Last week Sue and I joined with CC Day’s Sunday School class for their annual Christmas Party at the Brady home. We enjoyed a time of great food and fellowship—and then we moved downstairs where we gathered around the Christmas tree for a “White Elephant Gift exchange.”
I’m fairly sure you all know how that game works but just in case someone here hasn’t experienced that game, here’s how it works. We each had brought a “White Elephant Gift” wrapped it and put it under the tree—and we each drew a number out of a bowl. Then in numerical order we selected a gift. You could keep it—or swap—that is, STEAL—the gift another person had opened. It’s a very “Christian” game. Just kidding. In spite of all the theft, was a lot of fun. There were a lot of “YAY’S!” from people who loved the gift they ended up with. And there were also a lot of MOANS from people who got stuck with things they couldn’t use. When it came my turn to select, I got a ceramic white elephant—and was very happy about that. I thought, “This is perfect! I can use it as my white elephant gift NEXT year. It will get me a laugh!” But—when Dale Smith’s number came up, he stole my pale pachyderm—to use at another “White Elephant Gift Party” he would be attending later this Christmas. He would get the laugh—not me. Rats!
Well, then—in the spirit of the game, I stole someone’s Hershey Chocolate Mug S’more gift box. I was thinking, “This will be perfect! I can use it with the grandkids. They love hot chocolate and s’mores. They will have one more reason to love their grandad!” But then Kevin Nichols’ number came up and he stole it from me—so no more s’mores. I think someone stole it from Kevin—not sure what he ended up with—but I ended up with a “VEGGIMATE”—one of those “as seen on TV” plastic devices that you can use to make spaghetti out of vegetables. And—I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this deal at White Elephant Gift exchanges at other Redland events in past years—but that’s okay—I’ll just save it until next Christmas!
By the way, this past Wednesday, Nancy Faulconer gave me the Hershey’s Smores kit. I don’t know how she got it—but isn’t that nice!
I bring all this up because, as you know, Christmas Mornings can be a lot like a white elephant gift exchange—in that, when you start passing out the gifts—there are a lot of “YAY’s.” “That’s just what I wanted!” But then someone didn’t receive the RIGHT gift—and MOANS abound. “UNDERWEAR? Really?”
By the way, this Christmas Americans will spend between 175 and 200 billion dollars trying to purchase the RIGHT Christmas gifts for others—gifts that hopefully lead to “YAY’S.” And to help you see how much money that is—200 billion is one third of the entire defense budget.
Well, the question I want us to deal with this morning is—how can we get more “YAY’S” than moans? How can I master the art of Christmas gift-giving? I mean, gifts are a big part of Christmas—so how can we get this part of this Christmas right? I think good gift giving BEGINS with a proper understanding of the REASON behind all those packages that are placed under the tree. To get Christmas right, we have to remember the REASON we go to all this trouble and expense. And just in case you’ve forgotten, we do this—inspired by the fact that, on that first Christmas night God gave us the INDESCRIBABLE gift of Jesus. As John 3:16 says,
“For God so loved the world that HE GAVE His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
You know, the first century was filled with myths about the gods who created human beings. Those myths said the “gods” made mankind to be slaves because these “gods” were takers. Then God inspired Moses to write the book of Genesis—a book that tells us that there is ONE TRUE GOD—and He is a GENEROUS GIVER. He began by creating the world and saying, “Take it. Enjoy it. I made it for you!” My point is that God didn’t START giving that first Christmas night. No—He’s been giving from the beginning. James writes, “Don’t be deceived my dear brothers and sisters—some people ARE deceived about the true nature of God—But I don’t want YOU to be like that—“Don’t be deceived—EVERY GOOD and PERFECT GIFT is from above, coming down from THE Father of the Heavenly lights, Who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Note that word, “EVERY.” James is saying, “Don’t be deceived by the myths that abound. The REAL God is not a taker. He is a GIVER. EVERY gift comes from Him.” And, of course it does.
