a Space Ranger on a mission from Star Command: “To infinity and beyond!” he likes to say. That is until he sees a TV commercial selling Buzz Lightyear action figures for Christmas… and he discovers the truth. Of course, he learns that while he may be just a toy, he can still bring joy to a child’s heart (Please join me in a collective, "ahhhhhhh").

Why is it that we are so fascinated with stories about toys and playthings coming to life? There are probably several reasons: but I think it’s because we have a God-given desire to nurture and bring forth life; and because we dream of being forever alive ourselves, to go to infinity and beyond. And now we are getting closer to the message of Christmas and the message of John 1: 1-12, for…

What children (and adults) make believe, God has the power to do. John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1: 1, 10). In the beginning, says John, was the Eternal Word, the Logos; a word that enbodies the Hebrew concept of wisdom (hokmah)  and the Greek concept of reason and mind (logos).  John says that this Logos is the eternal, creating, illuminating, sustaining mind of God that has always existed (Barclay).

Now it’s the testimony of the gospels that in the person and work of Jesus the invisible God is made visible. In his words, in his actions, in his love and compassion, and most of all, in his death on the cross and resurrection…we see God, hear God, experience the victory of God over the darkness of this world. What we dream of doing as children (bringing things to life) Christ did among us: “in him was life,” says John, “and that life was the light of all people.”

In the middle of the 3rd century, a fanciful story about Jesus… The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written to satisfy those who were curious about Jesus’ boyhood. Though these are tall tales to be sure…and Jesus is sometimes portrayed as an impulsive trickster and magic worker (the authentic gospels are very lean in their accounts of Jesus as a boy, and as a worker of miracles.  Miracles always have a purpose and are never done for ostentatious display), there is one story I’d like to share with you…

When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed. Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him. And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows. And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking. When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends (trans. by Tony Burke, 2009).
Now I find this story interesting because (1) it portrays Jesus playing – which I am sure he did; and (2) it portrays Jesus doing as a child, what every child dreams of doing; and what countless stories help us to imagine doing, bringing a toy to life. And though I am fairly certain that this is not an authentic gospel story…there is an important truth here that is grounded in the canonical Gospels: that when God’s Son was born, it was his mission not just to live as one of us…but to bring us to life. And again, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:4).

Now this is an incredible offer…to be brought to life and all, but we have to remember that there can be no resurrection without a death; that redemption and transformation often involves letting go of things we’re convinced we can’t live without; and so not everyone appreciated Jesus’ message. Indeed…

What God could hardly conceive, human beings did. For “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him…” (John 1: 11).  When I was a boy I had a favorite teddy bear…I named him Snowy. He was my first not quite real friend. I imagined that he got cold when I went to school so I put him under the covers. I imagined that when my grandma had to sow back his torn arm, and give him a new mouth, that it might have hurt and I felt sad. I imagined that when I had hugged all the fur off him, that his fur was actually growing back…but I could never have imagined that Snowy, my bear, would ever turn against me.  And yet what a child can hardly conceive or imagine, we did when God offered us his Son. Lewis asks us to imagine a tin soldier that you had the power to heal and bring to life… but that toy, stubborn and willful refused to be changed, fearing that the transformation would kill him. Like obstinate toy soldiers, we have feared having our natural life transformed by God into a supernatural life – we have feared that in submitting ourselves to God’s gracious plan…it would mean the death of us.

It’s true, of course, that even the most modest change in our set pattern and way of doing things can be threatening and scary….that overcoming a destructive habit, finding the courage to face one’s fears, to say the words, “I’m sorry,” to ignore peer pressure and live by a different standard than our friends…may feel like death…because it is the death of what’s familiar, safe, and comfortable, the death of our old selves and our old ways. And Jesus did say, “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me!” We may fear that accepting God’s gift to us in Christ will be the death of us…but his promise is this; that…

Those who receive and believe in God’s Son are brought to life as God’s children. "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1: 12-13). About that stubborn toy that didn’t want to become human…fearful that the change would kill him…What would you do as its owner?

Well, this is what God did. He came to us in his Son, Jesus (“and the word became flesh”) -- he became just like us; and then, miracle of miracles, did exactly what we most fear to do…he surrendered himself to the will of the Father even unto death…and was raised up on the third day. Jesus, our fully human Savior, was raised up to new life (a toy soldier had for the first time, become fully alive).  Why did he do this? He did it so that we might become like him…He came to transform toy soldiers into real human beings…. into children of the living God.

