Several years ago I was in Paris, the city of lights. I was blown away by the beauty of that city. In Paris there are many incredible art museums that contain priceless works of art, but truth be told, Paris itself is a work of art. From the towering steel of the Eiffel Tower to the elegant beauty of winding streets lined with sidewalk cafes and guarded by gargoyles, this is one amazing city. There are so many amazing works of art in Paris that many of them just blend together in your mind after a few days in the city. However, in this city that showcases the arts, there is one portrait that gets all the press. There is one painting that people always remember – one portrait people are lining up to see. Deep in the center of the most famous art museum in the world, sits the small portrait of a half-smiling, plain-looking woman. Above all the larger than life sculptures, all the Egyptian treasures and impressionist paintings, the Mona Lisa has captured the attention of all the world like no other work of art in a city of artists.
I could walk right up to the Venus De Milo and practically touch it. I could sit in front of huge murals of the Last Supper and the crucifixion for hours without being bothered by anyone; however I could get no closer to the Mona Lisa than 50 yards. There are paintings that are far more elaborate . . . far grander in scope . . . far more supernatural in subject matter, but it is the Mona Lisa that has people packed 20 deep and snapping photographs in her direction. Why is that? Have you ever asked that question? As I looked over one man’s shoulder, beneath another man’s arm pit and past a woman’s hat, to see the top corner of this painting, I wondered to myself what it was that made this painting so magnetic. What was it that made it so significant in the eyes of people? Have you ever asked yourself this question about this famous painting?
As I thought about it, you know what came to mind? What makes the Mona Lisa special is not its famous subject, or its bright colors, or its grandiose size. The brilliance of the Mona Lisa is in the small details. The slight smile. The inviting face. The relatability of painting an ordinary person in a day when only saints, gods, and martyrs were painted. These common elements are what make the Mona Lisa special. This painting is a beautiful portrait painted in plain strokes by a master artist.
You know what? When I think about the life we all live in relationship with God, I think of the Mona Lisa. Many of us would love to see God work in our lives the same way He did in New Testament times. We long to see the mighty work of God, point to it, and proclaim, “There He is! I know God is real because I see Him at work in the raising of the dead man. . . in restoring strength to the paralytic . . . in giving sight back to the blind.” We long to see God work in the grandiose, and somewhere along the way, we have convinced ourselves that it is only in such circumstances that God is actually at work. If that is your perspective, then you need to keep reading. God is not just at work in the grandiose. In fact, God has always been at work in the simple things of life. God even worked through the commonplace in the New Testament.
Take the book of Luke for instance. As you read the first two chapters of Luke which highlight the Christmas story, what do you see? As I read the first two chapters of Luke, I see God mightily at work . . . through the common strokes of life. I see God at work in the timing of Zacarias’s work schedule for entering the temple. I see God at work in the birth of two children and the selection of those parents. I see God at work in the declaring that a census be taken to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. I see God at work in the way a mother relates to her child. I see God at work in the very common things of life like jobs and family and political decrees. And in the process, God is painting a Mona Lisa style masterpiece of His grace for us to see.
Take a few minutes and reread the first two chapters of Luke, then ask yourself the question, “Where is God at work in my life?” We may be looking for the majestic and miss God at work in the mundane. Who do you think had you born to the parents that you have? Who do you think was at work to bring you to the University of Oklahoma? Who was it that had you grow up in the town you grew up in? Who is it that has you working at the job you are at right now? God did! And God does! He is at work in the details of our lives to sovereignly guide us to where He wants us to be. Stop for a few moments and reflect on the fact that God has been, is currently, and always will be at work in our lives . . . not just in the “big things,” but through the details of our lives. And know this . . . what God has led you to, He will see you through. Begin to see your life as a beautiful portrait of His grace painted in plain strokes by the Master Artist.
Last year, we got to spend a few days in Bartlesville celebrating Christmas with family. We had a great time quoting lines from Elf, opening presents, eating way too much, and getting schooled in Scrabble by my 10 year old niece. In other words, it was a perfect holiday. Since I grew up in Bartlesville, any trip back home brings back all kinds of memories – good and bad. In many ways, I have grown into a different person since I moved away from there 20 years ago. Some of those changes have been positive, some have been negative.
One of the changes that I would consider negative, is my general optimism about life. When I lived in Bartlesville I was much younger, and much more optimistic about my future. Let me give you an example. Back in 1984 when the Olympics were in Los Angeles, I remember dreaming that one day I would be a part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. I loved playing basketball, and thought I had a “realistic” shot at making the team one day. I actually did the math and thought that I would only have two chances to make the team – 1992 and 1996. I thought I would only have the chance for those two Olympics because I would be in the NBA in 1997, thus making me ineligible for an amateur competition (the Olympics at that time were only open to amateurs). Best I can tell, I wanted to be an Olympian for three reasons:
- A love of America. Putting on the stars and bars and taking on the world was an incredibly motivating idea.
