The gift of Christmas is a person. It is not the blessings and things we think we want. It is not “presents” but rather, presence. Like children, we are so easily distracted by the things we want. We don’t dream that we could be satisfied by a relationship with a person. But what the Bible says is the greatest Christmas present of all time, is a person


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Imagine a woman from a poor family who gets married to a wealthy and talented doctor. She loves the status that her marriage brings. She loves the privilege of belonging to exclusive country clubs, and being treated deferentially by restaurant managers at expensive places. She likes being seen at society events. She enjoys driving newer models of luxury cars. Shopping is a joy and a delight, and she loves the fact that she hardly ever has to worry about how much something costs. She is constantly adding shoes to her closet and jewelry to her case.

Now, she isn’t entirely shallow. Coming from poverty, she knows what it is like. So she likes to give money away too, as long as it doesn’t affect her lifestyle too much. She even gets involved in charitable causes, and those charitable organizations are grateful for the social standing and monetary support that she represents.

But none of these things that she spends so much time and energy in, none of what she values so much, is her relationship with her husband. It comes with the husband, but it isn’t him. When they talk, she likes to talk about new purchases or ways to increase their social status and fame. She talks with him about the possibility of joining new clubs, or maybe trading in that two-year old Mercedes for a brand new Lexus.

This woman rarely listens to her husband when he has something say. Occasionally, she is brought up short when he refuses to spend the money for a trip to Vienna or something like that. Usually, that gets her attention, but mostly, she just complains and asks why. Her relationship with her husband is all about what his wealth and status can do for her. It isn’t about living life with her soul mate. It isn’t about loving him for better or worse. When things are “worse,” she wants to know why, and she wants it to change right away. Although she seldom really expresses love for him personally, she’ll probably never leave him, because she thinks he is the best chance she has to get what she wants in life.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us would look down on somebody like this. Such a person, is clearly using her spouse to get what she wants out of life. Her life is not partnered with his. Her goals and desires are her own; he is a part of them only to the extent that he can grant her wishes. She has not taken the time to really know him. She has not learned to appreciate him, admire him and love him at anything more than a superficial level.

Suppose one day, the doctor comes home to his wife and shares his burning desire to be a medical missionary in central Asia. He wants her to be a part of his mission, heart and soul. It means that they will have sell everything they own, and move to a place where no one knows them, or cares who they are. They will be living in conditions akin to poverty. He invites her to join with him in his work, to be his partner and co-laborer. But this is not what she wants. She married him in order to get all of the things that he now wants to leave behind. She files for divorce.

Brothers and sisters, do we treat God this way?

Christmas is a terrific time to evaluate this, because it involves both an eternal relationship, and bunch of blessings. Which do we focus on more? Would Christmas feel just as joyous to you if you received no presents? Would you be equally as excited about simply receiving Jesus and getting closer to him?

Too often, I think I treat God mostly as a source of blessings, rather than the abiding passion of my life. I want his help more than I want him for his own sake. I like what I think he will give me. But do I like him? Author Larry Crabb said this:

“Offer a young child the choice of having Daddy present Christmas morning with no gifts, or having Daddy absent and a stack of gifts pile high beneath the tree, and the child might choose the gifts. Only the mature value the blessing of presence over the blessing of presents.”

Crabb rightly says it is about maturity. As we get older, presents become less important. But unfortunately for many of us, the same isn’t necessarily true about God’s blessings. Imagine you were given a choice: You could have a life where you had the blessings of getting paid to do what you love, and harmonious relationships, and no financial struggle; OR, you could struggle financially and in relationships and in your work, but the presence and love of God would be incredibly real and dominant in your life. The choice is between a better life, or a closer relationship with God. Which would you take? Would you sell all you own and live in a mud hut to be with the one you love? Or would you find that you don’t love him that much?

We all want both, of course. But we can’t have both unless we want God more than his blessings; and for that we have to be willing to do without his blessings. If we insist upon having God’s blessings along with God, then we aren’t willing to have him without them. We would be like the woman in the analogy above. Once her husband stopped providing what she wanted out of life, she left him.

People do this to God all the time. They don’t get the promotion they want. Sometimes it is much more serious than that – maybe their loved one dies of cancer, in spite of all their prayers. So they walk away from God. He didn’t do for them what they wanted him to, and so they abandon him. This is demand that God give us blessings. It is a refusal to follow Him unless he blesses us. What makes a such a person any different from the shallow woman in our analogy?