Look at the world around you—the beauty of sunsets—the gentle glory of the view out your window after a snowfall—the laughter of a newborn baby—the good flavor of food. God IS indeed a giver! And His generosity isn’t just lavish or creative. It’s CONTINUAL. It never stops. Lamentations 3:23 says, “God, Your mercies are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness.” Think of it! Every morning God is saying, “Did you like that sunrise yesterday? Here’s another one. Here is food for your body. Here is air for your lungs. Here is beauty for your eyes. Here is music for your ears. Here is strength for your knees. Here are friends for your heart. Here is a purpose for your day.” God is giving all the time—and the thing that made the first Christmas so wonderful is the fact that on that blessed night God gave us His best Gift EVER. You see, this time His gift to us wasn’t a THING like a sunset or a flower—no it was a PERSON. God gave us Jesus. God gave us HIMSELF.
John Ortberg says that when he was a kid growing up, the most excited he saw his dad about giving a gift was when he got his mom a huge pitcher, an expensive vase of some sort. She apparently had let it slip that she really wanted it. Ortberg writes, “My dad had saved and saved and saved. He was so excited about it, he told us kids, but he said, ‘It’s a secret.’ We got excited because he was so excited and my mom knew something was up so she finally asked, ‘What am I getting?’ And I said to her, ‘I can’t tell you mom because it’s a secret but it’s a pitcher.’”
Well, at Christmas our God Who loves us—LOVES to give to us—gave us just what we needed—just what we wanted. Ortberg says, “It is no wonder the Angels sang. It’s almost as if God couldn’t contain Himself. He couldn’t keep quiet about it any longer. He’d been anticipating this moment year after year, century after century, and millennium after millennium. It’s as if He excitedly sent a sky full of angels who said: ‘Hey earth I can’t tell you what you’re getting because it’s a secret but it’s a SAVIOR!” So—to get Christmas right we need to remember, we give gifts—because God gave—God is a giver and we prove we are children when we are GIVERS as well.
Our text for this morning tells us about the first HUMAN Christmas gift-givers—men who had obviously mastered this art because their gift giving reflects God’s way of giving. Take your Bibles and turn to Matthew 2:1-12.
1 – After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
2 – and asked, “Where is the One Who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”
3 – When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 – When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 – “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 – “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
7 – Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
8 – He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.”
9 – After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the Child was.
10 – When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
11 – On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him.
Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
12 – And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Okay—what can we learn about GIVING RIGHT Christmas gifts from these learned men? And how do their gifts reflect the way that God gives to us? I am relying on an old message by Bill Hybels for my outline.
(1) The first is the principle of PLANNING.
And, let’s face it, last minute gift-giving almost never works. Most gifts that are purchased hurriedly on Christmas Eve Day elicit MOANS on Christmas morning. In fact, I think that’s where the ugly Christmas sweater phenomenon started. Some guy didn’t plan ahead and the only sweaters left were the ugly ones. That fact, is you can’t get the perfect gift—you can’t GIVE right—without planning ahead.
I know a husband in this church who planned his 25th wedding anniversary in an amazing way. If you don’t know who he is, ask Peggy Roney. Every week for 25 weeks before their 25th wedding anniversary, David sent roses to Peggy. The 25th week before the anniversary he sent 1 rose, the 24th week before he sent 2, the 23rd week before he sent 3, and so on—all the way to the week of the anniversary when she got 25 roses. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! Each delivery of roses was accompanied by a special piece written by my David; a letter, poem, limerick, song, etc. Sometimes he recruited people to help deliver these special elements. For example, for one song he wrote he recruited some men from the choir to sing it to his blushing bride. The whole 25th anniversary gift-giving deal took David an entire year in advance planning. The first rose and gift were very unexpected and surprising since it was 25 weeks BEFORE their wedding anniversary. But once the first was received, the next 24 were anticipated with much excitement about what might come next! The basis for his gifts were about meeting Peggy’s specific emotional and spiritual needs instead of trying to fill a want. I can only imagine how wonderful David’s gifts made Peggy feel! And—whereas I applaud David for his thoughtful planning—I wish he would have kept it to himself. I mean, he’s set a very high bar for the rest of us husbands to meet! I believe Less and Mary Pitts celebrated 49 years of marriage this week—So Less, that means you have two weeks to begin giving Mary a gift a week leading up to your fiftieth!
