Mark 10:15, Psalm 34, Romans 5:6-7

Undisputed Helplessness!

I have argued in previous devotions that both Christmas and heaven are for kids. If so, what are some of the characteristics that make kids more suited for Christmas and for heaven? Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:15).  It is interesting to me that Jesus talks about “receiving” heaven. It is like receiving a gift at Christmas. The Apostle John said that the Word became flesh and lived amongst us, referring to Jesus. He added “to as many as received him” God gave the power to become children of God. The kingdom of heaven must be received the same way children receive a Christmas present.

God is making a list and He’s checking it twice, but it has nothing to do with who’s naughty or nice. We’ve all been naughty and we know it. I remember wondering every Christmas if the fact that I had done some pretty naughty things that year would negatively impact my gift getting at Christmas. It never did! It seems that I’d sometimes be threatened by it. Grown-ups would sometimes say “Santa Claus is watching you!” but by the time I was 10 I knew that there would be lots of gifts under the tree for me. I also knew by that time that there wasn’t any such thing as Santa Claus. I also knew I could never dispute my level of “goodness” or argue my case. I was indeed helpless with regard to the attitude of my parents toward me at Christmas time. It had nothing to do with my naughtiness or my niceness. It had to do with their love. And I would receive their love gifts with great enthusiasm. By the time we were done there would be toys and paper scattered everywhere. That’s the way it was for my sons as well. They were my children!

That’s the way the kingdom of God is. It has nothing to do with our goodness, we all have our own share of naughtiness and that makes us helpless. That’s a good place to be. That’s where David was when he wrote Psalm 34. He says, “I will boast only in the LORD; let all who are helpless take heart. Come, let us tell of the LORD’s greatness; let us exalt his name together.” Our helplessness and God’s greatness makes for a great Christmas celebration! I really like the way the New American Standard Bible translates Romans 5:6-7. It says, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” If we want to enjoy God’s greatest gift of salvation along with the promise of eternal life, we must simply receive Jesus as children receive a Christmas gift.

Matthew 18:3, John 3:3

Christmas is for kids!

Some years ago, I did a series of sermons during the Christmas season on the nostalgia of Christmas and entitled it “Christmas is for Kids.” I came up with that title myself, believe it or not, and then I did an internet search and found that there is an entire foundation with that name, established to make sure that all kids have a very merry Christmas. Their website explains it this way: “We are an all-volunteer run, gift-giving program that assists children who would otherwise go without a gift on Christmas Day.”  We have always supported the “Angel Tree” program which is Chuck Colson’s initiative to make sure that the kids whose parents are in prison receive gifts at Christmas time also. It does seem that the focus of Christmas is children. But it’s for children of all ages.

In my web search for the phrase “Christmas is for Kids” I had over 1 and a half million hits. There are many organizations which have been using that phrase for a long time. There are also many songs with that title. One was by Marty Robbins, one of my favorite western singers from the 60’s, and another by George Jones. The lyrics of Jones’s song were really cute:

Uncle Joe threw snowballs till his fingers froze
And how the snowflakes tickled melting on your nose
There goes daddy down the hill riding on my sled
Well, I guess nobody told him that Christmas is for kids

Momma’s popping popcorn that we’ll put on a string
To wrap around the Christmas tree while everybody sings
Grandma’s telling stories about the things that Jesus did
And grandpa’s telling everyone that Christmas is for kids

Christmas is for kids from one to ninety-nine
And the kid comes out in everyone each year about this time
So as we gather ’round the tree let’s all bow our heads
And thank the Lord for all we have but most of all for kids.

Christmas is for kids, and so is heaven. When his disciples tried to prevent children from coming to him, Jesus said to knock it off because heaven was populated by children. He later went on to emphatically say in Matthew 18:3 “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” When Jesus was talking to one of the leaders of the Jewish nation, he told him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  John 3:3

John 3:16, John 15:13

The Perfect Gift!

