Merry Christmas! In this penultimate entry in our series, God Moved into the Neighborhood, we talk about the greatest gift ever given. When Jesus came to earth as a baby, He came bringing with Him the first and greatest Christmas gift. He gave us the gift of knowing God. Keep reading or listening to learn more.
The Greatest Gift
Okay, so I want to take a little poll this morning: Who’s finished with all your Christmas shopping? You don’t have to make any last-minute trips out to the store this afternoon. Alright, tougher question: Who already has everything wrapped? I think we’re officially done in the Waits household. Do you have any gifts that you’re especially excited to give this year? We have a couple of cool surprises picked out, but I can’t say anything in present company. I actually have one in particular I’m pretty excited about…but I can’t say anything about that either in light of other present company. Do you remember the best Christmas gift you ever received? And forget for a minute that you’re in church and get totally materialistic. What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever gotten for Christmas? I’m not sure what would go on my list. I remember getting new cymbals for my drum set when I was in high school. That was pretty fun. A few years ago, Lisa got me a donut maker about which I was awfully excited. Part of that, though, was due to the fact that it combined two things I love—kitchen gadgets and donuts—into one appealing package. It was even shaped like a donut!
Let’s broaden out our field just a bit. What’s the greatest gift you’ve ever gotten, period? That’s a little harder to answer. One year, Lisa got me a SodaStream for my birthday. It’s one of those home pop makers that were popular for a while (yes, I said “pop;” I’m from Kansas City). I was pretty stoked about that one. When I was a freshman in high school I was given a basketball signed by the 1996-97 Jayhawks who comprised one of the best Kansas teams in history (it would be worth a lot more had Paul Pierce bothered to sign it and if Jacques Vaughn had chosen a better pen). That ranks right up there. But, I don’t know if I would call those the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Leaning back in to present company, I would have to argue that the greatest gift I’ve ever received is my knowledge of God. And I know that sounds totally clichéd for the preacher to be saying something like that but hear me out for just a minute.
What we believe about God is the single most important belief we have. I’m not talking about whether or not we believe in God. You may be a committed atheist and hate the church, but still, what you believe about God is the single most important belief you have. Everything else in our lives rests on the foundation of what we believe about God. Think about that for a minute because it’s a pretty grand claim. Whether we realize it or not, what we believe about God determines everything about our lives: how we treat people, what we think about our kids, what kind of parents we are, the kind of work we do, the way we approach that work, what we do with our money, the kind of habits we’ve developed, how we use our time, how we vote, and the list goes on and on. Everything in our lives rests on the foundation of what we believe, what we know, about God. Whether we would count ourselves as having a good life or a bad one depends entirely on what we believe about God; on whether or not we know God and what kind of a god we know. As a matter of fact, it goes even deeper than this. Jesus Himself acknowledged that knowledge of God is the content of eternal life. In His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus boldly confessed: “And this is the real and eternal life: That they know you, the one and only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.” Therefore, anything which helps us to come to a better knowledge of God would be counted as an important gift. Surely, then, the greatest gift we could get would be something that helped us know God as fully as is possible, yes?
This morning, Christmas Eve, has us in the final part of our series, “God Moved into the Neighborhood.” Four weeks ago, we talked about the fact that the real wonder of Christmas is found in the theological doctrine of the Incarnation. This idea of the God who created the universe coming to earth not only in human flesh, but in fact fully human is simply stunning. It is unprecedented in the history of religious thought. And this is no mere religious doctrine, but an established fact of history. The idea that God the Son, the second member of the Trinity would step down out of glory in order to move into our neighborhood to transform it from the broken mess it has long been into the beautiful kingdom He designed it to be from the beginning makes Christmas something worth celebrating.
From there we moved on to talk about the fact that the first thing Jesus had to do when He began His ministry was to shine some light on the dysfunctional places of our world so that we might not only see that they are broken, but how to fix them. We said, and Jesus declared Himself to be the light of the world. This doesn’t mean Jesus is radioactive. Rather, through His teachings and actions He shined His light, not as a busy-body offering unwanted advice, but as an expert, as the engineer of the whole system, so that we could see how things are supposed to work. In this way, Jesus brings light to live by. He shines His light so we might live. Not only that, but as we saw last week, when we walk in His light, we become the people He created us to be from the beginning. We become our truest self, the self that renders our culture’s call to be true to ourselves worth heeding. But the ordering here is important. We have to first walk in the light; to receive the life. Then and only then will we become ourselves. This light is simply not something we have within us regardless of what our culture wrongly affirms. We may be special beyond words, but that is only because we are image bearers of God. Apart from that we don’t have any inherent value—a fact made clear by the human rights records of cultures that don’t have Christian theism as part of their foundational worldview.