- A love of Basketball. I thought I had the skills to compete.
- A love of Mary Lou Retton. Remember the 1984 games? As an 11 year old, I thought if I could just meet her, I had a chance . . .
Anyway, by the time 1992 rolled around, I no longer lived in Bartlesville . . . and I no longer thought I could be an Olympian. Though the inclusion of the professionals did not help me (thanks a lot Dream Team), the reason I did not make it to the Olympics in 1992 was that I was not good enough to make the team. Time has an incredible ability to kill our dreams, doesn’t it? The longer we live, the more we are in tune with our own abilities and liabilities. The more basketball I played against better and better competition, the more I realized that I was not going to be the next Mark Price or even the next Tim Legler. My talent ceiling was 6A sports in Oklahoma. Getting a realistic picture of what I could accomplish caused me to alter my idealistic notion of being a Olympic champion.
What about you? What did you used to think you were going to grow up to be? How has time changed your hopes and dreams?
While it is fun and nostalgic to look back on our dreams of fame, it is tragic when we let the passing of time ebb away at the confidence we have in our spiritual lives. For far too many of us, we trust God with less with each passing year. This happens because over time we become more and more acquainted with our lack of ability to accomplish things we genuinely desire. Year after year, an illness remains, a relationship deteriorates, a sin struggle lingers, depression clings on. Because of the persistent nature of some of our struggles, and our lack of ability to change them, we begin to trust God with less. As we become aware of our liabilities, we begin to limit our expectations. When we limit our expectations, we shrink our dreams. When we shrink our dreams, we have a tendency to shrink our God as well.
The flaw in all this is that we are attaching our hopes and dreams in the areas that matter most to us only to our own ability. As believers in Jesus Christ, we have a God we can trust for things way larger than that! Think about it: if you are a believer in Jesus, you are trusting God for forgiveness of all your sins. Your ability to be forgiven has nothing to do with your ability to accomplish something yourself, but it has to do with God’s ability to do more to you and through you than you could ever do alone! God forgives by sending His Son to die on the cross for us. That is how we are forgiven. However, as believers live out their spiritual lives, we can allow time to cause us to focus more on what we can do and less on what God can do. When we do that, our vision for tomorrow deflates.
This year, this Christmas, I want to encourage you to inflate your vision again. Trust God more this coming year for things bigger than what you can accomplish on your own. I want to encourage you in this direction by looking at the first few words in Luke 2 tonight. At the beginning of the story of Jesus birth, Luke says this, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. . .” If you have been a Christian for a long time (or if you have recently watched the “Charlie Brown Christmas” special), no doubt these words are very familiar to you. In fact, the name Caesar Augustus is one of the most famous names of any Caesar in the history of the Roman Empire. But who was Caesar Augustus and why do we know his name today? Answering that question is a very interesting story.
In 63 BC, a young man named Gaius Octavius was born. Octavius was in the Roman army. At that time, a man named Julius Caesar was the dictator of Rome. Julius noticed the great skill and leadership ability that Octavius had. Octavius was Julius’s nephew. Julius had no children of his own. Unknown to Octavius, Julius had written into his will to adopt Octavius upon his death, and make him the heir to his fortune and political successor. On the Ides of March, in 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated by political adversaries in the Roman Senate. Octavius was summoned to Rome to hear a reading of his late Uncle’s will. In the will, Octavius found out his future would be changed forever. He had been post-humously adopted by his uncle Julius and at the age of 19, Octavius had become the leader of Rome. As a tribute, Octavius took on Julius’s name “Caesar,” making him Octavius Caesar. In 42 BC, the Roman Senate deified Julius Caesar, making him the “Divine Julius” and Octavius, “The Son of the Divine” or as we might say, he became known as the “Son of God.” Then, in a twist that changed the course of Rome, Octavius changed the Roman constitution making himself an Emperor and Rome an Empire. At that time, they changed his name to Augustus . . . which means “Sacred one” . . . Thus Augustus Caesar became known as the Sacred One, the Son of God. He was the leader of the world at the time of Jesus birth.
Caesar Augustus was such a powerful man that he was able to speak a word and make the entire Roman Empire move. When you are an emperor and people think you are a god, you have lots of power. That is why when Caesar developed a new tax code and said that people needed to go to their ancestral homes to register, people started walking – among them Mary and Joseph.