One of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received came early in December of 1970. It was our son Chuck! We were in Greenville, South Carolina with my family in Omaha and Kathy’s family in California. It was just the two of us for over a year. But God gave us a great present on our second Christmas together. It made our Christmas 1970 very special. It was a difficult adjustment. We lived in a one bedroom duplex and the baby slept in a basinet in the living room most of the time at nights, then in the middle of our double bed during the daytime. Our landlord really fell in love with the baby, but Chuckie (as we called him) didn’t care too much for her. He’d scream bloody murder when she tried to hold him. Marie would wrestle with him for a few minutes and then hand him back to Kathy. We thought it was funny, but she didn’t.

He was the best Christmas present I ever received, or the greatest gift, because he taught Kathy and I how to love.  He was helpless, messy, hungry, and demanding at times, but that never stopped our love for him. In 1 Corinthians Paul gave an expose on the Spiritual gifts but he concluded with “Faith, Hope and Love. And the greatest of these is Love.” I’ve always found it interesting how Paul put “love” amidst his discussion on the Gifts of the Spirit. Love is the greatest gift we can give or ever receive. During the days when our first son was born, Love was the only thing we really had to give, but it was more than enough. I was reminded of that on my 50th wedding anniversary last year when Kathy gave me a card. She said I’ve given her many things over the years but the “greatest and most treasured of all is your love!” And nothing can be truer than this! The greatest gift anyone can ever give or receive is the gift of love.

Jesus is God’s perfect expression of His love for us. It’s the greatest gift of all. My prayer for myself and all is that His great gift will be our focus this year! And that all our gifts, tied and wrapped, will also be accompanied by love. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved that he “gave….” Then in John 15:13 we read, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Christmas is all about the perfect gift from the perfect giver of all good gifts.

Romans 5:8, John 3:16

Loving and Giving!

Richard Hatch was the winner of the first Survivor game show back in 2000. I never liked the guy very much and after he won, he started doing the talk show circuit. He was on all the big ones: Letterman, Leno, etc. He was arrogant and obnoxious (I guess it takes one to know one!) The most memorable thing about him is what he said that always makes me think about the Christmas tradition of giving. He said, “selfishness is a virtue.” He said, “For example, if you give somebody a gift, it’s because you want that good feeling that comes to you from the act of making someone you care about happy.”

Well, that’s the truth in many ways. I remember shopping as a little boy for my mother and father and wanting to get them something that they would like. Dad always got excited over the handkerchiefs and the socks. Mom loved the cheap perfume. Well, they sure acted like it. It was interesting that as I look back, I realize that there sure wasn’t much for them to get excited about at Christmas time but they sure did act like it. I didn’t fully understand it until I had my own kids and got the joy of giving to them and acting like the pencil drawing of a tree was the greatest gift I could have ever received.  It really does feel good to give to those we love! We truly do have a selfish motive in our giving. We love to make those we love happy and we usually go to some expense to make that happen.

But what if the one you loved most was what you had to give away? Do you see any selfish motives in that? God so loved the world that He gave his “only begotten son.” Jesus is often referred as God’s “beloved son.” Jesus is the one God loved above all others and it was this that God gave up. Instead of pleasing the One He loved, He gave Him up for us! And He gave Him up for us when we were His enemies.  In doing this He “demonstrates His Own love for us in that: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Someone once said that the only purely motivated gift of love was the one God gave us in the person of His only Son. When we look at all the presents under our trees this year, let’s remember the greatest present of all. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved us, you and me, “that he gave His only begotten Son.”

Luke 2:7

What Christmas is All About!

Looking back over my 40 years of preaching, every year when I would sit down to prepare the sermons for the Christmas season I’d think “this year we’re going to focus on the TRUE meaning of Christmas.” I wonder if people got tired of hearing me say that year after year. I don’t think I’ll say it this year. But the sentiment isn’t lost because I do have trouble getting my mind around the depth of the true meaning of Christmas and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully comprehend it: God becoming a man, born in a manger, with the sole purpose of dying at the hands of those He created to pay the penalty for their sins. This is just a little too profound for me to grasp. That’s why it’s great to visit this truth often.

