Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Best Christmas Gift

These are my notes for next Sunday's Bible class.

How often have you seen powerful people give up their power when they have not needed to? The CEOs of the Big Three American auto makers recently offered to work for one dollar a year, but it was an effort to save their companies from complete collapse. If they could not convince the federal government to give them loans, they could have lost everything. Several years ago, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States, but it was an effort to avoid the shame of being thrown out of office and possible time in prison. He felt like he had no choice.

For the past month, we have been looking at the character of people involved in the Christmas accounts. We have looked at Joseph, Mary, and Herod. This week, we will examine the character of the most important person involved: Jesus. We will be looking at someone of great humility and compassion who was willing to become a sacrifice for the sake of others.

While examining Jesus' humility, we will be looking at a characteristic that is difficult to imitate or even to appreciate. Even in Christian circles, we don't tend to like losing power or prestige. We resist humility, because we know that others will not respond well to us when we don't possess sufficient power or prestige. We know it, because we tend to act the same way.

Years ago, a minister was serving as a well-respected preacher for a local church. He was a successful preacher who was gaining a good reputation as an effective speaker and leader. When he attended conferences, other preachers respected him and included him in their circle of friends as a peer.

However, the preacher saw a great need among the youth of the church. He felt led to give up his pulpit and become a youth minister. Suddenly, he became practically invisible when he attended Christian conferences. He had given up power and prestige for others. He had acted like Christ, but even Christian leaders failed to recognize it. He had lost their respect and been excluded from their peer group.

In Christ, we see someone who was willing to step down from the glory of deity in order to meet the needs of people. The apostle Paul wrote,

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death--
even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus willingly limited his power, presence, and prestige. He became the embryo and fetus carried by Mary. He became the boy carried to Egypt and back to Israel by Joseph. He became the man disgraced on the cross for our sins. He showed us what it looks like to be humble.

In his humility, Christ also demonstrated his compassion. He was willing to walk among us and to face life as we do. He was willing to share our experiences as a man.

Common experiences build bonds of compassion.

Because of my experiences, I know what it's like to want a child but not have one. I understand the frustrations of infertile couples. I know about the monthly disappointments and expensive treatments that can last for years. I understand the depression that comes after you have given up on the medical experts. I know about the mourning you go through for the biological child you will never have. I understand the anxiety of going through the adoption process. Questions race through your mind. Will the social worker approve of us and our home? Will birthparents choose us? If so, when will we be chosen? Why were we not chosen? What's wrong with us? I also know the joy of adoption. I know what it feels like to finally receive your child. Without my experience, I could have an intellectual compassion for infertile and adoptive families, but it would not quite be the same. Through experience, the compassion is deeper and more personal.

The same is true for Jesus. Now God knows at a deeply personal level what it means to be human.

The Bible states, "For this reason (Jesus) had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might turn aside God's wrath, taking away the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Hebrews 2:17-18).

Christ knows what it is like to be tempted. He knows the power of temptation, and he understands our weaknesses. It took everything he had to live a sinless life. He resisted temptation to the point of sweating blood. He has deep compassion for us, because he knows why we fail.

Because he went through the temptations and punishment for our sins (even though he never sinned), he is able to help us. He gives us hope because of his resurrection. He has sent the Holy Spirit to help us until he returns to make everything right. Someday, because of Christ, we will live in resurrected bodies and enjoy life as God always intended in the new heavens and new earth.

Sometimes we may fail to recognize the significance of the Christmas narratives. We may not see the importance of God becoming man and sharing our life experiences as a human being.

Several years ago, I was in a Bible class with a man who denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. He insisted that Christ was a purely spiritual being who merely looked like he had flesh, blood, and bones. I became increasingly agitated. Finally, I had to speak up. I said, "The Bible says, 'Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist' (2 John 7). Are you sure you want to go there?" He finally stopped talking and started considering why the apostle John would write so strongly against his beliefs.

A teaching that eliminates Jesus' humanity cuts the heart out of the gospel. It eliminates his humility, undermines his compassion, and denies his sacrifice on our behalf. That's what makes the Christmas story so important.

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