As a child we make our Christmas lists and make sure that all of those who truly love us get copies for their shopping excursions before Christmas morning. I can still remember going through the catalog and marking the things that I wanted most, the things that would make my Christmas truly meaningful. Beside each hoped for gift I would put a star, but beside the one item I wanted most I would put stars all around it so that there would be no way that mom or dad could possibly forget to tell Santa about the one thing that I wanted most to see under the tree on Christmas morning.
The family I grew up in wasn’t rich by any means. My dad worked two jobs most of the time while I was living at home to pay our bills and keep the family fed. When I was young my mother did other people’s ironing so that she could stay home with her kids and still make money to contribute to the family. Later, she took a job working at an elementary school so that she could be home when my younger sisters got out of school. My parents had to work very hard to keep our family going and I know Christmas had to be pressure packed with three kids running around with an “all I want for Christmas” list sticking out their back pockets.
Every Christmas morning we three kids would wake up early having not slept the night before. When we would run down the hall our hearts raced as we hoped that Santa had gotten the message from our parents of the one can’t-miss-present that we thought we just had to have — and each Christmas morning mom, dad, and Santa came through for us. Without fail, the one Christmas gift that we had longed for, hoped for, prayed for, and done everything but hire a skywriter to broadcast to the world our desires was always under the tree.
Oh, the feeling was magical. The moment was beyond a “Kodak moment” for a little kid. I can still remember some of the items that I wanted and found on Christmas morning, but as I have grown older I have learned some new lessons about gifts. Some of the most priceless gifts that we receive don’t come at Christmas, but they are given to us each and every day from the gracious hand of Almighty God. Some of the most precious gifts that we receive never make our “All I want for Christmas” list. As a matter of fact, we never even give them a thought until after we receive them and realize what a blessing they truly are to us. Only then do we realize how precious and priceless the gifts are to us.
One of the season’s new movies is a vivid illustration of this lesson that I have learned. In the movie, Family Man, Nicholas Cage, has everything that he thinks he wants from life until one Christmas Eve his life is interrupted by an unexpected and unwanted gift. Chuck Colson wrote about the lessons we can learn in life from this wonderful movie this past week in his Breakpoint Commentary. Chuck writes,
The Family Man follows the story of Jack Campbell, the president of a Wall Street investment firm. He’s a single man who has it all — the best suits, a great car, and a fantastic Manhattan apartment. He’s even about to close a $130-billion merger deal. And, he thinks he’s truly happy. But when Jack encounters an angel on Christmas Eve, he’s forced to consider what’s truly important to him. The angel gives him a glimpse into what his life might have been like if he had made different choices, prompting Jack to come to a startling conclusion. Well, this is not “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Jack isn’t shown how good his life really is; rather, he’s shown how good his life could be. When Jack wakes up the next morning, he finds himself next to his former girlfriend — the one he would have married if he hadn’t sacrificed their relationship for his career. But now she’s his wife. He also lives in New Jersey with two kids and a dog, and he sells tires for a living. Far from Wall Street, this is Jack’s worst suburban nightmare. He doesn’t like this glimpse one bit. He grows frustrated with the crushing blandness of this life that “might have been” and the wasted potential. He just can’t figure how anyone could possibly be content with such an existence. In the end, however, Jack comes to his senses and learns an important moral lesson in the process. He had everything he thought he wanted, but he realizes what the Bible teaches us: that a life without love is empty. In his new life, Jack lacks power and wealth, but he has the blessings of a great family and a wife who really loves him. This, he learns, is what really makes life meaningful. The film makes it clear that the love between Jack and his wife flourished precisely because of the sacrifices they made — which is the exact opposite of Jack’s real-life choice to sacrifice love and family for the sake of his career. And that’s why “The Family Man” is such a great Christmas story. Sacrificial love is what Christmas is all about. Only when we give of ourselves, just as Christ gave himself for us, can we find meaning and redemption in life. (Copyright (c) 2000 Prison Fellowship Ministries)
Jack received a gift at Christmas that no store can offer. He received a gift from God that no person can deliver. Jack came to understand the true meaning of Christmas and it is this – God is the giver of every lasting gift that we will ever receive. These gifts from God don’t necessarily come on Christmas morning. They certainly aren’t wrapped in colorful paper or bows. They aren’t purchased on the internet or at some local department store. The gifts that God has bestowed upon you and me are given to us from the gracious, loving hand of the God who made us, who loves us, and who has called us as His very own.