How does God change us into his children? There are two sides to this lifelong process (the human side; and God’s side): On the human side it happens, as John says, by our receiving and believing – that is, it happens by our faith and active participation (v. 12a). To “believe” in the biblical sense always involves both trusting and doing. When, for example, Jesus commanded us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven,” it meant that we were to imagine ourselves to be God’s son or daughter; to dress up like Jesus. Now the moment we do that, we realize how different we really are from Jesus. For unlike the Son of God whose will and desire is one with the Father…our interests are often of a very different kind… self-centered, prideful, full of jealousies and fears.

On many Sundays, as we sit in church praying or singing or nodding approvingly of the message, we may inwardly feel like hypocrites….And yet the odd thing is…Jesus wants us to do it. He wants us to call God “Our Father.” He wants us to practice being his children. Question: Why do children love to “pretend”? Why do they dress up in their parent’s clothes? Why does a child pretend to be a knight and slay the dragon…or dress up like a beautiful Queen, presiding over her royal court? Why do children like to play house, dress up their dolls, or go on treasure hunts? They are pretending to be grown-ups. They’re developing their imaginations, sharpening their wits, strengthening their muscles… preparing for grown-up challenges and grown-up responsibilities. When we pretend to be like Christ…we’re doing the same thing. We’re imitating his prayers, we’re imitating his way of speaking and acting and loving. We’re trying to do the things that we imagine he would do if he were us! We may not feel like Christians half the time…but that’s not the important thing. What’s important is that we practice…keeping in mind that as we do so…we have a helper.

Remember that there are two sides to becoming children of God. On the human side it happens by our receiving and believing, but then there is God’s side…"for to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1: 12). The power is not ours…it is his. Power to become children of God…power to serve…power to heal…power to tell others… power to love…and power simply to be and to know that we really are his children.

Do you know you are a child of God yet, brought to eternal life in Christ?  Dr. Fred Craddock tells a story about vacationing with his wife when he noticed a gray haired gentleman greeting people at every table in the restaurant. “I hope he doesn’t come over here.” He didn’t want anyone intruding on their privacy. But sure enough, the man did come over. “Where you folks from?” he asked kindly.  “Oklahoma,” Craddock said. “Splendid state, I hear…and what do you do for a living?” “I teach homiletics at the graduate seminary of Phillips University,” Craddock replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach? Well, I’ve got a story to tell you.” And with that, the man pulled up a chair and sat down. Craddock groaned inwardly, “Oh, no! Here comes another preacher story!”

The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Ben Hooper. I was born not far from here across the mountains. My mother wasn’t married when I was born. When I started to school, my classmates had a name for me, and it wasn’t a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and lunch time because the things they said to me cut me so deep. When I was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in the church on me.

Just about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me. ‘Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?’ he asked. I felt this big weight coming down on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down. But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. ‘Wait a minute!’ he said. ‘I know who you are. I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.’ With that he slapped me across the rump and said, ‘Young man, you’ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.’

The old man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, “Those were the most important words anybody ever said to me, and I’ve never forgotten them.” And as he smiled and walked away, Craddock remembered that on two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected to the office of governor men who had been raised without a father. One of them was a man named Ben Hooper.

Whose boy or girl are you? God’s Son was born so that all who receive and believe in him might be brought from death to life and know they are children of God. Jesus is not playing with us here. He means it; and if that describes the desire of your heart I invite you to pray with me...
Gracious God we thank you for sending us your Son so that we could become true sons and daughters – not by the will of the flesh, but by the will of God, filled with your Spirit and eternal life. We confess that we have behaved like stubborn toy soldiers who, when offered real human life, have chosen to remain dead, painted wood! We have feared what you might do to us, instead of giving thanks for what you want to do for us. Forgive us for our sin and foolish pride. Thank you for showing us in Christ what real human life looks like, and for proving that not even death can destroy the life of those who believe in your name. Therefore, we humbly ask you to change and transform us as we believe in your Son, imitate his life, speak his words, pray his prayers, and do his works. Father, let this Christmas be not only the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, but the celebration of his birth in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If that prayer expressed your heart’s desire, if you claim your inheritance through God’s Son, know that God has claimed you as his child...from this very moment, from this day forward…from here to infinity....and beyond.