Now imagine that you were alive in the Roman Empire on the night that Jesus was born, and imagine that you were walking with a set of travelers to the town of Bethlehem to register for the census. Imagine that someone were to say to you that alive in the world at that time was one known as the Son of God, the Sacred one, who would be known for 2,000 years and counting into the future. Imagine that someone were to tell you on the way to Bethlehem that 2,000 years later all of human history would hinge around this Son of God and what He would accomplish with His life. Imagine that someone were to tell you that 2,000 years later, people would look at pictures and symbols of this Sacred One and think of how the Son of God had changed their lives. Imagine that. I would imagine that if someone would have told you all that on that night, you would have thought they were talking about Caesar Augustus. In reality, however, they were talking about a child that would be born later that night in a cave and placed in an animals feeding bin.
Despite the drastic differences between Jesus and Augustus on the first Christmas night (one in a manger, the other on a throne), the world has come to remember the one, only because of His association with the other. Think about it, the man who was responsible for starting the Roman Empire . . . the man who was known as a god by the most advanced civilization in the world at that time, would be known to us only because he was the ruler at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. As Andy Stanley has correctly said, Augustus Caesar is merely a footnote in the history of God’s Story in Christ. Men and women, we serve a God who can make a baby born in a manger infinitely more powerful than the leader of the “free world.”
This Christmas, as you ponder anew what the Almighty can do, I want you to stop limiting what God can do. I want you to renew your belief that God can do big things. As the Christmas story is read and you hear of Caesar Augustus, I want you to remember the power of God. Caesar thought he was a god and tried to make himself famous, but in the end, he was a footnote in history. Time has taught us of the limitations of human power. However, time has also taught us of the enduring nature of God’s story. When we are attached to Christ, He can do infinitely abundantly beyond all we ask or think. I want you to trust God again for big things this year, because we serve a big God.
Now, I want to ask you this question. Who are you trusting tonight? For the problem of our sin. For the problem of our uncertainty. For the problem of our mortality. For the things you truly long for. Who are you trusting? Yourself? The best a person could do is what Augustus did . . . and he is rotting in a tomb. Trust instead in the One who has gone from the manger to a throne that will never be unseated. He can offer us forgiveness, and hope. He is the One we orient our history around. His story gives meaning to ours. My dreams are bigger because I am a part of His team.
Think about the life of the original 12 disciples. For three years they had the privilege of traveling the countryside with Jesus of Nazareth as one of His merry men. As a part of this privilege, they got to hear every sermon He ever taught, witness nearly every miracle He ever performed, and had Jesus provide the “director’s cut” commentary to His ministry around the campfire at night. Pretty cool, right?
Now, in light of all that the 12 witnessed, it should not surprise us that the original 12 were bullish on His divinity. John writes in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Peter calls Jesus, “Our God and Savior” in 2 Peter 1:1. Clearly, these men were convinced of Jesus divinity. However, when we really think of the experience of the 12, it should amaze us that they were so solid on His divinity. After all, they saw up close His humanity as well:
- They saw Jesus hungry. Imagine that – the God of the Universe weak after a long walk because His blood sugar had dropped!
- They saw Jesus tired. Imagine watching God become unresponsive as he dozes off to sleep after a long day.
- They had seen Jesus bleed and die a physical death. Watching the Eternal One die had to be a mind blowing experience.
- They had seen Him live large portions of His life in obscurity. For 30 years, Jesus was Joe and Mary’s boy . . . a carpenter’s apprentice.
They had seen Him live a very human life. Reflecting on all that the disciples saw makes their statements of divinity that much more powerful. They would have had a strong inclination to call Jesus merely a man, yet they believed in His divinity. Seeing His empty tomb and shaking His nail scarred (yet risen) hand will do that to you!
If the disciples were predisposed to see Jesus as merely a man, people who have been raised in Christian churches are predisposed to see Jesus merely as God. I say that because we are people who have always related to Jesus as Someone we have never seen with our eyes. We have related to Jesus as a part of the unseen Trinity. His Words are written in red, and His pronouns are always capitalized. For long-time Christians, the divinity of Jesus is something we take for granted . . . but in understanding this, we sometimes forget His humanity as well.
In Luke 3:23-38, the human genealogy of Jesus is listed. I think (in part) this genealogy is given in great detail to help those of us who would read this Gospel two millennia later to remember that though Jesus IS 100% God, He is also 100% human. Though He could calm the raging sea by raising His hand, His hand could be pierced by a driven nail causing blood to gush forth. Though He could feed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, He had a belly button reminding all that for a long season He was dependent upon His mother for nourishment.
