I Don’t Need a Thing for Christmas

I can join many of you who, when asked by our families, “What do you need for Christmas?” can reply, “I don’t need anything. My closet is full. Save your money.” But then I read the angel’s words to Joseph in the Christmas Gospel. “Mary will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name of Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

How wrong it is for me to say that I don’t need anything. It reveals my human thinking. For while it is true that my clothes closet is full, the chamber of my soul is empty without Christ. I need a Savior to take away my sins, and only Jesus Christ can do that. That is a gift money cannot buy.

“The clothes closet is full but the chamber of my soul is empty” is a verbal picture that describes our lives. When we talk about a full closet, reference is being made to the many blessings we enjoy. Here are a few of them:

1. Adequate income for a comfortable lifestyle.

2. Good education and work skills.

3. Loving family.

4. Cars, boats, golf clubs, and travel opportunities.

5. Carefree life where I am in control.

While this closet of material goods and earthly pleasures may full, the chamber of the soul can be empty. Here are some examples:

1. Grief over financial loss.

2. Poor healthÑyour own or a loved one’s.

3. Dysfunctional family.

4. Nagging guilt.

5. Problems with no conceivable human answers.

It is to the “empty chamber” that our text speaks. Listen to what God says: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ÔJoseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name of Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.'”

The chamber of my soul will remain empty unless Christ lives there. When he has taken up residence in my life, things are different. When sin is forgiven, God enters into a personal relationship with us. He is our Father, and we walk through life with Him by our side. How does He make life different?

1. Guilt is taken away. Think what it is to place our heads on the pillow at night and know that as far as east is from the west, so far our transgression is taken away. We are given strength to confess our sinsÑfirst to God, and then to the person we have wronged, and then ask for forgiveness. All those ugly thoughts and strained relationships can belong to the past, according to God’s promises. This might not add up, according to man-made religion, but it is the grace of God, which is the central truth in our Christian faith.

2. Divine guidance and strength is given to know how to deal with what seems to be an impossible situation. We get a new sense of values. We learn, for example, that the credit card may not be good for us. They are to be used for convenience and emergencies, but not to acquire something we cannot afford. You ask if Christ gets into such practical matters as this? Yes, He does. That is part of our personal relationship with Him, and he wants the best for us.

3. Christ helps us handle our emotions. Expressions of anger can be controlled when He carefully counsels us to “be still and know that I am God,” and so we listen. It will do no good to be angry. Christ can bring our short fuse under control. It’s better for us in all ways to grin and bear it until we have reached a more rational state of mind.

In a time when we wonder about earthly leaders, we remember that Christ is Lord for all eternity. This does not mean we should be apathetic in choosing our earthly leaders. God’s Word tells us about our responsibility to government, but never should we think that humans have the last word. Not so. Christ is Lord of all.

And when our last breath is to be taken, the voice of Jesus speaks in the chamber of our souls and says, “I have prepared a place for you in the heavenly habitations.” What an assurance!

So you see, even though our closet may be full, the chamber of our soul can be in great turmoil unless Christ is present. We may not need another thing to hang in the closet, but we do need a Savior to speak to us daily from the closet of our soul.

The Christmas Story

On Thursday of this week we will observe Christmas. It is still one of the most popular holidays on the calendar. It is a holiday that centers on the story of Jesus’ birth in the manger.

In this story, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, that she is going to have a baby, and she should name him Jesus. Hearing this news, Mary is baffled. As the days go by, Joseph and Mary learn it will be necessary for them to make a trip to Bethlehem. Caesar had issued a decree that a census should be taken of the whole Roman world. How could she make that trip?

Nevertheless, Joseph got the donkey ready so Mary could ride on the animal’s back, and off to Bethlehem they went. When they finally arrived, Joseph went to get a room for them in the inn, but there were none. Joseph argued with the innkeeper, saying that certainly he could find something for his wife, who was going to have a baby within hours. But the innkeeper could offer them no more than the barn and a manger, which is where Jesus was born.

I am sure this story has been read many times in your home as part of the Christmas celebration. Christmas Eve had to be the greatest night in the year for our family, and I am sure that many of you would say the same. We started by going to church, and then home for a traditional dinner. After the meal, when all the dishes were washed, we went to the living room, where we read this Christmas story and sang a few familiar carols. Then we opened our gifts. What a night! No wonder Christmas Eve is a part of the precious moments in our lives.

Did you notice how I told the Christmas story? Nothing, in the way I presented the story, was offensive to anyone. I made a point to eliminate the potentially offensive parts so it could be packed away for another year with the rest of our legends.

