Presents

The Advent Attitude

Isaiah 64:1-9

We all have our wants.

It is, of course, that time of year when all sorts of wants are emphasized. As I was working on this sermon, my e-mail inbox alert flashed repeatedly with ads from various companies that have fulfilled my wants before. It’s the Christmas shopping season, they were asking me. What do you want?

I have had wants all my life, many of them fulfilled during Christmases past. My mind goes to G.I. Joe and his helicopter. It was big enough for Joe to actually sit in the cockpit, the rotor spinning for as long as my thumb could keep pushing the heavy black button on the frame.

There also was the glittery purple bicycle with the banana seat (I was a child of the ’70s), which I eventually outgrew just as the tires were becoming bald. Later, there was the sled and my first rifle, both of which I still possess.

As the retailers furiously fan the flames of our wanting the next few weeks, they also will tell us how we need to be fulfilling the wants of others. Is everyone covered? Is our shopping done? Did we buy enough? Don’t worry, there will be plenty of places open late on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas shopping season is like a big, glittery sleigh wreck. We cannot avert our eyes despite it being so spiritually draining.

I offer you a solution today. Stop thinking of this time as the Christmas shopping season. Call it what the church calls it: Advent.

The season will still be about wants, but the Advent attitude reshapes our wants, perhaps making us a little more holy in the process. Not holier-than-thou, mind you; just a little more aligned with God’s will.

Advent recognizes the two great wants in history. First was the desire for a savior, for Messiah, the one who could reconnect us to God.

Once we get past Genesis 3, the story of sin’s disastrous effects, the Old Testament basically is about people struggling to recover what they had lost, intimacy with God, and God trying to call them back through the darkness. Our Isaiah text today is just one of many Old Testament passages expressing that deep desire to again know God.

Thank God Messiah came! He came as a baby, so strange, and he died for our sins, again, so strange. But there’s the resurrection—resurrection! It is the root of the second great want in history. Jesus Christ is coming back. All things will be set right, and our greatest desire is that his return happen soon.

In this Advent season, keep that great truth before you, followers of Christ. We are a people living in a state of anticipation. That state of mind will make the commercialism of December tolerable and the approach of the coming holy Christmas season a joy.

It’s okay to revel in the joy of the season. It’s okay to give gifts. Just let that anticipation of Christ’s return shape everything you do. Remember, we give gifts as a reminder of the great gift we were given the first Christmas, Christ among us, the gift resulting in eternal life.

A quick example of quality gift-giving: Last year I received the best present I’ve ever gotten. It topped G.I. Joe and his helicopter, the purple bicycle, everything. It was this:

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My wife gave it to me. Inside this pretty little box were all sorts of tiny notes in her handwriting—funny quotes, Bible verses, love notes.

It cost her very little in terms of paper and ink. And yet she gave me so much. When I pull out a note, good days become glorious, or dark days are suddenly much brighter.

It was a boxful of love and joy. As you go about your shopping for Christmas, remember Christ is the source of all love and joy. Perhaps you’ll discover a way to give someone a taste of what is to come when Christ stands before us in full.

Jesus’ Wish List

Fourth in a sermon series, “A Different Kind of Christmas”

When it comes to Christmas presents, is there someone you really want to shop for, but you cannot figure out what to buy the person?

For years, I had trouble finding a present for my grandfather around Christmas or his birthday. As he got into his 80s and 90s, he had few real needs or wants that a present could cover. We still had that urge to give him something, however, if only to let him know how important he was to us. The last few years of his life, we focused on simple gifts, mostly the kind Connie could make in the kitchen. He seemed to genuinely appreciate her cakes and cookies more than anything we could have bought him in a store.

Why did he like them? Well, these gifts were sweet, and he liked sweets, particularly pineapple upside-down cake. I’m sure there was another reason, though. Connie’s work in the kitchen was a simple act of love. And as I dwell on that other reason, my mind also goes to the Christ child, and how we respond to the coming of Christ into this world.

If people are serious practitioners of Christianity, they know the incarnation is an astonishing event, the beginning of a chain of world-changing events spanning less than four decades. The birth of Jesus marked the arrival of God among us in the flesh, God experiencing creation from our point of view. From there, God grew into a man, taught us lessons about himself, and died on a cross to release us from the power of sin. Christ’s resurrection marked the defeat of sin and death, in the process giving us hope when we deserve nothing but despair.

It’s a series of life-giving actions crying out for a response. If Christmas marks Jesus’ birthday, doesn’t he most of all deserve a gift?

Obviously, it’s difficult to buy something for the one through whom all things were created. We’re blessed, however, with a simple wish list left by Jesus, one expressed very clearly throughout the New Testament.

As we package Jesus’ gift, I imagine it going inside one those big gift bags. You know how people pack big gift bags; sometimes there is more than one item inside. I see three items in Jesus’ bag, all related to the love and gratitude we feel.

The first gift is our love for God. Again, if you call yourself Christian, you understand what God has done for all of us. If true belief has washed over you, this gift is easy to give. Your awareness of eternal life should cause you to race toward your prayer and worship times with thankful arms held high.

The second gift is one easy to skip over. It’s subtle but important, like a pair of socks in the bag. Let’s slow down a minute and think about the second gift.

Our Scripture text today, 1 John 3:14-18, talks about the second gift. Once we’ve experienced that overwhelming love for God, we are told that we should next feel a similar love for those who share our belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. It is clear that the author of 1 John is talking about those within the church loving one another. He even positions our ability to love one another as a test of our faith, a determination of whether we are believers or “murderers,” people who abide in death.

As I meditated on this text, I began to wonder if this is the real point of struggle for the modern church. Maybe it always has been; the letter of 1 John was written for a reason. Within the church, starting at the level of a local congregation, have we achieved the kind of mutual love described in these verses? Do we love each other to the point of being willing to lay down our lives for one another? We’re always going to have disagreements, but do we hear each other with patience, forgiveness, and openness to the influence of the Holy Spirit? These are questions that any group of church leaders should always be considering.

That sort of internal, brotherly and sisterly love within the church is necessary if we are to offer the third gift to our Savior, love for those who do not yet know Christ. When we show that kind of love, our love is as Christ-like as humanly possible. It is love offered to people despite their sin and brokenness, just as it was first offered to us.

This third gift carries with it the overwhelming smell of forgiveness and grace. When we give it, we have re-gifted to Jesus what he first gave to us.

I don’t know what all of you have planned for Christmas. Some of you may have piles of presents on hand; some of you may have just a few. I ask only this—be sure these three gifts of love are part of your ongoing birthday present for your Savior.