At Christmas time, we have the perfect opportunity to marvel at the mystery of the God-man. Since God became man, then God can be known by men. Since God became man then God can die in the place of man, paying the ransom price our sin deserved. Since God became man, we have reason to sing this Christmas.
The Grand Canyon is one big, beautiful hole in the ground. I know. I have stood on its banks and soaked in its beauty. In the summer of 1994, my college roommate and I embarked on the road trip to end all road trips, driving 3,000 miles roundtrip to Northern California and back seeing all the beautiful National Parks and tourist traps along the way. One of our stops was the Grand Canyon. When we first arrived and looked out across the canyon’s south rim, we thought we could sit there forever and just admire its beauty. However, we were 21 year old college guys . . . so naturally, FOREVER was only about an hour and a half before we started looking for something more adventurous to do.
That adventure took the form of climbing some of the buttes and bluffs that make up the outer rim of the canyon. It was not enough for us to simply see the canyon, we had to climb it. Fine idea, were it not for my selective amnesia. In my hasty pursuit of adventure, I had conveniently forgotten that I am terrified of heights. I was 10 feet off the ground climbing a 20 foot high bluff before my amnesia cleared and it hit me . . . “I am 10 feet off the ground hanging to a wall of the Grand Canyon.” Now, my friend (who is part mountain goat) climbed that face like it was a ladder. I, however, had a different experience. Knuckles whitening, heart pounding, muscles tense, I labored my way the last few feet up the bluff and tried my best to look in control as I rolled onto the top of the peak, doing my best to wipe both the terror and the sweat off of my face.
After a good bit of chest pounding and male bravado at our successful climb, the second part of my amnesia checked in. I had forgotten an important fact of physics – what goes up must come down. My mountain goat friend hopped down the face as fast as he went up. I, on the other hand, sat on the edge of the bluff paralyzed with fear. Lucky for me, I was not alone. My friend had successfully navigated going down the bluff before me, and he told me where to step and where to hold to make it down successfully. If I just followed in his path, surely I would be all right. The only problem was, even knowing the way he had shown me, I was still stricken with fear, and could not make myself move an inch downward. So, my friend reached up and grabbed my right foot, lifted it off the rock and placed it in the correct foothold. Then he did the same thing with my left foot, then my right again, and so on and so on. Eventually, with his strength and direction, I made it down safely. I am convinced that if my friend Tate had not been there with me, I would either still be sitting on that butte asking passing hikers to throw me up a canteen and a Power Bar, or I would have fallen to the ground and really gotten hurt. The fear was just that great.
I was thinking about this experience today as I was reading Luke 4:1-13 and the temptation of Jesus Christ by Satan in the wilderness. Three times, Satan tempted Christ with many of the same basic temptations we all struggle with. Satan tempted Jesus with physical desires, offers of power, and doubting God, yet Christ stood strong and did not give in to sin after any of these temptations. That is why the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with all our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” Jesus was tempted as we are, yet He never sinned. Because of this, the writer of Hebrews says in 2:18, “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.”
Let me phrase all of that truth in light of my experience at the Grand Canyon. Jesus has scaled the mountain of temptation successfully, so He can show us the way down to the bottom. Many of us feel as though temptation is so strong in certain areas that we have no hope of ever walking with God successfully through it. We feel like the pull towards internet pornography or alcohol or gossiping or certain types of speech are so strong that we are destined to fall in those areas resulting in serious injury to us or to others. This fear of temptation is so strong, it can be paralyzing in our walks with God. If we have been beaten about by a temptation and failure in a particular area for too long, we feel like our only hope in the Christian life is for someone else to walk by and “throw us up a word of encouragement” as we feel destined to sit on the rocky edges of the Christian life while others navigate successfully by.
However, in Christ, all of us who have struggled with temptation have a great hope! First of all, Jesus has shown us the way to navigate through temptation in a God honoring way, without sin. Like Tate telling me where to go, Jesus modeled for us the way down in Luke 4:1-13. He was dependent on the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1) and stood on the promises of God’s Word, not on Satan’s deception (Luke 4:4, 8, 10). However beautiful this example is, though, it still is not enough to totally help us as we are struggling through temptation in our lives. He has not only shown us the way, but He also offers us the power to navigate temptation, if we will let Him. Tate grabbed my feet and moved them down the mountain. It was his strength, not mine that led me to safety. The same is true in our spiritual lives. Christ offers us the strength to lead us down the mountain of temptation if we will just trust Him. He will carry us through. Galatians 2:20 tells us that “it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” In a real sense, as believers in Jesus Christ, we have the living Son of God who has stared temptation down and HAS NOT SINNED, offering to live His life through us if we will just let Him. By placing our faith in Him moment by moment, He can lead us down the bluff of temptation one step at a time.