By the way our trustees benefit from David’s pre-planning of gifts. David is our chair and whenever we have a trustee’s meeting, he hand-makes a different flavor for us to enjoy. The only drawback is it lengthens our meetings because no one wants to start the meeting until they’ve finished their ice-cream!
Well the Magi planned their gifts as well. Long before they left their home country for their two-year journey west they thought ahead. They said to each other, “If this child really turns out to be a king of some kind–if he turns out to be the long-awaited Messiah–well, we would need to honor that child when we locate Him.” So, they reasoned amongst each other, “Let’s buy some gifts right here and right now, pack them carefully, and transport them along with us. That way we’ll be prepared to give gifts to this special Child.”
And—to help motivate you to embrace this principle—remember that’s the way God gives. I mean, God planned WAY ahead in the giving of Jesus. As I said last week, He knew mankind would sin—so before time began, He planned to give us Jesus to save us from our sins.
I love what Alistair Begg says, “In the Old Testament, Jesus is predicted. In the Gospels He is revealed. In Acts He is preached. In the Epistles He is explained. And in Revelation, He is expected.” Begg is correct because Jesus has been the plan all along! He is the Lamb that was slain for you and for me BEFORE the foundation of the world.
In fact, we can look back and see proofs of God’s careful planning.
a. For example, when Jesus was given that first Christmas night it was a time of PEACE.
And understand, this was unprecedented. The world of that day had never known a time like this when for the most part all conflict ceased. There had always been wars!
- Wars between Babylonians and the nations they conquered.
- Wars between the Medes and the Persians and the Babylonians.
- Wars between the Greeks and the Persians.
- Wars between the Romans and all the nations they conquered.
Even within the world-domineering Roman empire there had been constant conflict.
- There had been Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, an “attack” that led to the end of the Republic.
- Then came Caesar’s assassination which was followed by the civil wars in which Antony and Augustus defeated Brutus and Cassius.
- Then there was war between Antony and Augustus.
But once Augustus defeated Antony and became the sole ruler, intra-roman wars ceased.
- Augustus also successfully conducted conflicts on the various borders and against the pirates who ruled the seas.
With all these victories Augustus established what is known as The Pax Romana.. It lasted from 27BC all the way until AD 180. And, Jesus “just happened” to be born in this time of an unprecedented absence of conflict. Roman law prevailed for over two centuries—and under this law the Apostles and early missionaries of the Gospel found protection and security. Whenever rioting occurred as a result of their preaching, there were Roman magistrates to quell the rioting. Remember? On more than one occasion Paul was spared brutal treatment by simply announcing that he was a Roman citizen. So, there was peace—peace that allowed God’s gift of the Gospel to spread unimpeded literally all over the world.
b. Another example of God’s planning is the fact that when Jesus came, the great cities of the world were united by a vast system of HIGHWAYS.
These roads were so carefully constructed that some of them are still in existence. Along these roads Paul and the early missionaries traveled quickly with their good news. There were no rigid borders between provinces—no border checkpoints—no need for passports but instead an ease of movement all around the Empire. And with the pirates gone, ships also made it possible for quicker, safer—more direct—travel.
c. There was also RELIGIOUS FREEDOM at this point in history.
For the most part, Augustus respected the customs and religions of his empire and gave them autonomy—which meant that at least during this chapter of history, Christians did not fear persecution. And this allowed the church to build a firm foundation—one that would survive and even thrive in those future years when persecution did come.
d. Here’s another example of God’s planning. There was a universal LANGUAGE.
Up until this point the world was filled with all kinds of languages and dialects. Mankind hadn’t had a common tongue since the days of Babel. But along came a man named Alexander the Great. He instituted a common language—Greek. It was the most flexible and versatile language people had ever used and by the time Jesus was born, everyone in the world spoke and read a little Greek. Legal documents were written in Greek. The New Testament was written in Greek.
Well, you can imagine how this hastened the spread of the Gospel.
e. And then, last but not least there was Augustus’ CENSUS.
With this proclamation, Augustus was unknowingly serving as part of God’s plan. He was in essence God’s errand boy. After all, his census brought these two peasants to Bethlehem—fulfilling Micah’s prophecy—so that Jesus was born exactly where God had said He would be born.
