Christmas 2.0

Christmas 2.0

Luke 2:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

A couple of Christmases ago I wrapped Janet’s presents in birthday paper and never noticed (though she did). On Monday I received an email essay forwarded by a compassionate friend. It reads:

This is the time of year when we think back to the very first Christmas, when the Three Wise Men; Gaspar, Balthazar and Herb, went to see the baby Jesus and, according to the Book of Matthew, “presented unto Him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

These are simple words, but if we analyze them carefully, we discover an important, yet often overlooked, theological fact: There is no mention of wrapping paper. If there had been wrapping paper, Matthew would have said so: “And lo, the gifts were inside 600 square cubits of paper. And the paper was festooned with pictures of Frosty the Snowman. And Joseph was going to throweth it away, but Mary saideth unto him, she saideth, ‘Holdeth it! That is nice paper! Saveth it for next year!’ And Joseph did rolleth his eyeballs. And the baby Jesus was more interested in the paper than the frankincense. ”

 But these words do not appear in the Bible, which means that the very first Christmas gifts were NOT wrapped. This is because the people giving those gifts had two important characteristics: 1. They were wise; 2. They were men.

I wrap gifts, but because of some defect in my motor skills, I can never completely wrap them. I can take a gift the size of a deck of cards and put it the exact center of a piece of wrapping paper the size of a regulation volleyball court, but when I am done folding and taping, you can still see a sector of the gift peeking out. (Sometimes I camouflage this sector with a marking pen.) If I had been an ancient Egyptian in the field of mummies, the lower half of the Pharaoh’s body would be covered only by Scotch tape.

 On the other hand, if you give my wife a 12-inch square of wrapping paper, she can wrap a C-130 cargo plane. My wife, like many women, actually likes wrapping things. If she gives you a gift that requires batteries, she wraps the batteries separately, which to me is very close to being a symptom of mental illness. If it were possible, my wife would wrap each individual volt.

 My point is that gift-wrapping is one of those skills like having babies that come more naturally to women than to men. 

 In conclusion, remember that the important thing is not what you give, or how you wrap it. The really important thing, during this very special time of year, is that you save the receipt.

To a visitor from Mars, wrapping Christmas presents would seem strange indeed. As would the rest of the holiday. He would find it odd that we cut down trees and put them in our homes; or, even stranger, buy fake trees which look like the real thing. He’s have serious questions about the sanity of wrapping houses and trees in enough lights to land a 747. It’s an amazing time of year.

But then the miracle goes away. The wrapping paper is trashed; the trees go out by the curb or up in the attic; Santa Claus returns to the North Pole, taking Christmas with him.

Not this year. I’m praying that this year you and I will not miss the lasting, life-changing significance of this event. I’m praying that you and I will understand the true miracle of Christmas–not the toys and tinsel and trees, but the actual miracle which made possible the most significant turning point in human history.

When we remember all that really had to happen for Christmas to come, I think we will stand in awe of this miracle. And we will understand why it matters just as much to us today as it did to those who first witnessed the foundational event of all eternity.

Christmas in heaven

Before we can understand how the miracle of Christmas happened on earth, first we need to understand how it happened in heaven.

Last week we rehearsed the fall of humanity in Genesis 3 and the fact that Satan is now the unlawful god of this age. But at the very beginning of Satan’s rebellion, the true King of the Kingdom predicted his ruin: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15).

We are at “enmity” or conflict with Satan, the prince of this world. But the “offspring” of the woman will win the war. He will “strike the head” of Satan, but first Satan will “strike his heel.” He will kill the enemy, but first the enemy must kill him. Here’s why.

Our sins separated us from the holy and righteous God who is Judge of the universe. And “the wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). Because sin separates us from the God who is the source of all life, sin causes us to die physically, relationally, emotionally, spiritually, eternally. Just as a brick left on the lawn blocks the sun’s rays and causes the grass to die, so sin blocks the Son’s life and causes us to die. Death is the inevitable consequence and penalty of our sin.