This Christmas let us all be thankful that the baby born in Bethlehem lived a holy life, and shows us the way to follow Him.
In Luke 5:1-11 and 27-32, Jesus invites four men to follow Him and become His disciples. These four men (Simon Peter, James, John, and Levi) had decisions to make. On one hand, these men were leaving the known for the unknown. Peter, James, and John were known as fishermen. It was part of their identity. They drew their livelihood from catching fish and selling them in the market. Levi was a tax collector. It was the single most defining thing about him. He had grown wealthy from this dubious vocation. For these four men to follow Christ, they were going to leave behind a chunk of their identity and the former source of their security. Yet they left those things to follow Him.
As I read these verses today I was reminded of an old Michael Card song called, “The Things We Leave Behind.” I love the song because in simple poetry, Card draws our attention NOT to the things they left, but to what they gained as they followed Christ. This is an important message for us as well. As we follow Christ, we change the source of our security (from us to Him). As we follow Christ, things that otherwise would define us are left behind so that He is who defines us. While most of us will not have a vocation change as we follow Christ, all of us have a Master change. . . instead of following our own way, we follow His. This forces us to leave some things behind, while we gain something far greater.
Today, as we are just a few days from Christmas, I want you to read the lyrics to Card’s song below and reflect upon the freedom we find in following Christ as Levi, Simon, James and John did. In Christ we get far greater than we give up as we follow Him.
There sits Simon,
so foolishly wise
proudly he’s tending his nets
Then Jesus calls,
and the boats drift away
all that he owns he forgets
More than the nets
he abandoned that day,
he found that his pride was soon drifting away
It’s hard to imagine the freedom we find
from the things we leave behind
Matthew was mindful
of taking the tax,
pressing the people to pay
Hearing the call,
he responded in faith
followed the Light and the Way
Leaving the people
so puzzled he found,
the greed in his heart
was no longer around and
it’s hard to imagine
the freedom we find
from the things
we leave behind
Every heart needs to be set free,
that hold it so tight
‘Cause freedom’s not found in the things that we own,
It’s the power
to do what is right
Jesus, our only posession,
giving becomes our delight
We can’t imagine the freedom we find
from the things we leave behind
We show a love for the world in our lives
by worshipping goods we posess
Jesus has laid all our treasures aside
“love God above all the rest”
‘Cause when we say ‘no’
to the things of the world
we open our hearts
to the love of the Lord and
its hard to imagine
the freedom we find
from the things we leave behind
Oh, and it’s hard to imagine
the freedom we find
from the things
we leave behind
I enjoy the game of golf. I know that may sound incredibly boring to many of you, but I do. I like it. I enjoy the fact that it is difficult . . . hitting a round ball with a crooked stick long and straight is not as easy as it seems. I enjoy the fact that it is a talking sport . . . like fishing, golf makes a story teller out of many a person who long to recount their “great” shots to a group of people who really could care less. I enjoy the fact that it is played outdoors. I enjoy the fact that it demands the integrity of each player to “count every stroke.” But of all the things I like about golf, one thing stands out. The thing I like most about golf is my Dad.
From the time I was old enough to swing a club, I can remember playing golf with my Dad. I remember riding around in the cart with him when I was in elementary school. I remember playing in tournaments with him . . . and losing. I remember sharing a high five over a shot well played, and then sharing the frustration of a lost ball. I love the fact that for four short hours I can “enter into his world,” meet his friends, and share some conversation. Most of the great memories I have about my Dad have occurred on a golf course. I love the fact that I have heard the same jokes over and over again year after year, round after round . . . and I still laugh at them. I remember the conversations we have had on the golf course together – talking St. Louis Cardinals baseball on the first tee, discussing my life as a college student as we walked up number two fairway, and talking about life as a pastor driving up to the tenth green. Yes, the thing I like the best about golf is my Dad. To this day, I associate the game of golf with male friendship– a gift I have received from my Dad. I cannot drive past a golf course, tee up a drive, or play a golf video game without thinking about him. The reason why: for me, golf is about the person, not the program. I care more about who I am with, than how well I played. It is just an excuse to be with him for a little while.
