Unopened Christmas Gifts

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!”