GOD’S RETURN POLICY

Now that Christmas Day is over and we have opened our gifts, many will be returning something they received. Different stores, of course, have different policies with regard to the way they deal with returns. Some will refund what the gift cost, and some will only offer an exchange for something else. Some require a receipt and a few charge a restocking fee.

I’ve been thinking about this after Christmas post since November 1 when I read an online article entitled “God’s Generous Return Policy” by John Lee. In his article Lee did not relate anything to Christmas gift returns, but I am. I’m borrowing from his basic idea.

My interest isn’t in returning gifts as such, but in returning to God. In the Old Testament the prophets speak often of God’s people not returning to him.

Following an assessment of the Northern Kingdom’s misdeeds and consequences, in Jeremiah 3:10 God comments on the Southern Kingdom, “In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense.”

In Joel 2: 12 and 13 the prophet relays God’s invitation, “Even now return to me with all your heart with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

In Amos 4:6-11 God reminds his people through the prophet of five consequences they have endured, and yet have not returned to him. Very similarly God does the same through the prophet Haggai, “I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me” (Haggai 2:17).

My favorite two verses from the Old Testament prophets about God’s return policy are similar to Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and Haggai, but add a promise not included in the others. Zechariah 1:3 proclaims God’s message: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you’.  Malachi 3:7 offers the same promise, but also reminds them why they need to take action: “Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

These messages from the prophets to God’s people in the Old Testament give us insight into why a person today might need to return to God: they have left him. The call to return to God suggests that someone has turned away from God or drifted away from him.

When I was a youth pastor some 48 years ago we had a sign in front of our church building on which we posted a new message every week. One of my favorites our senior minister put up has stayed with me: “Feel Far from God? Guess Who Moved?”

The preaching of the prophets to God’s people in the Old Testament also make it clear that often or usually when people leave God there are consequences in their lives. Those consequences are intended to get the attention of those who have done so.

When those who have turned away from God want to return to him what is needed is a change of attitude and action. In the New Testament, especially with the prophet John the Baptist, returning to God requires repentance (Matthew 3:1 and 2).

I’m not sure what to make of Zechariah and Malachi’s promise from God, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” It reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Do you remember what the father did when he saw his younger son returning? In the story Jesus says “while he (the prodigal son) was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, thru his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

John Lee is right, isn’t he? God indeed does have a generous return policy. And if you need to take advantage of it, I encourage you to do so.

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ON GIVING AND RECEIVING

Every year as we near Christmas I am reminded of one of Jesus’ most succinct sayings. This saying is not recorded in any of the four gospels, but is passed on by the Apostle Paul in his farewell remarks to the Ephesian elders. In Act 20:32-35 Paul is reminding them of his example while with them and then adds, “remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

In light of the fact that this saying of Jesus is not in the gospels, I wonder how Paul knew about it. And my conclusion is that there had to be sayings of Jesus that did not get included in the gospels, but that were known and passed on among Jesus’ followers.

Regardless of how Paul knew of the saying, I find it interesting and challenging. And I hope it is obvious why I think about it each year during this season. It is not just ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ it is also the season when there is more giving and receiving than any other.

Let me ask you a question — do you believe what Jesus said is true? In your life experience and observation of others, is it “more blessed to give than receive?” What do you think?

I’m pretty sure we all would agree that we are blessed in receiving. Everyone reading this post has been blessed again and again by receiving. And please note that Jesus said that is the case. But He also said that it is more blessed to give than receive.

Not to be negative, but I’m not sure everyone would agree that they are blessed in giving. And yet many of us know from our own experience that what Jesus said has been proven true in our lives.

When Jesus gave the teaching “it is more blessed to give than to receive” he wasn’t thinking about Christmas. I think it is certainly applicable to our Christmas practice of gift giving and receiving, but it is about more. The greater blessing of giving than receiving is true in all of life and is not limited to Christmas. There are many ways to give that have nothing to do with presents. And as we engage in those ways we are blessed.