I was thinking about this today as I was reading Luke 6 and the calling of the 12 disciples. It is very interesting to me that when Jesus called His disciples, He did not ask them to join a program . . . He asked them to follow a person. “Follow Me” is the consistent refrain in the calling of each of the disciples. And you know what, they did? Peter and Andrew, James and John left family members and all that they knew to be with Him. Matthew gave up a lucrative career to be with Him. Jesus did not tell them “Follow this 12 step program,” He told them to “Follow Me.” The disciples decided to follow Christ, not because they wanted to do something, but because they wanted to do something WITH Him. It was the person, not the program that drew them to give up what they knew to do something else.
How about you? When you think of your spiritual life, what is it that you are most interested in? What is it that you are looking to God for? A religion? A set of rules? A program? If that is the case, then we will never get to experience the supernatural life that God is providing for us. When it comes to our spiritual life, it needs to begin and end not with the program but with the Person. We need to hear afresh the words of Jesus, “Follow Me.” That is what God is offering to you and to me. Not a religion, but a relationship. He is asking us to be with Him.
I think of the things that are so special to me about the times with my Dad on the golf course. They were special just because we were there together. In a real sense, the mundane game of golf becomes magical. Not because of the greatness of my game, but because of the company I am with. In the same way, when we “Follow Him,” the mundane of our life becomes magical. Not because our lives are any more interesting or our job is any less stressful or our relationships are any cooler, but because of who we get to be with while we struggle through those times. The life you and I live right now, with all its ups and downs, is just an excuse to be with Him for eternity.
This Christmas may you receive the gift of a relationship with Him.
“And He appointed the twelve that they might BE WITH HIM . . . “ (Mark 3:14)
This Christmas season, have you participated in a “Dirty Santa” gift exchange? ”Dirty Santa” is when everyone participating brings a wrapped gift and places it under the tree. Then, everyone draws a number. The person with the number “1″ gets to select a gift from under the tree and open it. After that, the person with number “2″ gets to either take number’s 1′s gift from them, or select another present. This goes on all night until all the gifts have been opened.
Most years I participate in at least one of these gift exchanges. Sometimes the gifts are serious and sometimes the gifts are funny, but all the time gift-giving in this environment is a study in sociology. How people select gifts in “Dirty Santa” is fascinating to me. Sometimes people select the gift based on who they think put the gift under the tree. Other times, people select the gift based on its size. Still others select it based on the quality of the wrapping paper. Think about it for a moment . . . how did you select your gift the last time you participated in Dirty Santa?
Sometimes the strategy works, and other times in backfires. The big gift is not always the best. The nicely wrapped gift is sometimes a dud. The gift from your stylish friend could be something they did not want for themselves. You never know how good the selection was until you open it up and see what’s inside. Like Forest Gump’s Momma would say, “Gifts are like a box of chocolates. You never know what your gonna get until you take a bite.”
I was thinking about this tonight as I reflected on Luke 7:1-10 where Jesus has an interesting interaction with an officer in the Roman army (a centurion). In this account we learn a little bit about how Jesus selects His “gifts”:
After He had finished all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to Him elders of the Jews, asking Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to You. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed Him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
In this passage, the Roman centurion (a military leader overseeing between 60 and 100 men) had a servant who was sick and dying. This man is aware of Jesus and believes that Jesus can heal those with sickness. The centurion (not being a Jew Himself) probably thought he stood a better chance of getting a response from Jesus if he sent some of his Jewish friends to appeal to Jesus on his behalf. The Jewish friends were eager to help the centurion by making the appeal to Jesus because they liked how the centurion had helped them out in the past with their building project. In a sense, the Jewish leaders were impressed by the size and the style of the wrapping paper on the outside of this man. Jesus obliges the request and begins walking toward the centurion’s home. Before He ever gets there, the centurion exhibits a great deal of faith in Jesus. He sends servants out to meet Christ on the road and inform Him that He does not have to make the visit in order for the servant to be healed. The centurion states that since Jesus has so much authority over this world, He can merely command the servant to be healed and it will happen . . . regardless of where Jesus is standing at the time. Jesus is blown away by the great faith of the centurion. The centurion really “got it.” He understood the power of Jesus and exhibited great faith. It is after this faith was exhibited on the part of the centurion that Jesus commends this man. Jesus opened up this man and looked on the inside and saw that he was indeed a great gift. His inside was as pretty as His outside.
What does God want most from you and me? He does not just want us to have nice wrapping paper of good deeds. He does not just want us to have a big presentation of church attendance. He does not want us to merely be associated with “good Christian people”. What God most wants from us comes from the inside . . . our faith or trust in Him. God wants what’s inside to match what’s outside. He wants us to do good deeds, but He also wants those good deeds to be an overflow of a heart that trusts in Him, not just a fancy covering for a rebellious spirit. He wants us to have deep fellowship with His people, but He also wants us to have a faith of our own. He wants us to have a big attendance in church, but He also wants us to worship Him in faith while we are there. God’s strategy for judging our lives is not just to look at the outside, but it is to open us up and look on the inside as well.
