Monday, December 19, 2016

The True Spirit of Giving

If you are a parent, can you remember the first time your child opened a gift-wrapped present? If you have a little sister or little brother, can you remember the first time they opened a gift-wrapped present? Some small children don’t seem to understand the concept. They seem to be confused about the activity, or at least hesitant, for sure. Those are the children I like. After all, the pretty paper shouldn’t be damaged, right? And what is this colorful box inside? Other children seem to naturally grasp that this shiny new package somehow now belongs to them, and everyone else better back off. Those are the children who grow up to be dangerous...

But in any event, this business of gift-wrapped-parcel-sharing is by no means something that comes naturally. You need to learn it. You need to be taught it. And the better your teacher is, the more you will enjoy it. And the better your teacher is, the more you will appreciate the marvelous opportunity for relationship-building that gift-sharing is meant to be.

And so, this morning, in anticipation of Christmas, we come to God -- the best possible teacher -- asking Him to teach us. May His example be our standard, and may His gift to us transform us into the people that he has meant us to be. (let’s pray)

As time progresses, it seems to be getting more and more difficult to give and receive gifts. In the not-so-distant past, when folks struggled to make ends meet, a sacrificial hand-made gift could have been the best thing ever. But today, when most folks have everything they need, and many also have everything they want, even an expensive gift can fall flat. We’ve become quite spoiled. Perhaps we’ve become something like that little child, who has become so used to being looked after in every possible way that we’ve lost the magic of gift-sharing.

If you open an internet browser, and ask Google to look up the phrase “the person who has everything” (including the quotes), you get half-a-million hits. Apparently, the challenge of buying a gift for someone who doesn’t need anything is not at all uncommon. Now if you do the same thing with the phrase “the perfect gift”, you get twenty-three million hits! In the history of the world, gift-giving has never been hotter, but I might be tempted to say that in the history of the world, gift-giving has never been emptier.

But the Bible has something to say about that, doesn’t it? (James 1:17)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.

Perhaps if we were to come to the source of all good gifts, we wouldn’t be quite so confused about the whole business of gift-sharing. Unfortunately, of those twenty-three million websites giving advice for the “perfect gift”, God is mentioned in only a tiny fraction of them.

Perhaps the problem can be brought into focus with a few slides. Now these are very much oversimplified, I know, but perhaps in a way that illustrates something important. Here, we see the space in which we can talk about “the perfect gift” of the “Earthly Realms” -- it may be an odd expression, but give it a chance: I hope it will make sense in a minute or two.

Horizontally, we have history: then on the left and now on the right. Vertically, we have “stuff” -- after all, that’s what the Earthly Realms consist of. And this red horizontal line represents the amount of stuff that the average human needs to survive. Basically from the time of Adam and Eve until now fundamental human needs have more or less remained the same: we need food, we need water, we need air, we need shelter, we need clothes. Now the green line represents the amount of stuff that the average human being has. For most of history, the average person has been able to survive -- that is, their basic needs have been met (the green line and the red line were more-or-less the same). But as time progresses, the average person has had more and more, until quite recently, the average person (in Canada, at least) has considerably more than we really need.

Given this situation, we could reasonably describe a gift of something that we already have (that is, below the green line) is, well, pointless. After all, the recipient already has whatever it is that you’ve just given them. On the other hand, how do we describe a gift of something that we don’t need and don’t have (that is, above the green line)? Well, perhaps we need to add another line to our picture. What the average human wants is now represented by the blue line. So when advertisers talk about “the perfect gift”, they are talking about anything that we don’t have (that is, above the green line) and really want (that is, below the blue line). Of course, it is also worth mentioning that those same advertisers make their living trying to make us desire more and more… stuff.

Now while this picture might tell us something about perfect gifts in the “Earthly Realms”, God would like us to appreciate that there are other -- and considerably more important -- dimensions in life, which we could call the “Heavenly Realms”: spiritual, intellectual, social, and moral dimensions of humanity, where love and joy and peace and hope reside. And in these (more important) dimensions, nothing much has really changed throughout history. What the average person has is very little in comparison to what we as humans really need.

But here, in the Heavenly Realms, when scripture talks about a “perfect” gift, this is what it means:

Yes: by “perfect”, the Bible means complete -- entirely filling up the space between what we currently have and what we actually need. Nothing could possibly be added to it. And this is, of course, what it means when we read in 2 Peter (1:3):

His divine power has bestowed on us everything we need for life and godliness

“Everything we need” -- when Jesus cried, “it is finished”, he meant it! There really was nothing more to be done. Every spiritual blessing -- including the fellowship that we can share; including the resurrection that we will share with him; and including the Holy Spirit and the gifts that he bestows -- flow naturally from this gift package that God is offering to us this Christmas. That’s what it means when we read in Ephesians (1:3):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms.