And the only way our sin can be forgiven by a holy and just God is for its price to be paid in full.

When I hit a baseball through a neighbor’s windshield back in the sixth grade, someone had to pay for the windshield. An apology wouldn’t keep the rain out of the car. Ten dollars wouldn’t fix the glass. The debt had to be paid in full. Sin requires death.

The moment you and I sinned, we deserved to die. Our death could not pay anyone else’s debt, for we owed that debt ourselves. Only a sinless person’s death could pay for the sins of someone else. And the only sinless Person in the universe is God himself. God would have to pay the penalty. His Son would have to die. That’s why the Bible says that Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

From Virtual To Reality

From Virtual To Reality

Revelation 22:1-5

Dr. Jim Denison

Historians will call this era the “technological revolution.” It’s an amazing time. For instance, just in time for Christmas, a fashion student in England has developed a way for Internet shoppers to feel clothes through their computer screens. Since 40 percent of all clothes bought online are returned by dissatisfied customers, there must be a better way, or so she theorizes.

With the help of her technology, soon you’ll be able to use your mouse to test the thickness of fabric by lifting up its edge and dropping it. You’ll be able to stretch garment and watch it return to its original shape. You’ll be able to stroke the fibers of a garment to test their quality. It won’t be the real thing, but it’s the best we can do.

Christmas is a little like virtual reality, an image you can see on your computer screen but aren’t sure is really there. We all have the picture in mind: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger protected by his peasant teenage mother and her carpenter husband. Shepherds watching, Wise Men coming. But how do we know it’s real, or that it’s relevant?

We can’t go back in time, and even if we could, how could we know that this child is really God in the flesh? He is supposed to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the ruler come to his realm. But his kingdom doesn’t seem to have changed much since his visit.

We’re still plagued with hurricanes, earthquakes, disaster and disease. The oppression of the Roman Empire is replaced by the global war on terror. Ancient diseases gave way to the Black Plague, which has given way to AIDS and the threat of avian flu. People live longer, but they still die. Global warming is producing 15 million acres of new desert every year. Each year we consume 160 billion gallons of water more than is being replenished by rain. A third of the world lives on $2 a day; a billion people live on $1 a day.

How did Advent really change anything? How is Christmas more than virtual reality to your soul, your marriage, your problems? It’s a good question, and the most relevant issue we can discuss today.

The Final Advent is coming

As you know, the bad news of the Bible comes early, with the fall of mankind in Genesis 3. Because Adam and Eve refused the word and will of God, they were cast out of paradise.

And the Lord said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So God drove our first parents out and “placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:22, 24).

With this fall of humanity into sin, everything changed. Satan became the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus called him “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).

Scripture teaches that Satan now holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14) and “leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9). He has “blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). He is a liar and the father of lies, a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44).

The reason our world is plagued with disaster and disease, suffering and sin, is because Satan is its god. The present fallen world has rebelled against its true King and is now the unlawful kingdom of the devil.

At the first Advent, the Son of God came into this fallen world to begin an insurgency, an underground movement to overthrow the “god of this age” and return the world to its rightful King. If Jesus is your Lord, you have joined his resistance. You are operating behind enemy lines, participating in a revolution against the unlawful, demonic ruler of this fallen world. This because of the First Advent coming of the Son of God.

At the Second Advent, the Spirit of God came into the world to empower the soldiers in this army of God. To give us the leadership, protection, and courage we would need to assault the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18). If we will confess whatever is wrong between us and God and ask the Holy Spirit to take control of our lives each day, Pentecost will come for us every morning. Christmas will be real; the Son of God will make our lives his manger. We will be a living nativity, the presence of Christ in the world. The Spirit of God will use the people of God to build the Kingdom of God.

Then one day, at the Final Advent, the King of Kings will return to claim this world as his own.

Here’s what will happen on that day: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11-16).

Jedi Spirituality

Jedi Spirituality

Acts 1:3-14

Dr. Jim Denison

You have probably heard the news that America’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, will not return to his position. You may have missed the other piece of important U.N. news: A pair of London science fiction enthusiasts are petitioning the world body to recognize the Jedi Knights of Star Wars as a legitimate religion.