It’s very hard to focus on the real meaning of Christmas at Christmas time. Christmas comes at the wrong time of the year. I mean all the activities of Christmas take my focus off of the true meaning of Christmas.  All of my family Christmas pictures growing up were about the toys and trees.  I got my first bicycle at Christmas. I loved that bicycle (I had training wheels on it for 3 years!) We buy presents for everyone in our family. We send cards and or letters to those far away.  I don’t get the “tree” idea. Where does the pine tree show up in the Christmas story?  I like the idea of lights because Jesus is the “light of the world” and that’s a great symbol. But we take what’s inside, lights, and put them on the outside. Then take what’s outside, trees, and put them on the inside. What’s that all about? We all have parties to go to (maybe not this Covid-19 year) and the list could go on and on. We give and receive presents which are important because it’s the real meaning of Christmas, giving to others because God so loved that He gave His only son for us.

During my pastoral years, I’ve always been too busy with the Christmas season to really enjoy Christmas. I’d preach three sermons the Sunday before Christmas and then a Christmas Eve service.  Since retiring from the pastoral role, I’ve found I’m still very busy at this time of year. I have to get lights up. I need to shop for everyone in my family. I need to decorate the house in some way. Since my wife is still working I’m doing a lot of the cooking! I didn’t realize how much planning and effort that takes. All those years I thought I was the only one that too busy over the Holiday season, but now I find it must have been true for everyone! But, vowing once again, I’m going to do my best not to let all the activity and stress and strains of the season block my view of the true meaning of Christmas: God have us Himself so that we might have eternal life! Linus is absolutely right about the true message of Christmas. Luke 2:7 tells us, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…”

Galatians 4:28-29

We are Children of Promise

Paul wants his readers to understand that since they have put their confidence in Christ, rather than in a religious system, they too are not of Ishmael but of Isaac. Galatians 4:28 says, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.” There are several contrasts between the child of Hagar and child of Sarah. The child of the slave girl, Ishmael, came into the world through natural means. Abraham had sexual intercourse with the slave girl provided to him by his wife Sarah and she conceived and delivered a son. Nothing at all out of the ordinary. This is all completely natural and was the result of the “will of man,” not according to the will of God. Sarah’s son Isaac, on the other hand, was born of a supernatural birth according to the will and promise of God. His conception and birth were God’s promise and not man’s decision. You might also notice that Ishmael was circumcised at the age of 13, the age of awareness, while Isaac was circumcised as an 8 day old infant, an age at which a person is not even conscious of what is taking place around him or the significance of it. In other words, Ishmael represents the rational, legal, and natural relationship with God, while Isaac represents the supernatural relationship.

There are two kinds of births. The first is physical, and every human has a birthdate that marks this event. Then there is the spiritual birth, or as Jesus informed Nicodemus, a “re-birth.” When Jesus said you must be born again, He was referring to the spiritual birth that takes place once a human puts their faith in Jesus and not in religion. One is flesh and one is spirit. One is supernatural, one is natural. The first makes us children of God by creation. The second makes us children of God by redemption. Those redeemed are the spiritual heirs and the legitimate children of God. The others remain slaves according to the flesh.

From the very beginning, there has been animosity between the two children. Galatians 4:29 goes on to clarify the perpetual dynamic that takes place between the flesh and the spirit. Paul writes, “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” Conflict between the two sons of Abraham began from the very start. This jealousy and resentment between Sarah and Hagar and their sons Isaac and Ishmael created an unparalleled hate which has set off wars and atrocities for four thousand years. What Paul is saying here is that those who were trying to pull the Galatian believers back into an observance of the laws were making themselves like Ishmael, while the believers in Christ and God’s grace were like Isaac. We, like Isaac, relate to God based on who we are. We do not relate to God like Ishmael, based on what we do!