Yet there is much more to the story than what I have told. Were I to leave it there, I should be fired immediately, even if some might call me thoughtful for not being offensive to those who are not Christians. Muslims and Jews would not be offended. I simply told the story of a man who grew up to be a great religious leader. Nothing wrong with that.

I have often been invited to speak at organizations at Christmastime. The program chairman of the group would sometimes ask me not to make it irritating to those who were not Christians. I never made that concession.

Let’s take a look at the real Christmas story. To the person who has little or no personal relationship with Christ. This story, as it stands written in Scripture, is probably meaningless. For others, it is intellectually offensive. For those of us who are Christians in the biblical sense of the word, the story is so profound that not even the greatest mind can understand it. It is not telling us about a great man who was born, but rather God coming to the world in the form of a baby.

The Bible tells us this story: In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Hearing this Mary was greatly troubled. The angel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name of Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his Kingdom will never end.”

Mary had a question: “How will this be since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “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. For nothing is impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

The story centers not in the manger and the difficulties Mary and Joseph went through giving birth to the child. The center of the story is that the babe lying in the manger is God, the eternal King. He suffered and died as payment for the world’s sins, that all who would believe in Him could become part of His eternal Kingdom.

This is the offensive part of the story for an unbeliever. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was born of a virgin. He is the God-man. He is the only way for sinners to be restored into fellowship with God.

The biblical writers of this story with all of its mysteries are Matthew, Luke, and John. Each tells the story, inspired by the Holy Spirit, in his own way, but all present Jesus as “the one who will save His people.”

You may ask how Luke attainted the information about the birth. The English biblical scholar, Tom Wright, shares some of his insights which have helped me with this question.

From the beginning the story of Jesus’ birth was being told. People had written about this event. Luke had some of these writings as he told the story some sixty or more years later. He had also listened to accredited storytellers within the local communities. They didn’t have newspapers, radios, or television, but they had official storytellers. When some great event like an earthquake, a visit from an emperor, or a battle took place, the official storytellers would move about and spread the news.

So why did Luke write it down? The story of Jesus’ birth had spread far and wide. Luke and the other biblical writers wanted people of all ages, including us, to have an authentic report of what happened that first Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.

This is the inspired account of our Lord’s birth. Don’t settle for the Christmas story where all the mystery has been erased. If you do, you will miss the meaning of the storyÑthat God came to earth in the person of Jesus.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Lord, I’m Struggling With the Blues

Do you ever get the blues? It happens to most of us at one time or another. For many, Christmas season is a time to get the blues Ð people miss a loved one who died in the past year, or are lonely because they’re separated from family and friends. For others it might not be a sense of loss but depression, because of the financial hardship they’re going through, especially with all the advertisements emphasizing gift giving. Some churches I know even hold a worship service during this season that they call a “blue” service.

As Christians, we know how important it is to turn to the Scriptures for help as we struggle with various life issues. Today we have an Old Testament story from I Kings 19 about a fellow who had the blues. His name was Elijah.

Elijah served God during a dark spiritual time in Israel’s history. Ahab, the king, had married a foreigner named Jezebel. She imposed her religion, the Baal fertility cult, on the people of the land. Israel was breaking away from the God who had saved them and claimed them as his people. Elijah’s job was to awaken the people to the wrong direction they were headed under the leadership of Ahab and Jezebel.

It all came to a head on Mount Carmel, where Elijah challenged the priests and prophets of the fertility cult to a contest. The object was to see whose sacrifice lit up as they each called upon their gods. Elijah’s prayer was answered. The people came to their senses, at least momentarily, and saw that the God of Israel was to be trusted. The Baal priests and prophets were killed. This didn’t make Jezebel too happy, and this is when the blues began to set in for Elijah.

Let’s look now at the first few verses of Chapter 19.

“Ahab told Jezebel all Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with a sword. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying, ÔMay the gods do to me and more also if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then Elijah was afraid. He got up and fled for his life. And he came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and sat down under a solitary broom tree. Elijah asked that he might die, saying, ÔIt’s enough now, oh Lord. Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then Elijah lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.”

So we find Elijah brooding under this broom tree, so depressed he says that he wants to die. How did Elijah reach such a state of despair? We can pick up some ideas about this from his statements.