Oh, there’s that phrase: “Heavenly Realms”. While we might be tempting to imagine that when the Bible talks about Heavenly Realms that it is talking about something other-worldly and far in the future, this simply cannot be the case.  The expression “Heavenly Realms” is just biblical language for those dimensions of experience that I mentioned earlier -- the domain of love and peace and joy and hope. We can see this clearly just one chapter later (2:6), Paul writes:

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms with Christ.

Please note that the phrases “raised us up” and “seated us with him” are both in the past tense. This means that the heavenly realms aren’t part of our future experience at all (something to look forward to). Instead, we are expected to participate in the heavenly realms in the present.

But let’s return for a moment to that curious gap between what we want and what we need. It is, unfortunately, a gap that we rarely, if ever, think about -- even as it grows larger and larger in the Earthly Realms. Perhaps this is because we are so strongly tempted to pretend that the things we want are, indeed, the things we need...

But there is a similar gap between what we want and what we need in the Heavenly Realms, except that here, it is actually the other way around! When it comes to peace and love and joy, it is strangely difficult to “want” even a fraction of what we really “need”.

As C. S. Lewis put it:

Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.

Or, as Albert Hayhoe used to say:

We can have as much of Jesus as we want, and our lives will show how much we want.

And that’s why Paul prays for the church with words like these (Ephesians 3:16-19):

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit; that Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him;... and that you might have the power to understand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.... Then you will be fulfilled with all the fullness of God’s life and power!

Our Loving Heavenly Father wants to give each of us -- in the present life, spilling over into the life to come -- the spiritual fullness that He makes available through the gift of his son. That’s the language that the Bible uses, over and over, when describing Jesus’ life purpose:

the Son of Man [came] to give his life as a ransom for many. - Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45
He … did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - Romans 8:32a
the Lord Jesus Christ… gave himself ... to rescue us from the present evil age - Gal 1:4
the Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me. - Gal 2:20b
Christ loved us and gave himself up for us - Eph 5:2
Christ Jesus… gave himself as a ransom for all people - 1 Tim 2:6
Jesus Christ… gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness - Titus 2:14
For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Son… - John 3:16

And these words “redeem” and “rescue” and “ransom” give us the sense of great chasm of spiritual need -- that gap between what we have and what we need -- that Christ has come to fill in for us . . And that last one? (you all know it) “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.” …the gift is given [so that] we won’t perish. We were born into a world that promises far more than it can deliver. We became slaves to sin, having been tricked by its false and worthless assurances. And now we’re stuck. In moments of clarity, we realize the dilemma we find ourselves in -- a world full of chaos, corruption and conflict -- and we recognize that we have no means within ourselves to escape.

But now that God has provided a way of escape through his Son, we can say with the apostle Paul (2 Cor 9:15): Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! And this provision of deliverance was part of God’s plan from the get-go! We see it powerfully prophesied for us in Isaiah (9:6-8):

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
   and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
   Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isn’t it wonderful to know that in the middle of any political upheaval in the world that the government will one day come down squarely on Jesus’ worthy and capable shoulders? In our mixed-up day and age, we often put our trust in our local government -- expecting them to provide all those things that we need in the Earthly Realms -- as we imagine that these are the most fundamental of human needs. But as we see roughly every four years, local governments don’t last. And they can only very rarely be trusted at all. Jobs come and go; health-care only goes so far. And local governments can never touch the emptiness we so often encounter in the cores of our being. In order to address our inner chaos, corruption, and conflict, we need to come to God, the giver of truly perfect gifts.

And here it is: to us a child is born; to us a son is given. And if you don’t think this could possibly be talking to you personally, let me remind you of the Angel Gabriel’s words to the shepherds on that first Christmas morning (Luke 2:10,11):

...behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

And this child, given to us at Christmas time, has come to address our deepest needs -- not our earthly wants, but the deepest longings of every human heart -- not to band-aid them, but to finally and completely resolve them in each of our lives. As D. A. Carson writes:

If God [knew] that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he [knew] that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God [knew] that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he [knew] that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he [knew] that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and [so] he sent us a Savior.

This Savior is the son who was born for us. This Savior is the child who has been given to us. And the words that are used to describe him are remarkable indeed:

Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Let’s consider each of these briefly, as we unwrap this marvelous gift!