The gift of Christmas is a person. It is not the blessings and things we think we want. It is not “presents” but rather, presence. Like children, we are so easily distracted by the things we want. We don’t dream that we could be satisfied by a relationship with a person. But what the Bible says is the greatest Christmas present of all time, is a person. Listen to Isaiah:

For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6, HCSB)

Or to John:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. (1John 5:11-12, HCSB)

Or to Jesus himself:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:6-7, HCSB)

The gift is a person. It is a relationship. He came to be the love of your life. It isn’t about how he can improve your life or fulfill your dreams. It is about HIM. Sometimes, he blesses our lives with good things. Sometimes he does not. Often it is hard to tell why he does or does not. But the point is never supposed to be about the blessings or their lack. It is supposed to be about closeness with Jesus.

The truth is that a life of blessings without God as our prime desire, is an empty one. For proof, look in any celebrity-oriented magazine, any day of the year. You’ll see beautiful, incredibly wealthy people, married to other beautiful people, adored by millions, completely free from any financial burdens, who are desperately unhappy. They have access to the best healthcare. Anyone in the world would jump at a chance to have a friendship with them. Their spouses are attractive beyond belief. They have the money to pursue any path they choose. But droves of them are addicted to drugs and alcohol; they have eating disorders; many of them secretly feel they are ugly; they get divorced in record numbers.

There is no meaningful life in blessings alone. Listen carefully. If our relationship with God is mostly about the blessings he can give us in life, then we are still just living for the blessings. God is just a means to get them, just as movie-acting is just means to fame and fortune. We are no different from those celebrities.

So this year, I plead with you to struggle, as I do, to connect with the truth that the only true and lasting blessing, the only one I need, is Jesus himself. Not what he does for me, but him.

Jesus does promise us a life full of blessing, of freedom from worry, pain and fear. But that is not this life. That is the eternal life we will receive if we choose Him, here and now.

My prayer is that you do that.

Imagine an alternative ending to my little parable. Suppose the woman takes a risk. Realizing what a good man her husband is, she changes her mind. Full of fear, she agrees to go to central Asia with him. There, in service and near-poverty, she learns to love her husband more than she ever thought possible. She finds un-dreamed of joy serving with him, even in spite of the rough conditions. Now the blessings she tried so hard to hold on to mean very little to her. Instead what means the most is being with the one she loves.

May this be your story! Merry Christmas!


This is a message I gave a couple years ago, but I think it is still timely and relevant at this time of year. The first two minutes of the audio are a little rough, but it gets much better fairly soon.


Boy with Advent wreath


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:


To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Advent Anticipation


Advent 2011 . Anticipation

There are just fifteen days until Christmas as I write this. Can you feel it? The shopping carts groan under the weight of food and presents. The Christmas carols are on the radio, and the mall loudspeakers. The food has steadily increased in amount and quality, since thanksgiving. The eggnog is out, and the Christmas trees, and the manger scenes.

Like it or not, the truth is, Christmas is cultural phenomenon. And it is coming. Sometimes, as Christians, we want to fight it. The commercialism can be disgusting. The whole holiday adds a great deal of stress to every December. And everyone seems to miss the point, anyway. We don’t want to get caught up in it all, because we know that when it is all over, we’ll just be left with new stuff that will eventually become old stuff, a ten-foot-high-pile of wrapping paper, a dead tree and maybe seven extra pounds.

But why not, this year, get into the whole Christmas thing again? Get caught up in the anticipation. Get excited, let the joy infect you – and use it to let Jesus draw you closer to himself.

Did you know that there is really only a 1 in 365 chance that December 25 is actually the Birthday of Jesus? That’s right. No one actually knows what the day was. The best guess that scholars have is that it was in the spring, because the shepherds outside of Bethlehem may have been watching the flocks of sheep that were used in nearby Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration (which is in spring). But even that is just a guess.

In the middle 300s (AD) the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. At that time, the big Celebration of the year for the Romans, was Winter Solstice. They celebrated it on December 25, because that was the first day they could tell that the days were getting longer again. It was a big time holiday. It had nothing to do with Jesus.

But Constantine, after becoming a believer, decided to make use of the pagan holiday to help people think about Jesus. So he declared December 25 to be no longer Winter Solstice, but now the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. He used the joy and pageantry in the service of the one true God.

In some ways, in our culture, Christmas has returned once more to a pagan holiday. Christmas trees come from a pagan tradition. The way stores use Christmas to drive sales is disappointing. Probably a majority of the people who celebrate Christmas, don’t care much one way or the other about Jesus. Even so, like Constantine, we can make use of it.

