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).

And so, in heaven it was decided that the Son of God would have to come as the “offspring of a woman” to be killed by Satan, so his death could pay the penalty of our sin and free us from Satan’s hold on our souls. In this way he would “strike his head” and end his rebellion.

In this way God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

This was the miracle in heaven which led to the miracle on earth: the free choice of the Father’s grace to send his innocent Son to die for us, so we could live eternally with him. Without that decision, Christmas could never have come. If we don’t understand that miracle, a baby was born in a manger but nothing changes and Christmas is just a holiday. When we appreciate that miracle of God’s love and grace, Christmas becomes relevant for us all, as we’ll see in a moment.

Christmas in history

We’ve seen Christmas in heaven; now let’s watch Christmas in history. If Jesus had come as the virgin-born son of Eve, humanity could not have understood why he came or why he died. It would take all of world history to set the stage, with the miracles of God coming at every step of the way.

God had to preserve the human race from the catastrophic results of our rebellion against his rule, miraculously using an ark and a single family to save the race. Then he had to choose a nation through whom to reveal himself, his word, his will, and ultimately his Son.

His miraculous power protected Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from their enemies. His miraculous power delivered Moses and the children of Israel from their Egyptian masters. His miraculous power divided the Red Sea and the Jordan River, demolished Jericho and defeated the wicked Canaanites, and established his people in their land.

His miraculous revelation gave Israel the Ten Commandments and the rest of their Law. His Spirit gave them their prophets to interpret and apply that Law. His providence used Assyria and Babylon to judge their sins, then used Persia to protect them from destruction and return them to their land and purpose.

His miraculous providence used the Greek nation to create a universal language through which the story of Christmas could be told to the all the world. He used the Roman military to create a universal peace which would protect the first Christians as they told that story. He used Roman engineers to build roads which would take those missionaries around the world. He used the scattered Jewish people to build synagogues as outposts and launching pads for the global spread of the Christian faith.

Then, finally, all was ready.

His angel miraculous revealed his plan to Joseph and Mary as they were engaged to be married in Nazareth of Galilee. She would be the virgin who would bear a son whom they would call Immanuel (Is 7:14; Mt. 1:23). Her conception was a miracle beyond all human ability.

But the prophet had already specified that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Now the Lord had to move the expectant mother and her husband 90 miles south to fulfill his plan.

So, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. . . . All went to their own towns to be registered” (Luke 2:1, 3). The Romans were fond of registering their subjects for military service and taxation. We have actual records from Egypt requiring all Roman subjects to return to their hometowns where the family records were kept; it is no surprise that the same was required of Jews in Palestine.

And so the entire Jewish nation was required to return to their ancestral homes, most significantly those belonging to the house and family of David. All so God’s Son could fulfill God’s word and God’s purpose and come to be struck on his heel by Satan and then strike Satan’s head. All to redeem us from hell for heaven and paradise forever.

Think of it: God used 20 centuries of Jewish history; the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Persian, and Roman empires, a pagan Roman emperor and his roads and military; all to make Christmas.


Now, why did he do it? For you. You are the reason for the season.

Time magazine has just announced its “person of the year”: you. They’re writing about the global phenomenon known as the Internet, “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”

Computer professionals call this Internet revolution “Web 2.0.” It’s a way of life built on the ideas and dreams of the individual. It’s all about you.

God’s word announced its “person of the year” 20 centuries ago and came to the same conclusion. With all your faults and frailties, with your guilt over the past and fear about the future, with all your hopes and dreams and problems, you are the reason for the season. You are the one Jesus came to redeem. He folded his eternal omnipotence into a fetus and was born as a baby for you. He refused all temptation so that he could die a sinless death for you. He chose the cross when he could have called 10,000 angels to save him, for you. He gave up his spirit for you. He was buried for you. He rose from the grave for you. He will come again one day for you.

This Christmas Eve, no matter how hard or good things are for you, remember the source of your personal worth.

You may be grieving the loss of someone you love. You may be lonely and alone. You may be fearful of what 2007 will bring. Or you may be blessed with a loving family, good health, and great prosperity. But know that these things are not the source of your personal worth. They can all be gone tomorrow. The source of your personal worth is the fact that you are worth the birth and life of the Son of God. He loves you, and likes you, and wants to spend eternity with you.

