Thursday, December 22, 2011

Perilous Gift Giving and the Perfect Gift

I have always been fascinated with the first witnesses to Jesus' arrival here on Earth. They are just not the people you would have expected deity to be presented to. A carpenter and his teenage wife. Some dirty outcast shepherds. Foreign gentile starwatchers. An aged priest and widow, long past their prime and importance. There were no nobles, no religious leaders, no government leaders by the manger. Just simple people, overlooked or held in contempt by most.

God set the stage with a theme that would continue throughout the New Testament. All of Jesus life, He would enter into the lives of the poor, the desperate, the rejected, the unclean, the irreligious, the sick, and so on.  Even foreigners would have encounters with Jesus which would give them opportunity to know the One true God, and His Son sent to redeem them from their sin. No one expected the Messiah to come in such a way … and yet … they should have. God told them it would be this way.

The prophet Isaiah said "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned …. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."    (Isaiah 9:2, 6) We live in a world where the shadow of death is constantly evident. The fruit of the fall from innocence is a teenager facing a life-threatening illness in a hospital room. It is a lonely widow, whose children live far away and are too busy to realize their mother's grief. It's single moms struggling to make ends meet, struggling to raise kids while working full time, struggling to keep their heads above water. Life in a sin-struck world is hard and messy and lonely, and it has been since the first sin corrupted God's beautiful creation. Then the Light dawned.

God Himself entered into our mess, not with the glory and recognition He deserved, but with simplicity, and the witness of people  like you and me.  All his life, Jesus entered into the misery and pain of those around Him. He wept with the grieving, touched the sick, fed the hungry, taught the confused. It was only through sharing their painful, difficult lives that the Savior could bear their burdens … and their guilt.

"After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities." (Isaiah 53:11)

Matthew tells us that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it …. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." (Matthew 1:1, 4, 5, 14.) God didn't just send us words, because words weren't enough for us to understand. He sent us His word in the flesh; He sent us Jesus. Jesus was His best gift, wrapped up in simple packaging, and yet shining with a blinding light in spite of it.

Before Jesus returned to heaven for a little while, He commanded His followers to share His good news--His gospel. Often I find that command intimidating, because I'm not one who comes up with words easily when I'm talking to people. I never feel like I know what to say, and so sharing the Gospel seems difficult. But as I look at the way God shared His good news, I realized that what I'm called to do is not merely to tell the good news, but to share it. I'm called to share what I have with the family struggling to pay their bills. I'm called to cry with the mom whose son is rebelling and getting into trouble. I'm called to carry groceries with the ailing elderly couple across the street. I'm called to listen to what most consider mundane chattering by the socially awkward outcast.  I'm called to enter into the difficulty and suffering of other people's lives, and to DO what I can to relieve their suffering. Then I'm called to tell them it is because Jesus gave so much to me that I want to care for them.

Sharing the Gospel is so much more than telling people about Jesus, it's showing them Jesus. And it's hard and messy and expensive. It costs me time, money, emotional vulnerability, and humility. It is dangerous and risky. But isn't giving any good gift a little risky? Doesn't any good gift worth giving cost me something valuable? Isn't the Gospel a gift worth offering to those who don't have it?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Redeeming a Shame-filled Heritage

It is not unusual to find that the genealogy of Jesus is skimmed over at Christmas time. We are eager to get to the miraculous conception and the baby in the manger, and we hurry through all those difficult names and messy, sin-filled lives. We consider those men sort of insignificant - extras in the cast of a wonderful story. Personally, I love to linger over those names as I prepare for the Christmas story. I've always loved the thought that the people mentioned were real live breathing people, with jobs and families, feelings and dreams. Some of them I know well, because chapters of scripture are written about them, but some are mysterious, and I wonder what their lives were like. For years I've  wondered with amazement at the women mentioned in Jesus' genealogy - Tamar who seduced her father-in-law to have a child, Rahab the Jericho harlot who saved the Israelite spies, Ruth the Moabitess who loyally served her Jewish mother-in-law, and Bathsheba who committed adultery with a king. None of them are actually women that Jewish law and tradition would have considered upright and praiseworthy, but each, in her brokenness and sin, was made worthy because God chose them to be a part of His own Son's earthly story.

Then it hit me this morning. One of the first sacrifices Jesus made for us was to identify with a heritage of people who had messy, complicated, and very sinful lives. It wasn't just the women who were "disreputable" in some way, it was ALL of the people mentioned. Idolaters, adulterers, murderers, liars, cheaters, cowards, thieves … the list goes on and on. Even though some of the men mentioned were considered righteous by God, even those men committed some pretty awful sins. These were the men that the holy, righteous, good Son of God identified Himself with. He set aside His very identity as the only Son of God, and exchanged it for a genealogy of men and women who were known for their shortcomings, weaknesses, and sins. That horrifies me … and at the same time I find great comfort in it. To think of the burden Jesus bore at being related to such people almost embarrasses me. But then I realize that it is because of this that I can understand and accept His willingness to identify Himself with me. It fills me with awe that God is able to use even MY weak, broken, sinful life to bring about great things, because He has used lives like mine for generations past to bring about the full revelation of Himself in His Son.

There is great comfort for me in this list of men and women. As I look at this long list of names and see among them men who failed as fathers, I realize that God can bring about good for and from our children, even when we fail. As I see men and women marked through generations for their sins I realize God can use sinners like me. As I pick out names of no ones, I see that God is able to use simple, unremarkable people for great glory and blessing. God brings good out of failure and sin. God brings blessing to those who don't deserve it. God uses the weak and broken to show His strength. That is the whole message in the Christmas story.

There is one more surprise in this "boring list of names." We live in a world where families are divided and filled with disputes and dissension. In broken families husbands and wives fight, control over children is argued over, and children are left trying to figure out how to put together a genealogy of parents, step-parents, half-siblings, live-in boyfriends or girlfriends, etc. Joseph had no actual claim to the paternity of Jesus, and he knew it. And yet here in Matthew God does not dispute Joseph's lineage in the story of His Son, but proclaims it. God used the illegitimate relationship of Joseph to fulfill His very true and legitimate prophecies of His Son's genealogy. It makes sense. None of us are really "legitimate" children of God; we are all adopted. We are only made legitimate by God's One and Only Son. The only One who could claim His true paternity was of God was Jesus, yet instead of clinging to this identity and keeping it for Himself, He shared it. Isn't sharing Jesus and opening up our homes - our families - one of the best gifts we can give to those who don't have Him?