Every year we celebrate Christmas and for most people it’s a big deal. We decorate our home, send out cards, buy gifts, throw parties, go to church every Sunday, play all of our favorite Christmas music, watch all the Christmas programs on TV and our favorite Christmas movies, and we travel long distances to see family and friends. All good stuff. But, all of this is done though to celebrate the birth of a peasant boy, born some two thousand years ago in the Middle East. It’s an incredible thing if you think about it.
For others, Christmas is more of a hassle than a source of joy and happiness. It can bring stress, anxiety, and depression. Christmas for some is endured, not enjoyed. 25% of us will go into debt over Christmas. Some of us will be forced to deal with family members that drive us crazy. Many of us have been running frantically around since Thanksgiving trying our best to please everyone, get the house ready, buy the right gifts, go to all the parties, and so on. Maybe the Christmas season is another reminder that you are still single. Or it reminds us about people who were here with us last year, but not here this year.
Then we get to church and pastors are telling us to slow down and experience Advent in a fresh and new way. Honestly, you are thinking, “Give me a break!” Or it sounds like the teacher in Charlie Brown, “Wah wah wah.”
In this Advent series we are trying to get back to the basics and remind ourselves why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. We celebrate Christmas first and foremost because ...
God Gave Us the Gift of His Presence
We celebrate Christmas because God came to this world himself. Theologians call this the Incarnation —an infant fully human and at the same time fully God. God came himself into our world and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. This doctrine unites Catholics and Protestants, Baptists and Pentecostals, house churches and megachurches. All Christians confess Jesus is God in the flesh.
When you think about it all, it’s incredible. God could have chosen a thousand ways to communicate with us, but since he designed us, he knew the best way to communicate with us would be face-to-face. So, God didn’t send an angel, prophet, politician, or an ambassador. God came himself. That’s why one of the titles for Jesus is, Immanuel which means “God with us.” God gave us the gift of himself—his presence.
The Apostle Paul writes all about this in his letter to the church in Colossae, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). A few verses later he writes, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (Col 1:19). In the next chapter he says, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).
If you want to know who God is and what he is like, the Apostle Paul says, look no further than Jesus Christ. Because of the Incarnation, God becomes tangible and approachable. The babe in the manger is not just a child, he is God.
Christmas is also about Jesus being fully human, as well. This means Jesus was physically born, raised in a Jewish family, ate, slept, cried, played, laughed, and experienced most of what we experience, except he never disobeyed God. Jesus’ humanity means he knows what it is like to live on earth. That means he knows suffering, pain, and disappointment. That means he can relate to all that we experience.
At Trafalgar Square in the city of London, there is a tall pillar and on top is a statue of Lord Nelson. But, because the statue is so high, no one can really see it. So, about forty years ago, a new statue, an exact replica of the original, was erected at eye level so everyone could see him. In the same way, God transcends our ability to see him clearly. But, in Jesus, we have an exact representation, “the image of the invisible God.” To know God we only need to look at Jesus. We celebrate Christmas because God gave us his presence. Jesus was God. Jesus was human.
I want us to notice next that the gift God gave was costly.
God’s Gift Was Costly
Every gift you give this year will cost you something, right? It will cost you money, time, and thought. That’s what we expect. So, when we receive a gift that is cheap or shows there was no thought to it, we get offended. Even though we may pretend to like it. But, when someone we love, goes out of their way to do something very thoughtful and special, we are blown away by their love. Sometimes we even feel bad receiving the gift, because we either a) didn’t get them anything comparable or b) know the sacrifice it took to give that gift.
The gift God gave cost him everything, even his own Son. That is what makes God’s gift of Jesus so special. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
From the very beginning of time, humanity has been in constant rebellion against God and his will for our lives. Out of love, God gave his Son to die in our place and for our sin. God gave us a very costly gift, not because he felt obligated but because his love is so overwhelming. Whoever believes in Jesus, whoever places their faith and trust in him, will receive the gift of eternal life. He’s the greatest gift ever given.
Mark 10:45 says , “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus gave himself willingly over to the Cross knowing it was the only way to bring people back into a right relationship with God. God’s gift of Jesus was extremely costly.
Some of us are so used to the Christmas story that it doesn’t move us like it used to. Sometimes we need to look at a lesser illustration to be amazed, and then look back at the original to feel the wonder.
I read a story about a group of American prisoners of war during the Second World War, who were made to do hard labor in a prison camp. Each had a shovel and would dig all day, then come in and give an account of his tool in the evening. One evening 20 prisoners were lined up by the guard and the shovels were counted. The guard counted nineteen shovels and turned in rage on the 20 prisoners demanding to know which one did not bring his shovel back. No one responded. The guard took out his gun and said that he would shoot five men if the guilty prisoner did not step forward. After a moment of tense silence, a 19-year-old soldier stepped forward with his head bowed down. The guard grabbed him, took him to the side and shot him in the head, and turned to warn the others that they better be more careful than he was. When he left, the men counted the shovels and there were 20. The guard had miscounted. The boy had given his life for his friends.
Can you imagine the emotions those men must have felt as they knelt down over his body? Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” To love is to choose suffering for the sake of another.
Christmas is ultimately the true story of God coming into our world to give his life for ours. Jesus, the Son of God, left heaven’s throne and entered our world to rescue us from sin, Satan, and death. Jesus came to live. Jesus came to die. Jesus came to give himself as a ransom for many.
