Are you giving or receiving? (Dec 20, 2020)
Are you giving or receiving this year?
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I grew up in a fairly large family. There were 6 of us kids. We were a family of 8. So, around this time of year my mom would take us out individually for Christmas shopping. It was our day to spend with mom during a busy time of year, but mainly, it was our time to get ready to give. We had to pick out 5 gifts, one for each sibling, plus a gift for mom and dad. It was fun! But also a lot of work getting ready to give. We had to know what our siblings wanted, find it in the store, and even when we got home the work still wasn’t done. Then we had to wrap each of the gifts and place them under the tree. I guess the final step was then on Christmas day, finding our stack of gifts under the tree and handing them all out – each to the correct sibling. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve eliminated some of the stress and cost by just picking names. Now, we each find a gift to give just one sibling, and it can be something a little nicer than small toys and trinkets because we can focus our attention and money on giving just one gift, rather than 5.
Maybe around this time of year you are thinking about another kind of giving as well. With the additional focus on Christ and his birth, and the resolutions for the New Year just around the corner, perhaps you are thinking about what you can give to God. I can give him my devotion with the nightly activities of an Advent calendar. I can give him my worship and praise at a special Christmas service. I can devote more time in the New Year to serving him. And while all of these are great things to be doing, I want to remind you, especially this time of year with a focus on giving – I want to remind you to be ready to receive from him. In the days leading up to Christ’s birth, God was getting people ready to receive the Greatest Gift – his Son, our Savior. And Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving even now. Far more important that what we give to God, is what we receive from him. So come with open ears to hear, open minds to understand, and open hearts to trust.
The first thing that God gives in the gospel account we are focusing on today is his message. He sent his messenger – that’s actually what the Greek word for “angel” means – to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). Sounds like a very pleasant greeting. But the appearance of the angel caused Mary to be greatly troubled. In fact, almost every time an angel appears in Scripture, the recipients of the messengers are greatly troubled and fearful! Just before this account we hear about an angel appearing to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, and “When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear” (Luke 1:12). Just after this account, we hear about an angel appearing to the shepherds living out in the fields nearby, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Lk 2:9). Fast forward to when we hear about Jesus’ resurrection and the women at the empty tomb. “Suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground” (Lk 24:4-5). Time and time again, when God’s messengers – the angels – appear, men tremble and fear, and the angels always have to start by saying, “Do not be afraid.”
Why is that? What is it about the appearance of God’s messengers that is so frightening? Well, first off, they weren’t really the scantily-clad, chubby babies that we often think of around Valentine’s Day. More accurately, they are often described as “fiery beings,” and “warriors.” So, just the appearance of one of these creatures is enough to strike fear in someone’s heart. But, more importantly, don’t miss what often accompanied the appearance of the angels. Often, they are described as bright and shining. More specifically, the “glory of the Lord” often accompanied them and shone around them. And we’ve talked about this “Glory of the Lord” quite often recently. It is the holiness and perfection of God. A holiness that instills in sinful human beings the sharp perception that “I do not belong here. I am not worthy. My sinfulness cries out against me. And God’s holy judgment is clear. I stand condemned.”
“But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God’” (Lk 1:30). That “favor,” that word, is actually “xaris,” the Greek word for “grace.” Not only does the angel Gabriel tell Mary to “stop fearing,” he also give her the best reason of all for putting aside her fear completely. She has found “favor” / “grace” with God. God is reaching out to her in love. There’s nothing for her to do or give to God to earn his favor. God gives her his grace. “Receive grace!” the angel urges her, “And not only in this moment, but get ready to receive a message of unending grace:” “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus” (Lk 1:31). The name “Jesus” means “the Lord saves”. And although the name Jesus was a fairly common name, this Child was no ordinary child. The full significance of his birth and his name becomes clear as the angel continues to unwrap the message.
I want to urge you to receive the message. Open a Bible and delve into it. Not with the mindset of “I’m devoting this time to God.” But with the mindset of unwrapping a gift. You certainly don’t consider it a burden or a chore to unwrap a gift. God is giving you something every time you open the Scriptures and hear his message. Yes, even the parts that are hard to read because they point out your own flaws and failures, your own inadequacies next to God who is pure and holy. This hard look into my own heart and stabbing at the sins I hold tightly to is needed for me to really hear about the gift that this Child is. He’s not just a wise teacher who will show me how to live. If I really understand my sinfulness, I already know that I am incapable of the life required to stand in the presence of a holy God. So rather than showing you how to live, his Message unwraps the perfect life of Jesus who died as a perfect sacrifice for sin, to make you holy. This “Jesus” born to Mary, is your “Jesus” also. He is “the Lord’s salvation” for you too.