I think Jesus knows both the blessing of receiving and giving. He certainly knows the blessing of giving because he gave his life for us. In our relationship with him I hope we also know the blessing of both receiving and giving. There is great blessing in receiving what he offers – love, grace, forgiveness, acceptance, eternal life, and much more. But don’t forget the greater blessing we receive from giving ourselves to him, to giving him praise and honor, and to following him in obedience as our Lord.

Merry Christmas to you as we celebrate again this year the birth of God’s wonderful gift to us: Jesus, our Savior and Lord. I pray you are blessed through both giving and receiving.

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WHAT I JUST LEARNED ABOUT ADVENT

I’ve been celebrating Advent for over 40 years as a pastor and learned something new about it this year. As surprised as I was to realize I had not known about this other aspect of the emphasis, it makes perfect sense.

The title of a new book being advertised earlier in the fall got my attention: ADVENT: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Written by Fleming Rutledge, I was curious about a book dealing with both Jesus’ birth (his first coming) and Jesus’ future coming (what is called his second coming). I ordered the book in the middle of November and have been working my way through it.

What was new to me is that Advent is a season of focusing on both Jesus’s birth and his future coming. Rutledge affirms “Advent is preeminently the season of the second coming” (p. 52). She notes that during advent “The movement is from the second coming to the first coming.” (p. 60). I had never heard that before. She notes in the first part of Advent Christians are focusing on and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming. The second part of Advent is the celebration of his first coming so many years ago.

In my experience (and in most churches) Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas. But Fletcher notes “the Advent season actually begins before the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a seven week season” (p. 172). Later she reports “The season was not intended to be the run-up to Christmas in the sense that we think of today. It was designed to be the season that looked forward, not to the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, but to the second coming of Christ” (p. 180). That part of the advent theme is that “He (Jesus) will come again to set all things right” (p. 177).

Soon after I started reading Rutledge’s book I read an online article from Christianity Today that reinforced what I had been reading. Courtney Ellis blends the focus of both comings by noting that Advent is about “the sacred hope that Christ has come and will come again.”

A third source I just began reading on Monday is N.T. Wright’s Advent for Everyone. The first sentence in the introduction to this daily devotional asserts “If people know anything about Advent, they know it’s the time when we prepare for Christmas.” I think he’s right (no play on his name intended!) and that is what I have always thought. On the next page he writes about the new aspect of Advent I have just learned about: “. . . that brings us to the other side of Advent: because this season isn’t just about getting ready for Jesus to be born. It’s about getting ready for Jesus to come back” (p. xii).

I have no idea if the practice of focusing on both Jesus’ first coming as well as his future coming during Advent is new to you like it is to me, but I like it. I’m not lobbying to extend Advent to seven weeks as I think four is adequate, but I agree with the observation Courtney Ellis makes when she asks, “Why not overlap the two—the celebration and anticipation—and commemorate the birth of Christ while waiting his return?”

While some Christians seem to focus too much on the second coming, a lot of us may not give it enough attention. This year in my own celebration I’m reminding myself that Jesus did indeed come as God promised, and that he will come again.

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THE HARD PART OF CHRISTMAS

Most of the Christmas story is touching, warm, and encouraging; but not all of it. There is a hard part of the Bible’s Christmas accounts.

The hard part isn’t Joseph’s intention to divorce Mary when he found out she was pregnant. We understand that; but when he learned the truth about her pregnancy he proceeded to marry her.

We are sorry there was no room in the inn in Bethlehem for the expectant parents, but that isn’t the hard part either. Things worked out in the cave, barn, or whatever it was — the feeding trough (manger) was just fine for baby Jesus’ first crib.

The first visitors to see the baby weren’t from the upper class, but neither is that the hard part. The lowly shepherds were elated to receive the angelic message. Not only that, after they visited the newborn baby they became the first believers to share the good news.

The hard part of Christmas is Matthew’s account of the later visit of the Magi and Herod’s response to their report of the birth a king. He was “disturbed” and lied telling them to let him know when they found the child so he could “go and worship him.”