The greatest miracle of Christmas is that it happened in heaven and in history, for you. Let’s thank God together, right now.

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).

He will throw Satan and all who serve him into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). He will make a new heaven and a new earth to replace the world corrupted by sin and Satan (Revelation 21:1-5).

When the Final Advent comes, you and I who were barred from the tree of life will be banished no more: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).

“No longer will there be any curse” from sin and Satan and death (v. 3). “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him” in the eternal Kingdom of God (v. 4). Because of sin, no one can today see the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20). But on that day “they will see his face, and his name will be on their forehead” (Revelation 22:4). And with God we will “reign for ever and ever” (v. 5).

Get ready today

When will the Final Advent come? Only God knows.

Mark 13:32-33: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert ! You do not know when that time will come.”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-3: “Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”

Luke 12:40: “The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

No one but God knows when Jesus will return. We must be ready every day, for it could be any day. This is the clear teaching of God’s word.

Jesus may come back for us all today. Or you and I may go to him, stepping through death into life eternal. Either way, our time is short. Jesus was clear on this: “I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20). If right now you’re thinking, “I have plenty of time, this doesn’t apply to me,” know that you are deceived and wrong.

The early Christians were sure about this.

They didn’t have our programs or property or professionals. They did not have the Scriptures in printed form or the status we enjoy in this country. But they had the one thing we have lost. They had the urgency and focused passion which come from knowing that Jesus could return today. That just as his first Advent came without warning, so his second will come when we do not expect him. Just as Christmas was a real event which changed history, so the Second Coming is a real event which will end history.

Early Christians knew this fact. And so they lived in the daily expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. They wanted to be found doing what they would be doing if they knew Jesus were coming back that day. They wanted everyone they knew to be right with God, today. They had a passion for missions and evangelism, for they knew the time was short. They wanted to live holy lives, ready to stand before the judgment of God, for they knew that it could be today. They wanted to be found serving the King of Kings when he returned to his Kingdom. So should we.

The only reason Jesus has delayed his return is so as many as possible can be ready. Listen to Peter’s explanation: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:9-12).

Don’t let his delay fool you. We have no way to know if Jesus will wait another thousand years, or come this afternoon. And we have no way to know if we will go to meet him today. Your next car ride could end your life. This could be your final Christmas. In a congregation this large, it probably will be for some of us. It could be me, or you.

So we are not to speculate about Jesus’ return, but work hard to be ready for it. Then one day, it will come. Just as he came to earth at Christmas and ascended to heaven after Easter, just as the Spirit of God came at Pentecost, so the Son of God will come again to earth. His second coming is as real as his first.


You have seven days to be ready for Christmas, for the First Advent of God. But you have only today to be ready for his Final Advent. John could say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Can you?

Do you have business with the returning King today? Have you been faithful in managing his possessions, on loan to you for a short while? Do you need to seek or share forgiveness with someone you know? To use your time for his purposes, your talents for his glory? Are you ready to meet your King today?

Even if he delays for another generation, being ready today is the best way to live today. The most effective, fulfilling, joyful way to live on this fallen planet is to live for your Father and King. To refuse the god of this age for the God of all ages. To be ready to see Jesus is the best, most exciting, most significant way to live today.

The longest funeral of my life occurred more than 20 years ago when I was pastor of New Hope Baptist Church while teaching at Southwestern Seminary. A former pastor of the church came back to preach the graveside service of one of our elderly members. It was a hot July day. I was wearing a dark wool suit. The service went on and on, and I grew more and more delirious. Some people dying of thirst in the desert have mirages of an oasis and spring; I had the mirage of this service finally ending.

Then the retired pastor told a story I’ll never forget. He talked about the death of his own elderly mother. She had been in a coma in the hospital for days. The family took shifts in her room. It was the pastor’s turn to stay the night. It was 3:00 in the morning–he could see the digital clock. His mother had not stirred or spoken for days. Suddenly she sat up in bed with such a noise that it startled him. She called out in the darkness, “It’s Jesus! Can’t you see him? He’s here!” She stretched her arms toward the sky. And in that moment, the pastor said he heard a sound as clearly as you hear my voice today–the rustling sound of wings, of angels’ wings. And she was gone. Jesus had come again for her.