In his book, I Never Promised You a Disneyland, Jay Kesler talks about this. Here’s an excerpt:
“When most people think of Christmas, they think of camels, swaddling cloths, and a manger. But I think of a Ford Motor plant. One year I toured a plant and watched them assemble cars. It was an eye opener. I’d always had the idea Ford would guess how many cars they needed and make that many. They decide to make green cars one day, and they’d make two or three thousand. Then they’d switch to some other color. But, of course, that’s not the way they do it. All over America, people walk into Ford dealerships, look around, kick a few tires, and then order a car, a certain model with specific equipment, color, roof, transmission. The dealer fills out a computer card, and then an order is placed with Ford. In one city they make the correct transmission. In another city they make vinyl roofs. And in another, mirrors. All these places start feeding their products toward the Ford plant. The Ford plant has a man who puts on steering wheels. The cars come down the lines, and when the green cars come, you can bet he doesn’t get a red steering wheel to put on. At exactly the right time the green steering wheels are there. He reaches out and grabs one and sticks it on. That’s what happens with each part. The mirror, the roof, the seat covers–every part shows up at precisely the right instant. Now, if man is capable of designing such an ingenious system to bring thousands of events and people together with precise timing just to make a car—well imagine what God can do in preparing his visit to earth! That’s what I think of at Christmas. The number of things God brought together at one time in one place and so incredible, it makes the Ford plant look like the corner gas station. Some people have the idea that Jesus was a remedial action—a last-minute Band-Aid stuck on a wounded world. They think that God had tried everything else, so he decided to try His Son. But the Bible says Jesus came in the fullness of time and everything was as fully prepared for Him as possible. All the pieces of history fell together. God’s preparation was staggering.”
Here’s the verse from Galatians that Kesler refers to: “When the set time had fully come—when the time was right—when God’s plans came to fruition—He sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
In eight days when you open what you can see was a very carefully planned and thought out gift—or when you give one—remember—God has been planning to give you Jesus—since before the foundation of the world.
(2) Here’s a second principle of RIGHT GIFT-GIVING: PERSONALIZATION
The Bible indicates the Magi put together their gift package very thoughtfully. They had Someone very specific in mind as they selected their gifts. In essence their three gifts were monogrammed with a big “JC” on them. For example, their gift of GOD—Gold was the currency of Kings. I mean, normal people didn’t use Gold. It was too expensive—too precious. So, with this gift they acknowledged that Jesus would be KING—the KING OF KINGS and LORD OF LORDS.
They also gave Him FRANKINCENSE—an incense that was used in Jewish temples by the HIGH PRIESTS. It was the kind of incense that was burned in the temple right before the Holy of Holies. Remember, a priest’s job is to intercede between our Holy God and sinful people.
Jesus is the PERFECT priest because that’s what He came to do.
Hebrews 7 talks about this. It says: “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, He has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, He does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered Himself.”
This is why when Jesus died on the cross—the thick curtain separating the people from the Holy of Holies was torn in half—from top to bottom!The gift of frankensence acknowledge this.
The magi also brought Him MYRRH—which was a very expensive perfume. People would buy it when someone they loved died. They would anoint the body with myrrh so that the aroma would keep away the stench of death. These men were WISE in giving this gift because they knew that the prophecies said the Messiah would die for the sins of all mankind. They knew He was born to die.
So—GOLD, FRANKENSENCE, MYRRH. These were PERFECTLY personalized gifts for Jesus. Well, whenever you give a gift—remember this principle. Giving is a chance to say to someone we love, “I know you. I understand you. I celebrate your uniqueness. I was thinking of you when I got you this.” And, as inspiration, look to God Who has given You the most personalized Gift ever—Jesus—Who has loved you literally forever—and died on the cross THINKING of you.
(3) A third principle of gift giving we see here is the principle of PRICE.
As I just said, the gifts the Magi brought were on the “pricey” side of the monetary equation. They could have gotten lots of other gifts much more inexpensively—and gifts that would have been easier to transport all that way. But no—they spent quite a bit of money to get their gifts—as well they should have, because these gifts were gifts fit for a king—THE King. Well, to get your gift-giving right this Christmas you’ve got to think through this principle—the principle of price. Now—embracing this principle doesn’t mean you have to bankrupt yourself. I mean, cost is measured in many different ways. You can pay a lot of money for a gift or you can spend a lot of time finding or even making a gift. In fact, for many of us time and energy are more-costly than money.