Wonderful: this Hebrew word means “miraculous”, in the same way that “signs and wonders” means “signs and miracles”. And the fact that our gift this morning is miraculous colors every other aspect that we we be considering shortly. It signals that the domain of this gift really and truly is beyond the Earthly Realms! And what could be more miraculous than the Creator of the Universe voluntarily squeezing himself into human form to demonstrate his love for other human beings? As many of you know, I’m a fan of babies. And I would like to think that any well-tuned human being must marvel at the wonder of any baby. But this Christmas baby was a marvel among marvels -- as the Bible has it, he is the very image of the invisible God. “Wonderful” simply means supernatural -- and our deepest needs are only met with a touch of the wonderful.

Counselor: in ancient Hebrew, the role of a counselor is not so much to give advice as it is to give purpose. In fact, the Hebrew word “counselor” comes from the root word that is translated “purpose”. What this means is that this Christmas child was part of an eternal plan. We say (and rightly so) that Jesus is the true meaning (or purpose) of Christmas... but Jesus is also the true meaning of history! But he is not just the intended focus of history; he is the source of true purpose himself. Purpose is the most powerful antidote to the human condition. It is impossible for boredom or depression to take hold of a life lived to this purpose. And with these two words (“wonderful, counselor”) this Christmas baby is presented to us as a miracle of purpose, given to us, born for us, dispelling the chaos that can so easily take over our lives. And remember what the Bible says about those called according to His purpose? God is working in everything for their good.

But there’s more! This gift is not just a miracle of purpose. After wonderful and counsellor, we see this gift to us will also be called the Mighty God and Everlasting Father; let there be no doubt: this is no ordinary baby. He represents the Great and Eternal God of Heaven and Earth like no-one else. As Jesus says in John 14(:9): Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

But the adjectives are also important: Mighty God calls out his great power. And it is a power that he wants to share with us. But we need to understand that power in the heavenly realms is very different from power in the Earthly Realms. In the Earthly Realms, power is outward-directed -- the ability to manipulate and control people, resources or events. But in the Heavenly Realms, power is directed inward. We’ve already read Paul’s prayer for the power to understand God’s love, but in Colossians, we are told that God’s power strengthens us, giving us endurance and patience. This is where the power needs to be applied in each of our hearts. Yes: we are that messed up.

But that’s not all: this gift to us is also Everlasting. In this, He provides the perfect solution to the decay that we all suffer from. Instead of things that fall apart and things that wear out, what we are offered instead is a powerful permanence. And what could be better to combat the corruption that eats away at our enjoyment of life. This permanence, too, is part of God’s Christmas gift to you.

Finally, this Wonderful Counsellor Mighty God Everlasting Father is also the Prince of Peace: He is the source and the dispenser of peace. In John 14:27, Jesus says to us:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

This is the peace that passes all understanding, eliminating conflict, first in our souls and subsequently in our relationships. Yes: in the package of His Only Son, God bridges the gap, filling in our needs.

In the Earthly Realms, we already made a list of all the things that humans really need. Now we can make a similar diagram for the Heavenly Realms.

Each of us needs purpose, and power, and permanence and peace.  These are our needs in the spiritual and moral dimensions of life. And these are also the things that God bountifully supplies to us as part of his Christmas package to us. By His power, His purpose ransoms us from chaos, His permanence redeems us from corruption and His peace rescues us from conflict.

So what can we expect if we unwrap this indescribable gift? Well, I can guarantee that it won’t wear out in a day or a week or a month. That’s what happens with gifts in the Earthly Realms, isn’t it? Here’s a picture of it: the impact that even a “perfect gift” has almost always looks like this.

My Father always used to marvel at how short-lived were even the most hotly-desired Christmas gifts. He used to tell us that we ended up playing with the boxes long after the toys were forgotten in the closet. But that only happens when one’s desires run so far ahead of one’s needs.

In the Heavenly Realms, where the opposite situation is the case, the impact of God’s perfect gift has a much different shape:

No one can predict what the immediate impact is. For many, this can be huge; for others, it starts gradually. But as we continue to unwrap this perfect gift, its impact builds on itself, until the point when those Heavenly Realms become the sum of our human experience.

So how do go about unwrapping this gift? Well, the gift is a person, the person of Jesus. And as a result, the way forward is to develop a relationship with Him. Read the gospels; get to know him better. Talk to him: he will hear your prayers. Hang around his brothers and sisters. Invest some of your life in his service -- for where your treasure is, your heart will be also. Be intentional and be patient.

We have a choice this morning. We can give in to chaos, corruption and conflict, or we can follow this Wonderful Counselor Mighty God Everlasting Father Prince of Peace. He can be trusted, and he will deliver -- not just what we imagine that we need, but we can count on him to provide purpose, power, permanence, and peace: these are our deepest needs; these are part and parcel of God’s Christmas gift to each of us. Do take the time to unwrap it this Christmas.