Think of it this way: what is it that we like about Christmas? What gives us so much anticipation and excitement. What makes it “the most wonderful time of the year?” I think most people look forward to one or more of these things:

• Time spent with loved ones.

• Rest – very few people have to work on Christmas

• Receiving gifts (and, in some cases, people look forward to giving them too)

• Food and Celebration

• Connecting with something deeper and bigger than ourselves (often through traditions).

Each of these are worthwhile things in and of themselves. We can make them even more worthwhile by using them to provide a boost to our relationship with Jesus. Let’s look at how.

TIME SPENT WITH LOVED ONES. One the greatest joys of Christmas is spending it with someone we love. One of the greatest sorrows is the first Christmas you spend after a loved one is no longer with you. Either way, use your desire to be with those you love to remind you of the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. Because of his forgiveness, and his resurrection from death, our sorrow will be turned to Joy. One day, nothing will ever part us from those we love:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Rev 21:1-4)

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

REST. We love the break of Christmas. Most people don’t do unnecessary chores at Christmas. We can relax and enjoy at least a single day. But God has promised us a rest that continues, not just for one, day, but forever:

God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. For this good news—that God has prepared this rest—has been announced to us just as it was to them….So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. So let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall. (Heb 4:1-2 & 9-11)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

Turn the mood of this Christmas season into leverage for helping you rest in Jesus.

RECEIVING GIFTS. What did you get for Christmas last year? To be truthful, I cannot remember without putting some serious thought to it. What I do know is this: I am usually thrilled about new gifts, but it isn’t terribly long until the thrill wears off. But the Lord gives us gifts that never spoil or fade:

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Matt 6:19-21)

“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:11-13)

Use the joy and anticipation of gifts to help you receive what the Lord is offering us – his Holy Spirit, and an unfading eternal future.

FOOD & CELEBRATION. Often in scripture, food is used as a metaphor for fellowship with God. As we anticipate eating, and actually eat, let’s consciously invite the Lord to be a part of our lives.

Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” (John 6:47-51)

Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. (Revelation 3:20)

So let’s feast! Enjoy the food. And as we do, worship, and receive Jesus’ invitation to close fellowship.

CONNECTING WITH DEEPER REALITY. I think it is during this season the greatest numbers of people are really open and willing to consider something bigger than themselves. At Christmas we seem more ready to acknowledge that we want more – not just more stuff, but more –something – in our lives. That something is a relationship with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

So this season, get into it. Enjoy the anticipation. Look forward the presents. For crying out loud, have some eggnog for me. But use it all to let God draw you closer. Use it to feed a hunger and thirst for him.

Christmas Morning 2010

Download Christmas Sermon

One of the things we preachers like to point out about Christmas is that it was an incredible sacrifice, not only for Jesus to die on the cross, but for him to become human in the first place. One thing the New Testament emphasizes is that Jesus took our humanity upon himself. He took our sins on himself. He was true God; he became true man and the humiliation was, he took on all the shame and guilt that it means to be true man. That shame began with the human family he was born into.

Jesus Christ was born into a human family. His human ancestors were kings. You may wonder how it it was that a descendant of the ancient kings was unknown, and unrecognized as royal. Let me give you an illustration of how this could be. I am the king of Serbia. Really. Well, actually, I would be the king of Serbia, if Serbia was still a monarchy, and if several thousand people who are ahead of me in the line of succession were to die. So, although my ancestry can be traced back (on one side of the family) to a Serbian king, it doesn’t really matter because Serbia doesn’t have kings any more, and even if they did, there are other people more directly in the line of descent.

So, with Jesus, his ancestors can be traced back to King David and beyond, but that doesn’t mean he was in the direct line of inheritance for the throne, and anyway, the Jewish people had not had a king for 500 years before Jesus came into the world.

Actually, Jesus’ human ancestors include some shocking people. Matthew records the genealogy of Jesus. Luke also records a genealogy, with some slightly different names involved. Matthew is obviously tracing the physical ancestors of Joseph, who was the legal father of Jesus, though not the biological one. Many bible scholars feel that Luke, with his different genealogy, is tracing the ancestors of Mary. Though this is not explicitly stated, it is quite possible.

Matthew’s genealogy skips generations at times (so does Luke’s). We know from the records in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles that not every generation is listed here. So where most English translations say some thing like “Azor, the father of Zadok” it would more accurate to say, “Azor, the ancestor of Zadok.” This is typical of how Jews/Hebrews recorded ancestry. One result is that those generations that Matthew lists were probably included for specific reasons. I want to to look at some of those reasons today.