According to the 2001 British census, 395,000 followers of Star Wars recorded their faith as “Jedi.” That’s more than the number of Jews or Buddhists in England. The petitioners want to be able to wear their Jedi robes in public as an expression of their religion. And they want the International Day of Tolerance to be changed to the Interstellar Day of Tolerance. They signed their petition, “May the Force be with you.”

I never thought I’d preach a sermon based on Jedi theology, but they’re right. As Obi-wan Kenobi said, there is a “Force” which “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” When we submit to this Force, our lives are empowered with joy, peace, and purpose. When we refuse this Force, our lives are filled with frustration and defeat.

What is this Force? A better question is, “Who is this Force?” What does he have to do with turning Christmas into Advent, a holiday into a holy day, a hectic season into a transforming experience?

You and I live in a fallen world. Car bombings in Baghdad; nuclear arms development in Iran; E.coli in New Jersey. Many of us are missing a loved one this season. All of us are trying to cope with a world which is changing faster than ever before in human history. How could an all-loving, all-powerful God leave you where you are without the help you need? He hasn’t.

How they prepared for the Spirit

Jesus has been raised from the dead. He spent 40 days with his disciples, teaching about “the kingdom of God” (v. 3). How would they experience this Kingdom? How would they advance it? “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (vs. 4-5).

His disciples wanted to know if he would now bring the Kingdom of God he had predicted (v. 6). His answer: you don’t need to worry about the time when the Kingdom will come (v. 7). You’re not on the planning committee, but the preparation committee: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). “You” is plural, pointing to each of them. When they were empowered by the Spirit, they would then extend the Kingdom around the world. They would then serve God as their King and lead millions to do the same. All in the power of the Spirit of God.

After his Ascension, his disciples took him at his word. They returned to Jerusalem where “they all joined together constantly in prayer” (v. 14). A week or so passed, then the Jewish holiday of Pentecost arrived. It was mid-June. The believers were still “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1).

Then God kept his word. All the believers were “filled” with the Spirit and began to share the gospel in languages they had not learned. Fifteen different nationalities from all over the world had come to Jerusalem for the holiday. Each heard the gospel in his or her own language.

Then Peter preached in power. The same fisherman who had denied Christ before a servant girl now proclaimed Christ to the very authorities who had crucified his Lord. As a result of the Spirit’s work, the people “were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” (Acts 2:37). Peter explained the way of salvation, and “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (v. 41).

And the mightiest spiritual movement in human history was born. All because some very normal people like you and me prayed until they were empowered. They were obedient until they were “filled.” And Advent continued. The Kingdom came. And you and I are the result, 20 centuries later.

How we prepare for the Spirit

Where do you need what they experienced? Where are you up against something bigger than you are? A cliff you can’t climb? A problem you can’t solve? A future you can’t see?

This week’s Time magazine carries a cover story about the psychology of risk. In 2003, the last year for which data are available, 22 people died in commercial-airline accidents. But 44,757 died in motor-vehicle accidents. 594 people died by falling out of bed; 332 drowned in their bathtubs; 1,588 died falling down stairs. It’s not safe to get up, or take a bath, or drive your car or even go down the stairs.

What risk worries you most today? What fear would you most like to defeat this morning?

The Jedi Knights are right: you and I need the “Force.” Not the fictional force of movie fame, of course, but the same Force which raised Jesus from the dead and birthed the Church. How do we experience this Force? By doing what the first Christians did. Ephesians 5:18 is not a suggestion but a command, an order from the Lord of the universe: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

Do not be “under the influence” of wine, but “under the influence” of the Spirit. To be “filled” means to be submitted to, directed, controlled. How?

First, ask the Spirit to show you anything which is preventing his control of your life. Any area where you are not yielded to God, where Jesus is not your King, where you are in charge. Confess whatever comes to your mind. Claim his promise to forgive you, to cleanse the slate, to renew your connection with God (1 John 1:9).