First, we see him in verse three following his feelings instead of the facts in verse three. Life suddenly feels out of control when Elijah hears that Jezebel is going to kill him. So he runs for fear, already letting go of the fact that God had proven himself faithful. We also see in verse three that he isolated himself in the wilderness. Oftentimes, when we are down, isolating ourselves is the worst thing to do and only makes us feel more alone.

We also see Elijah comparing himself to others as he says, “I’m no better than my ancestors.” Measuring ourselves against others typically just makes us feel worse about ourselves.

As we go on in the story, God asks Elijah what he is doing out there. Elijah exaggerates negatives as he tells God, Everyone hates me and wants to kill me. And we also see a little later on that he plays the blame game and tells God, People aren’t changing. I’ve been zealous over this mission you’ve given me, but no one seems to be changing. I’m failing at this.

Psychologist Dr. Archibald Hart has a theory about this as well. He says that when we listen to Elijah, we hear a person who is totally worn out and experiencing the post-adrenaline blues. Elijah pulled out all the stops at Mount Carmel and now he is let down.

All these things appear to be at work in the mind of Elijah as he calls out to God to end his life. Fortunately, God didn’t answer Elijah’s prayer by killing him. God knew exactly what he needed, as he knows exactly what each one of us needs. He stepped in and ministered to those needs. Let’s look at the story again and see what God did.

“Elijah sat down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said, ÔWake up and eat.’ Elijah looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Elijah ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him and said, ÔGet up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ Elijah got up and ate and drank and went on the strength of that food forty days and nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. At that place he came to a cave and spent the night there.”

What’s going on? In verses five and six we see God taking care of the physical needs of Elijah. He was worn out and needed to rest, so God let him sleep. He needed to eat, so in verse six the angel woke Elijah and provided him with food. Finally, Elijah needed to get moving again, so we see in verses seven and eight, the angel saying to him, “There is a journey ahead of you.” Sometimes we just need to get the blood flowing again to snap us out of a depression.

In verses nine and ten God’s treatment goes on. Verse nine tells us that Elijah came to a cave and spent a night there. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “What are you doing here?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”

Here we see God ministering to the emotional needs of Elijah. He asked him the question, “What are you doing here?” God invited Elijah to pour out his heart to him in prayer, just as he wants us to talk to him in prayer.

After Elijah was given the chance to express those emotions, God sees to his spiritual needs. In verse eleven he says, “Now go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord because the Lord is about to pass by.” Elijah needed to have a sense of God’s presence.

The story continues: “There was a wind so strong it split the hills and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. The wind stopped and then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the quake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire was the sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his mantle and went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. There came a voice that said, ÔWhat are you doing here, Elijah?’

“He answered, ÔI have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and they are seeking my life to take it away.’

“The Lord said, ÔReturn to the wilderness near Damascus, then enter the city and anoint Hazael as king of Aram; anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah, to succeed you as prophet. Anyone who escapes being put to death by Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and anyone who escapes Jehu will be killed by Elisha. Yet I will leave seven thousand people alive in IsraelÑall those who are loyal to me and have not bowed to Baal.'”

Here we see God ministering to the spiritual needs of Elijah. He needed to experience in the presence of God. He also learned something very important. God is not always to be experienced in the fireworks, like the earthquake or the strong wind. God came to him in a still small voice. God is reminding Elijah that sometimes you’ve got to look for Him in the details.

Elijah, you’re not alone, God told him. Seven thousand others had not bowed to the Baals. God had already arranged for Elijah to have an assistant: Elisha. And, God was saying, I have plans for you, a promise that I will be at work in all of this.

Finally, in verse fifteen, God says, I know you’ve fallen off the horse, but you need to get back in the saddle. So Elijah set out, and the rest is history. God’s word prevailed. Everything God told Elijah came to pass.

What does this story do for us today? It shows us a couple of important things.

First, even God’s saints get the blues. The Bible doesn’t cover that up. Getting depressed doesn’t make you a failure as a Christian. Sometimes people talk to me about their depression, and they put themselves down, saying, “I must be a terrible Christian because of the way I feel.” Having the blues does not make you a bad Christian; it makes you human. Elijah had the wherewithal, though, to know where to turn in prayer.

This story also gives us a wonderful picture of a God who cares. He is not aloof or distant. This is very evident as we approach Christmas. God came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue us from sin. And not only does God care, he knows exactly what we need. And he has a helpful word to get us out of the hole we’re stuck in when we get the blues.

The most important thing to take away from this story is that God does his best work in the darkness of caves. Much of this story takes place in a cave in the side of a mountain. This isn’t the only cave story in Scripture: the Savior was laid in another cave, and on the third day God rolled away the stone and raised him up. God does his best work in caves!