So then, we’ve seen how God the Son, Jesus Christ, stepped down out of glory and moved into the neighborhood. We’ve endured the light He shines so that we can live. And, we’ve actually started trying to walk in that light so that we can become ourselves. What’s the final part of this transformation process? What’s next? Well, what’s next is that He gives us the greatest gift of all. He gives us the gift that enables us to fully receive the rest. This gift makes it so that we can remain in the light once we’ve started walking in it. And what is this incredible gift that so empowers everything else Christ has done in coming to earth? It’s knowledge of God. Without a proper knowledge of God, we can’t take part in any of the rest of Jesus’ transformational work. It is both the undergirding assumption and the foundational bedrock for everything else we’ve talked about in this series. And in this final part of our series this morning we’re going to see how He gives it…and how we can receive it.
If you will direct your attention to the front, you can look with me at how Jesus’ closest friend, John, wraps up his initial thoughts on who Jesus is and what He came to do. I’ll read the whole thing and then we’ll unpack it. “We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. We got the basics from Moses, and then this exuberant giving and receiving, this endless knowing and understanding—all this came through Jesus, the Messiah. No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse. This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day.”
If you watch much on the Discovery Channel or perhaps the Destinations Channel, you may have noticed we went through a trend a few years ago focused on the state of Alaska. This really began with the show Deadliest Catch. Interest in all things Alaskan has only started to cool lately. I guess when you spread less than three-quarters of a million people across a region two-and-a-half times larger than the state of Texas, there’s lots of space to be explored. And if there are advertisers willing to chance it, there are producers willing to send camera crews to do the exploring. Anyway, one of the Alaskan-themed shows Lisa and I have watched a few times was called Buying Alaska. It’s basically House Hunters but all the houses are in Alaska instead of spread out all over the place.
Well one of the things that a lot of the featured houses have in common on the show is that they are all off the grid. If you want modern services, you have to provide the power by yourself. If you want electricity, fire up the generator or install solar panels. If you want water, dig a well or stock a reservoir tank. If you want to go to the bathroom, dig a hole, bury a tank, or use an empty-it-yourself organic toilet that will never be in a house I own if I can help it (the idea just doesn’t sit very well with my nose). While these homeowners are left to deal with the realities of quasi-nineteenth century living, for the rest of us watching from the on-the-grid comfort of our living rooms, there’s something strangely attractive about living in a do-it-all-yourself world. I think this is a result of the still American ideal of being a self-made and sustained man (or woman, of course). There is a sense of rugged and sometimes radical individualism that still very much pervades the fabric of American life. Most of the folks in this room fall squarely in line with this. You’d prefer to do whatever “it” is all by yourself whether the reason happens to be so you don’t have to share the glory, so you get the satisfaction of proving your merit by not needing anyone else, or at least so that it’s done to your exceedingly high personal standards. I’m guilty of this.
In any event, John starts out this closing section of his introduction with a general reminder of the folly of this whole mindset. Everything we have comes by way of someone else. Let’s say you own a business. You may have earned your paycheck, but if I hadn’t have come and spent my money (which I only have because of your generosity to this church) at your business, there wouldn’t have been money to pay you. We’re not the sole source of anything. Apart from perhaps Adam and Eve (who had a divine tailor give them a jump start), nobody in the whole history of humanity has ever been the sole source of something. The only one who has been the sole source of anything is the sole source of everything. We live off His generous bounty. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean that we aren’t still doing a lot of work or that we’re somehow cheapening our efforts. It simply means we are aware of what the real power source is. Remember? He’s the Creator and thus everything we sometimes count as ours is first His. This is common grace that we all receive. As Jesus Himself acknowledged, God makes it rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Coming back around to where we’re going this morning, one of the most important parts of this common grace, or what theologians sometimes call general revelation, is that everybody has access to it. Everybody has the ability to gain some knowledge about God. But even that is only available because He made it so. Everything we have, we have because God gave it to us. Everything we know of God we know because God revealed it to us.
