Unopened Christmas Gifts
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).