Matthew starts the list with Abraham. Abraham was a man of faith. But he had his failures. He slept with his slave Hagar; in fear, he lied to kings about his wife Sarah, telling them she was his sister. Isaac, Abraham’s son, was a pretty solid guy. But Jacob, the next in line was a trickster, a con man. He had two wives, and also slept with two different slave girls.

Judah was the next ancestor of Jesus. He was one of the ten brothers who sold their own sibling Joseph as a slave. Matthew records that the line is traced through Judah’s son Perez, who was born to him by Tamar. Tamar was actually Judah’s daughter in law. After her first two husbands died, Judah would not allow her to marry his last son. So she disguised herself as a prostitute, and Judah slept with her, and so the next ancestor of Jesus – Perez – was concieved.

A few generations later came Salmon. Salmon married a prostitute named Rahab (and she wasn’t even an Israelite either) and they had Boaz. Boaz married a foreigner who had been married before, and they had the next ancestor of Jesus.

A while later came King David. David was perhaps the most noble ancestor Jesus had. Yet he had a major moral failure also. He committed adultery and murdered the husband of the woman he had sinned with. Then he married that woman, and she became the mother of the next ancestor of Jesus Christ. That’s right, one set of Jesus’ ancestors were adulterers. Matthew even remembers her, not as the Queen, nor as David’s wife, but rather “the wife of Uriah” (Uriah was her first husband, the one David had killed).

In fact, in this entire list, Matthew mentions only four mothers: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (who was called Bathsheba). Aside from Ruth, the most significant thing about these women is that they were involved in major sins committed by both the mothers and fathers mentioned here. And even Ruth was a foreigner, an outsider to the people of Israel. In other words, it almost seems like Matthew is trying to draw attention to the checkered past of Jesus’ family.

In 1:7-11, Matthew continues with a recitation of the royal ancestors of Jesus proceeding from David until the time of Exile. There are a couple of great kings in this list. Hezekiah was a good ruler and man of faith. Josiah was too. But both of them failed to raise their children in faith. And most of this list is a remembrance of bad kings. Here are a couple of the individuals mentioned:

    • Manasseh did evil in the eyes of the Lord (2 Kings 21:2)

    • Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. (2 Kings 16:2-3)

    • And he [Joram] walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. (2 Kings 8:18)

    • And he [Amon] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. (2 Kings 20:20-21).

You get the picture. Let’s put it plainly. The human ancestors of Jesus the Messiah were a bunch of lecherous, fornicating, murdering, idol-worshiping, faithless thugs. This is the heritage that Jesus was born into. You see it’s not just that Jesus was born into poverty and humility in human terms. He was also born into a heritage of spiritual poverty and spiritual shame. This is the heritage that we all share as human beings. This is what Jesus took upon himself.

When I consider all these, three things occur to me. The first is that Jesus’ humanity extended to having a dysfunctional family, and relatives that did shameful things. Although he himself committed no sins, the sin that corrupted the entire human race was a part of his human heritage. For our sake, he took that heritage upon himself.

God made him who had no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21)

That began at the moment of Jesus’ conception. That sin-heritage was completely and inextricably bound with the humanity that Jesus inherited from Mary, and even the family he inherited from both.

Second, it seems clear that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to deliberately include these particular people in the recounting of Jesus’ human heritage. The Lord seems to be pointing out that he can and does use even deeply flawed people. Some of these ancestors of Jesus never repented, and everything I know about the bible suggests that many of them will be in Hell, not heaven. But even so, God used them, willing or unwilling.

Third, even these deeply flawed people can be redeemed. As I just mentioned, some of them rejected God’s grace. But others – like Judah and David and Josiah – repented and received redemption. In fact, that is why Jesus came – to bring the redemption that had to come both from humanity and from God. Jesus, eternally God, but born human on a particular day in history, is the only way for that redemption to be total and effective. He bore in his nature the weakness of humanity and the strength of divinity.

Maybe you know someone who feels like they already have too many disadvantages to ever become a redeemed, holy follower of Jesus. Maybe you feel like that. Maybe you feel like you could never have anything to do with a Holy God. Well, just look at where this Holy Messiah came from. He didn’t have a better family than you. He wasn’t born in a nicer place. He took on all the disadvantages that humanity has to offer, so that HE could offer YOU every advantage of heaven. Like the gifts we give at this time of year, all you need to do is have the faith to believe the gift is truly given to you, and to reach out and receive it.