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Science Hill Community Church

The Gifts Under the Tree

Receiving the Gifts Under the Tree

Luke 1:5-20; Matthew 1:18-25

 

I once heard about a Sunday School teacher who was reading the Christmas story to her class of third-graders.  After her lesson, she decided to give them a little pop quiz on the material.  She asked, “Who decreed that all the world should be taxed?”  Quick as a flash, one little guy piped up and replied, “My dad says it’s the Democrats!”

As I don’t wish to “tax” our patience too much this morning, let’s dive right into today’s scripture readings to see what they have to teach us about belief, about faith, and about receiving the gifts that God has in store for us.

Though they come from two different gospels and are about two different men, I believe that what we have here in our scripture lessons today are two very similar miracles.  Each account is about a miraculous event that happens out of the blue.  The first one happened to a man we’ll call Zeke and the second one occurred to a man we’ll call Joe. 

How are their stories similar?  Well, the Bible tells us that both Zeke and Joe are righteous men – that is, they uphold the Law and honor God in their lives.  They are contemporaries, living in the Holy Land just a few years B.C.  These two gentlemen are even slated to become kin.  Zeke’s wife Betsy is a relative of Joe’s fiancée Mary.  And what happens to them is nothing short of the truly miraculous.  They are both visited by an angel who bring them the surprising, even shocking, news of their impending fatherhood.  Both Zeke and Joe are promised the same thing – that they will soon be receiving a great gift, a new born baby boy, into their homes under very unusual circumstances.

But here the similarity pretty much ends.  You see, there are also some considerable differences between Zeke and Joe.  Zeke received his vision of an angel in a place where one might almost expect such things: at the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth.  You see, Zeke was a priest, a man who was supposed to have a heart of faith and eyes open to the spiritual workings of the Lord.  And as he was performing the most sacred task a priest could do, offering incense before the altar in the Holy of Holies, Zeke encountered an angelic messenger.

This is quite different from the experience of Joe!  He was not an otherworldly priest, but a hands-on carpenter.  And he didn’t receive his miraculous visit in the Temple or even in a synagogue, but while he was asleep.  Matthew’s gospel says that an angel appeared to Joe in a dream while he was sleeping.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure how easily I could trust such a dream, considering some of the crazy stuff that can happen in one!  It must have been a pretty powerful dream, like Inception!

But more important than the settings of the visits were the details of the promise.  You see, in Zeke and Betsy’s case, they were advanced in years and had never had any children.  What the angel was promising to Zeke was that God was going to do something great and repeat a powerful miracle that He does on only rare occasions, such as when Sarah gave birth to Isaac in her old age, or when Hannah have birth to Samuel after many years of trying to have children.  As a priest, Zeke would have certainly been familiar with these profound moments in Israel’s history.

This is vastly different than the news Joe received.  He was told that God was doing something that He had NEVER done before!  You see, Joe had just discovered that his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant.  And Joe knew that he wasn’t the father.  Of this fact, he was quite sure.

In this situation, Joe had options.  If he had been a vindictive man, he could have made a public stink and charged Mary with infidelity, and had her and her unborn baby stoned as an adulteress.  The pregnancy itself was proof that something was amiss.  But the Bible says that Joe was a righteous man and did not want to heap scorn on Mary and subject her to disgrace, so he chose a second option, to simply break up with her quietly and let her go.  But God had in mind a third choice for Joe: to go ahead with the marriage and raise the child as his own.

So God sent an angel to Joe to explain that the Mary’s child was conceived not by normal human means, but by the Holy Spirit.  There was no earthly father, for this child would be the Son of God.  What was Joe to think of this news?  You see, while the promise given to Zeke would have been awfully hard to swallow, the promise given to Joe would have seemed downright incredible, that is, virtually unbelievable.