Herod’s initial plan didn’t work because God intervened through a dream and the Magi did not return to him. Matthew 2:16 tells us, “ When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” The infant Jesus was not killed because God also warned Joseph in a dream about Herod’s plan and they went to Egypt.

Jesus wasn’t killed, but the hard part of Christmas is that other boys in the area age two and younger were. We don’t know how many, but some historians report there were anywhere from 30 to 60 boys murdered. It’s not surprising that the least talked about part of the Christmas accounts is Herod’s order to kill all the baby boys two years of age and younger. Pastor John McCallum calls it “A Dark Story.”

I clearly remember speaking many years ago at a Christmas Eve service about this hard part of Christmas. I was chastised afterwards by one unhappy attendee about the subject matter of my talk. Why did I throw a wet blanket on the celebration and make people sad on Christmas Eve? My answer: it’s a hard part for sure, but it is a part of the story.

McCallum notes, “God sent his only Son to be born into a world like this, a world where kings abuse power, people are victimized, and children are murdered, a world where children suffer and parents weep for them, a world where Satan has a foothold and where evil appears to win as many battles as it loses and sometimes even more. This is what people cynically call the real world.”

Even this close to Christmas we might remind ourselves that although the baby Jesus wasn’t killed, the adult Jesus was. Of course, that is why he came: as the angel told Joseph, to save his people from their sins.

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HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

For most of us Christmas is the most sentimental of all the holidays. And that is largely  because of our association of Christmas with home and family. It is certainly the most sentimental for me. (It may surprise you, but I get emotional at the end of both Grease and Dirty Dancing every time I watch one of them!)

My favorite Christmas songs underscore the point. Every time I hear the Eagles’ version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” I get nostalgic. If possible, Christmas is “the time to be with the ones you love.” I don’t care who sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” it always gets to me. And last week I heard one about being home for the holidays by Kenny Loggins entitled “Celebrate Me Home.”

When I was in college (45 few years ago) I remember students asking one another “are you going home for Christmas?” Because the break was shorter not everyone went home for Thanksgiving, but pretty much everyone did for Christmas.

I lived just north of Cincinnati and it was easy for me to go home on holidays or for a weekend or for just an evening. But two years I did not go home for Christmas. One year I went to Florida with friends and another year to Florida and then to the Bahamas. Both trips were adventuresome and fun, but both times I missed being home for Christmas.

The 10 years Jan and I lived in the Philadelphia area we went back to Cincy every year for Christmas. During our 32 years in California we only went back for Christmas a couple of times, but in California we had our two children with us most of those years as well as “family” from our church.

Here are a four quotes that reflect the theme:

“Christmas is all about love, family and children. It doesn’t matter what we ear or what presents we get as long as the holidays are spent with loved one.”  Anonymous

“The best present on Christmas is spending some good time with family realizing the importance of love sharing things that give you real joy. So have fun with your family.”  Anonymous

“Christmas time is cherished family time; family time is sacred time.”  Anonymous

“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  Burton Hillis

Christmas last year we had just moved and were living with our daughter and two grandsons. Our son, Rob, and his girlfriend, Jill, joined us. Even though we had just moved and did not have our own house, we were home for Christmas because we were together for Christmas.

This week Jan and I will celebrate our second Christmas in Amarillo and our first one in our own house. Only the two of us will be in town for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but we’ll be home for Christmas because we will be together. And not only that, more family will be joining us Christmas night.

The reality is that not everyone can be or chooses to be home or with family for Christmas. And there are a variety of reasons why that is so. Whatever your situation or circumstances, I hope you have a meaningful and enjoyable Christmas.

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THE THEOLOGY OF CHRISTMAS

To alter and borrow from a song many of us sang as children, Christmas means different things to different people. For some it is a winter holiday representing time off from work or school; for others it is a time of special parties, decorations, music, and food; and for many it is an occasion of giving and receiving gifts.

I am not a distant relative of the Grinch as I do not oppose time off, parties, decorations, music, food, or giving and receiving gifts. But as enjoyable and fun as all of these are, none are at what I would call the heart of Christmas. The heart of Christmas is the annual commemoration and celebration of the birth of Jesus. In this post I want to give an overview of what I call “The Theology of Christmas.”