Back in 2009 the Whittier Area Community Church in California sent a mission trip team to Malawi, Africa. The team saw the desperate need for children’s health care. When they shared this with the church, they decided to raise $160,000 to build a fully-equipped pediatric clinic. In spite of being a fairly large church, this was far beyond anything they’d ever done, so they decided to raise the funds through a special Christmas Eve offering.
Pastor Bill Ankerberg shares what happened:
“The mood was electric on Christmas Eve as people brought their gifts to the front and put them in large baskets. Women cried, children ran up smiling, people gave with the greatest joy we have ever seen. They were delighted to give to God that which cost them something. People came in droves, three rows in the lobby, chairs in every doorway, people standing along the walls. People from the community had heard of the project and wanted to participate. Before taking the offering, Pastor Ankerberg asked everyone to write on their envelopes where the money had come from. Children had sold toys and candy, saved allowances, baby-sat, and sacrificed Christmas presents to be able to give to the children of Malawi. Adults had given up physical therapy, Christmas presents, hosted dinners, sold stock and cars, donated savings, given up winter vacations. One couple had donated money they would have used for fertility drugs—in hopes that even if they couldn’t have a baby, maybe they could help save the life of someone else’s. Everyone dug down deep and made personal sacrifices to achieve this goal. When everything had been collected and counted, the congregation had raised $525,057 for the children in Malawi!”
Those people understood the principle of price. To be meaningful, gifts have to cost us. When you open a gift that was obviously COSTLY remember the cost of God’s Gift that first Christmas night? 1st Peter 1:18 says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life—handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
(4) Here’s one last principle of giving: PRESENTATION
We embrace this principle when we carefully wrap our gifts. We embrace it when, like David Roney, we give our gifts in a unique way—a way that adds to the joy and meaning of the gift.
Well, the Magi got their gift presentation right. I mean, before they gave their gifts, they got on bended knee. The Bible says, “They bowed low.” In other words, they worshiped first. Then they gave their gifts.
Think with me here. What if on Christmas morning instead of just diving into the packages—we each got our PRESENTATION right? What if we followed the example of the Magi. What if we first humbled ourselves in worship—bowed low in a sense—and acknowledged God’s greatest Gift and our desperate need for it?
In his book, Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller writes:
“Christmas is about receiving presents, but consider how challenging it is to receive certain kinds of gifts. Some gifts by their very nature make you swallow your pride. Imagine opening a present on Christmas morning from a friend … and it’s a dieting book. Then you take off another ribbon and wrapper and you find it is another book from another friend, entitled, Overcoming Selfishness. If you say to them ‘Thank you so much,’ you are in a sense admitting, ‘For indeed I am [overweight] and obnoxious.’ In other words, some gifts are hard to receive, because to do so is to admit you have flaws and weaknesses and you need help. Perhaps on some occasion you had a friend who figured out you were in financial trouble and came to you and offered a large sum of money to get you out of your predicament. If that has ever happened to you, you probably found that to receive the gift meant swallowing your pride. There has never been a gift offered that makes you swallow your pride to the depths that the gift of Jesus Christ requires us to. Christmas means that we are so lost, so unable to save ourselves, that nothing less than the death of the Son of God himself could save us. That means you are not somebody who can pull yourself together and live a moral and good life.”
So—in eight days before we present our gifts to each other on Christmas morning, wouldn’t it be something if we would pay a little attention to presentation—-and provide a little context to better understand what this gift giving thing is all about? Wouldn’t it be something if we all started a new tradition in our families where we say, “Before we give our gifts to one another, we’re going to spend just a moment honoring the ultimate gift giver–God Himself. We’re going to take a few moments and remind ourselves Who it was that started this whole tradition of bestowing gifts to each other.” And if you would stop right there and take out a Bible and read our text last week from Luke or this morning from Matthew. Then after you read the Christmas story, bow your heads, hold hands and pray together—thanking God for THE Gift that got all this gift-giving started. Thank God for sending Jesus to die in our place.