So, this Christmas, I would encourage you to give to those in need, fellowship with the faithful, and attend worship services . . . but as you do it, remember that what’s happening on the inside counts as well.
Last night my family and I decided to take a little break from the normal busyness of the holiday season and go out to dinner, then drive to look at some Christmas lights. It was a great night. We had some KFC, enjoyed each other’s company, and navigated to a neighborhood where the exterior illumination would have made Clark Griswold proud.
The more we slowly drove through the neighborhood, though, the later it got. The later it got, the sleepier our five year old son got. This combination created a perfect storm of emotion that would erupt in a most unexpected way. You see, we turned a corner and drove upon a 30 foot tall Santa Claus and a 30 foot tall Frosty the Snowman. Seriously. No joke. When we saw the twin towers, my wondering eyes were amazed as Kimberly quickly looked out the window to see what was the matter. Josh, meanwhile, freaked out.
His cup of lemonade went one direction, his body went another, and his hands covered his face as he started crying. I thought he was crying because he had spilled his drink. Nope. He was crying because he was terrified of the 30 foot inflatable of holiday cheer. Seriously, how could that guy make it down anyone’s chimney!
I was thinking about this experience this morning as I read Luke 8. In this chapter, Jesus deals frequently with the fears of His people. In 35 verses from 8:22-56, Jesus:
- Calms a storm that is causing His disciples to fear for their lives. (8:22-25)
- Casts out demons from a person who instilled fear in all who saw him. (8:26-39)
- Heals a woman whose condition caused her to fearfully withdraw from society. (8:40-48)
- Raises a girl from the dead, bringing peace to two parent’s worst fear (8:49-56)
What is fascinating to me is that as Jesus responds to the things that people fear (storms, demon possession, illness, and death), people shift from fearing something to fearing Someone:
- After seeing the storm calmed, the disciples, “were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this that He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him.’” (8:25)
- The townspeople who witnessed the casting out of demons were said to be “seized with great fear.” (8:37)
- The woman whose ailment was healed came “trembling” before Him. (8:47)
- The parents of the girl raised from the dead were “amazed” at the miracle of resurrection. (8:56)
The fear of something leads to paralysis and death. The fear of Someone (Jesus) leads to worship and awe. The key in our life is not to have “no fear” as T-shirts from the 90′s would instruct us. The key is to fear the right One. By fear, I ultimately mean deep respect and amazement. Jesus’s contemporaries who faithfully followed Him were people who were consistently amazed by Him.
This Christmas there are many things that might cause you to fear. 30 ft. tall illnesses, deaths, rejection, vocational issues, financial issues, and the like can cause us to bury our head in our hands, paralyzing us from action. The key this Christmas is not to simply have no fear . . . it is to fear the right One. Santa is not the one ultimately looming over our lives, Jesus is, and a healthy appreciation of His power gives us courage, not crippling worry. After all, when we look to the One who can calm the seas, cast out evil, heal the sick and raise the dead, why would I fear the lesser things? Instead, I will sit in awe of our Savior, in whose 30 foot shadow we find life.
Several years ago, I found myself wearing many hats. On any given day, I might have had to serve the function of a jungle gym, an elevator, a taxi driver, and a tour guide . . . and that was just after 5:00 PM! Before you begin to think that I was one of the original Wonder Twins from the 1970’s “Superfriends” television show or a raging lunatic, I need to explain. While I did not actually do any of those tasks vocationally, I performed their functions for my son, Joshua, when he was still in diapers.
When he was so small, Joshua found himself in situations of need frequently. If he wanted to climb and swing, he needs someone to climb on or to swing him around. If he wanted to go up one floor (from the floor of our sunken living room to the hallway leading to the rest of the house), he needed someone to lift him. If he wanted to get outside and see the world, I either drove the car or pushed the stroller. Because of his need, he cried out frequently needing help.
Now, as Joshua’s father, I loved wearing the hats he asked me to wear. As he has gotten older, there is just less he needs me for. No doubt, this will continue through the rest of his life. There will come a day when he will drive himself where he wants to go. There will come a day when he will no longer need me to boost him up so he can see. So before those days come, I am all too excited to hear him cry out in need. I love wearing all those hats to help meet them.