Are you living in a cave these days Ð experiencing the blues Ð like Elijah did? You don’t have to sit alone in the darkness ever again. Call on him, open his word, and let a still, small voice speak to you. You are not alone. That is the good news we carry into Christmas. God is with us, just as he was with Elijah.

Human Nature Must Be Taken Seriously

It is disheartening to see how the Christian faith is not taken seriously by our culture. Millions of people have great admiration for Jesus and have affiliated with a Christian congregation. However, few have strong biblical convictions, nor are they enthusiastic about the mission Christ has given to his Church. We discard parts of the Bible that are not appealing to us, and interpret other parts of Scripture according to our liking.

Today’s text would never be voted by the general populace as its favorite verses in the Bible. It talks about the sinfulness of human nature and our need to repent of our sins and turn to Christ in order to live in a personal relationship with God.

John the Baptist was the man of the hour. In his audience were faithful Jews who sought to keep the Jewish laws and who worshiped regularly. Yet John the Baptist sensed a superficiality in their relationship with God. He even called them a brood of vipers. John’s message was, “Repent, for the Messiah (Christ) is coming. He is in your midst.”

The Baptist’s message had an appeal for the people. It spoke to their need, and they were anxious to listen. All the Judean countryside and the people of Jerusalem went into the wilderness to hear what John was saying. The Holy Spirit was at work, and they came to faith and were baptized in the Jordan River.

We could spend much more time talking about John the Baptist and his influence on the people of his day. However, his message also speaks to us who live in our day among an indifferent people. It needs to be heard today, as God seeks to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Christmas and the second coming of our Lord.

John talked about repentance, which leads us back to the sinfulness of man. If we were not sinners, there would be no need for repentance. The Scriptures clearly teach that we are born with a sinful nature. Listen to Paul: “For as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Paul is telling us that we are all born with a sinful nature. We are not good people by nature.

Still, in spite of our sinful nature, we can do many good deeds. Since my wife’s stroke, I have been amazed at how thoughtful and kind people have been to us. People who never met us before reach out to help wherever they can.

To say that we have a sinful nature does not mean that we are incapable of helping our fellow man. Yet it does mean that, just as we inherited our parents’ physical features, we also inherited their sinful nature. It is much more natural to be selfish than to share, to hate than to love. However, culture does not want to hear these words and throws this part of the Christian faith out the window.

Sin reveals itself in selfishness, jealousy, greed, love of money, immorality, and the list continues. Now let’s apply this to our day.

Recently Alan Greenspan was asked to testify before members of Congress about an error he might have made while serving as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Greenspan is quoted as saying, “I made a mistake in trusting that the free markets would regulate themselves.”

Who are the regulators? They are people who Scripture describes as having a sinful nature. They did not self-regulate, and the results are tremendous indebtedness that has brought our economy down until the world is really hurting. Because of their sinful nature, the regulators were not capable of understanding the opportunities and responsibilities of their positions.

John the Baptist would tell us today to repent and admit your wrong. Turn your life over to Christ, and he will forgive you.

We need to be regulated. Why else did God give the Ten Commandments but to guide and direct us until the promise of Christ came?

¥ Honor your father and mother. What would our homes be like without this commandment?

¥ Thou shalt not kill. If this commandment were not there, we could just kill another with whom we have a disagreement. It would be a part of our culture.

¥ You shall not commit adultery. Adultery would be far more common than it already is today.

¥ You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. It is part of our nature to easily and maliciously destroy the character of another.

What about our speed limits? Are they important? What would happen if we had no speed limitations? It is easy to imagine a person driving 70 mph in a 45 mph zone. That is because we cannot really control ourselves. It is the nature of the human being.

So it is in our relationship with God and in our relationship with one another. Therefore, John the Baptist preached a message of repentance. Turn from your sins. Come to Christ, he will forgive you.

We go to church and hear the Lord tell us we are sinful people. That is a very serious issue, and we need to ask God for forgiveness. Ask him to come into your life and give to you a new appreciation for the holiday that is before you. It is God’s gift to you.

I believe many brilliant minds are used to everybody’s advantage. Yet, even though the motives are often good, sinfulness can still creep in. That is why we need to ask God to forgive us.

God has given regulations to help us control our lives. We may not like them, but we know they are important. God grant that the Savior may come so close to us that our lives will be regulated out of love for him and we will no longer need manmade regulations.