Friday, December 24, 2010

The gift of baby Jesus

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Luke 2:1-20).

There’s an old saying that "you can’t judge a book by its cover." The same is true of Christmas presents. A large box might contain a small gift and lots of plastic popcorn. A small package might hold an expensive piece of jewelry. A box wrapped perfectly with shiny paper and hand-curled bows might contain a gift that you don’t really want, while a package covered with faded paper and too much tape might conceal the best present that you’ll get all year. You just can’t judge a Christmas present by how it’s wrapped.

When you look into the manger at Bethlehem, the baby lying there is God’s Christmas present to you. But looks can be misleading; there is much more to this baby than meets the eye. You cannot judge a present by how it’s wrapped, and you cannot appreciate what God has given you by just staring at a baby nestled in His mother’s arms.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. A talented artist can paint a beautiful cover for a novel, but that piece of art in no way guarantees that the book itself is any good. Some authors are liars; some are boring; some just have poor writing skills. In the same way, people can fool you—some might seem charming, intelligent and witty, but once you get to know them you find out what they are really like, which is not nearly as attractive as you were led to believe. The ugly truth is that we are all stained with evil in some way—some of us are selfish, some can’t control their anger, and some are careless with their words; others are arrogant or greedy or jealous or can’t be trusted. We all try to look beautiful to others, but when you look inside you find things that are not very appealing. Every one of us is like a Christmas present that looks nice, but is disappointing once you open it up.

You can’t judge a gift by how it is wrapped. The events of the first Christmas Eve are a perfect example of this. You have a man and his pregnant fiancee. To all appearances, they simply couldn’t wait to get married to start having an intimate relationship; I’m sure that’s what most people thought. But when you unwrap Mary’s pregnancy, you find out that the truth is much different. Nine months earlier, Mary had received a visit from an angel, and this is what he told her: 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 (Luke 1:35). Mary and Joseph had not slept together before marriage; the child within her came from God, and was the only baby in all of history to be born morally pure, free from any taint of evil.

You can’t judge a gift by how it is wrapped. Consider where Christ was born. Mary and Joseph were forced by order of the government to travel through the mountains to Bethlehem, even though Mary was in her ninth month of pregnancy. When they arrived, there were so many travelers in town that the only place available for rent was where the pack animals were fed and watered. Mary gave birth on a floor covered with straw and laid her firstborn child in a feeding trough for His bed. All this sounds like terribly bad luck. But when you unwrap the situation, you find out that the truth was far different. God intended for His Son to be born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, an Israelite king of long ago—Joseph’s ancestor, in fact. Of all the ancient kings, no one served God more faithfully than David, and God promised him that the Savior of the world would be his descendant. So it was only fitting that Jesus be born in the City of David.

It was also God’s plan for His Son to be born in humble circumstances. As the Son of God and descendent of King David, Jesus was royalty—one would expect to find Him laid on embroidered silk in a magnificent palace. But if this were the case, how could sheepherders, dusty from spending all their time in the field, ever be admitted to see the holy baby? Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manager so that anyone would feel comfortable kneeling before Him in worship.

You can’t judge a gift by how it is wrapped. Look at that baby in the manger. To all appearances, He is someone cuddly and friendly, someone who would grow up to teach us about God’s love and then tragically be put to death, His message misunderstood by the leaders of society. But when you unwrap the Christ child, you find out that the truth is far different. Jesus taught about God’s love, yes—but He also warned about God’s wrath, the terrible punishment promised to everyone who has been tainted with evil. Jesus was God’s Prophet, speaking truths both harsh and reassuring.

Nor was Jesus a tragic victim of people who misunderstood Him. Those who engineered His death knew exactly what He was teaching—that He was the Son of God dressed in a human body, that all mankind lives under the threat of God’s judgment, and that only those who cling to Jesus as their Savior will be spared God’s terrible punishment for being sinners. The people who wanted Christ dead did not like being told they were sinners, and they resented Jesus’ claim to be the only way to heaven. They sought His death because they understood His message perfectly—and it made them mad.

But Jesus was not some helpless victim. He went to the cross willingly, to suffer and to die. He did this remarkable thing because of His great love for you and for me. Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command (John 15:13-14). And what does Jesus command? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). Love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10).

Jesus fulfilled the law for us; He loved us so much that He endured His Father’s punishment for our sins, a punishment that resulted in the death of God’s only Son. But by taking our punishment upon Himself, Jesus has spared us from the hell we deserve and replaced it with the offer of heaven to all who believe in Him. Jesus is our High Priest, the only person who could remove our evil taint and present us to God, dressed in His own righteousness. Paul writes, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

That child of Bethlehem is our eternal King, the ruler of the universe. Jesus said, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matthew 28:18). This is why rich intellectuals from the east brought Him gifts fit for a king. In spite of all appearances, Jesus has the power to heal the sick, tell storms to be quiet, even to raise the dead. But most important of all, He has the power to forgive you for every evil thought, every careless word, every hurtful deed. Jesus can free you from the burdens of the past and fill you with hope as you consider your tomorrows. He offers to strengthen you to resist temptation. He offers to give you patience as you face adversity. He offers to comfort you in times of loss. He says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). You can be confident of His power to help—He is so strong that not even death could hold Him, as He proved by returning to life after only three days in the grave!

That night in a Bethlehem stable, the gift of God lay shiny and new, but no one there understood what an incredible gift God had given them in that little child. Rescue from sin’s control, protection from the devil’s attacks, the promise of forgiveness and eternity with God in paradise—such wonderful gifts to be wrapped up in a small, ordinary-looking package. It is only from our future perspective, knowing everything that Jesus said and did, that we can truly appreciate what Christmas represents to a world dying in the cold darkness of sin. May God’s delightful gift of His Son fill your life with peace, hope and joy, not today but throughout the coming year as well.

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