Well, if history is any indicator, in spite of the fact that we are able to know something of God simply by walking outside and looking around or by watching people from different places and cultures interact, we tend not to do a very good job of living out the implications of that knowledge. As a result, when we (and by that I mean humanity) were at a place where we could handle a bit more detailed knowledge of God than what we can get by simple observation of the world, God gave us a bit more through the Law of Moses. Through the Law of Moses we were given a bit more detailed knowledge about the character of God as well as the implications of that character. We were given some guidelines to help us live more consistently in line with that character. But, as John indicated, that was just the basics. Now, this doesn’t mean that the basics were somehow inferior or deficient. In order to do calculus, you need to know algebra…in order to know algebra, you need to know multiplication…in order to know multiplication, you need to know basic addition. You may be a wiz in calculus, but it doesn’t mean that knowing 2+2=4 isn’t still worthwhile. I mean, without the Law of Moses Jesus wouldn’t have made any sense. People would have listened to Him with utter confusion and walked away puzzled. Now, granted people did that anyway, but without the Law of Moses He would have been trying to teach calculus to kindergarteners. It’s not simply that they wouldn’t have understood Him, they wouldn’t have been able to understand Him even with a really great PowerPoint because they didn’t have a context for it.
So then, once we had had ample opportunity to learn the Law—which has as its basic operational framework: do what’s right or else—Jesus came to give us a graduate course on God. This graduate course took us from law to grace and truth. You see, where law says, “Do what’s right or else,” grace and truth say, “This is what’s right and you’re wisest to do it, but if you flub it I’m going to give you another chance because I love you and want to see you succeed.” By revealing this aspect of God’s nature—which was always at least implicit in the law—Jesus moved us a huge step forward in the direction of knowing God more. God is not simply a God of law who has declared what people need to do and is waiting for them to blow it so He can get them. Way too many people think that’s the God of the Bible and it’s just not.
God is a God of grace and truth. He’s the God who comes upon a woman caught in the act of adultery—a death sentence according to the law—and after shaming away her accusers says, “Neither do I condemn you.” That’s grace. But, He also says one more thing: “Now go and sin no more.” That’s truth. He’s the God who sent His only Son to this world, who moved into the neighborhood, because of His great love for the world and in order to save the world, not condemn it. That’s grace. But, He’s also the God who sent His Son to this world in order to die to pay the price for sins. That’s truth. This is the God we serve. He gives us grace and calls us to truth. He moves into our broken-down lives in order to transform them with the power of His Spirit and then calls us to live as transformed people. Grace and truth.
Knowing this God will indeed transform our lives. When all we know about God is that He’s powerful but distant we’ll live however we please and that never ends well. But even if we have come a step further and know Him as a God of law, we’ll eventually come to hate Him in our hearts for calling us emptily to a standard we could never keep. When what we know about God, though, is that He is full of grace and truth, everything changes. This is the God Jesus came to earth to reveal. This is the God Jesus came to help us know. And, here’s the thing: we can’t know this God except through Christ. We know God through Christ.
This truth is what John so powerfully declares in v. 18. Look at that again with me: “No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse.” Now, this isn’t John contradicting the idea of general revelation. What John’s getting at here is that before Christ, no one ever knew God fully and completely. We never really understood the depths of His character. We were stuck with understanding God through the channel of law. But then came Christmas. Then God moved into the neighborhood so that we could start to get to know Him more fully; so that we could understand Him as being full of grace and truth, ready to call us by grace to walk in truth so that we might become fully our God-created selves and live. When Jesus moved into the neighborhood it was to transform us through knowledge of God—the source of eternal life. Indeed, we know God through Christ. Hear how John puts this one more time: “This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day.”
We know God through Christ. We give gifts to celebrate Christmas. Sometimes those gifts are really cool. Our boys have some gifts coming that are going to knock their socks off and which, frankly, I’m pretty excited about myself. But nothing we will ever give can compare with the first Christmas gift ever given. If you think about it, the tradition of giving gifts to celebrate our Savior’s birth was started by none other than our Savior. When Christ moved into the neighborhood He came bringing with Him the greatest gift of all: knowledge of God. We know God through Christ. And through this knowledge we are given the opportunity to live, to walk in the light Christ shines, to become fully ourselves, to know God. We know God through Christ.
And before I let you go, here’s how: we simply receive Jesus. That’s it. Jesus is the gift. He is how we know God. We know God through Christ. We receive Jesus into our lives through the Holy Spirit and turn over control of our lives to Him so that we might continue living off His generous bounty. This can happen through a simple decision of our will. A prayer is one way to do it, but the prayer itself isn’t important, the heart and will decision is what does it. And when you make it, you will be able to know God. You will be able to start living, really living, not the life games you play on a daily basis. You will be able to become fully yourself. God moved into the neighborhood to transform the neighborhood. Since you’re part of it, He moved in to transform you. I hope you’ll be transformed this Christmas as you come to know God and rest in that knowledge.