I hope no one is put off by the word theology. If it suggests to you that we will be challenged to think more deeply than we often do, that is exactly what I have in mind. And why shouldn’t we from time to time wrestle with the more profound aspects of our faith? Not everything about Christianity is simple or easily understood.

 In the New Testament we have four accounts of the life of Jesus called Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke both begin with the birth of Jesus. John doesn’t have a birth account, but John 1:1-18 lays out the theology of Christmas with verse 14 being the cornerstone.

In verse one John writes about the Word pointing out that “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word is John’s designation for the second person of the Trinity, the one we know as Jesus. Verse 14 is John’s Christmas verse: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The theology of Christmas is that Jesus was and is God. These verses teach what is called the pre-existence of Jesus. Jesus did not come into existence when he was conceived in Mary’s womb. God has always been—he is eternal. And so is Jesus, because he is God.

The theology of Christmas also is that in Jesus, God became human. That’s the point of John’s Christmas verse declaration in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The theological term for this, for God becoming a man, is incarnation. And that is not easy for us to comprehend. But just because it is difficult to comprehend does not mean we don’t believe it.

In the words of Bible commentator Leon Morris, “John is writing about a genuine incarnation.  The Word took upon himself our flesh, with all that that means.  He accepted the limitations that are a part and parcel of human existence.” Jesus became weary and he needed sleep; he became hungry and he became thirsty, he felt both anger, joy, and sorrow; and in the Garden of Gethsemane he was troubled and desired companionship.

Here’s the bottom line of the theology of Christmas: in Jesus, God became a man; yet when he became a man he did not cease being God. He was both God and man.

The theology of Christmas means we have a Savior. That was the message of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 and the message of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2:10 and 11. You and I need a Savior.

The theology of Christmas also means we have a Savior who understands us. Because God became man in Jesus we have a Savior who identifies with us in our needs. The writer of Hebrews makes that clear in Hebrews 2:17 and 18 and again in 4:14-16. Because Jesus understands He wants to and can help us when we are tempted. (I encourage you, if possible, to grab your Bible and read those two passages right now.)

The theology of Christmas is not simple and easily understood; but challenging, deeply profound, and immensely meaningful.

This year enjoy your time off, parties, decorations, music, food, and giving and receiving gifts; but make sure you don’t overlook the heart of Christmas.

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TRADEOFFS AND CHRISTMAS

A lot of us will be exchanging gifts this week, but I don’t think any of us considers his or her gift exchanges tradeoffs. To me, a tradeoff is when you give up something in order to gain something. And if it is a real tradeoff, what you give up is something of value. Christmas is about a huge tradeoff that I will return to in a moment.

I’ve been thinking about this matter of tradeoffs since I left Southern California last week to move to the Texas Panhandle. During that two day drive and the first couple of days after I arrived, I was focused on what I was giving up: familiarity, weather, friends, year round golf on many golf courses, a variety of avenues and opportunities to serve, and all that the greater Los Angeles area has to offer. After 32 years I may have drifted into taking it all for granted and I was miserable.

While my emotions, heart, and mind are not fully resolved yet, I am doing much better today. This is the third major move Jan and I have made in the last 47 years. And in the days, weeks, and months ahead I am confident what I will gain in this tradeoff will more than match what I gained in my previous two similar moves. Our daughter said something over the weekend that got my attention. She reminded me that after Christmas this year, unlike the last few, I won’t have to go through the emotional trauma of saying goodbye to my grandsons.

Now back to the huge tradeoff of Christmas. The Apostle Paul clearly lays it out in II Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” What a great image of God becoming a human in the birth of Jesus!

As we come to Christmas this week let’s consider the tradeoff Jesus made. He was rich and became poor so that you and I could become rich. Not rich in terms of money and things, but rich in terms of forgiveness and salvation. The baby Jesus grew and became the man Jesus. And the man Jesus fulfilled the purpose of His coming—that through His poverty you and I might become rich. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Merry Christmas.

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