One day you’ll step on ground and find it celestial. You’ll breathe new air and find it heavenly. You’ll hear new music and find it angelic. You’ll feel a touch and find it God’s.

What if it were today?

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).

Now turn your life over to the Spirit. Ask him to take control of your thoughts, emotions, and will. Put him in charge of your money, your time, your relationships, your plans. Let the chips fall.

Decide that you will go where he sends you and do what he says. Give him the wheel and let him drive. Do this every day. The command could be translated literally, “Be being filled with the Spirit.” Every time you and your spouse or friend get in the car, you have to decide who drives. You can’t decide today for tomorrow. Every time you get ready to go, open the door to the driver’s side and invite the Spirit to drive. Go around and sit on the passenger’s side. When you realize that you’ve taken the wheel, give it back. Stay surrendered to the Spirit of God. Do this every day, all day.

And what will happen? You will have God’s guidance and wisdom for the uncertain future you face: “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13). What about the future most worries you today? Surrender it to the Spirit and you will have his direction and peace.

You will have God’s comfort and encouragement for any hurt or sorrow in your soul. Jesus promised, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). What about the past most troubles you today? Surrender it to the Spirit and you will have his help and hope.

You will experience the courage and boldness to stand for Jesus. Jesus guaranteed it: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), not you “might.” If you’re like me, it’s hard to talk to strangers about Jesus, and even harder to talk to neighbors and friends. We’re afraid we’ll make a mistake or make things worse or get rejected. But when we are controlled by the Spirit, he says the words through us and gives us the boldness we need. Imagine all the people in heaven who will thank you for helping them follow Jesus because you were filled with the Spirit.


At the first Advent, the Son of God entered the human race. When Advent comes today, the Spirit of God does the same thing. When we “ask Jesus into our hearts,” it’s actually the Holy Spirit who enters us and makes us God’s children. Our lives become his temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). Christmas will become Advent for you when you are submitted to God as your King and his Spirit controls your life.

If you are one of those believers who makes Jesus your King by surrendering to the Spirit every morning and through every day, be encouraged today. You are continuing Advent, the coming of Jesus. You are the instrument of God for building his Kingdom around the world. Your life is significant beyond your ability to measure. Now and for all eternity you can hear Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

If you’re not in the number of Spirit-controlled servants of God, why not? It could be that you’ve not known the necessity of being yielded to the Spirit every day. Now you know.

It may be that there’s an ambition or dream you don’t want to surrender, a plan you don’t want to change, a sin you don’t want to stop.

It may be that you are dominated by pride, by a need to be in control of your life and get the credit for what you do.

Today is the day to repent of all of that and be surrendered to the power and hope and joy of the Spirit of God.

Earlier this week I spoke at a missions seminar in Tyler, where I learned some remarkable facts about the work of the Spirit around the world:

In Southeast Asia, a missionary began work in 1993 with three churches and 85 believers among seven million lost people. Four years later there were more than 550 churches and nearly 55,000 new Christians.

An Arab Muslim cleric in North Africa recently complained that more than 10,000 Muslims living in the surrounding mountains had left Islam to become Christians.

20,000 a day are coming to Christ in Communist China.

A church in central Asia grew from 200 to 15,000 in one year.

Missiologists are speaking of the Fifth Great Awakening around the world. The Spirit is on the move. Advent is continuing. Now you and I are invited to join the work of God.

Why not today?

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).

John Claypool, the famous and insightful preacher, spoke for most of us: “People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was shrewd enough to fashion my answer according to what I thought they wanted to hear. For some it was a policeman, for others a fireman or a preacher. However, in my own heart of hearts, I had my own private fantasy that I never dared to share with anyone. Do you know what it was? I am telling you the gospel truth: I wanted to be president of the world” (The Preaching Event 64, italics his).

As children want an allowance from their parents so they can have money of their own; as prodigals want their part of the inheritance to spend as they wish; so we all want to be in charge of our lives. We want God to meet our needs and bless our plans. We want to be king of our Kingdom.

And religion doesn’t help matters. In fact, it often makes things worse.