Not only was God’s gift costly, but when someone receives God’s gift of Jesus, they soon find out there is a personal cost to pay as well.
Receiving God’s Gift Will Cost You
Many people today think they are on a journey to find God, not realizing God has already come and found them. Religion is man reaching up to God, trying to find him. But, Christianity, is God coming down to find us. That’s why Jesus came into our world and lived among us. He reached out his hand of friendship and love first.
Since the dawn of time, humanity separated itself from a holy God. The Bible describes all the ways we struggle and rebel against God. If you are like me, you have habits you can’t break, thoughts you don’t want, emotions you don’t like, fears you can’t hide, regrets you can’t let go of, and you say things you wish you didn’t say. We call that sin.
Christmas is all about Jesus coming to save you from sin and from yourself. He wants to remove your guilt, bitterness, resentment, addictive habits, and fears. There is no one and nothing else who can save us. That’s because the problem of sin lies in the human heart and only God can transform the heart. God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is where true freedom, real purpose, and eternal life are found. In Jesus your past is forgiven, your present is given purpose, and your future becomes even brighter.
But, receiving God’s gift will cost you. In the Christmas story, it cost Joseph, Mary’s fiancé. It cost Joseph his reputation. Think about it, the girl he was engaged to, suddenly turns up and says, “Surprise we’re pregnant! But don’t worry, it was by the Holy Spirit!” That would be hard to believe for any man. But, Joseph, as an act of obedience to God doesn’t divorce Mary or shame her.
It cost Joseph living in his hometown and family business. He’s forced to leave his carpentry business and move to a new town and start over.
It cost Joseph his dreams of starting his own family on his own terms. He’s suddenly forced to raise God's Son. Talk about pressure. How do you discipline him? He adopts Jesus into his family. He raises him well and teaches Jesus his own trade. Thankfully, they will go on to have other kids after Jesus (James).
Yet we see Joseph’s obedience to God’s call on his life. The cost to follow Jesus was well worth the price. Joseph’s entire life was radically changed once he received God’s gift of Jesus.
Receiving God’s gift cost the Magi too. They went on a long and dangerous journey all the way to Bethlehem. People thought they were crazy to follow a star. Then they were almost murdered by King Herod. When they finally get to Bethlehem and see Jesus, they worship him and give him costly gifts, the best of what they had—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Magi gave their all to Jesus, because he would give himself for them.
We could go on and talk about the cost Mary had to pay and really everyone else in the Christmas story. But let’s talk about you.
If you are serious about following Jesus, this will happen to you too. I see it all the time. Someone comes to faith in Jesus, they are so excited but soon enough trials, temptation, and suffering comes their way, and their faith is tested and suddenly they begin to wonder if it’s worth the cost any more. Or maybe you have recently started coming to church and you love how you feel afterwards and what God is starting to do in your life. But, now your company wants you to work longer hours and some weekends. Maybe, like Joseph and Mary, you’ve been thrown a huge curveball from God. Now he’s asking you to do something that is difficult and maybe even painful.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, writes about this:
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
God gave us the gift of his presence. God’s gift was costly. Receiving God’s gift will cost you.
In light of all this, the challenge for us today is to Give More. But give more what? For some of you, it’s time to give your heart to Jesus. For some, it’s giving ALL your heart to God. All of it. Jesus doesn’t just want your acts of piety and religion. This Christmas, Jesus wants your heart because when he has your heart, he has all of you. Give your all to Jesus because he gave his all for you.
How do you give your all to Jesus? Just like all the gifts you will be given on Christmas day, you receive it, you believe it’s yours, and you say thank you. Once you receive Jesus into your life you begin to learn how to follow him and trust him. It’s a lifelong process of considering how you spend your time, talents, and treasure.
For the rest of us, I want you to think about all the gifts you’ll receive this year. After you open them, will your life be any different? Probably not. However, there may have been a time or there might be a gift that is especially amazing. It’s a different kind of gift. I’d wager that the best gift you’ve ever been given or will get, is a relational gift. It’s a special date, vacation, or experience with people you love.
I recently got to take my daughter to a musical in San Francisco and we spent half of the day together. She won’t remember what we got her this year for Christmas, but I bet she’ll always remember that day. We went out to lunch, watched a musical, and talked entire drive home.
So, here’s a very practical challenge for you: This Christmas give more presence.
The most priceless gift you can give anyone this Advent is your time. You can make more money, and buy more stuff, but you can’t buy more time. We all have the same amount of time—24 hrs. every day, seven days a week. When you give someone your time you are giving them a portion of your life that you will never get back.
How can you give more relationally this year?
If you are single, gather some friends together and do something special, something that maybe serves others.
If you’re married, plan a special date for your spouse. Or have a group of single people over to your house and encourage them.
If you have kids, plan some special time with each of your kids before Christmas.
With your family and friends, give some of them a call this week just to check in. Ask, “How can I pray for you?”
With your church family, maybe go to lunch with someone today you don’t know well. Give More by serving next Sunday or at a Christmas Eve/Day service? There are lots of ways to give more relationally this season, what is one thing you’ll do?
Jesus gave us the gift of his presence, let’s give others the gift of your presence this Christmas.
Rob Hall is the Lead Pastor at New North Church, located in the San Francisco Bay Area.