This morning I’m not going to share the Christmas story in a traditional way. We won’t be reading from Matthew or Luke, but we will take an even broader look at God’s gifts given during Christmas and beyond. Won’t you take out your Bible and turn to James 1:16-17 with me as we begin our study.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:16-17 NIV)
“Every good and perfect gift is from above.” Oh if we could remember this profound statement each and every day when we crawl out of bed and begin our day then our days would be filled with wonder and awe my friends. The heaviness that so many experience would be lifted by the gracious gratitude that comes from understanding that everything in life is gift from Almighty God. The emptiness that so many experience would be filled with a fullness beyond measure. The grumbling and griping that so readily flows from our mouths would be transformed into words of gratitude to the Lord.
I was struck with this thought this past week as I spent the week before Christmas in a place that didn’t resemble Christmas at all, at least as we know it as Americans. On Monday morning Connie and I got on a plane and headed to Belize in Central America to share in the wedding of Jason and Tisha King. When we arrived in the town of San Pedro we were met by Jason and Tisha and their families. The weather was warm. There was sand instead of snow. There were palm trees instead of Christmas trees. It was the furthest thing from an ornately decorated mall that I have ever seen in my life and yet in San Pedro God gave me a Christmas gift that I will always remember and treasure.
You guys know me well enough to know that I have never met a stranger. I love to talk to people and learn about their lives. In San Pedro I met many people who live on the island who shared with me about their lives. Each person was a Christmas gift whose lives have touched me deeply. Let me share just a couple of stories with you so that you can understand why I feel so blessed this Christmas.
Abby is a lady who has two kids and who braids tourist’s hair to support her family. I first met Abby on the beach and learned about her life growing up in Belize. It has been a hard life without a father around. There hasn’t been much money to give Abby all the things that we as Americas hold as near and dear to our hearts.
I arranged for Abby to braid Connie’s hair for Jason and Tisha’s wedding. When she came to our room we had an hour to talk with Abby even more. Everything she said captured our hearts, but one thing Abby said I will never forget. I want to give you warning so that you don’t miss her words because they will be as important for your life as they are for mine. Here it is: Abby said, “On San Pedro we don’t have much money, but we have love. We work together and help one another. We don’t have much money, but we have lots of love.”
Most would think that Abby’s statement was quaint, cute, or sentimental, but I will tell you this Christmas Eve that Abby’s statement is more profound that any philosopher’s rumination or rambling. You can have it all, but if you don’t have an awareness of the love that has been given so freely to you and me then we will be the most miserable of people. The Apostle Paul wrote about this when writing to the church in Corinth. Paul says,
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13 NIV)
Notice that Paul is writing to church folks. He isn’t writing to the Corinthian Atheist Society or to the local chapter of Skeptics Anonymous – Paul is writing to Christians. My friend, if you have convinced yourself that if you will just attend church more often then you will somehow find a happier, less stressful, more productive life then I’ve got news for you – you are dead wrong. We must walk every day in an awareness of God’s love for us and then give that love away to our brothers and sisters every day.
I came to the conclusion while I was with the people of San Pedro that the difference between Abby and most Americans is that we focus on what we don’t have while Abby is grateful for the love that she has received. Abby is not an aberration of what God desires for each and every one of us. Neither is her understanding of the incredible gift of love beyond our reach as Americans. Michele Huey discovered God’s gift of love given through the lives of those around her when she wrote her wonderful poem, “I’m Not Poor At All.” Listen to these powerful lines.
I’m Not Poor at All
Dear Lord, I’m feeling down today,
The bills are stacked up high;
With Christmas just two weeks away,
Our bank account’s run dry.
The kids have all presented lists
Of things they want to see;
I hope and pray there’s nothing missed
Beneath our Christmas tree.
But I don’t have the money for
Expensive clothes and toys;
My credit card can’t take much more,
Lord, where’s my Christmas joy?
Perhaps it’s wrapped up in that hug
My daughter gave this morn;
Or stacked with wood my son did lug
To keep us nice and warm.
Perhaps it’s in my oldest’s eyes
When he comes home on break,
And sees I’ve baked those pumpkin pies
He wanted me to make.