          Let’s explore this for a moment.  What was Zeke asked to believe?  That his wife would bear him a child in her old age.  But how old is too old?  In recent years we have seen that women well into their 60s have the capacity to give birth, with a little technological assistance.  What Zeke was asked to believe was a stretch, but it was at least possible.

          But what was Joe asked to believe?  That “the virgin will be with child.”  That’s a much tougher word than the one given to Zeke, isn’t it?  There are many people who say they cannot believe in the virgin birth.  Why?  Because, they say, we know today that it is scientifically impossible.  They argue that the gospel writers must have been mistaken because science has proven otherwise.  This may sound weighty at first, but think about it.  The people in the first century knew just as well as we do that such things don’t happen.  In any sense of the word that people today would say that it is “scientifically impossible,” the people of that age would have said the same.  Yet this is what Joe was asked to believe.  And it is what Christians today are expected to believe.  This is what the Bible teaches.  And if you have a problem with this miracle, there’s a whole list of miracles you are going to struggle with.

          Finally, let’s notice one last difference between Zeke and Joe.  When Zeke is given the news, all that the angel asks of him is that he believe it.  The news was being pronounced and no action was required.  Gabriel is merely announcing to him that his prayers are about to be answered and that he can take heart and have hope.  In fact, Gabriel says that his mission has been simply “to speak to you and to tell you this good news.”    But all of this is simply too much for poor Zeke to believe.  His response is decidedly not one of faith, but of doubt.  He questions the angel – “How can I be sure of this?”  The angel’s word isn’t enough for Zeke.  He wants proof, he wants a sign.  And, boy, does he get one!

          Because of his initial refusal to believe Gabriel, Zeke is struck mute throughout his wife’s pregnancy.  Now that’s almost a year of silence.  Maybe this was a punishment for Zeke.  Maybe this was a gift to Betsy.  Maybe God just figured that that would teach him to go shooting off his mouth to an angel.  From what we read later on in Luke, it appears that Zeke may have indeed learned his lesson.

          But, again, Joe’s encounter with his angel was quite different.  Sure, it was important for Joe to believe the news, too, but even more than that - a decisive step of obedience was required.  The angel had come not only to deliver the good news to Joe, but also to command him not to separate from Mary.  Joe was to continue their engagement and get married!  In other words, Zeke was expected just to believe the angel’s announcement and he couldn’t even do that.  Joe was directed to obey the angel’s instructions.  His faith was to be put to the test, and his beliefs were to be put into action.  And Joe passed with flying colors!

          Now all of this may have you wondering, “What does this have to do with receiving the gifts under the tree?”  Well, today’s message continues our look at the comparisons between the birth of Jesus and the celebration of this season with a Christmas tree.  My children can tell you that one of the most important functions of a Christmas tree is that it gives us a place to put all the presents!  While the Bible teaches us that it is more blessed to give than to receive, I believe the stories we just studied can help us know how we ought to receive that which we are given by God.

          Every year at Christmas, there are great gifts advertised in the paper.  There’s the Black Friday rush.  There’s the Cyber Monday on websites.  There’s the Christmas parades to get us downtown and in the shopping mood.  There’s the buy-one-get-one-free sales and doorbuster bargains.  And each Christmas season seems to feature its own hot gifts.  I can remember when it was Cabbage Patch dolls and Transformers.  After that it was Tickle-Me-Elmo and Furbees.  Merchants couldn’t keep these items on their shelves, so high was the demand.  But you don’t hear much about those toys anymore – they’re all out of date.

          But there is one gift of Christmas that is not just another fad.  There is one gift that never goes out of style.  And it is the truest gift of Christmas if ever there was one.  You may have heard it sung in a song: “The best gift of all is Jesus!”  Paul expresses it so eloquently in II Corinthians: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”  The indescribable gift that he speaks of is Jesus Christ Himself.  God is waiting for everyone on the face of this planet to believe and receive the gift of Jesus into their hearts.