2,000 years ago, as Jesus was living on this earth and in the process of training His disciples (and by extension you and I who read of their experiences in the New Testament), He knew that a necessary component of a vibrant spiritual life would be a child-like sense of need. By virtue of our sinful tendencies and God’s lofty calling, spiritually speaking, by ourselves we are very small . . . therefore we frequently find ourselves in situations of great need. Our spiritual need is not partial, it is total. Jesus wanted His disciples to know this and that is why He leads them to a remote place among a hungry crowd to teach them a lesson.
In Luke 9:10-17 (also recorded in John 6:1-15), Jesus leads His disciples into the countryside among 5,000 men, not counting women and children. When it came time to eat, Jesus asked Phillip “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” This question is quite funny for Jesus to ask. Sure, Phillip grew up in the area in which John 6 and Luke 9 take place and most likely knew the whereabouts of all the grocery stores and restaurants nearby, but buying food for all these people would cost an amount far greater than the disciples had available to them. Even if Phillip knew of a grocery store next door, they would not be able to afford the cost of even giving everyone a light snack, much less a full dinner. Jesus asked this question, not because He was unaware of their financial situation, but because He wanted to “test him (Phillip), for He (Jesus) already knew what He was going to do (John 6:6).” Jesus had planned all along to provide the food for all of the crowd in a miraculous way, He just wanted to make sure that Phillip and the rest of the disciples recognized their need and thus could recognize God’s supernatural provision. In the end Jesus blesses a few fish and loaves so that it feeds everyone present with 12 basketfuls of leftovers! Jesus gave each of the 12 disciples their own basket full of reminders that He was able to meet any need – and then some!
As adults, we tend to see problems as things we need to fix, pay for, or solve. Since we think we are large, we tend to think we do not need or deserve any help, therefore we do not often cry out. We think that we are supposed to have the resources necessary to meet all of life’s demands all by ourselves. Any cry out is a sign of weakness, and might even bother God or have Him think less of us. If this is you, then remember that Jesus wants us to have child-like faith. This is the kind of faith that caused a small boy to offer a few measly fish and loaves to a hungry mob. Any adult would tell you the boys offering was not enough, but any adult who said this would be forgetting the One who would be doing the feeding.
Spiritually speaking, we are like toddlers with many needs requiring Someone who wears many hats to come to our rescue. We need Someone who can be a priest, a doctor, a counselor, and an empowerer every moment of our lives. When we realize this and cry out, Jesus hears our cries and comes to our rescue. In fact, He loves wearing the many hats we ask Him to wear because in this life we will never grow out of our state of dependence.
This Christmas season may we all worship Christ with a child-like sense of dependence on Him who was born in Bethlehem to wear many hats for you and me.
Christmas 1978. Waiting for my sister and I that Christmas morning was a brand new kind of Christmas gift: an Atari 2600. This little black and brown box was the first video game system I had ever seen, much less owned. I still remember setting it up on a card table in the dining room, plugging it into a little black and white tube television, and playing a game called “Circus Atari.” It was awesome.
Somehow, I think kids today don’t appreciate all they have. Today’s games are in HD, look like real life, and are played on TV screens the size of scoreboards circa 1978. Atari games were played on 10 inch tubes, did not support graphics in circles (square shapes only), and were totally 2D. I lived in a neighborhood full of little boys who would have loved to have just one afternoon playing Madden Football on an XBox 360. Colecovision was the best we could do.
I was thinking of this today as I read Luke 10:23-24, where Jesus talks about how lucky the disciples were to see the first advent of the Son of God:
Then turning to the disciples He said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
Since Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden, people had longed to see the coming of the Messiah . . . the One God had promised would crush the head of the snake, and set people free from the bondage of their sin. For centuries, mankind had longed for Messiah’s coming, but did not see it. For centuries, humanity struggled on in Standard Definition, longing for the HD deliverance that would one day come. When Jesus was born, He gave a new gift that had been long hoped for, but never seen. He gave them Himself. That is why Jesus tells His disciples that they are so fortunate to see with their own eyes Messiah in the flesh.
Some 2,000 years later, as we celebrate Christmas this year, we need to be reminded of just how fortunate we are. We live on the “right” side of Christmas. We do not have to look forward to His coming one day, we get to look back on His sacrifice and revelation. However, many of us fail to appreciate this blessing. Like a kid who is unimpressed with Madden 2012 (because they have seen Madden 2011), too many of us take for granted the blessing of knowing the real meaning of Christmas.
So, this year, as you mail Christmas cards, wrap gifts, attend parties, and drink egg nog, REMEMBER: Prophets and Kings longed to see the revelation of Messiah’s coming that we have so readily accessible to us in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Appreciate the blessing of worshipping Christ, our new born King this holiday season.