Perhaps it’s in the tired lines
Around my husband’s eyes;
Perhaps in love that’s grown with time
I’ve found the greater prize.
A friend who gives a hearty smile,
And cupboards that aren’t bare;
And, even if they aren’t in style,
I’ve got some clothes to wear.
A family who believes in me
In all things great and small;
Dear God, I think I finally see –
I am not poor at all!
By Michele T. Huey
Reprinted by permission of Michele T. Huey, (c) 1999 from Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patty Aubery and Nancy Mitchell Autio.
My friends we are rich in love. Just look around us. There is not a soul seated in this sanctuary who has not been given family or friends who love us. I have seen and I have heard of expressions of love that have been provided by God through the people of this congregation. When a need becomes known God provides brothers and sisters who rush in to comfort us, to care for us, to provide for our needs, and to pray for us.
Far too often we see acts of kindness and care extended to us as simply somebody being nice when in actuality they are God’s provision both for those in need and for those whom God uses to meet the need. You see our need to be used by God to share His love with others is as great as our need to receive from God through the lives of others.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about God’s willingness to make His grace abound in our lives as we receive from God everything that we need and then offer those gifts to bless the lives of others. Take a look at 2 Corinthians 9:8-15 with me and let’s learn together.
8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. 12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:8-15 NIV)
God has provided for us in so many ways my friends that it is incomprehensible for our finite minds to take it all in. Everything, in all of life, is a reminder to us of God’s great and awesome love for us.
Let me tell you another story of a gift that was given to me before Christmas morning ever arrived. On Thursday morning Connie and I got in a little boat with Manuel, a man who has lived on the water his whole life. God used Manuel to show us God’s hidden gifts and to draw us to our knees. We went out into the sea and when Manuel put down his anchor we all put on our snorkeling masks and hit the water. When we got under the water on the reef we were overwhelmed by the most majestic cathedral we had ever seen in our lives. Connie and I both were brought to tears by the unbelievable sights that awaited us under the sea. There was huge coral of every color everywhere we looked. Fish that looked like someone had hand painted them – and someone had! The water was crystal clear and we were struck with the feeling that we were swimming in a huge aquarium. The variety of fish was amazing. Every shape, every size, every color that anyone can ever imagine was there for us to enjoy and they were all pointing with their fins to the One who made them.
I was reminded of a lesson I had learned from the book of Romans where Paul writes,
20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:20-23 NIV)
One of the greatest gifts that God has given to us is the gift of His creation. I have been on the mountain’s peak and reached out and touched the stars. I have swam in the ocean deep and see the artwork of God. I watched turtles lay their eggs on the beach after swimming in the ocean for twenty years waiting to return to the place of their birth. I’ve watched a spider spin his web like DiVinci. Everything in all of creation points to the One who made it all for His good pleasure. Yet, I know many people who see the sights before us and don’t think a thing.
God spoke to His servant Ezekiel and said, 2 “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people. (Ezekiel 12:2 NIV)
Jesus would often say to the crowds after He spoke, “For those with ears to hear, let them hear.” There are many who have eyes to see and yet they don’t see a thing. There are many with ears so keen they can hear a pin drop, and yet they can’t hear the beautiful songs of praise lifted to the Lord everyday. God has set before us the beauty and glory of His creation so that we might be drawn to Him – to give Him thanks, praise, and glory for His mighty deeds.
Last, and most important of all, God has given us the gift that none of us deserved, the gift of His Son. I love how Paul describes the salvation of God. He writes,
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-9not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8 NIV)
I know at Christmas we talk about how Santa makes a list and checks it twice so that he can find out who is naughty and nice. If you are nice then you get what you deserve, a gift at Christmas. On the other hand, if you are naughty, then you are gonna get a lump of coal in your stocking. Well, my friend, God doesn’t need to make a list. He knew our every deed before we were ever born. He knows the deepest secrets of our lives, the ones we pray nobody else finds out about. He knows the thoughts that ramble through out brain – greed, bitterness, hatred, selfishness, and the like. He knows all of this and more and yet He loves so much that we don’t get what we deserve. What we deserve is to die and go to hell, but God gave His Son at Christmas so that those who trust in Him will spend eternity in His glorious presence. Paul writes in Romans,
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 NIV)
A little earlier in the book of Romans, Paul wrote about God’s gift when he said,
14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:14-17 NIV)
Long before you ever had an awareness of Christmas with its tinsel and bows, God was already at work providing for you the most wonderful gifts of all. We need to be reminded of God’s good gifts to us. We need to be reminded that every good and perfect gift that comes into our lives is a gift from the Lord. We need to be reminded because every year it seems like we continue to hear stories of how Jesus, the gift of God to you and me, is increasingly overshadowed by Christmas celebrations, Holiday festivities, and the like. Let me tell you that God will never allow for His perfect gift to be forgotten at Christmas. Jesus is and forever will remain the reason for our celebration and this season. I would like to share a story with you to illustrate how God will keep reminding us of His gift given at Christmas.