          And that’s just the trick, isn’t it?  For we know that the most widely-quoted Bible verse is the well-known John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  You see, it isn’t enough just for God to give the gift.  We must do our part and receive it into our hearts – we must believe it!  We must receive it!  John 1 says, “He came unto his own and his own received him not.  But as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”  I think a lot of people experience difficulty with this believing and receiving.

          I remember one time when I was counseling a teen-ager named Sarah about her faith.  Sarah had grown up in the church, but she told me that she was having a very hard time just believing that God was real.  She just couldn’t feel God.  I tried to say all the right pastor-type things to her, that God really did exist, that He wanted a relationship with her, that Jesus loved her so much that He died on the cross for her.  I told her all the great theological truths of our faith.  But she would just look at me, and blink away her tears, and say, “I wish I could believe that.”

          You may be saddened to hear Sarah’s story, but I was impressed with her honesty and openness to grapple with issues of faith.  I’ve seen too many others just deal with God on a superficial level, nodding their heads, yet continuing to struggle with doubt in their hearts.  Possibly they feel that they wouldn’t be a good Christian if they admitted that they had doubts.  But if doubts are suppressed rather than explored and searched out and ultimately answered, they don’t go away.  They fester.

          Fortunately, Sarah did not stay mired in her doubts.  I challenged her to seek passionately after the answers she craved, to get involved in the youth ministry, to go on some retreats, to pray, and to stay open to God moving in her life.  These things she did, and after a few months, she met with me again.  This time her report was starkly different.  Her faith had grown and blossomed and become strong.  The truths that I had been trying to teach her mind had finally been felt and grasped by her heart.  And when that happened, she accepted the faith for herself, she believed, and she received into her heart the gospel of Jesus Christ.

          Just like Sarah, we all have a decision to make about what we are going to do with God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ.

          How are we to receive it?  How are we to believe it?  It’s amazing, but the same choice that faced our old friends Zeke and Joe faces us as well.  All through this Christmas season, God has been announcing His miraculous intention to send His Son into the world.  Now it is up to us what we will do with that news.  Do we believe it?  Or do we doubt it?  Do we receive it?  Or do we demand a sign that tells us it’s true? 

Zeke certainly could have benefitted from a heart of faith.  When Zeke doubted Gabriel’s promise, he was struck mute.  He and Betsy were given a year full of “Silent Nights!”

          If we profess to be Christians, but secretly doubt the message of Christmas, and even find ourselves disbelieving the power of the gift of God in Jesus Christ, then our faith is struck mute as well.  Please hear me: the Bible testifies that Zechariah was a righteous man, and God’s promise to him and Elizabeth was still done for them just as Gabriel has said.  Zechariah’s doubt didn’t get in God’s way – but his lack of faith ended up shortchanging himself.  Zechariah got that sign of proof that he wanted, but it ended up being a loss of his own ability to speak, to communicate, to share the very good news he had been given.

          How much better, and how much healthier, it is to receive God’s promised gift with the response of Joseph, who, when he awoke, went and did just what the angel had commanded?  Approaching Christmas with eyes of faith, a heart of belief, and a spirit of wonder is essential if we are to fully receive the love that God has in store for us.  We only end up shortchanging ourselves and hurting our witness if we hold back, if we allow doubts to fester, if we take our eyes off Jesus. 

If you find yourself more in the sandals of Zeke than Joe this morning, my challenge to you is the same as it was to Sarah.  Don’t stay there!  Get your doubts and fears resolved to that may grow in your walk with Christ.  Don’t be afraid that God isn’t able to answer your questions!  The Christian faith is strong and true, but we need to accept it for ourselves, to receive it into our hearts, for it to make a difference.  My prayer is that all of us may be able to truly do that this Christmas and receive the best gift of all! 

God has a gift for you under the Christmas tree, the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.  It’s up to you to believe it and receive it.

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Comments:

Marsha Graham

Jon, This came through loud and clear. The reason I had trouble logging in was becasue I didn't spell my name correctly. Go figure. My brain goes faster than my fingers.