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!

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