Candy Chand tells the story of attending her son’s Winter Pageant at school. She says,
Every year, I promised it would be different. Each December, I vowed to make Christmas a calm and peaceful experience. But, once again, in spite of my plans, chaos prevailed. I had cut back on what I deemed nonessential obligations: extensive card writing, endless baking, Martha Stewart decorating, and, yes, even the all-American pastime, overspending. Yet still I found myself exhausted, unable to appreciate the precious family moments, and, of course, the true meaning of Christmas. My son, Nicholas, was in kindergarten that year. It was an exciting season for a six-year-old, filled with hopes, dreams and laughter. For weeks, he’d been memorizing songs for his school’s upcoming Winter Pageant. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d be working the night of the production. Not willing to miss his shining moment, I spoke with his teacher. She assured me there’d be a dress rehearsal in the morning, and that all parents unable to attend the evening presentation were welcome to enjoy it then. Fortunately, Nicholas seemed happy with the compromise.
So, just as I promised, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down. When I looked around the room, I saw a handful of parents quietly scampering to their seats. I began to wonder why they, too, were attending a dress rehearsal, but chalked it up to the chaotic schedules of modern family life.
As I waited, the students were led into the building. Each class, accompanied by their teacher, sat crossed-legged on the floor. The children would become members of the audience as each group, one by one, rose to perform their song. Because the public school system had long stopped referring to the holiday as “Christmas,” I didn’t expect anything other than fun, commercial entertainment. The Winter Pageant was filled with songs of reindeer, Santa Claus, snowflakes and good cheer. The melodies were fun, cute and lighthearted. But nowhere to be found was even the hint of an innocent babe, a manger, or Christ’s precious, sacred gifts of life, hope and joy.
When my son’s class rose to sing “Christmas Love,” I was slightly taken aback by its bold title. However, within moments, I settled in to watch them proudly begin their number. Nicholas was aglow, as were all of his classmates, adorned in fuzzy mittens, red sweaters and bright snowcaps upon their heads. Those in the front row, center stage, held up large letters, one by one, to spell out the title of the song. As the class would sing “C is for Christmas,” a child would hold up the letter C. Then, “H is for Happy,” and on and on, until each child holding up his or her portion had presented the complete message, “Christmas Love.”
The performance was going smoothly, until suddenly, we noticed her, a small, quiet girl in the front row holding the letter M, upside-down! She was entirely unaware that reversed, her letter M appeared as a W. She fidgeted from side to side, until she had moved away from her mark entirely. The audience of children snickered at this little one’s mistake. In her innocence, she had no idea they were laughing at her and stood tall, proudly holding her W. You can only imagine the difficulty in calming an audience of young, giggling children. Although many teachers tried to shush them, the laughter continued. It continued that is, until the moment the last letter was raised, and we all saw it together. A hush came over the audience and eyes began to widen. In that instant, we finally understood the reason we were there, why we celebrated in the first place, why even in the chaos, there was a purpose for our festivities. For, when the last letter was held high, the message read loud and clear, “CHRIST WAS LOVE.”
And, I believe, he still is.
By Candy Chand
Reprinted by permission of Candy Chand (c) 1999, from Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patty Aubery and Nancy Mitchell Autio.
God has His ways of breaking through the pomp and circumstance, the tinsel and time stressed-filled experiences of Christmas to point us to the fact that Christmas, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, comes every day of the year. I pray that this Christmas you will open your eyes to the beautiful gifts of God given to us throughout our lives to draw us to our knees in humble adoration of His majesty and glory. Merry Christmas.