Unopened Christmas Gifts

Unopened Christmas Gifts

Matthew 3:1-12

Dr. Jim Denison

I have always been jealous of those who have an easier time decorating for Christmas than I do. For instance, a friend in Atlanta had a closet built in his new house specifically for his artificial Christmas tree. He put the tree on rollers, then glued on lights and ornaments and tinsel. Each Christmas he rolls it from the closet and plugs it in. Each New Year he unplugs it and rolls it back into its closet. I know that coveting is forbidden, but it’s hard.

This week I heard a new angle. A friend in our church tells me that his family hates to wrap presents. So they wrapped up some empty boxes and each year set them under the tree. The same boxes, year after year. Then on Christmas Day they open their unwrapped presents, saving all the time and hassle of dealing with shredded paper and sticky tape and such. Again I’m coveting.

I can picture unopened empty boxes. But I cannot imagine unopened boxes with gifts inside. Presents our family and friends chose and bought and wrapped for us, stashed in the attic unopened because it’s too much trouble to unwrap them.

It’s typical during the Christmas season to hear a sermon which deals with the presents we can give Jesus for his birthday–faith, commitment, and the like. It is less common to think about the birthday presents he wants to give to us. But that’s his message to us this morning.

Jesus has given us some very specific, very valuable presents. If we leave them unopened in the Sanctuary today, we miss all that he came to give. If we open his presents this morning, we will experience his transforming presence and leave with his peace, power, and joy. So, how do we unwrap the presents Jesus came at Christmas to give?

Either God is king . . .

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea” (v. 1). John “lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80). This was the wilderness area around the Dead Sea, honeycombed with caves. Here individuals and small communities lived apart from society, separated to the service of God.

His message to the nation was clear, and crucial: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (v. 2). The “kingdom of God” is the place where God is king. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

The kingdom of God is the central theme of Scripture. In Genesis, the King creates his kingdom. In Revelation, he returns to rule his kingdom forever. Jesus came to announce that the king has come: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).

Why must we “repent” to enter this kingdom? To “repent” is to change. Theologians define the word as a “change of mind which results in a change of life.” It means to make a U-turn, to go a different direction. In this case, to stop being king of our lives and make God king instead.

There can be only one king in a kingdom, one ruler in a realm. If he is to be our king, we cannot be king any longer. We must abdicate the throne. We must stop serving ourselves and start serving him. We must stop making our own plans and asking God to bless them, and start following his plans and purposes for our lives. We must climb down from the throne and crown him the King of our souls and lives.

You see, a king owns everything in the kingdom. This is his church, not ours. These are his pews, not ours. This is his Bible and his suit, not mine. You live in his house and drive his car. You eat his food and breathe his air. Everything you have is his. You are simply managing his possessions until the time when he comes to claim them again.

And so, to repent and enter the kingdom of God is to submit to him as the King of Monday as well as Sunday, the money we keep as well as the money we give, our private relationships as well as our public religion. It is to surrender to him all that we have and are.

How is this an Advent message? Because this is how we “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (v. 3).

When important people were due to visit a city, the residents went out to improve the roads for them. Boulders had to be pulled out of the way; ravines and elevations made during the rainy season had to be leveled. The more important the visitor, the greater the preparations for his coming.

This King will not come unless he is welcome. He will not go where he is not invited. He stands at the door and knocks–if we open the door, he will come in and stay with us (Revelation 3:20). He will bring us the abundant life he came to give. He will make his presence real in our hearts and souls. He will be our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace. And it will be “Joy to the world–the Lord has come.”

Conversely, we can have Christmas without repentance, but we cannot have Advent. We can have holidays, but not holy days. We can observe Jesus’ birth, but we cannot experience it. We can be grateful that he entered the human race, but we will miss his presence in our hearts and souls today. We will return his gift of abundant life unopened. And soon Christmas will be done.

. . . or you are

Tragically, that is our likely response to John’s message. It is human nature to want to be our own king of our own Kingdom. Satan’s chief temptation is still the same: “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).