Galatians 4:25-26

Call Me Ishmael!

The narrator of Herman Melville’s book, “Moby Dick” begins his story with the words, “call me Ishmael.” When this narrator tells us to call him Ishmael, he’s telling us about himself. He is an outcast. He is rejected by his father and a pariah to his people. He is the son of a slave and destined to remain such his entire life. Although protected by God, his half-brother would inherit all that his father leaves. He is rebellious and jealous and bitter and in many ways senses that he has been passed over for all the good things in life. He is a man set on vengeance like the Ahab of Moby Dick. He will stop at nothing to get even or to hurt the “chosen” and take for himself the best of everything. He is the one who will do what it takes to get what he wants.

Ishmael, the child of Hagar, is used by Paul to contrast the situation of the believer in Christ with the non-believer. The non-believer is trapped, enslaved to making his way in life on his own. He must put his confidence in his own abilities rather than trust in the loving relationship with his father. He is an illegitimate child. This child is a slave, while the other child, the son of the free woman, Sarah, is an heir. Through faith in Christ, the Messiah, we are heirs to the promise. Children of promise do not live with their parents under an arrangement of law. Their connection is not based on what they “do” but on who they “are.” They live together based on love. In Galatians 4:25-26, Paul writes, “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”

Paul sees the earthly Jerusalem as the center of the religion of bondage. God was shut up in a temple from the people and accessed only through strict religious rituals and sacrifices and mediators called priests. Paul’s argument is that those who hold to such religion, as Maxie Dunnam writes, “…whether they in fact trace their ancestry to Ishmael or not, are sons of Hagar. That line continues prolifically until today, for it includes all those who seek salvation apart from the freely given grace of God through Jesus Christ.” Dunnam goes on to say that on the other hand “Those who acknowledge Christ as Lord, who by faith receive His grace, claim the Jerusalem above. Like Isaac, the believing recipients of grace are the children of promise, whether any trace of Isaac’s blood flows through them are not. It is grace, all grace!”

Galatians 4:21-24

Giving Birth to Ishmael

When Jesus and the apostles refer to “the law,” they are often referring specifically to the first five books of the Old Testament. There is normally a threefold division of the Old Testament in Jewish thinking; the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets. The Law is the Pentateuch consisting of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Writings refer to Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. The Prophets refer to everything else.  Paul asks the Galatians in Chapter 4:21, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” The Law consists of more than the issues handed down to Moses on Sinai. It also encompasses the historical information as well. So Paul goes back to early passages in Genesis and connects his argument with the story of Abraham and Sarah. He writes in Galatians 4:22-24, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.”

Paul had already talked about Abraham as the father of the faithful, now Paul addresses another aspect of Abraham’s life. He not only had Isaac, but he had another son named Ishmael. Ishmael was born because Sarah and Abraham took matters into their own hands. It could have been as many as 18 years since God had originally given Abraham the promise of a son that he and Sarah decided to help God out. Our self-effort associated with the “flesh” in our passage results in children of Hagar or children of the flesh. I think I’ve given birth to several Ishmael’s in my life. I have taken things into my own hands and ended up really messing things up.

Jon Courson in his commentary on Galatians observed, “You see, to this day, blood is shed daily in the ongoing struggle between the children of Ishmael and the children of Israel. So, too, in my own life, whenever Ishmael is born as a result of my own fleshly efforts, strife, anxiety, and tension are also birthed in my life.” Although considered the father of the “faith” filled, Abraham had a problem with impatience and God recorded that for our instruction. When I get impatient waiting for God’s promises to come true, I tend to want to take matters into my own hands and help God out. It always results in an “Ishmael.” It always results in trouble! God always fulfills His promises, in His time because He’s always faithful. Yet, I have a lot of Ishmael’s clinging to my legs and have to deal with them. Like with Abraham, Ishmael became a problem for the child of promise. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that those who wait, (notice: wait!) upon the Lord will renew their strength and mount up on wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary!

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