A question we oftentimes ask our loved ones this time of the year is, What do you want for Christmas? We typically will also spend a lot of time and energy trying to find the perfect gift that will delight them. Yet, I sometimes wonder if every now and then when we get so focused on gift giving, we need to be reminded whose birthday it really is. Christmas is not our birthday. It is Jesus’, our Lord and Savior’s birthday.
Have you ever asked yourself the question, I wonder what Jesus, the birthday boy, would like for His birthday? What do you give the One who has it all? Well, we are going to ponder this question for the next couple of weeks. Our text for today holds a profound answer to this question.
Jesus and the disciples are now in Jerusalem. Jesus is about to go to the cross to fulfill God’s salvation plan of paying for your sins and mine. In this particular setting in today’s text, Jesus is teaching His disciples that someday He is coming again and they must be ready for it.
These words were, first of all, meant to give us assurance and hope. During the Advent season, the church remembers the One – Jesus, who arrived as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem – is coming again in power and majesty. The first time He arrived, He gave us His all. He humbled himself and became one of us. He emptied Himself on our behalf, and went all the way – even to death – on a cross to pay our debt for sin, which we could not pay ourselves. However, the story does not end there. Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to full power and authority over this world. The Lord has put all things under His feet.
The second time Jesus arrives, He’s not going to come humbly, but in power. On that day, everyone will bow before Him and say, Jesus is Lord. This is basically what we’re hearing in today’s passage as Jesus begins this parable of sorts. He describes a King who comes in glory with His angels and sits on a glorious throne with all the nations, meaning all the peoples of the world are gathered before Him. What a vision that is! What a glorious day that is going to be!
This good news for those of us who trust Christ is what we need to focus on, even when the world looks like it is falling apart and headed toward a bad ending. We know how the story ends – the King is sitting on His glorious throne.
But notice, the parable goes on to instruct the followers of Jesus as to what He wants us to be doing while we wait for His return. Jesus tells us that when the King arrives, He will separate people one from another just as a shepherd divides the sheep and the goats at the end of the day. The sheep will be placed at His right hand – the place of blessing and honor. He will tell them,
“Come you who are blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you. For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty you gave me a drink. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me.”
What a very impressive list! He goes on with the story . . .
“They will say to him, ‘Lord when did we see you this way?’ And the King will respond, ‘I tell you, as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”
He came disguised in those who were weak and vulnerable. Jesus is identifying Himself with the weak and the poor, the forgotten and the vulnerable in society. He calls them His brethren.
I suppose it makes sense because, after all, Jesus was born without a home to poor ordinary folks. His family were refugees fleeing from a baby-killing tyrant as they headed to Egypt. As an adult, He had no place to lay His head. He was rejected by people, abandoned by His followers, beaten terribly by soldiers, executed for crimes He didn’t commit, and buried in a borrowed tomb like a poor, poverty-stricken person. Jesus knows what it means to be needy, vulnerable. It’s no wonder He refered to these people as His brothers. He says an amazing thing to the people who reached out to them: The King applauds for what you have done.
Some reading this portion of Scripture have wondered about its message. I thought we were saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Is Jesus talking out of both sides of His mouth? It sounds like He is saying we’re saved by good works in this story. Relax. That is not what Jesus teaching here. I want you to notice a couple of these phrases Jesus includes in His story. They are not throwaways, but important for us.
As He invites the sheep, Jesus refers to them as the “blessed of My Father.” This is an important phrase because they are people who are already in a right relationship with God. They are people of the Beatitudes, those who are described as Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom. These are the ones Jesus has called the light of the world. They are kingdom people, believers in Christ. And notice, He says, Come and receive an inheritance that has been prepared for you. An inheritance, you see, is not the same as a reward. It’s not something you’ve earned. It’s a gift because you are attached to the right individual – Jesus.
He also refers to them as “the righteous” ones. They are in a right relationship with God through following Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples in this parable. These compassion-filled activities being described in this story are evidence of one who has salvation. Martin Luther, who made himself the champion of faith alone, wrote this statement:
“Faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing! It’s impossible for it not to do us good continually. It never asks whether good works are to be done, but has done them before there’s time to even ask the question, and it is always doing them.”
Faith shown in acts of love – This is what I want My followers to be doing, Jesus seems to be saying here. Showing mercy and compassion to others.
