THE GIFT WE REALLY NEED
Dear friends in Christ,
Neal Boortz is an Atlanta radio icon. He was a talk radio host for a long time, now retired. He is mouthy. He says some good things; he says some bad things. He irritates me when he gets ridicules Christians for being pro-life. He says he is Catholic. While he is retired you can hear him on the radio. He does a number of commercials. He advertises for a jeweler and an investment company here in Atlanta. The commercial went like this: Christmas gifts are given by people who can’t afford them and given them to people who don’t really like them anyway. He then urges to invest in yourself. Kind of cynical, don’t you think?
The queen of our household sent her husband and third born child to Costco last week with a list of things to buy. We were given the permission to buy a dessert as a reward. We wondered if the queen of the Zahn household had a fever. When we got into dessert land at Costco, we thought it would be funny to buy some fruitcake. It seems that fruitcake is the brunt of Christmas jokes. It is the gift that often gets passed on to someone else. It is not always the favorite of a lot of people.
Our six year grandson, whose birthday is in early December, was asked what he wanted for his birthday. He said, “I want a helicopter!” He gave the question a little more thought and said sadly, “But I guess I need socks and underwear.” He has it figured out already at the age of six. A diamond isn’t necessarily needed nor is fruitcake like socks and underwear are, but today, just two days after we celebrated Jesus’ birthday, Paul reminds us of the “The Gift We Really Need. 1) The gift of God’s Law leaves us lacking; 2) The gift of Jesus is just right.
The whole concept of grace - salvation free and unconditional with no strings attached – is a radical change from the way things work in the world. What’s really free and unconditional? When you work, you get paid. When you do something nice, you get recognized. When you do something evil, you suffer the consequences. That’s the way the world works or is supposed to.
That’s the way most think that religion works too. To many that is the essence of religion. Someone does something nice and God will reward them. That’s what many people expect from religion. They want their kids to grow up knowing right and wrong. Many see religion as a set of rules that need to be followed. To many Jesus becomes the best person who ever lived. If you live like him, so many believe, you will go to heaven.
I heard a discussion on the radio the other day where they were talking about the true meaning of Christmas. The radio host said that if you are down on your luck, he advised people not to get depressed or get mad. He said in the spirit of Christmas that is the time to give. “That’s what Christmas is all about.” Lots of people called in and “amen-ed” everything he said.
I don’t know about you but that made me uncomfortable. If you analyze what he was saying, Christmas is all about what you do and not about what God did. Isn’t Christmas about what God did? Christmas is not about my work but God’s work. Christmas is all about God’s grace!
Now don’t get me wrong, we respond to that. We don’t stand around like stone not moving or loving. The Bible says, “We love because he first loved us.” The baby Jesus compels us to love, but we are compelled by the manger and its baby.
When the apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Christian churches in the province of Galatia two thousand years ago, he was writing churches that were being plagued by false teachers. They were being plagued by false teachers called Judaizers.
It might be difficult to put ourselves in their situation, but it is important to try to understand. They had grown up in Judaism and all its laws. The Old Testament laws were a way of life. Sure there were the Ten Commandments. They apply to us too. They tell us what God says is right and wrong. They are God’s standards. Frankly, they are good for us. They tell us to respect life and property, marriage, authority figures and most of all, God. They also tell us there is punishment and consequences when we fail. A real honest comparison of the Ten Commandments to our lives leads us to one conclusion – we have failed and failed miserably to keep them.
But to the Jews there were more laws. We call them the ceremonial laws. They were the worship laws like Sabbath days and holy days, dietary laws and sacrifices. These laws were also for them to keep. They separated them from the rest of the nations of the world. No other god gave special laws to his people like the LORD. They were special people from whom Jesus would come to save. They served as protection for them. There were certain foods they could and could not eat. There were even laws about mold and mildew in the house.
Those laws also were also a picture of Messiah and his work. The sacrifices of goats and sheep demonstrated that atonement for sin was needed. They were also a picture of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God that lay in the future who would take away the sin of the world.
Here is where those Judaizers failed. They thought that a combination of Jesus and a person keeping these laws would get people to heaven. In other words, a little bit of Jesus and a little bit of the law would do the trick. Faith and works earned heaven. It wasn’t Jesus alone anymore.
But then the question becomes (and this is where grace is ruined), how much Jesus do we need and how much do we need to produce? Jesus 50 % and our works 50%? Or is it 75% to 25%? Or is it Jesus 99% and works 1%? Besides that question another follows. How would you know when you got the 50% or 25% or 1%? Or then comes the question why didn’t Jesus just pay for it all? Why did he pay only in part? Wasn’t his sacrifice good enough?
The apostle Paul makes a really interesting point and gives an illustration of the purpose of the law. “What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.”
Even a millionaire would not turn his fortune over to his son until he is capable of handling that fortune. He would need training and discipline before that would happen. In many respects the son would not be that much different from his slaves in the house. Paul says, “The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.” The child would be subject to his guardians and trustees until the father determined the time was right to give him the inheritance. The point of the illustration is that the Law was not the means to give heaven. It is for teaching right and wrong. It was good for keeping order in society and in the church. It is good for seeing the pictures of Jesus. But the only way that the inheritance is passed down to the child is when the Father says so. It is done at the father’s decree. It is done only when the Father acts. And the father acted. “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
God promised it would happen and made it happen. God sent his Son. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and he was born of the Virgin Mary. He was man and God in one. There is no one like him. He had to be special – man to take our place and die. He had to be God to be a price to pay the price for all.
He was born under law. He made the Laws because he was and is God, but he obeyed the law to the letter he made for everyone, because everyone (obviously that includes you and me) failed. But he didn’t. That’s why the Bible calls him “the Lord, our righteousness.”
He came “to redeem those under the law.” Redeem means he paid a price. Our sin didn’t go unpunished. He paid the price. It was his holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death. He paid the price by crucifixion on the most bittersweet day in history, Good Friday. That day changed our status from slave to family member.
But how do I know I am a son or daughter in God’s family? He explains that. “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” How do I know he wants me as a member of his family? On the night that Jesus was born, the angel over Bethlehem’s fields shocked the shocked shepherds with the announcement. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
The good news is that Jesus is the Savior of all people. The Spirit changes our hearts and turns rejection into acceptance. “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” The Holy Spirit, through the Word and Sacrament, assures us we are free. We call God our dear Father.
Every year we get bombarded with the man-made secular side of Christmas. This is kind of Christmas the Devil himself wants us to love. I am sure that some years we are better at the Bible than others. But make no mistake about it Jesus is and remains the perfect gift for you. Jesus is the gift that we really need. He gives us the hope and peace we need. He wants you to know – and you do need to know – through Jesus your status has changed. You are “no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” No gift we ever received under the tree or elsewhere can compare to the gift we will receive when our eyelids close in death only to awaken into “inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.” Then we will understand completely how perfect the gift of Jesus really is.