The Pharisees were the holiest people in Israel, 6,000 men who were devoted completely to living by every detail of the Law. The Sadducees were the religious authorities of the day–the high priest and those who helped him lead the nation. Think of Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II, and you’ll have a sense of the veneration in which the nation held these people. Yet they rejected the message of John and the Messiah he predicted. They returned the gifts of Christmas unopened.

It is a strange and tragic fact that the more religious we are, the less likely we are to repent of our sins and submit to God as our King.

The religious authorities tried to have Luther killed; they rejected Calvin; they massacred Anabaptists by the thousands; they exiled Baptists to the colonies; they rejected Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening; they ridiculed Billy Graham when he began his crusades.

When we are successful in religion, we almost inevitably become self-reliant spiritually. We know how to run our church, or teach our class, or study and pray. We know how to serve the Lord. We can build his Kingdom for him, expecting his gratitude for our good work.

But you and I cannot convict a single person of a single sin. We cannot heal a single home or restore a single marriage. We can do nothing that matters for eternity. When last did you submit your life and religion to God as your King? Conversely, when last did you lead a lost person to Jesus? A saved person closer to him? When last did the Spirit use you for eternal significance? How is his Kingdom larger and stronger because of you?

Do you need to repent so that the kingdom can come into your heart and church today? So Jesus can give you his abundant and joyful life? So God can use your life to do eternal things? So you can have the peace and power of the Spirit in your soul? So you can receive all that the King of Kings gives to his subjects?


There is wonderful good news in John’s message and this day’s worship: all who will make God their King, can. The Bible says that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (vs. 5-6).

Tax collectors and prostitutes, pagans and demoniacs–it makes no difference to God. Where you’ve been doesn’t matter–only where you’re going. He is ready to forgive every sin you’ll confess and make your life significant in his Kingdom. If only you’ll make him your King.

This is how it has been all through Christian history.

Peter and Paul are the two best-known leaders in apostolic history. Yet one denied Jesus three times, and the other did all he could to murder Christians and exterminate their movement.

Justin the Martyr was a pagan philosopher before he became the most effective apologist of early Christian history.

Augustine was a pagan philosopher and lawyer, living with his girlfriend and rejecting all sexual morality, when he took up the Scriptures and was glorious transformed.

Thomas Aquinas was known as the “dumb ox” in school before becoming the most significant theologian of the medieval church.

Martin Luther was an obscure, guilt-plagued monk in a tiny village before becoming the leader of the Reformation.

Billy Graham is today the best-known Christian in the world, but no one would have predicted such success for him as a boy.

Growing up on a dairy farm in North Carolina, he was more known for mischief than spirituality. His conversion during a summer revival made no headlines in anyone’s newspaper. He went to Bible college, but not seminary. He pastored only one small church before beginning his evangelistic ministry.

The back cover of his autobiography contains these words: “I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, ‘Why me, Lord? Why did You choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?’ I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer” (Just As I Am).

I think Billy Graham’s wife knows the answer. Last spring, Janet and I were privileged to visit the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. There we walked with amazement through displays documenting the decades of Dr. Graham’s global evangelism ministry. There were quotes from statesmen, presidents, and kings the world over. But the quote which most struck us came from his wife. Ruth Bell Graham said of her husband, “He was a man in a hurry who wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met! . . . He stood head and shoulders above all the others because of the depth of his commitment to Jesus Christ. I knew I would always be second to God in his life. But what better place to be!”

I was privileged to meet Billy Graham personally a few years ago when I was part of the team which invited him to Dallas for his last Mission here. I will never forget the scene.

He was preaching in Fresno, California, at the university stadium there. He was seated in a converted locker room beneath the stadium, waiting to go onto the stage. He had broken a bone in his foot the night before, and had his injured foot in a walking cast propped up on a coffee table. His sermon notes were in his lap. He was bowed over them in study and prayer when our group entered the room.

I have a treasured picture which was taken of the moment when I bent over to shake his hand. I have never witnessed eyes like those–he looked into my heart and soul. I sensed absolute holiness. I felt that I was in the very presence of Jesus Christ. All because this “farmboy from North Carolina” was completely surrendered to Jesus. All because he opened the gift of Christmas given to him by his Lord and Master. I resolved that day to belong to Jesus as he belongs to Jesus. I invite you to join me in that resolve this morning.

There’s only one throne in your heart. Who is seated on it today?