If you want to delve into the Bible to receive God’s message of “favor,” of “grace,” but don’t know where to start, the book of Luke is a good place. It details the life of Jesus and all he did to save you. Once you read Luke, and have a handle on the life of Jesus, then go to Romans for an understanding of what all of this means for me. Romans is a good summary of the “doctrines,” the “teachings,” of the Scriptures. After that, there’s plenty more to explore. If you’d like, I’m happy to meet with you and give some direction on what to explore next. God has so much to give in his Word. So much for us to receive. It’s a gift we can unwrap again and again!
Let’s talk a little more, now, about the “gift” of Jesus. A lot of gifts that you might choose for someone come with a variety of features, accessories, or personalization that you can customize to meet the wants and needs of the person you are giving it to. If it’s a new pair of shoes, for example, there’s the color, the style, sometimes the brand is important, and of course the size. Or, if it’s a new drill, perhaps, there’s the type of drill, there’s battery vs. corded, there’s specific accessories that come with it, etc. The combination of all of these factors together can either make or break the gift.
In the case of Jesus, there’s really two factors that are most important. 1) He has to be God, and 2) He has to be man. Fully God and fully man in one person. And in the angel’s announcement, we see that’s exactly who Jesus is. “[Mary,] You will conceive and give birth to a son… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:31, 35).
Why is this so important? Jesus had to be truly a man so that he would be subject to the same law of God that we are subject to. Yet, he also had to be God so that he wasn’t tainted by the corruption of original sin, and so that he could keep God’s law perfectly – something that no human could ever do. Jesus also had to be truly a man so that he could face the penalty of sin in our place. “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). Yet, at the same time, he had to be fully God so that his death could pay for the sins of all people. The Bible says, “No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them – the ransom for a life is costly” (Ps 49:7-8). But the sacrifice of God himself is enough. It’s more than enough. And to prove it, Jesus did not stay dead. He rose from the dead. So, the perfect life he lived, he gives to you. And the death of the sinner, Jesus took onto himself. His whole life, death, and resurrection is a gift for you, graciously given.
It’s hard to believe. I know. It’s hard to believe that there is really nothing you or I have to do – can even do – to earn God’s favor. If it was earned, it would no longer be a gift. If it were deserved, grace would no longer be grace. So, like a gift from a generous giver that you feel you do not deserve, that you think is too much, just receive it, even if you do not fully understand their reason or motivation for giving it. The truth is, God loves you more than you will ever know. God is far more generous than you can ever imagine. God loves to give from the wealth of his goodness far more than you could ever ask or imagine. It’s good! Even if you can’t fully comprehend it, listen to the message he proclaims, learn about the gift he’s given, and finally, trust with a faith that only he can give.
There’s a really neat detail in Mary’s final response to Gabriel. She trusts the angel, but seeks to understand by asking, “How will this be, since I am a virgin” (Lk 1:34). The angel explains how God will do this, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God… No word from God will ever fail” (Lk 1:35, 37). And Mary responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Lk 1:38). But that word for “word” is not the usual one. It’s not “logos,” which is typically used. It’s “rymma” which has a connotation more leaning toward the sounds – the full meaning of which is not entirely grasped or understood. This is in contrast to “logos” which conveys a message with a clear meaning. That’s how ready to receive Mary was. She did not pretend to grasp all that the angel said or its full implication. All she knew was that the message came from God, and that whatever he was about to give was entirely good.
We may not always understand our lot in life. Why is God allowing this to happen. Why isn’t God providing me with this thing that I need. And we try to make sense of it. What might God be doing in my life, even through this experience that has me at my wits end – hanging by a thread. Sometimes God is simply peeling back the layers of self-reliance to teach us to rely on him. Sometimes God takes away the things we’ve worked so hard to gain, so that we can gain something better from him. We may not always understand it fully the difficulties he gives. We may not always understand the goodness he gives. Sometimes his plan for our lives will be like “rymma” – utterances that we can’t fully make sense of. That’s when we learn to just be ready to receive. He has your life in his hands. He’s already given you the Greatest Gift. The message assures you. The gift proves it. And he gives you the faith to trust it.