So we go back to our original question: What does Jesus want this Christmas? What do you give the One who has it all? Consider this passage an answer to that. This is on our Lord’s wish list for Christmas – for every day for that matter. While we wait for Him to come again, He wants us to show compassion for the weak and the vulnerable. Not just feel compassion or pity for them, but actually doing something, acting upon that compassion.
I find this parable rather challenging. Now that I know these things, what am I supposed to do with knowledge Jesus has just given me?
I want to ask you a personal question. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you trust Him and love Him as your Savior and Lord, what gift are you planing on giving Him in the next year? Someone might respond, I’m going to make a commitment to keep an eye open for hurting people this year and serve them for Jesus. That’s wonderful! It’s great! I hope you do. However, good intentions sometimes are forgotten and undone. At least they do in my life. I get busy and distracted. Sometimes we miss seeing Jesus. So here is my idea for you and for me.
How about taking a concrete next step on that gift right now. Take the initiative on what you know He would like for Christmas. For instance, how about deciding to sponsor a Compassion child this year. You give a monthly gift for a child in need to feed them, clothe them, give them an education, and teach them about Jesus. As you correspond with your child through letters, your encouragement makes a big difference in their lives. Julie and I have sponsored a couple of these kids ourselves. We’ve discovered it is a joy and not much of a sacrifice at all! It really does help them.
Remember how when we were kids, we’d look at the catalogs for Christmas. I invite you to do some shopping this year in the Lord’s Christmas catalogs. What I mean by this is organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, and Lutheran World Relief have catalogs where you can pick a gift for a needy person. You could go right to their Web sites where they will give you all kinds of ideas of how to be a servant, to show compassion to someone.
Recently I came across a catalog from a group called Voice of the Martyrs, which I really think is a good thing. They offer you the opportunity to write letters to persecuted Christians in other parts of the world and to be an encouragement to them as they suffer for the faith.
Now, if you are someone who doesn’t have a computer, I encourage you to ask your pastor for some information. I have a pile of catalogs sitting on my desk, and I know all pastors get these kinds of mailings. They can help you. Or if you want to be more local, how about becoming personally involved with the food shelf ministry, working at a clothing center, Salvation Army, or a Gospel mission in the inner-city. Serve in one of their kitchens perhaps. I encourage you to call one of these organizations and ask them how you can do some hands-on helping for them. They’ll be glad to hear from you.
How about giving your clothes away to a Christian organization that can distribute them to people who really need them? You could give some clothing to help refugees. You’d be amazed at how many people I know in my area who are without coats and so on this time of year. And it’s cold in Minnesota! A group of women in our church make quilts for Lutheran World Relief, and oh what a difference it makes.
If you drive, how about delivering a meal to the homebound? We have a program called Meals on Wheels.
And don’t forget, material needs are not the only form of poverty. There is emotional poverty as well – people who are feeling forgotten and uncared for. I remember reading something by Mother Teresa who was talking about coming to visit the affluent West. As she visited a beautifully decorated nursing home she found all the residents sitting in wheelchairs facing the door. “Why all these people looking toward the door? she asked. “Why aren’t they smiling? I’m used to seeing smiling faces on all our people, even the dying ones.”
The nurse replied, “It’s like this every day. They’re always hoping someone will come and visit them, and their loneliness is eating them up.”
Mother Teresa then asked, “Who is staring at the door waiting for someone like you to come?”
How about a loaf of fresh bread or cinnamon rolls for an elderly neighbor who is spending their first Christmas alone having a blue Christmas, with a note saying, Just thinking about you this year during this season. Or going to a nursing home and adopting a grandparent, becoming a regular visitor.
Then there’s also spiritual poverty around us. You and I are surrounded by people who are functionally strangers to God. They don’t think God cares for them. Jesus is counting on us to take steps to tell them about Him.
I love it when my wife or kids tell me what they’d like for Christmas because I, in all likelihood, am going to get it. I really appreciate what Jesus is doing for us here. He has given us a big favor with this passage! He has given us a wish list. Any of these things will bring a smile to His face.
So I invite you to take action with me on one of these gifts for Jesus, or come up with something on your own to lift up and help someone who’s needing help. Merry Christmas to you. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer